State's Decision Will Affect Future Developments on Georgia's Coast

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The Altamaha Riverkeeper is appealing the Georgia Environmental Protection Division's (EPD) decision to allow a wastewater treatment facility on Union Island, a small hammock in McIntosh County. The proposed facility would create and dispose of large quantities of sewage. The location is especially troubling because it is near waters where crabbers, shrimpers, fishermen and emerging clam aquaculture businesses are working to provide seafood.

Altamaha Riverkeeper contests proposed wastewater treatment facility on marsh hammock.

State's decision will affect future developments on Georgia's coast.

"A small marsh hammock is no place for a residential development requiring a large scale on-site sewage facility. The proposal that would create and dispose of large quantities of sewage is especially troubling in the waters where crabbers, shrimpers, fishermen and our emerging clam aquaculture businesses are working to provide seafood," claims Altamaha Riverkeeper's Executive Director Deborah Sheppard.

The Altamaha Riverkeeper ( http://www.altamahariverkeeper.org ) is appealing the Georgia Environmental Protection Division's (EPD) decision (legal case #: OSAH-BNR-WQC-0830230-98-WALKER) to allow a wastewater treatment facility on Union Island in McIntosh County. The island is slated for the development of 18 vacation homes and an on-site sewage management system processing nearly 8,000 gallons of wastewater per day.

The Georgia Office of Administrative Hearings agreed to review EPD's decision to permit the wastewater system and an administrative law judge will decide the matter within 90 days.

ARK's analysis charges the system threatens the health of the marsh, estuary, and surrounding waters. Their attorney, Catherine Wannamaker, with the Southern Environmental Law Center explained the seriousness of the issue.

"EPD's decision to allow this type system in an environmentally sensitive area sets a dangerous precedent. Due to the sandy porous soil, shallow water table, high tides, and flooding that are common on the 8.4 acre island, the proposed wastewater system could result in the direct discharge of fecal coliform, E. coli, and other pathogens."

Previously marsh hammocks were considered off limits to development. We must create clear legal development guidelines or issues like water quality will fall through the cracks while no one is watching, said Wannamaker.

"Georgia's priceless salt marsh estuary system deserves better regulation," said Sheppard. "New developments are being planned and constructed in sensitive tidal and freshwater wetland areas without proper evaluation of wastewater management. Serious infrastructure issues must be addressed or both water quality and development will suffer."

The project was permitted by EPD, a division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, despite the fact that Georgia law assigns the responsibility of permitting such systems to local county health departments and assigns the authority for setting the standards governing such systems to the Department of Human Resources (DHR).

EPD claims to have permitting authority over the proposed system through a "memorandum of agreement" with the Georgia DHR.

According to Wannamaker, under the memorandum, EPD can permit large community-based wastewater systems using less stringent standards while local county health departments must use DHR's tougher standards to permit residential systems.

"The Southern Environmental Law Center contends this memorandum of agreement is not only misapplied but also invalid under Georgia law" says Wannamaker. "Allowing EPD to exercise the permitting and standard-setting authority over wastewater management on Union Island threatens the health of water in an area popular for fishing, swimming, and boating. Allowing this type of development in this location could drive the destruction of these fragile marsh hammocks and result in perilous decisions that guide future development for generations."

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