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Bare minimum protection for Georgia waters

Move to weaken standards endangers more people



When it comes to dangerous levels of E. coli in Georgia's recreational waters, the state is considering a novel clean-up plan: denial. Currently, levels of E. coli in a waterway are declared unsafe if they could sicken eight out of 1,000 people. But if the state gets its way, the acceptable level of sickness will climb to 14 people out of 1,000. (E. coli is the name for a bacterium that can cause infections, nausea and diarrhea.)

The proposed standards, says Linda Harn, of EPD's Watershed and Planning Monitoring Program, are "sufficiently protective."

Harn is right. The new levels do meet federal guidelines, but only the bare minimum. Call it another case of the state allowing environmental protection regulations, such as they are, to erode even further. In this case, the EPD is buckling under the pressure of Georgia governments, which are forced to pay fines when E. coli in their local water is at unsafe levels. The remedy? Simply change your definition of what is safe and what isn't. That way, municipalities will be in violation less often.

That's great news for governments, but bad news for Georgians who make contact with rivers on a regularly basis.

Perhaps no state waterway will feel those erosions more than the Chattahoochee Recreational Center, popular with kayakers and anglers. As the major river in the region, the Chattahoochee regularly sees its E. coli levels spike after downpours, when rains wash fecal matter and E. coli into the river.

For instance, three weeks ago after the heavy rain, E. coli levels in the Chattahoochee River shot up to 85 times what the federal government says is the safe limit for humans.

After another rain three days later, E. coli amounts were 80 times above the safe standard, and it took two more days for the bacteria to disperse enough so that the river was safe for humans again.

Right now, danger signs are posted in public areas of the Chattahoochee Recreational Center when 235 E. coli colonies show up in 100 milliliters of water. The state is proposing that those signs go up only when levels reach five times that amount. And in the winter months -- November to May -- tolerable levels would shoot up to 8,915 colonies per 100 milliliters.

Problem is, that's peak season for kayakers.

"The winter numbers are so high they are off the charts," says Michelle Fried, attorney for the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. "It is absurd in a state like Georgia where people swim and fish in recreational waters all year round because we have a mild climate. Kayakers, they roll in the water. They get their face completely under water."

But to Harn, kayakers should know what they're getting into. E. coli is just another boulder to avoid -- albeit an invisible one.

"So you've got one class of people engaging in an activity, and this is by their choice, that has its own risk and hazards in it," Harn says of the kayakers. "When you go to setting standards that's tied back to certain risk levels, you look at the best matches."

Before the new regulations are put into place, there will be a public hearing Nov. 18. A final decision is scheduled to be made by the Department of Natural Resources Dec. 4.

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