Our attitude toward the environment
5:30 pm June 7, 2012, by AJC Opinion

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

Alternating views today. One says that Georgia's dismissive attitude toward the environment harms more than fish and birds - it hurts our economic competitiveness. An environmentalist writes that thriving economies tend to have the strongest environmental safeguards. But a public policy expert says alarmists often highlight isolated events, such as the Ogeechee River fish-kill, to fabricate a pattern of abuse. There's no conspiracy here, folks, but a lack of education and personal responsibility.

Bad choices hurt potential
By David Kyler

Contrary to what our leaders would have tax-paying citizens believe, Georgia's competitive economic standing is declining, not benefiting, from dominant state policies and priorities. Consider an assessment by the business magazine Forbes which, in a 2009 story, ranked Atlanta as the nation's most toxic metro area.

One lesson is that being dismissive about the environment - as Georgia's state government increasingly tends to be - has adverse consequences, both economic and physical.

Studies show that states having the most thriving economies provide strong environmental safeguards. Yet the amount Georgia spends per capita and per square mile for environmental protection is pitifully scant compared with most other states. This is a direct result of our decision-makers' inverted priorities, which treat environmental quality as an indulgent frill rather than a basic necessity.

We all suffer when our leaders minimize funding for environmental regulation and dismantle rules protecting vital state resources, using perverse politics to disable safeguards.

Nearly 10 years ago, after the General Assembly cut protective areas along Georgia's trout streams in half, a UGA study found that trout population plummeted by 80 percent.

Conversely, water pollution caused when the Board of Natural Resources eliminated buffers along intermittent streams - which only flow after heavy rains - was never studied, possibly to avoid political fallout.

Within the past year, on the Ogeechee River we witnessed the largest fish kill in state history - which took place under the not-so-watchful eye of the Environmental Protection Division of Georgia's Department of Natural Resources.

Clearly, EPD failed to prevent chemical pollution by an industry that was supposedly operating under restrictions issued by EPD over a five-year period of repeated violations.

Other damage produced by weak regulation includes:

Chronic respiratory illness among the urban population (especially children and the elderly) caused by air pollution, imposing an enormous burden of medical costs on Georgians as well as compromising health and quality of life.

Work force well-being that is secretly penalized by contaminated air and water, detracting from Georgia's productivity and business profitability.

• A growing reputation for poor environmental quality that handicaps Georgia's ability to attract reputable employers.

• Development of flood-prone areas that punish homeowners and taxpayers. Billions of dollars in flood damage around the state could have been avoided by using higher standards of site selection and design, and if wetlands were properly protected.

Developers have lobbied against such regulations, and their political cronies have too readily weakened protections in the reckless pursuit of quick profits.

In light of these foolhardy efforts to promote economic opportunities by weakening environmental controls, it is noteworthy that the Corporation for Enterprise Development reports that Georgia's citizens have the lowest level of financial security in the nation.

The environment cannot be short-changed without serious economic consequences. Cutting corners in public policy is a self-defeating delusion that may seem to be justified by the promise of short-term gains - while actually imposing costly long-term burdens on society.

Worsening problems can be expected if Georgia continues to ignore these important realities.

David Kyler is executive director of the Center for a Sustainable Coast in St. Simons Island.
Regulation not the answer
By Benita Dodd

There's a misguided mindset among some groups that maintaining a healthy environment in Georgia requires government to spend more time, money and effort on regulating.

To bolster that impression, environmental alarmists highlight isolated violations and incidents by industry and individuals as representative of a pattern of abuse and environmental degradation. In fact, it's far from that.

Proponents of that mindset argue that environmental quality is deteriorating in Georgia, and that this is occurring because cuts in agency funding reduce oversight that results in reduced protections.

Every Georgia agency has seen cuts in staff and funding amid the economic crisis; the Department of Natural Resources and its Environmental Protection Division are no exception. The DNR budget for 2012 was 10 percent less than its 2009 high of about $276.9 million - but still 66 percent higher than the 2006 budget of $149.6 million. As with most agencies, less money means a focus on more efficient and effective efforts.

Granted, there are problems that warrant government attention, action and oversight; problems that are caused intentionally and unintentionally by industry and ordinary citizens. But rarely do violations represent a conspiracy to degrade the state's environment and Georgians' quality of life.

Resolving these problems often is as simple as educating the public, informing violators and requiring restitution - or punishing a pattern of violation.

Alarmism also results in observers not being able to see the forest for the trees: Georgia's environment - air, water and land - is in far better shape than it was a century ago, despite the growth in industry and population. If environmental problems fade, surely the funding necessary to deal with those problems should decrease, too?

Environmental protection doesn't come from more mandates and regulation. The most effective assurance of environmental protection in Georgia is not to fund a "bigger, tougher agency," but to enrich its citizens.

Why? An increase in prosperity provides opportunity and tools to seek a better quality of life: If you're jobless or homeless - or struggling to make ends meet - you don't have the time for leisure, or to appreciate and nurture your surroundings.

And, at the same time, as corporate accountability makes economic sense - your workers and consumers are part of the community in which you operate - more regulation costs companies money that could have provided Georgians more jobs or a pay raise.

Even without those extremes, every dollar taken in taxes to fund government and regulations is a dollar that a Georgian is deprived of the chance to personally dedicate to his or her family's betterment.

One need only visit a public park after a concert or festival to understand that when the responsibility is everyone's, few accept it. The combination of prosperity, property rights and personal responsibility - and government oversight - produces a far better environment for Georgia than any government regulation can.

Benita Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.
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