Lawsuit Settlement Sends Message to Developers to Obey the Law

Press Room

Agreement also protects valuable wetlands and Ohoopee River streams

Agreement also protects valuable wetlands and Ohoopee River streams

CONTACT: Jennifer Pennington, Senior Attorney, GreenLaw
(404) 659-3122, jpennington@green-law.org

Justine Thompson, Executive Director, GreenLaw
(404) 659-3122, jthompson@green-law.org

Chandra Brown, Executive Director, Ogeechee-Canoochee Riverkeeper
(912) 764-2017, cbrown@ocrk.org

Deborah Sheppard, Executive Director, Altamaha Riverkeeper
(912) 437-8164, stewards@altamahariverkeeper.org

(Swainsboro, Georgia, January 23, 2007) How do you keep a river healthy? Answer: you have to keep the streams that feed it free-flowing and clean. And that is just what the GreenLaw [formerly the Georgia Center for Law in the Public Interest]—representing Ogeechee-Canoochee Riverkeeper and Altamaha Riverkeeper—has done by negotiating a settlement in their law suit filed against a Swainsboro developer in southeast Georgia.

This groundbreaking settlement under the Clean Water Act allows Pine Tree II, the developers of the additional parcels of land around a Super Wal-Mart complex, to complete their development of a small portion of the land while preserving more than 15 acres of protected wetlands and streams that flow into the nearby Ohoopee River to be managed by a public land trust organization that will be named in the near future.

Enforcement of Georgia’s erosion and sedimentation laws and the Federal Clean Water Act, designed to keep construction dirt out of our streams and ensure clean water, has been particularly lax in rural Georgia. Citizens have been watching for the results of this case to see whether the justice system would really protect the environment.

The two Riverkeeper organizations claimed that the developers of the Swainsboro Super Wal-Mart “outparcels” had illegally trenched a stream, removed a stream buffer, filled in wetlands, and violated the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit for construction storm water by discharging excessive amounts of dirt into the surrounding streams and a downstream lake.

The compromise that the parties agreed upon, after nearly a year of litigation and settlement negotiations, will allow the developers to finish developing a small portion of the property while over 15 acres of the property, including two small streams, a lake, and wetlands area, will be permanently preserved through a conservation easement.

Justine Thompson, Executive Director of GreenLaw [formerly the Georgia Center for Law in the Public Interest], commented, “This agreement sends a message to developers near our waterways that they can’t pave over our streams and wetlands. The settlement won’t harm economic growth, but it will ensure that growth doesn’t harm one of Georgia’s most valuable assets, our water.” Deborah Sheppard, Altamaha Riverkeeper, agrees, saying that “we have reached a compromise that ensures a minimal negative impact on the Ohoopee River and downstream property owners, while actually improving the design of the development on these parcels.”

This 15 acres of permanently protected wetlands and streams will help to treat storm water leaving the development and downtown Swainsboro, preventing downstream flooding. It will also provide vital wildlife habitat in a growing part of the state. Additionally, the design of the development has been significantly improved through the inclusion of rain gardens and other features to reduce the amount and speed of rain water leaving the developed site.

“We first received complaints from citizens about this site back in 2002. Unfortunately, repeated complaints to state and federal agencies failed to adequately address the problems on the site,” stated Chandra Brown, Executive Director of OCRK. “It is our hope that by bringing this costly and time-consuming litigation, other developers will thoroughly review the environmental impact of their development and ensure that they are following all of the federal, state, and local laws before they begin construction.” For a compliance checklist to follow when building in the state of Georgia, visit www.getthedirtout.org.

Ogeechee-Canoochee Riverkeeper (OCRK) works to ensure clean water throughout the Ogeechee watershed. In the past year, OCRK has seen a dramatic increase in citizen complaints from the Swainsboro area—from an average of 1 complaint a quarter to 1 complaint a month. By responding to these complaints and giving citizens the tools to prevent pollution in streams, OCRK seeks to establish future generations of guardians for our waters. For more information, visit http://www.ogeecheeriverkeeper.org/

The Altamaha Riverkeeper (ARK) works throughout the 14,000 square mile Altamaha River watershed, which includes the Ocmulgee, Oconee, and Ohoopee rivers. It depends on citizens to observe problems like illegal discharges into the rivers to report them to the Environmental Protection Division (EPD) of the Department of Natural Resources and to ARK. Information on how to contact EPD is available on ARK’s website, www.altamahariverkeeper.org.

GreenLaw [formerly the Georgia Center for Law in the Public Interest] is a non-profit organization that provides free high quality legal assistance to local, state and national environmental organizations working to protect Georgia’s natural resources from unlawful air and water pollution.