If the American Chemistry Council gets its way, any new proposal to protect the environment would have to be analyzed first to determine whether it would be worth the price tag.
That might be a good model to apply to an assembly line, but it's not the right calculus for ensuring public health, critics say.
"What's new and frightening about this cost-benefit calculation is that it would be used to legalize an activity known to be unhealthy," says Sam Collier, executive director of Georgia Conservation Voters.
Currently, there are two bodies in the state that can pass environmental regulations -- the General Assembly and the Board of Natural Resources, which is a panel appointed by the governor. The Environmental Protection Division is the agency responsible for enforcing any new rules.
But here in Georgia -- as well as in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Massachusetts -- the American Chemistry Council is pushing for a new law that would force the EPD to weigh the merits of each proposal before the Board of Natural Resources decides whether to approve it. The sponsor of HB 587 in Georgia is Rep. Tom McCall, D-Elberton. McCall says the "genesis for [the bill] came from industry," and that he supports it "as long as it's not used to thwart the process of acting properly."
"The business community feels that, because the next phase [of environmental regulation] is going to be expensive, it's appropriate for EPD to conduct risk assessments and cost benefit analysis, and that [the EPD] consider that information in determining which rules should have priority," says Jet Toney, lobbyist for the Georgia Chemistry Council, the state affiliate of the American Chemistry Council.
Say, for example, the board was considering a rule that would force developers to reduce stormwater runoff by installing silt fences. The EPD would have to calculate how much it would cost developers to buy and install the fences, and figure out the benefit of reduced runoff. That's the complicated part, because some might put the value of a species of fish as priceless, and others would say it's worthless. And what about the humans who got sick, or even died, because they ate contaminated fish?
Environmentalists worry that the process could become a stepping stone that one day forces the state to dismiss rules that, although environmentally beneficial, are expensive to industry.
"If money, not health is the guiding principle on which pollution is legalized, then the government is placed directly in the role of saying that some people get more protection than others," Collier says.
Apart from the moral questions raised by the proposal, the mechanics of the bill alone slant it in favor of big business. The cost-benefit analysis would be performed by a 12-person committee made up of one environ-mentalist, one public health advocate and two members of the public. The rest would be business reps.
What's more, the bill would further strain an already cash-strapped and under-staffed EPD. Georgia has only 100 EPD employees per million residents, compared to Alabama's 103 per million, North Carolina's 120 and Florida's 245 per million, according to the EPD's budget plan.
EPD Assistant Director David Word wouldn't speculate about how much it would cost to start performing the cost-benefit analyses. But he did say "it would create difficulties in looking at environmental issues and passing rules that need to address those issues."
Says Toney: "They don't have the staff, I grant you that, right this minute. But they have been beefing up their staff."
But Word isn't convinced. "We don't think it's necessary. We think the [Natural Resources] board makes reasonable decisions and considers all aspects right now."
Word and Toney are meeting in the next two weeks to try to work out a compromise.
Meanwhile, Collier's group, along with the Georgia Public Interest Research Group, will try to convince lawmakers to vote against the bill when the General Assembly convenes in January. It appears to be an uphill battle. They'll be facing off against an alliance of powerful industries with some of the best track records under the Gold Dome.
Already, lobbyists for the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and the chemical, pulp and paper, textile manufacturing, general contractors, homebuilder and plastics industries have voiced their support for HB 587.
With an all-star cast like that behind the proposal, how could any lawmaker say no? "Legislators like the idea, here's why: Most of them run businesses. They face rules and regulations and they understand the process of benefit analysis," Toney says.
No word on what Gov. Roy Barnes thinks of the legislation.
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