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Griffin Creek in Paulding County shows impacts of upstream development and stormwater pollution.

Last week, I visited Debbie and Mike Parsons of Paulding County at their home along Griffin Creek just outside the city of Dallas. We walked their property and I heard stories of their dreams and desires for the home they built in the 1980s overlooking a pretty Piedmont stream on property that has been in the family since the mid 20th century.

There was talk of a picnic area beside a small waterfall on the creek, barbecues on the back patio and grandchildren playing in the cold, clear stream.

But then something happened in Paulding County during the 1990s and early 2000s—unbridled growth.

The City of Dallas laid a sewer line through their backyard to accommodate this growth. Sewage fumes wafting from manhole covers ran the barbecuers indoors.

Sewage overflows caused by a wastewater system inadequate to handle the burgeoning suburbs around Dallas soon followed.

Meanwhile, land clearing and development upstream sent plumes of mud and sediment into their backyard play place. Stormwater surges from the developed landscape upstream still pound Griffin Creek, eroding its banks and carrying litter and other refuse through the Parson’s property.

They now tell the grandchildren not to play in the creek.

Earlier this year, the City of Dallas opened a new, and long overdue, modern $18 million sewage treatment plant that should alleviate the Parsons’ sewage overflow problems, but the damage done to Griffin Creek from upstream development is likely irreparable.

As the Georgia General Assembly debates bills to protect Georgia’s streams over the final weeks of the session, the Parsons’ dilemma is a cautionary tale of lax water protection laws and even more lax enforcement of these laws.

In the coming weeks, legislators will look at good bills seeking to restore protections for the state’s streams and rivers and enact rules to protect the state’s groundwater drinking sources. Unfortunately, legislators will also consider a bill that seeks to weaken the very review process that prevents land development projects from destroying streams with sediment and polluted run off. Here’s a look at those bills–good and bad:

First, the good. House Bill 966, introduced Feb. 10 by Rep. Johnnie Caldwell (R-Thomaston) will amend the state’s Erosion and Sedimentation Act to restore buffer protections for those rivers and streams that lack something called “wrested vegetation.” The Act, as it currently reads, provides a mandatory natural 25-foot buffer or “no build zone” along the edge of streams, but only where the stream shows a clear line of “wrested vegetation”—the point at which the force of the water prevents plants from growing.

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Votes in the Georgia General Assembly will determine whether Georgia’s rivers and streams and our drinking water are afforded stronger protections.

The problem is on slow-moving streams, especially in south Georgia, there are many places where there is no clear line of “wrested vegetation” and in these situations Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division has determined that there is no mandatory 25-foot buffer.

The legislature should fix this problem by passing HB 966.

Likewise, our state leaders should act on Senate Bill 36, a bill that requires the Department of Natural Resources to establish rules protecting the state’s groundwater resources. The bill passed the Senate last year in overwhelming fashion, but has since been stuck in the House Natural Resources Committee.

Finally, state legislators should put an unceremonious end to SB 326, a proposal that would give local governments just 14 days to review erosion control plans for large developments. These often-complicated plans are supposed to keep dirt and sediment out of local streams and rivers. Reviews routinely involve visits to the proposed development site and reviewers often require changes to improve the plans. Its a tedious process, but one that helps insure our water is protected. Currently, local governments are allowed 45 days for these reviews; cutting that period to two weeks would result in many plans being automatically approved without being reviewed.

Say what you want about “big government,” Georgia’s water laws should be about protecting the little guy—property owners like the Parsons who only want to enjoy their backyard stream and don’t want it polluted by an upstream developer.

Joe Cook, CRBI Advocacy & Communication Coordinator

If you’d like to get involved in urging legislators to do the right thing for our water, join CRBI and the Georgia Water Coalition for Capitol Conservation Day, Wednesday, Feb. 17. To register to participate, contact Joe Cook at jcook@coosa.org.

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Paddlers explore the Burwell Creek floodplain during the “Holiday FLood of 2015.”

Mother Nature has impeccable timing. Just a couple of weeks before newly elected Rome City Commissioners were to be sworn in, some eight inches of rain fell on Rome and North Georgia raising Rome’s three rivers to heights not seen since the 1990s.

