Water fight floods Capitol 

Biz groups and enviros clashing over 'water bill of rights'

Rep. DuBose Porter remembers the moment he decided to turn a proposed "water bill of rights" into legislation in the state House of Representatives.

He was at an anti-pollution rally in Piedmont Park last August. "It was one Saturday afternoon, and I smelled the stench of raw sewage coming from the creeks right there in the middle of the city," he says. "That just re-emphasized the need."

Now, Porter, D-Dublin, is catching whiffs of something else: Business groups are scrambling in an all-out effort to stop the bill of rights from getting through the General Assembly intact.

Environmentalists came up with the idea last spring as a way to "proclaim our vision of the future of water in Georgia," says Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper Director Sally Bethea. "There was no goal of introducing it as legislation at all. Now, it's progressed into a document that 1.5 million Georgians have signed on to."

The bill of rights is merely a "cheerleading resolution for clean water," Porter says. It spells out simple principles, like the right of each Georgian to clean water and that environmental laws already on the books should be enforced. Because it's a resolution and not a bill, it doesn't create new laws and has no real teeth.

But the resolution has put business lobbyists on the spot. Do they really, for example, support apple-pie ideas like clean water or do they just give such ideas lip service? And are they willing to risk the prospect that such principles might be taken more seriously if they're enshrined as a resolution?

"It's a very symbolic gesture on our part, and it's a very symbolic gesture that they would oppose it," Bethea says.

Earl Rogers and other lobbyists for the Georgia Chamber of Commerce are asking Porter and Sen. Charles Walker, the sponsor on the Senate side, to change the resolution so it reads less threatening to business folks. One section that makes business groups uncomfortable says: "Our citizens no longer accept the assertion that polluted water is a necessary price for economic progress."

But businesses didn't oppose the water bill of rights -- some, including Georgia Power, signed it and helped draft it -- until the last paragraph was attached. It says the statements in the resolution "shall guide the actions of all governmental officials and employees of this state."

Now, the chamber is afraid that last graph will force state and local agencies to put their money where their mouth is and actually apply the resolution's principles.

"They are saying they are worried," Porter says, "[that] the policy of the state would change the criteria used by the [Environmental Protection Division]."

The business community fears the resolution could lead to stricter regulations and citizens' lawsuits -- things that could force polluters to spend millions of dollars to clean up their acts. Rogers refuses to comment until negotiations over the language of the resolution are over.

But it's the language itself that tests the state's and the business community's commitment to solving an environmental problem that may be as difficult as cleaning up metro Atlanta's dirty air. Due to industrial waste, treated muni-cipal water and stormwater runoff, some 1,000 miles of creeks and rivers in metro Atlanta are considered unsafe for fishing and swimming, and the region's rapid growth is placing even more pressure on both the water supply and water quality.

Walker started leaning toward re-wording part of the resolution when he met with chamber lobbyists in his office Feb. 1. "The business interests in the state of Georgia are a powerful and influential group," he says. "That doesn't mean they supercede the public at large. So you have to reach a compromise between the business environment and Georgia's environment. I'm keeping an open mind, and I'm wedded to the specific idea, but I'm not wedded to the specific words."

Porter says he too is willing to compromise but not to the point that it would change the resolution's intent.

"When you read each paragraph of this resolution, you can't help but say, 'Yes, that is right and that should happen.' Everybody in Atlanta and everybody downstream from Atlanta should be asking for this resolution and want to know why more is not being done to keep water healthy and clean," Porter says. "I'm surprised there are people so paranoid about anything with regards to water."

Bethea says, "Lots of industrial folks and their lawyers are picking apart every word. Some of the concerns expressed by members of the Georgia Chamber concern me because it seems that the principles are so basic, but we remain hopeful that we can come to an agreement."


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