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Being Harold Reheis 

The Gold Dome environment ain't so good for the environment's chief protector

[We] help provide Georgia's citizens with clean air, clean water, healthy lives and productive land by assuring compliance with environmental laws and by assisting others to do their part for a better environment.

-- mission statement, Georgia Environmental Protection Division

Ronald Crouse sits in a Cobb County jail for running an illegal dump next to his salvage yard in Austell. His self-made dump was four acres large. Last November, a judge hit him with a $600,000 fine and a seven-year jail sentence.

The state Environmental Protection Division broadcast Crouse's conviction across the state as "the longest prison sentence ever for an environmental crime in Georgia."

Crouse asked July 7 for a new trial and awaits the judge's decision.

For the past century, Atlanta Gas Light has operated dozens of plants that leaked or spilled chemicals into the soil and water -- no one knows exactly how much.

Though AGL has spent millions on cleanups and new equipment to prevent further contamination, the company's actions have left hazardous waste sites in Athens, Rome, Waycross, Macon, Augusta, Griffin, Savannah and Valdosta.

Those patches of land -- totaling far more than Crouse's paltry four acres -- have been declared hazards to human health. AGL was forced by EPD to pay $305,000 -- half Crouse's fine. Jail time was out of the question.

In March, Amercord Inc. was hit with a $1 million fine for dumping excessive amounts of copper, zinc, lead and cyanide into the Ocmulgee River in central Georgia. Know how much four bigger polluters -- Georgia Pacific, Georgia Power, Southwire and General Electric -- have paid in environmental fines over the last decade or so? Just over $400,000. That's the total for all of them.

Besides the wildly varying punishments, there was another difference between Crouse and Amercord, and the larger, more established companies: Neither Crouse nor Amercord had lobbyists working the General Assembly in recent years. The other companies had at least two lobbyists each this year -- Georgia Power employed seven.

Publicly, EPD officials, led by Director Harold Reheis, claim politics don't interfere with environmental enforcement. They also say the agency gets plenty of support from politicians, from state legislators to the governor.

"What our job is, is to carry out the law and to do it with good sense, and I think we do that," says Reheis, who retires from EPD this week.

Of course, those are the things bureaucrats almost have to say about their lords in the Legislature. But the fact is that EPD is deeply influenced by the often unreasonable demands of Georgia lawmakers. It's the Legislature that controls EPD's funding, and therefore the number of people who work there. It's the Legislature that time and again has refused to give Reheis money for the engineers and water and air quality specialists who can enforce the state's environmental laws. And what legislative session would be complete without a flurry of anti-environmental bills lawmakers introduce on behalf of their preferred campaign contributors.

What's more, the General Assembly and the governor have the power to gut EPD's most successful programs, the programs Reheis is most proud of. Last winter, in fact, they pretty much did just that.

The political meddling, internal EPD memos show, forces EPD employees to keep their mouths closed and heads down while the Legislature is in session. Just look at these minutes from a meeting of EPD branch chiefs at the start of this year's legislative session: "Harold Reheis wants no staff at the Capitol unless the director's office knows and sanctions it. Additionally, use judgment in negotiating large consent agreements (essentially, fines) over the next few months."

And at a Feb. 20 meeting, while lawmakers still sat in their legislative session, branch chiefs were told: "Be aware that large penalty amounts may induce a regulated entity to seek relief from their legislator."

Reheis doesn't remember that meeting or the warning. But he does offer an explanation:

"My interpretation of that would be, when the Legislature's in session, we tend to get contacted by them more than when they're not in session because we're handy, we're just right across the street. So if we're taking some enforcement action against an entity while the Legislature's in session, I think that [the warning] was just a heads up that we may well get contacted by the legislator saying, 'Is there anything you can do to tone this down?' or whatever. That's just part of what happens when you're dealing with legislators. It doesn't affect our decisions."

Harold Reheis was hired by the state Department of Natural Resources as a water engineer in 1969, the year before the first Earth Day elevated environmental concerns to a top-shelf political issue.

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