It was as if she was casting her own ballot on the issue that motivated Rome voters in the November election, leading to the removal of one long-time city commissioner and the election of two new commissioners.

That issue, of course, is whether or not a large tract of city-owned floodplain and wetlands surrounding Burwell Creek and adjacent to Riverside Parkway should be filled and developed into a strip mall dubbed “City Center.”

The rain that fell lifted the Oostanaula River to nearly 30 feet—the biggest flood since March 1990. Floodwater spilled out of the river’s banks, covering Ridge Ferry Park, and creeping into the fields, pastures and yards of property owners in low-lying areas. Thankfully, there was limited serious property damage.

If not for Rome’s levee system and the dams at Carters and Allatoona lakes, it could have been much worse.

As for the city’s Burwell Creek property, it filled as did the rest of the area’s still undeveloped floodplain. If not for these places, it could have been much worse.

How much water does the 50 acres of floodplain adjacent to Burwell Creek hold? Lots. During the peak of the flood, portions of the proposed City Center development site were under at least 14 feet of water. By conservative estimates, the area held more than 130 million gallons of water at that flood level—enough to fill nearly 200 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Oostanaula River Floods

This USGS graph shows Oostanaula River flood elevations since 2006. Floodwaters have spread over the Burwell Creek wetlands on at least 50 occasions since 2009. 

And, this flood was by no means the “big one.” During Rome’s worst flood on record, the Oostanaula topped out at 40 feet, and even since the construction of Carters Dam upstream in 1977, the Oostanaula has reached above 30 feet three times.

In fact, the Burwell Creek floodplain begins filling at river elevations of just 16 feet, a high water mark that happens regularly. Since 2009, the Burwell Creek floodplain has filled on at least 50 occasions.

Remember, this is the very place hometown developers Ledbetter Properties want to build a strip mall. To keep their retail center dry, they’ll have to fill those 50 acres with at least 20 feet of dirt. Once built, floodwater will instead be routed to giant holding ponds adjacent to the retail center.

Will these holding ponds protect us during the “big one?” if engineered on a grand scale correctly, presumably so.

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Paddlers explore the Burwell Creek floodplain during the “Holiday FLood of 2015.”

However, the better question to ask is: should the city support and even finance this engineering when it could preserve the property and the important services it provides that were so clearly illustrated during the “Holiday Flood of 2015.”

In November, Rome voters sent a clear message to the City Commission with more than 60 percent of the vote cast in support of preserving this land. An online poll performed by the Rome News-Tribune following the election showed 85 percent support for preserving “Rome’s Central Park.” Even developers that last September were considering building an apartment complex overlooking Burwell Creek have now cast their lot elsewhere.

Though Mother Nature has cast her vote, she doesn’t have the final say. Only the Rome City Commission can prevent the destruction of the city’s Burwell Creek floodplain and wetlands. If the election results didn’t speak to them, perhaps the flood did.

Chad Johnfroe, President

CRBI Board of Directors

“Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government;…whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.” –Thomas Jefferson

When the Coosa River Basin Initiative (CRBI) was first organized in the early 1990s, these words of our 3rd president were printed on every newsletter and virtually every correspondence.

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Social media posts like this one from the Save Rome’s Central Park group helped sway voters opinions on the effort to develop 80 acres of city-owned greenspace during the 2015 Rome City Commission Election. 

The results from the recent Rome City Commission election are a testament to Jefferson’s words. In a day when citizens often feel powerless in the face of corporate lobbying and spending on election campaigns both big and small, a small group of dedicated citizens called Save Rome’s Central Park (SRCP) changed the outcome of our local election.

The stated goal of this group was to elect the three challengers and to send a message to the incumbent commissioners by encouraging citizens to withhold their votes for these public servants.

The results—whether you agreed or disagreed with the effort to save Rome’s “Central Park” or approved or disapproved of the group’s strategy and tactics—showed that democracy is alive and well in our town.

Voter turnout, while still abysmal overall, was twice the turnout in surrounding communities. Of the 16,098 votes that could have been cast (each of the 2,683 citizens that cast ballots could vote for six candidates), only 6,357 went to the five incumbents (39.5 percent). The three challengers received 4,562 votes, and two of them were elected garnering more votes than any of the incumbents. Meanwhile, 5,179 votes were withheld. Assuming that all of those votes were votes of “no confidence” for incumbents, that means 60.5 percent of the “votes” cast were anti-incumbent votes. Had the SRCP group had more challengers to support, it’s not a stretch to say that we would have elected even more new commissioners.

