The legislation, approved by a house committee Monday, requires the Environmental Protection Division to develop plans with local officials on how they would respond to chemical spills in waterways after several spills called into question the state’s emergency response system and whether local officials were prepared to deal with chemical hazards in their cities and towns. It also makes it tougher for state officials to trim funding for the emergency response wing of the EPD, which saw spending cutbacks after the last recession.
“People weren’t reporting them,” said Neill Herring, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, which supports the bill. “There was no one to call.”
In one example, firefighters put out a blaze at an Athens chemical plant in 2010 by dousing it with water rather than foam. That inadvertently washed formaldehyde and other chemicals from the factory into a nearby creek, staining the water bright blue and causing the deaths of an estimated 15,000 fish.
Rep. Jon Burns (R-Newington) said the firefighters did the best they could without the benefit of more advanced training.
“There was no way to contact EPD efficiently and timely,” he said.
Under Burns’ bill, EPD officials would consult with local emergency authorities on a regular basis to make sure those most likely to respond to an environmental hazards — such as police officers or firefighters — will know how best to handle the situation. The agency would also be required to make an initial investigation into all reports of spills.
Critics faulted the EPD for being too slow to inform the public about potential hazards of eating fish from the Ogeechee River in 2011 after roughly 38,000 fish died downstream from a factory that discharged chemicals into the river. A state probe found that the fish died of a bacterial infection. The factory was cited and agreed to pay $1 million as part of a settlement.
The bill makes clear that all spills must be reported immediately to the EPD. If the environmental agency believes a spill could harm downstream health or property, the EPD would be required to consult with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency and other officials within 24 hours to determine whether they need to notify the public about the threat.
EPD officials have not taken a position on the legislation, agency spokesman Kevin Chambers said. However, the agency previously acknowledged there were problems with its emergency response functions and has moved to increase staffing levels.