Environment takes backseat to Georgia's economy 

Business as usual at one of the state's most important agencies

Last week, Jud Turner, a lawyer and lobbyist, was confirmed as the new director of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, whose duty is to monitor the health and quality of the state's streams, rivers, soil, and air.

Turner will be leading an agency that has a vitally important mission but has been without a champion under Govs. Sonny Perdue and Nathan Deal. Since 2008, state lawmakers have cut the EPD's funding nearly in half. In August, several EPD employees, including those who monitor solid waste, landfills, water, and radiation from nuclear power plants were pink-slipped because of budget cuts. A fund to pay for tire clean-ups has been raided by state lawmakers over the years to help pad budgets. State Climatologist David Stooksbury, a well-regarded UGA professor who enjoyed some independence from political pressure, was fired in September and his role moved under the EPD, which ultimately answers to Gov. Deal. Small changes all that, in total, make a big impact.

In a perfect world, the EPD director would be one of state government's most important employees, a technocratic and hard-charging regulator who punishes polluters and works first and foremost for the environment. But this isn't a perfect world — it's Georgia.

Deal described Turner as possessing a "wealth of experience, expertise and leadership." Sure, he served as former Sonny's legal representative in negotiations with Alabama and Florida over sharing water from Lake Lanier. Otherwise, his environmental record is lacking. He graduated with a degree in political science and economics and opened a law practice and well-connected Gold Dome lobbying firm. A review of his lobbyist reports include clients such as the Walt Disney Co., Xerox, Honeywell, and a trade association for golf cart manufacturers, as well as big-bidness booster the Metro Chamber of Commerce.

But, judging from the Deal administration's views, his corporate connections are no problem. Turner's experience with the tri-state water wars and port issues are apparently timely. The state has pegged dredging the Port of Savannah as a priority and is still holding closed-door meetings with Alabama and Florida. These moves seem in step with the EPD's longstanding history of balancing the interests of protecting the environment with that of protecting the state's economy. In fact, Turner has said he'll do the same.

Turner and the governor should remember that, in addition to the Lake Lanier issue, there are no shortage of environmental problems in Georgia, such as companies dumping toxic glop into waterways. The agency desperately needs more funding to live up to its name and Turner should lobby for that cash. State lawmakers should back him in his effort. If not, they could at least drop "protection" from the agency's name.

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