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The Burwell Creek wetlands in winter with Riverside Parkway in the background. Voters sent a clear message to the Rome City Commission that they want this land preserved rather than developed.

This election became a referendum on the controversial issue of what to do with the 80 acres of city-owned land along Riverside Parkway and opposite Ridge Ferry Park. The incumbents that were up for reelection have steadfastly supported the conversion of this floodplain and wetlands into a strip mall development called “City Center.”

While CRBI hosted a candidates’ forum that touched on a broad range of issues, CRBI did not advocate for or against any candidates in this election. In fact, federal laws prohibit non-profit organizations like CRBI from engaging in such activity.

That said, CRBI has worked for eight years to educate Rome’s citizens and its elected officials about the problems with the proposed project. Filling in floodplain and wetlands is always a bad idea for the health of our rivers; it’s an especially bad idea when the property could be preserved to create what could be Rome’s “Central Park.”

More often than not over the past eight years, many Commissioners dismissed CRBI’s protests as merely the grumblings of a tiny minority, confident that a majority of Romans supported the City Center development. With these election results, the Commission can no longer realistically have that confidence.

A broad base of citizens supported the SRCP effort—conservative, liberal, black, white, young, old, business owners, waitresses, teachers etc. News flash: there’s not enough river-loving environmentalists in Rome to deliver these kind of results.

CRBI will continue to work with the new Rome City Commission to secure the best possible outcome for this property. Whatever is done, be it preserved or developed, the plan chosen should be one that protects our rivers, preserves our floodplain, addresses any pollution issues associated with the old city landfill and—most importantly—reflects the will of Rome’s citizens.

The recent election made it abundantly clear what that will is.

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The Burwell Creek wetlands hold water almost year round thanks to an active beaver population.

On Sept. 28, the Rome City Commission in a 5-2 vote agreed to rezone 11 acres of city-owned property along Riverside Parkway opposite Ridge Ferry Park for the construction of an upscale apartment complex and a restaurant. This would be the first phase of a much larger 80-acre project known as “City Center.”

Approval of rezoning does not mean the project is a “done deal.” Before any dirt is moved the City Commission must approve a master development plan for all 80 acres.

The developer, Ledbetter Properties, must also secure federal environmental permits, and because the project involves cleaning up an abandoned city landfill, Ledbetter Properties must also get a cleanup plan approved by the state.

Citizens opposed to this project still have many opportunities to alter or even stop it.

2014 Citi Center Plans

The most recent master plan of development for City Center. The proposed apartments approved by the City Commission would have been placed in the top right hand corner of this image adjacent to Riverside Parkway. 

CRBI, for its part, has worked consistently during the past seven years to educate the public and the City Commission about the problems with this proposed development. The organization, with more than 3,500 members, opposes the project because it will destroy sensitive land that keeps our rivers clean and provides homes for a host of wildlife—from fish and frogs to beavers and bears (yes, a bear was once spotted scurrying into this natural hideaway).

More importantly, in this 80-acre tract of land the city has the opportunity to create Rome’s “Central Park,” an expanse of woods and greenspace stretching from historic Jackson Hill to the Oostanaula River, connected by recreational trails spanning the Burwell Creek wetlands.

A study paid for by the city and released in 2001 recommended that very thing. From that report: the development “of Jackson Hill within this overarching theme of rivers and water will create opportunities to connect the site thematically and physically with other city parks, thus achieving the long-term goal for a central park.”

This study was set aside when Ledbetter Properties approached the city with their City Center proposal. Current plans for the project include a connective trail between Jackson Hill and Ridge Ferry Park, and the hometown developer has agreed to preserve most of the wetlands adjacent to Burwell Creek. This is considerable progress over their initial plan that called for filling the entire area, and it represents a compromise that would preserve some critical natural areas and provide recreational opportunities for area residents.

But, at CRBI, that’s not what we hear that citizens want. They want the city to preserve the floodplain forest and wetlands and create more parkland. They have good reason to feel this way.

