VALDOSTA - Georgia environmental policy-makers Tuesday approved a change in state rules governing discharges of wastewater into high-quality waterways that supporters described as simply a clarification of existing regulations.
But opponents said the Board of Natural Resources is missing an opportunity to enact statewide treatment standards as protective as those a court imposed on Gwinnett County for discharges into Lake Lanier.
"We are taking a step backwards here,'' said board member Sally Bethea, a member of the board's Environmental Protection Committee who voted against the rules change.
The proposal, which passed the committee 7-2, will be taken up by the full board today.
The changes were drafted by the state Environmental Protection Division's staff after the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Lake Lanier Association in a lawsuit challenging the discharge permit the EPD had issued Gwinnett for its state-of-the-art F. Wayne Hill Water Resources Center.
According to the decision, the permit did not comply with a state rule requiring plants to treat wastewater using the "highest and best practicable'' technology.
The association subsequently negotiated a stricter permit with state and county officials.
But on Tuesday, EPD Director Carol Couch told the committee the state has never followed that language in the rule in the three decades the standard has been in place. The proposed rules change, she said, would bring the treatment standard in line with federal requirements.
"We are not proposing a change in our practices or procedures,'' Couch said. "We are simply deleting language that the EPD has never used.''
During the months the board has been considering the issue, representatives of municipal utilities from across the state have argued that their communities could not afford to operate treatment plants with standards as strict as the Gwinnett facility.
But Val Perry, executive vice president of the Lake Lanier Association, noted that the state rule at issue applies only to new or upgraded wastewater plants, not to those already operating.
His group is particularly concerned with a plan by the city of Gainesville to build a new plant that also would discharge into the lake.
"(Lake Lanier) is a major engine for the economy of this state and the drinking water source for 60-plus percent of all Georgians,'' Perry said. "Don't ease up on the rules that make the Gwinnett plant operate much better.''
But Couch said the water rules are not the right vehicle for establishing Georgia's long-term water policy.
She said decisions on such issues as stream classification, minimizing water withdrawals and maximizing the return of treated water to the basin it came from will be part of a statewide comprehensive water-management plan now being developed by a water council created by the General Assembly.
That three-year process is just getting under way and isn't due to be completed until 2008.
"I can assure you that lake-quality standards will be addressed in that context,'' Couch said.