Statewide, six out of 10 waterways are so polluted they aren't safe for swimming in or eating fish from, according to federal standards.
So it's hard to imagine that one day, we may look back on 2002 and say, "Boy, we had it made."
Last Friday, the Bush administration unveiled possibly its biggest attack on the environment yet -- the evisceration of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency program that forces power companies to upgrade pollution controls on older, coal-burning plants when they increase productivity.
Since Bush took office, Democratic opposition in the U.S. Senate -- token as it was -- had provided at least some check on George W. Bush's ambitions.
No more. In the Senate, control of the committee that oversees the environment switched from green-friendly Sen. James Jeffords (I-Vt.) to a man environmentalists see as an arch villain, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla).
Inhofe has the lowest ranking possible from the League of Conservation Voters, a zero, meaning he has never voted for environmental legislation tracked by the league.
And Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), who's pushed for oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, will chair the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
"The environment wasn't even an issue in this election," says Jennifer Giegerich, an advocate for Georgia Public Interest Research Group. "We live in a state where the majority of people live in areas where it's unsafe to breathe, 60 percent of waterways don't meet clean water standards and we drive more miles than anywhere else in the country. And all those things should make environment one of the more important issues. Nobody is talking about it."
In just two years, the two oilmen who run America have reversed or severely weakened long-standing protections for wilderness areas, water quality and air quality.
When California tried to force car manufacturers to sell more fuel-efficient cars by 2006, the automobile industry fought back. No surprise there.
But what's surprising is that the federal government intervened on behalf of the car makers.
While that fits in with the administration's modus operandi to protect big business, rarely -- if ever -- has the White House stepped in to actually thwart a state's effort to reduce pollution.
Then there's the Bush/Cheney energy plan -- the same one that's got the vice president embroiled in lawsuits and accusations of co-opting an energy industry wish list as the guiding energy principles for the nation.
In August 2001, the U.S. House of Representatives passed portions of the Bush/Cheney energy plan that included $33.5 billion in tax breaks and other incentives for energy companies that could easily be called corporate welfare. If approved by the Senate, that money would go toward subsidizing exploration of new sources of oil and gas, coal research, and even the promotion of new nuclear reactors. That bill stalled in the Senate because of Democratic opposition, but is now likely to be revived.
"That energy plan is coming back, and it's bad stuff," says Giegerich. "The scariest thing for Georgia will be promoting nuclear power. That, and gutting NSR, would be our top concern."
NSR stands for New Source Review, an EPA program that required energy companies to upgrade pollution controls every time they increased electric generation at their power plants.
Released in May 2001, the Bush/Cheney energy plan included orders for the EPA to re-evaluate the New Source Review program, and for the U.S. Justice Department to revisit close to a dozen lawsuits it filed against electric utilities, including Atlanta's own Southern Co.
The Justice Department has since decided to go ahead with its lawsuits. A victory, according to "Clear the Air," a study funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, would reduce Georgia Power's emissions to the extent that 1,090 premature and pollutant-related deaths would be prevented.
But getting those pollution reductions now is doubtful. The Bush administration saw to that when it weakened the New Source Review program on Friday, undercutting the Justice Department's lawsuits and creating brand new loopholes for power plants, refineries and chemical plants.
Environmental groups and several Northeastern states have said they'll file suit to prevent the rollbacks of the New Source Review program. The exact states were unknown as CL went to press, but more than likely include New York and eight other states that have already joined the Justice Department in New Source Review lawsuits against electric utilities. Georgia will not be one of them.
LAND AND WATER QUALITY
Through administrative rule-making, Bush has restricted public access to information on potential chemical accidents, slowed down the cleanup at toxic waste sites and is now planning to allow mining companies to fill in lowlands with mining waste.
Meanwhile, the White House has waived logging protections at 12 national forests.
Bush's Healthy Forests Initiative wants to cut down on fires by allowing the timber industry to thin more forest. (Bush also appointed former timber industry lobbyist Mark Rey as Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment for the U.S. Department of Agriculture).
More importantly, Bush is expected to release a draft of the federal government's forest management plan this January. Specific numbers aren't out yet, but early drafts suggest that more than 750,000 acres of forest in the Chattahoochee and Oconee national forests will have less protection from logging because of new roads that will allow logging further into protected areas.
Georgia Forest Watch Executive Director Brent Martin says the administration has already revealed its outlook on forest management.
The U.S. Forest Service last week released a new policy that opens up about 100 miles of Forest Service roads to off-road vehicle roads. Before, the roads were open only to street legal vehicles.
Two months ago, the Forest Service issued a memorandum to its law enforcement offices telling them they could no longer write tickets to all-terrain vehicle drivers on any road claimed by any county government or state government.
Martin says those two moves "effectively opened up about 500 miles of forest service roads to ATVs. Right now, off-road vehicles are the No. 1 problem in the forest right now," he says. "I think it's a big question as to how this [forest management] plan will shape up in the next year, but there are some real problems based on what's going on with the Forest Service now."