In addition to forfeiting a unique natural area, what the City Commission is contemplating amounts to a giant government hand out—our small town version of corporate welfare.

Nearly a decade ago, the city negotiated a price of $600,000 for the 80-acre tract, or about $7000 an acre, a bargain basement price that took into account the presence of the old city landfill.

But, guess who pays for the old city dump cleanup? You guessed it! City taxpayers. The entire 80-acre project is part of a tax allocation district (TAD) created at Ledbetter Properties’ request. As a TAD development, the city will issue bonds to pay for the landfill fix and other development costs; those bonds will be paid off with property taxes that Ledbetter Properties pays on the finished project—property taxes that would otherwise go to pay for critical city services.

It’s as if you gave the buyer of your house a discount knowing that he’d soon have to replace the roof only to have that same buyer ask you to pay for the roof replacement. If the project were built elsewhere, the city would immediately realize new property tax revenues.

And, here’s the kicker: the old city landfill doesn’t need to be cleaned up. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, after reviewing all the data on hazardous substances in the dump, labeled the site: NFRAP—no further remedial action planned.

This is a bad deal for our rivers, and it’s a bad deal for local residents. The city commission should end its longstanding courtship with Ledbetter Properties and find a new bride for its Burwell Creek property.

A new federal rule clarifies which wetlands, streams, rivers, ponds and other water bodies are protected under the Clean Water Act.

A new federal rule clarifies which wetlands, streams, rivers, ponds and other water bodies are protected under the Clean Water Act.

Watch out farmers, ranchers, developers and anyone else that might set foot in a “water of the United States,” the big, bad federal government is coming to take you away…hee, hee, ho, ho, they are coming to take you away!

At least that’s what some lawmakers would have us believe.

A recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) clarification of what rivers, streams, lakes, ponds, wetlands and other water bodies are protected by the 43-year-old Clean Water Act has sent some members of Georgia’s congressional delegation into a tizzy.

Said Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ranger): “The Obama Administration is reaching beyond its authority…EPA will have the ability to regulate small streams, farm ponds and irrigation ditches.”

Sen. Johnny Isakson went a step further: “This latest overreach by the executive branch will…delay and prevent development and land use activities…This rule harms not only landowners, but our entire agriculture industry in Georgia.”

Georgians would be wise to take this rhetoric with a grain of salt.

Across the nation, only 3 percent more water bodies will be protected as a result of this new rule. According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in Georgia no additional waters will be covered by the new rule.

The reality is that virtually all water bodies in Georgia are protected under the Clean Water Act. According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers no additional water bodies in Georgia will be protected as a result of the new rule.

The reality is that virtually all water bodies in Georgia are protected under the Clean Water Act. According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers no additional water bodies in Georgia will be protected as a result of the new rule.

In fact, currently, virtually all of the water flowing through our state is protected. If a developer wants to push dirt into even a tiny stream or wetland to build a shopping center, they must first win approval from state and federal regulators. This rule does not create any more hoops for developers to jump through.

And, those farmers that fear the new rule is going to put federal regulators in their corn fields, can rest easy. According to EPA, all agricultural exemptions remain in place.

It appears the rhetoric coming out of Washington is more about partisan politics than on-the-ground realities. This is most unfortunate.

The Clean Water Act is the reason that human feces and toilet paper does not still float down the Coosa. It’s the reason that the Oostanaula and Chattooga rivers don’t still flow blue and purple from the dyes of textile mills. And, in the future, if not dismantled by radical elements that would do away with all government regulation, it will be the reason why our streams, rivers and lakes remain places we want to visit.

When it was adopted by Congress in 1972, it did so with strong bi-partisan support via an override of President Nixon’s veto. Seventeen Senate Republicans voted for the override, and in the House, the override won by a 10-1 margin with 96 Republicans supporting the Act.

If we want to keep our rivers, streams and lakes as places we want to visit, we need a strong Clean Water Act that protects even the smallest of streams.

Paddlers make their way down the Etowah River. If we want to keep our rivers, streams and lakes as places we want to visit, we need a strong Clean Water Act that protects even the smallest of streams.

