The Georgia Senate has approved, with the support of Oconee County Sen. Bill Cowsert, a bill that would exempt the Georgia Department of Transportation from the provisions of the Georgia Environmental Policy Act.
The exemption likely would have a major effect immediately in Oconee County, as it would allow GDOT to bypass the provisions of the Georgia Environmental Policy Act in widening U.S. 441 from the Watkinsville Bypass to the Madison Bypass, including the construction of a bypass of Bishop.
GDOT and local officials have promised in several public meetings that the state would follow the provisions of the Georgia Environmental Policy Act and take into consideration the impact of the U.S. 441 widening on the environment and on cultural, historical and archaeological sites.
The bill is now before the Georgia House of Representatives, and the House Transportation Committee had the bill on its agenda for discussion at a meeting scheduled for late this afternoon.
Depending on the action of the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Regina Quick and Rep. Chuck Williams, who, with Cowsert represent Oconee County in the Georgia General Assembly, could have a chance to vote on the proposed law in the remaining four days the Assembly is in session.
Republicans Senators Brandon Beach, from Alpharetta, representing District 21, and Jeff Mullis, from Chickamauga, representing the 53rd district, introduced SB 346 in early February.
|Shelby, With Saxon On Left|
The bill would amend Georgia law relative to the Environmental Policy Act to exempt projects for the “construction or improvement of public roads from environmental effects reports.”
The exemption would apply to “Any project of a department, a municipality, a county, or an authority to construct or improve a public road or airport, provided that such project cost does not exceed $100 million and such project obtains no contribution from federal funds.”
The Senate passed the bill on Feb. 29 by a vote of 36 to 15, with Cowsert voting with the majority.
It was given its first reading in the House on March 2.
Rep. Williams told me in an email message this afternoon that he intended to attend today’s meeting of the Transportation Committee.
Environmental Protection Act
The Georgia Environmental Policy Act, enacted in 1991 and referred to as GEPA, stipulates that all state agencies must prepare environmental impact reports as part of the decision-making process for all activities that may have an impact on the environment.
The environment includes the state’s air, water, land, plants, and animals.
The environment, according to the act, also covers cultural, historical and archaeological resources of the state.
It requires the agencies to consider alternatives that would have less impact on these state resources.
Cowsert, Quick and Williams all attended a session of Dec. 22 of last year of a Sounding Board created by the Oconee County Board of Commissioners to provide citizen input to GDOT on the U.S. 441 widening and proposed Bishop Bypass.
Albert V. Shelby III, state program delivery engineer, made specific reference to the restrictions to be placed on the project by GEPA.
Shelby was joined by Brad Saxon, assistant state program delivery engineer, at that meeting in Bishop.
Williams served as moderator of the session.
Costs of U.S. 441 Project
At that session on Dec. 22, Shelby and Saxon emphasized that no route for the roadway has been determined.
Emil Beshara, county Public Works director, told me in an email message last week that there is “no valid cost estimate for the Bypass project because no alignment has been approved.”
He said his best guess is that the project would be less than $100 million, particularly if the state splits the project into parts, either separately for Oconee and Morgan counties or for the Bishop Bypass and the remainder of the road.
The state has let separate contracts for the engineering work in the two counties.
GDOT has decided not to use any federal funds for the project, so, if the costs are less than $100 million, it would fall under the exemption from the Environmental Policy Act specified in SB 346.
Senate Bill 346 has produced a strong reaction among the Native American Community.
An article posted on Indian Country Today Media Network on March 7 reported on the bill’s implications for archaelogical sites under the headline “Georgia Bill Would Exempt Construction Projects From Reporting Sacred Remains.”
“In plain language,” the article states, “if road project workers find evidence--such as native sacred remains--that should be investigated, the law would exempt them from reporting it and would allow the project to continue uninterrupted.”
The Society for Georgia Archaeology (SGA) and Georgia Council of Professional Archaeologists (GCPA) also are working to defeat the bill.
The email addresses for Quick is: Regina.Quick@house.ga.gov
The email address for Williams is: firstname.lastname@example.org