One of the two authors of the report by GreenLaw, an Atlanta-based environmental law firm, says Canton earned its spot on the list for a total of 53 violations, most of which were attributed to violations of the city’s clean water permit.
But local city officials are skeptical about what those results really mean.
Mayor Gene Hobgood said after an initial reading of the release that he’s wary about what the data might imply. Hobgood said the report left more questions than answers.
“I think it’s important that people don’t look at this and think we’re the second worst polluter in the 14 metro county area,” Hobgood said. “We may be second worst in violations relative to low-income population. It may say that, but what does that really mean?”
Hobgood also said the findings provide information that city officials are already well aware of.
“We do have problems,” he said. “But we’re working to alleviate those problems.”
City Manager Scott Wood said he questioned the basis of the conclusions and the limited time frame within which the data was collected.
Wood said the city incurred numerous discharge violations at the city wastewater treatment plant from 2008 to 2011, but said those occurred “at no compromise to the quality of life in our community and certainly to the detriment of no one socio-demographic group.”
“Additionally, the city received an increase in our treatment allocation to 4 million gallons last year, which has served to reduce discharge violations significantly,” Wood said.
Wood said without the 49 permit violations at the wastewater treatment plant the city would have never made the rank identified in the report.
“Were the study to be conducted beginning in year 2012, the results and conclusions would be radically different and Canton would not have been included,” Wood said.
In the report, researchers with GreenLaw broke the 14 counties in the metro region up into 10-square kilometer blocks and analyzed the correlation between demographics and the amount and type of pollution in each area.
The results show that minority, low-income and linguistically isolated communities in metro Atlanta are more likely to be living in close proximity to pollution than others, the report said.
GreenLaw provides free legal and technical assistance to environmental organizations and community groups throughout Georgia to compel state government and industry to take the steps GreenLaw deems necessary to protect Georgia’s citizens and the environment, according to its mission statement.
“While this report may confirm what many have already suspected, this level of analysis simply cannot be ignored,” said David Deganian, lead author of the report and attorney at GreenLaw. “We now have solid evidence that deep connections exist between pollution levels and demographic characteristics such as race and income. Our hope is that this report will allow decision makers to implement science-based laws and policies that will protect all of Atlanta’s residents equally.”
Deganian said Canton stands out on the list because 49 out of the 53 “pollution points,” or locations of pollution sources, in the study represent violations of the City of Canton Water Pollution Control Plant’s Clean Water Act permit.
The report was conducted in part with funding by The Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, Patagonia, the University of Georgia School of Law’s Public Interest Fellowship, the Waterfall Foundation, as well as other “individuals, businesses, law firms and foundations” that are not listed.
Deganian said in most areas, the pollution points used in the study come from a variety of different pollutants. However, Canton landing the number two spot came mostly from one source of pollution.
“In this block (of central Cherokee County), all but four points come from one source,” Deganian said.
The 10-kilometer square block includes south Canton, portions of Marietta Highway, Sunnyside, the Univeter Road area and the Canton-Cherokee Industrial Park.
The city of Canton reported continuous Clean Water Act violations at Canton Water Pollution Control Center between 2008 and 2011, according to the report.
“These include violations for fecal coliform, phosphorus, and nitrogen in levels exceeding permit limits, all of which negatively impact water quality,” Deganian wrote in the report.
Canton was fined $3,000 by Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division on July 26, 2011, for its Clean Water Act permit exceedances, the report states.
The GreenLaw findings said Cherokee County experienced unprecedented growth in recent years, noting Canton saw an almost 200 percent population surge between 2000 and 2010. With this growth comes an additional demand on the area’s wastewater treatment systems, leading to the multitude of infractions, the report claimed.
“Something is missing on the enforcement side to get the plant in line with the law,” Deganian said.
The other pollution sites are designated toxic release inventory sites by the report and include the former Seaboard Farms, now Pilgrim’s Pride on Univeter Road, Allied Readymix on Univeter Road and Isotec International on Longview Street, according to an interactive map available online from the organization.
Though little more than 20 percent of Canton’s residents are minorities, the city’s demographic score is also in the upper quartile because high school graduation rates are 20 percent lower than the regional average, a quarter of all residents are living in poverty, and more than 20 percent of households are “linguistically isolated,” the report said.
The report shows the area has 63.4 percent graduation rate, with 25.4 percent living in poverty and 21.9 percent speakers of a language other than English. It also notes that 14.8 percent of the area has vacant housing.
Deganian said there are several things local authorities can do to improve the pollution problems, including focusing on zoning to reduce environmental impact on residents, especially minorities and low-income communities, as well as ensure the plant is in compliance with the Clean Water Act.
Hobgood said city engineers have sent in a design development report to state officials to determine what will have to be done to bring the plant into compliance.
Hobgood also noted that from his initial reading of the report, faster-growing counties in the metro region, like Cherokee County, have the largest ratios of violations to pollution sources — a factor he said should also be considered.
The mayor said he wasn’t sure if Canton’s violations were due to the recently acquired permit.
Coming in above Canton’s score, the region’s top offender is the two-mile stretch of Fulton Industrial Boulevard connecting Fulton, Cobb and Douglas counties; in third, the border that separates DeKalb and Gwinnett counties; fourth, Atlanta’s Grove Park neighborhood; and coming in last is central Douglas County.
Justine Thompson, GreenLaw executive director, said in the news release she hopes the report convinces lawmakers and local leaders to create policies and laws needed to reduce toxic pollutants in vulnerable communities.
“Georgia has fallen behind,” Thompson said. “As states across the country strive to protect all of its citizens — regardless of race or economic status — from the health impacts of pollution, Georgia remains one of the only states in the nation with no mechanism to ensure equality in environmental decision-making.”
Thompson said policymakers need to show the world Atlanta takes care of the health and well-being of its residents to remain a player in the global economy.
GreenLaw researchers also provide several recommendations in response to these patterns of pollution, including creating an alliance of environmental justice advocates in the region, forming a working group of business and government leaders to attend to environmental justice issues and implementing environmental justice efforts with state and locally-directed federal funds.
“A lot of the recommendations have to do with (putting) specific policies in place to prevent sources of pollution to be repeatedly cited in one area,” Deganian said.
In addition, researchers recommend the state Environmental Protection Division adopt a policy that “promotes the health of all of Georgia’s citizens and requires environmental equity in its practices.”
Along with the findings, GreenLaw revealed a new website that allows people to type in an address and learn more about pollution sources in their communities. To find nearby pollution points, visit www.greenlaw.org/info/96472.