In Northwest Georgia, some one million people get their drinking water from rivers like the Conasauga, Oostanaula, Coosawattee and Etowah. We cannot assure the cleanliness of these sources without protecting the smallest wetlands, swamps, ponds and streams that feed these rivers. The Clean Water Act has always, and still does, do that.

Rather than infringing on the property rights of landowners, as some of our congressional leaders assert, the Clean Water Act actually protects downstream property owners (and all citizens) from acts by upstream neighbors that would harm our water and our use and enjoyment of it.

Every citizen deserves that kind of protection. Congressional leaders need to stop the “coming to take us away” rhetoric and support this latest clarification of the Clean Water Act, a federal law originally adopted with strong bi-partisan support.

Here's the crowd that gathered for the dedication of the US 411 boat launch, the latest addition to the Etowah River Water Trail.

Here’s the crowd that gathered for the dedication of the US 411 boat launch, the latest addition to the Etowah River Water Trail.

On May 14 with the dedication of a new Etowah River Water Trail boat launch at U.S. 411 in Bartow County, a question about the fate of the Etowah River was answered.

Let me explain:

In 2002, my daughter, her mother and I spent 30 days canoeing the 163-mile length of the Etowah River. By journey’s end, Ramsey, then just three-years-old, had learned the call of the pileated woodpecker as it echoed through the forests and could quote the paddlers’ motto: “just go with the flow.”

For me, journey’s end left me smitten by the Etowah…and a little afraid for its future.

What we saw on that journey was a river flowing through rapidly developing communities where tough decisions would soon be made about which way the river should go—down a path of preservation and progress or down a path of defilement and destruction.

We saw in the Etowah the same dynamic that the Chattahoochee River faced in the mid-1970s as Atlanta’s suburbs crept steadily north along its banks.

Thankfully, the Chattahoochee was, in large part, saved thanks to the synergy of local activists, a sympathetic state governor (Jimmy Carter) and a movement within the National Parks Service to create “urban national parks.”

New information kiosk at US 411 boat launch in Bartow County.

New information kiosk at US 411 boat launch in Bartow County.

Since 1975, thousands of acres of land have been preserved as the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, a string of parks that is visited by millions each year.

The question back in 2002 was this: could something similar happen on the Etowah?

Today, that three-year-old fan of pileated woodpeckers is driving a car and Etowah River communities have answered that question with a resounding “YES!”

In 2002, there were three developed public access points on the river. Through the combined efforts of local governments, private landowners and non-profit organizations (with aid from Georgia Department of Natural Resources Recreational Trails grants) there are now 11 developed public boat launches, and more are on the way.

The same synergy that prompted protection of the Chattahoochee has come together on the Etowah. Non-profit organizations like the Coosa River Basin Initiative (CRBI), Upper Etowah River Alliance, Mountain Stewards, the Mountain Conservation Trust of Georgia, The Nature Conservancy and others have raised money to protect land and establish public access points.

Local governments in Dawson, Cherokee, Bartow and Floyd counties have preserved property and developed boat launches. Even the National Parks Service has lent a hand, facilitating the formation of an Etowah River Water Trail Stakeholders group.

That group, made up of local governments, non-profit organizations, businesses and landowners, is now raising money and aiding local governments in promoting and developing the Etowah River Water Trail.

A new riverfront park project is underway in Forsyth County, the City of Canton just opened a park with a boat launch and the City of Cartersville established a new boat launch last year. The addition of the U.S. 411 site in Bartow County creates a 48-mile trail stretching from Allatoona Dam to Rome and connected by six launches.

The growth of the Etowah River Water Trail will enable more individuals to enjoy the river. This ultimately creates more stewards of the Etowah.

The growth of the Etowah River Water Trail will enable more individuals to enjoy the river. This ultimately creates more stewards of the Etowah.

There’s even a website, www.etowahwatertrail.org, that includes complete maps and guides of the river, and a guidebook, the Etowah River User’s Guide.

It’s been 13 years since I was first smitten by the Etowah. Today I’m a little less fearful for its future.

Local governments recognize the river and water trail as an amenity for citizens and an economic development tool. Most importantly, more and more people are venturing on the river, discovering its charms and falling in love with it.

This bodes well for the river. A river with many lovers is one that is well kept.

Georgia's coastal marshes won a measure of protection during the 2015 Georgia General Assembly session.

