Stream Buffer Battle: Environmentalists Criticize Senate Bill

March 12, 2004

A bill approved by the Senate Natural Resources & Environment Committee this month could make it easier for landowners to disturb stream buffers, to the dismay of environmental groups.

In response to an environmental watchdog group, Allied Readymix last year spent nearly a quarter of a million dollars to grow grass on a steep, streamside embankment. The company also installed a wall to protect the Atlanta stream from contaminants washed out of concrete-mixing trucks.

On the other side of Woodall Creek is a CSX track, where the formerly wooded streamside recently was shaved down to bald, exposing the creek to pollutants washed in during rains.

While CSX is not accepting blame, a company official told Stacy Shelton of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the railroad often clears trees to increase visibility along its track. State regulators are investigating.

Although raw sewage spills into waterways get most of the attention, state officials say runoff from parking lots, businesses, roads and lawns is an even greater threat — contributing to as much as 80 percent of the pollution in streams. Stream buffers are the best way to counter runoff and better ensure clean drinking water and healthy aquatic life, water quality experts say.

However, a bill approved by the Senate Natural Resources & Environment Committee this month could make it easier for landowners to disturb stream buffers. And the smallest creeks could be piped and paved over. State environmental regulators haven't fully determined what the bill's impact could be.

If passed, it would allow the removal of some of the grass, trees and roots the environment needs to filter out chemicals, metals and oils that mix with rainwater and end up in streams and rivers.

The Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, the environmental group that asked Readymix to better protect the stream, alerted the state Environmental Protection Division to the potential buffer violation by CSX. Woodall Creek eventually leads to the Chattahoochee River, a drinking water source.

Owen Daniel, construction manager for the Tucker-based Allied Materials, said the company was meeting the letter of the law, but decided to do more when Riverkeeper approached them.

Under state law, streams are supposed to be protected with a minimum 25-ft undisturbed, natural area. Trout streams require 50-ft buffers. Cities and counties can impose larger buffers. Cobb County, for example, requires them to be 50 to 200 ft.

Craig Carnuso, resident vice president of state relations for CSX Transportation, said cutting trees often is necessary. "We have a very aggressive program to protect the safety of the trains and the people that operate the trains," he said.

The rail company could face a fine if EPD finds violations.

Developers support the bill, saying it would lift burdensome restrictions.

Environmentalists, aligned in an 85-organization Georgia Water Coalition, are calling it the "Headwaters Destruction Act of 2004."

Sen. Casey Cagle (R-Gainesville), the bill's author, said the current rule is "entirely too restrictive."

"If someone can demonstrate that they can protect the environment and still build on their land, they should be able to encroach upon that buffer," he said.

Under the proposed bill, a developer would have to show EPD that a project would improve a stream's water quality, either through drainage ponds or some other engineered system, before EPD could grant a waiver allowing buffer encroachment.

The bill also would require the Board of Natural Resources, which oversees EPD, to create rules for piping and paving over small streams before year's end.

Michael Paris is chief executive of Gwinnett County's Council for Quality Growth, an association of developers. He said current law "really is a detriment to our private property rights."

Paris said the proposed legislation could improve water quality by simplifying the rules, thereby decreasing violations. Some developers now "are not going through the proper process," he said.

Tom Welborn, EPA regional wetlands chief, said most studies indicate buffers should be at least 50 feet. "The more you impact the smaller streams up in the headwaters, the more pollution actually gets in the larger streams down below," he said.

Sally Bethea, Riverkeeper's executive director and a member of the state Board of Natural Resources, said, "A little creek can exist in the middle of this industry, and it doesn't have to be abused. [Senate Bill] 460 goes in the other direction."

Source: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution