Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Environmental Justice & Scrapyard Regulation

This is another in an occasional series of UGA Land Use Clinic student-authored posts.  Today's guest blogger is Ryan H. Dodd, former Army JAG lawyer and current LL.M. Candidate in Environmental Law.

      This semester I have been working with the UGA Land Use Clinic on a project involving environmental justice issues being faced by the citizens of the Newtown Community in Gainesville, Georgia.  This case is illustrative of the many dimensions that are involved in environmental justice issues and has become an extremely effective model for students and practitioners in coming to a better understanding of the interplay of those dimensions.  The interdisciplinary approach involves individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds including planning and zoning, geography, community organizing, environmental design, and general environmental sciences.  Ultimately, the success of the Clinic’s involvement with the issues affecting Newtown will come down to a balancing of the many interests involved and capitalizing on the collective strengths of the actors working together.
    By way of background, the Newtown Community has been actively fighting these environmental justice issues for decades now.  Because of the community’s location in the midst of the city’s industrial zone, many of the battles fought have been between the community and neighboring industrial businesses.  Currently, the focus of attention has fallen on a neighboring scrap yard and the nuisance it is creating via fugitive dust and noise from its scrap processing operations.  With regard to many of the other types of heavy industrial businesses near Newtown, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) has been able to step in and regulate.  This has been because these businesses are required to carry permits that are enforceable by EPD.  Unfortunately, scrap recycling is one of those businesses, as I have found, that does not have any stringent regulation or permitting process.  Therefore, the EPD has taken a hands-off approach, leaving it up to the local government to regulate. 
    Specifically, my involvement in this process has centered on the issue of code enforcement.  I have looked at how similar issues have been handled throughout the nation.  Not only is Georgia failing to regulate scrap yards, but so are most states.  The exceptions are Florida, New Hampshire, and Indiana, which have enacted programs known as “Green Yards” and “Clean Yards” respectively that create an incentive-based system to get scrap yard owners to voluntarily comply with environmental laws and regulations.  This is a potential model that we are looking at proposing in Georgia.
    Another issue that I have been researching is the utilization of existing code enforcement for dealing with nuisances, particularly fugitive dust and noise.  In the cases of Gainesville, these issues are enforced by the public works department.  However, other municipalities use their health departments for enforcement of these issues and it appears that these are working quite effectively.  This is because, in most cases, a health department has the knowledge base and tools to deal with nuisance issues.  It will be interesting to see how receptive local governments will be to taking some new approaches to code enforcement.  Many may continue to wrestle with budgetary constraints or personnel shortages.  However, if a municipality is to truly deliver the best services it can to its citizens, then it is incumbent upon them to embrace new frameworks in order to competently address some of these old problems.

One thing that continually amazes me is how many communities in Georgia struggle with unregulated scrapyards creating nuisances and hazards. While these are outliers in an industry that generally provides a needed community service, it's enough of a problem that the clinic has taken this up as a project theme over many semesters.  Let's hope that Georgia is willing to adopt a "Green Yards" or similar approach as a step in the right direction.

Jamie Baker Roskie


Environmental Justice, Environmental Law, Georgia, Industrial Regulation, Local Government, Nuisance | Permalink

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