Georgia Voices: New state environmental law doesn’t bear scrutiny
by The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer
November 29, 2012 12:00 AM | 1346 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Businesses can’t just buy environmental permits from the state of Georgia, at least (we hope) not yet. But as of next summer, they can buy the privilege of getting them faster. There’s a new and only vaguely understood law that kicks in next July 1, under which companies applying for environmental permits can pay a premium fee to get reviewed for approval more quickly. And although the state is supposed to have the final say, the reviews themselves can be conducted by private, for-profit entities. What could possibly go wrong there?

Even sponsors and supporters are short on the specifics of a policy fraught with potential problems.

Long before summer rolls around, the Environmental Protection Division needs to (forgive the expression) clear the air as to just what this law means and how it’s to be implemented.

According to the law’s chief sponsor, Senate Environmental Committee Chair Ross Tolleson (R-Perry), “Everybody kind of wins in this.” Such a policy can undoubtedly produce “winners,” but whether the citizens and taxpayers of Georgia are among them is another question.

Part of the law’s rationale is the fact that EPD has faced the same budget ax as the rest of state government, meaning it’s understaffed. Allowing companies to pay for expedited independent reviews would relieve some of the regulatory pressure and bring in extra money.

The Georgia Chamber of Commerce backed the bill in support of member companies complaining about the length of the permitting process. Fair enough; but the chamber put the issue on its political “scorecard” — the clear implication being that support of pay-for-play environmental law is a measure of a lawmaker’s business-friendly credentials. Owners of small businesses might beg to differ, especially those who likewise need EPD approval but can’t afford to write bigger checks to get moved up to the front of the line.

So where exactly would the money go? Well, that’s not settled yet, because EPD isn’t expected to set the rules until next spring. But it’s possible that the state could contract with independent reviewers, and that a company applying for a permit would pay directly to the firm reviewing its application.

Even if the payment is a flat fee paid up front, Tolleson, the bill’s sponsor, acknowledged the obvious: A private contractor that recommended rejection of permit applications “would not be hired by a lot of firms going forward.”

In other words, the incentive would be heavily weighted toward approval, as opposed to careful, critical environmental review.

How a law with so many important long-term implications and so many important unanswered questions slipped through the General Assembly (and, yes, past journalistic scrutiny) is something about which Georgians have good reason and every right to wonder.
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