Being Harold Reheis 

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

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Ukeiley has even seemed to end up in opposition to Reheis when they were ostensibly on the same side.

Last summer, Reheis signed an executive order demanding that Waste Management Inc. -- the country's largest solid waste handler -- shut down Live Oak landfill. It was an unusually bold move for Reheis and the EPD. And it was exactly what the residents of nearby South River Gardens had asked for.

There's just one little fact that kept South River Gardens from praising Reheis as a hero: They'd been complaining about caustic odors coming from Live Oak for a decade and were ignored. Although Reheis' name was on the executive order, the folks in South River Gardens couldn't help but notice that it was Gov. Roy Barnes who made the announcement to the TV cameras. And all this happened during the summer before a crucial election.

When Waste Management appealed the order to shut down Live Oak late last year, South River Gardens residents didn't have faith that EPD would go to bat for them, especially since Barnes had lost in the November election. They hired their own attorney, Ukeiley.

The most heated arguments of that trial, which took place in May, were over the questions that could and couldn't be asked of Reheis. The state wanted to exclude any line of questioning that might demonstrate Reheis' decision was influenced by politics.

Waste Management attorneys objected because they wanted to be able to make the point that Reheis' decision was motivated by politics and nothing else. The judge settled the argument, matter-of-factly stating that, of course, political pressure finds its way into Reheis' office on a daily basis.

A decision is expected before summer's end. Ukeiley isn't optimistic. Neither are the southeast Atlanta residents, who've endure Live Oak's stench every summer.

Ukeiley, perhaps the biggest pain in Reheis' ass for the past three years, first met the director over a lawsuit he filed to force EPD to issue permits for several power plants. The plants' permits had expired, and it's the permits that spell out how much pollution they may emit.

"The law says you have to issue the permits by such and such dates, and [Reheis] never did it," Ukeiley recalls. "And he gives us this spiel about, I don't know the number, but it was something like, '120 counties in Georgia have lower median income than the state of Alabama,' or something like that.

"I think, 'A) That's not your job. It's not the Economic Permitting Division. And B) If you care about their economic well-being, why don't you clean up the air so counties don't have to spend all this money on health care, lost wages, stuff like that?' But that was quintessential Harold."

It's actually not surprising that Georgia's EPD chief appears to many as if he's beholden to other agendas besides protecting the environment. After all, he serves many masters.

The DNR board, which is over-populated with developers, road builders and large-scale farmers, adopts the rules and regulations that EPD must follow.

The governor picks DNR board members, has final say on who'll replace Reheis, and can fire the director at any time.

The General Assembly decides which environmental laws pass, which environmental laws will be repealed, and controls the state budget. Through the budget, lawmakers control how effective EPD can be.

The bind those sorts of political pressures create could be seen in Reheis' recent effort to control pollution from mid-sized chicken farmers, whose manure runoff contaminates waterways with phosphorous. He told the DNR board earlier this year that it was time the agency regulated them.

Then, three weeks ago, Reheis reversed his own recommendation and told the DNR board he couldn't do anything about the manure pollution coming from 2,500 medium-sized chicken farms. His staff, he said, would be stretched too thin.

The weird thing is that, in backing away from dealing with what he acknowledged was an environmental issue, Reheis has a point. Following a series of cuts during Miller's administration, Georgia is ahead of only Alabama among Southern states in the ratio of state environmental employees to state residents. It's hard to imagine EPD being stretched any thinner than it already is.

Beginning in 1999, Reheis asked the governor, Barnes at the time, for budget increases over the next five years that funded an additional 200 employees. Instead, there are at least 40 staff openings that can't be filled because of funding cutbacks -- 10 percent of the department's state-funded workforce.

The truth is EPD has never been an agency lawmakers like to throw money at. When it's time to cut budgets, some legislators look to the Department of Community Affairs, others to Education. But few are targeted to the extent of EPD. After all, it's a tempting target if you're more interested in serving fat-cat polluters than you are in taking care of your constituents' health.

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