Legislature lays rules for state response to water emergencies

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Georgia’s waterways received vital added protection with the passage of House Bill 549 into law on April 15.

According to the Georgia Water Coalition, HB 549 requires Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division to maintain an emergency response program that includes appropriate and timely response to emergencies that threaten the state’s waters and public health as well as proper public notification in such emergencies. Another key component of the bill is training and coordination between state and local emergency personnel.

“HB 549 puts into statute EPD’s regulatory rules for emergency response,” said Rep. Jon Burns (R- Newington). “It was a concerted effort by many stakeholders to protect the public interest and our waterways “We now have the ability to marshal all resources – state and local – to minimize the environmental effects of a pollution spill.”

HB 549 was introduced last year by Rep. Burns, and co-sponsored by Reps. Jan Tankersley (R-District 160), Bill Hitchens (R-District 161), Butch Parrish (R-District 158), Ron Stephens (R-District 164) and Ben Watson (R-District 166).

“I was glad to work on such an important bill and top priority with the Georgia Water Coalition. Our legislators, state and local agencies and the public were very receptive to having a proactive bill create unity and open communication,” stated Emily Markesteyn of the Ogeechee Riverkeeper group.

Resources for EPD’s emergency response program have deteriorated over the years, at one point leaving the program reduced from a $1 million dollar budget with 11 full-time staff to only 4 part-time staff members charged with responding to emergencies all across the state, according to the Georgia Water Coalition.

Several emergencies, such as the Athens-Trail Creek spill, Ogeechee River fish kill and Brier Creek spill greatly elevated awareness of the need for quicker response times, communication and coordination with local authorities and public notification.

“We are thrilled that the general assembly moved forward clear and defined expectations, something that was previously lacking,” stated Tonya Bonitatibus of the Savannah Riverkeeper group. “I hope now we’ve alleviated confusion and expedited response time.”

HB 549 unanimously passed the House of Representatives, and was carried by Sen. Jack Hill (R-District 4, Reidsville) through the Georgia Senate.

The Georgia Water Coalition is a consortium of more than 200 conservation and environmental organizations, hunting and fishing groups, businesses, and faith-based organizations that have been working to protect Georgia’s water since 2002. Collectively, these organizations represent more than 300,000 Georgians.