Georgia’s coastal marshes won a measure of protection during the 2015 Georgia General Assembly session.

The Georgia General Assembly closed shop April 2, and for Georgia’s environment, there was both good news and bad.

Topping the list of good news was the passage of House Bill 57 that will make it more affordable for homeowners to install solar panels. Shifting our energy dependence away from coal to clean energy sources creates new jobs and ultimately helps our rivers…yes our rivers. For example, Plant Hammond—a coal-fired power plant on the Coosa River—is the single largest user of water in northwest Georgia and its negative impacts on the Coosa have been far-reaching.

If you love Georgia’s coast, you’ll also be pleased with the passage of SB 101, a bill that restores a 25-foot “no-build zone,” or buffer, along Georgia’s coastal marshes.

This bill’s journey through the legislature is especially notable because its shows that citizen activists still make a difference in a political climate where money and well-heeled lobbyists too often rule the day.

As originally introduced, the marsh buffer bill included loopholes inserted at the request of a single lobbyist protecting the interests of wealthy clients on the Georgia coast.

The 200-plus member Georgia Water Coalition (GWC), including the Coosa River Basin Initiative, called out these loopholes, and many legislators agreed. Rep. Johnny Meadows (R-Calhoun), chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee, held the bill until the loopholes were removed, and a bill that truly protected the marshes passed. It was a victory for citizens (and our beautiful marshes) over special interests.

Plastic bags and other plastic containers are the most common trash found in Georgia's rivers. Thankfully, legislators defeated a bill that would have kept Georgia dependent on one-use, disposable plastic bags and containers for years to come.

Plastic bags and other plastic containers are the most common trash found in Georgia’s rivers. Thankfully, legislators defeated a bill that would have kept Georgia dependent on one-use, disposable plastic bags and containers for years to come.

Likewise, plastic bag manufacturers had their proverbial backsides handed to them. When Tybee Island and Athens began considering bans on plastic bags to curb litter and protect wildlife, the plastic bag manufacturing association convinced some legislators to introduce a bill prohibiting local governments from passing laws banning or otherwise restricting use of plastic bags.

Again, citizen activists, including the GWC, raised their voices. The House of Representatives soundly defeated the measure.

Of course, plastic bags, on their own, are not the problem; it’s people that cause plastic bag pollution. But now at least, local governments might experiment with progressive measures to wean us off one-use, disposable bags and other containers.

Now, for the bad news…

SB 36, a bill aimed at protecting well water by restoring a long-standing moratorium on the controversial and dangerous practice of injecting surface water into underground wells, languished in committee. It was bottled up by Gov. Nathan Deal’s administration that sees “aquifer storage and recovery” as a means of extending the state’s water supply….even at the risk of polluting pristine groundwater.

With HB 397, the Deal Administration also dismantled the Georgia Soil and Water Conservation Commission.

The bill allows Gov. Deal to hand-pick a panel responsible for approving the “Green Book,” the state manual that dictates what kind of precautions developers must take to keep dirt from leaving construction sites and muddying our streams.

Clear, free-flowing streams are at risk if Gov. Nathan Deal's hand-picked erosion and sedimentation council meddles with the state's manual for erosion control.

Clear, free-flowing streams are at risk if Gov. Nathan Deal’s hand-picked erosion and sedimentation council meddles with the state’s manual for erosion control.

After signing the bill, he quickly made those appointments. They included a paving contractor, a Georgia Power executive and a Department of Transportation engineer—all representatives of the entities regulated by the Green Book. No members of Georgia’s environmental advocacy community got the nod.

Finally, HB 255 tops the cake. This bill—backed by the Georgia Forestry Association—makes it illegal for any state-funded construction project to seek Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.

LEED-certified buildings save state taxpayers money through energy and water efficiency, but Georgia tree farmers have taken issue with LEED requirements to qualify as sustainable forest products. Their solution? Run the LEED program out of publicly-funded construction. Inexplicably, the bill passed. This measure rightfully won one of Creative Loafing Atlanta’s Golden Sleaze Awards for 2015.

Fallout from the 2015 legislative session, both good and bad, is proof that we need active and engaged citizens to protect our state’s natural resources and local communities.

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