The Georgia House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly yesterday to exempt the Georgia Department of Transportation from the provisions of the Georgia Environmental Policy Act for road projects costing less than $100 million.
The vote likely will exempt GDOT from being required to file reports on the environmental, cultural, historical and archaeological impact of the widening of U.S. 441 and construction of a bypass of Bishop in southern Oconee County, depending on how the project is bid.
And earlier version of the bill already had been approved by the Senate, with Oconee County’s Sen. Bill Cowsert voting in favor of the change. Cowsert is majority leader of the Senate.
The House changed the bill, and it now will go back to the Senate for action. The final day the General Assembly meets is tomorrow.
The law passed by the House is a substitute for the bill passed by the Senate on Feb. 29.
The bill exempts from the Georgia Environmental Policy Act projects “of a department, municipality, county, or authority to construct or improve a public road or airport” if the project “does not exceed $100 million in costs.”
The Georgia Environmental Policy Act (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 is defined to include the state’s air, water, land, plants, and animals as well as cultural, historical and archaeological resources of the state.
The bill passed by the House exempts GDOT from the provisions of GEPA and states instead that “an environmental evaluation shall be considered in the decision-making process.”
GDOT sent out a news release yesterday under the name of Commission Russell R. McMurry, who said he had been asked by Sen. Cowsert and Rep. Williams to address concerns about the bill’s impact on the U.S. 441 project.
“Whether or not the bill becomes law does not have any impact on GDOT’s responsibility and commitment to complete a thorough environmental analysis of this project,” McMurry said in the news release.
“Generally, SB 346 changes the requirements for writing a report summarizing environmental impacts and does not diminish federal and state environmental laws,” the release said. “As an agency of the State of Georgia, GDOT values our cultural and environmental resources.
“In fact, GDOT’s office of environmental services employs archeologist, ecologists and historians that either perform work or review work done by private professionals to fully understand the existing resources and the potential for impacts to those resources,” the news release states.
“GDOT is committed to working towards a solution that avoids or minimizes impacts and satisfies the purpose of the project. We will continue to engage, listen, and evaluate the concerns from stakeholders, residents and public officials along the way,” McMurry wrote.
The House vote came just after noon yesterday.
The tally was 146 votes in favor of the bill and only 22 in opposition.
Quick and Williams both voted against the bill.
The substitute bill had been drafted by the House Transportation Committee to include the statement that GDOT would include the environment in the decision-making process.
Rep. Williams had written me after the House Transportation Committee met on March 14 to discuss the original Senate bill explaining what he had learned at that meeting.
Williams sent me an email on March 15 indicating, based on the Transportation Committee meeting discussions and separate conversations he had had, that his “current take on the bill was that “ it was designed to save GDOT and the state money.
“It eliminates an existing provision that typically causes GDOT to engage a consultant to compile a summary report of any and all environmental, cultural and historical studies associated with a project,” Williams wrote.
“It does NOT eliminate any required studies on these issues. The effect: money will be saved by eliminating a consultant's fee; time will be saved by eliminating the summary prep time.
“It seems that this summary report serves no useful purpose to the state, either at the GDOT or EPD agencies,” Williams wrote referring to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division. “Again, the underlying studies and analysis are not impacted by this bill.”
Williams wrote that “Obviously, I welcome the perspectives of my constituents who have studied the bill.”
Williams encouraged me to share his comments, which I did.
Williams on Religious Liberty Bill
On March 16 the House and Senate passed House Bill 757, commonly referred as the “Religious Liberty” bill, with the support of Cowsert and Quick but without the vote of Williams.
I wrote Williams after that vote and asked him to comment on his vote.
Below is his email response to me of March 21, in its entirety. His first reference is to an earlier vision of that House Bill, which he supported.
The Feb 11 vote was on concise Pastor Protection bill language. This vote was taken after we had several days to ponder the Bill's content, talk to constituents, etc.
“Our Mar 16 vote was on an amended, hybridized bill. It contained pieces of multiple similar, but different, initiatives. The timeframe from hearing about its content, to seeing the actual bill, to voting, was approx 90 minutes. I did not feel that I had enough time to study the bill in detail, nor to gauge constituent feelings about its impacts.
“As this issue has played out this year, my overall sentiments have closely mirrored those voiced by Gov. Deal: religious freedom is an worthy and admirable goal for our state. But, it should not come with the side effect of discrimination. I simply could not get comfortable that the amended HB 757 met these standards. Thus, my negative vote on Mar 16.”