July 7, 2003

Turner Clinic involved in two Ga. lawsuits

By Michael Terrazas

Emory’s Turner Environmental Law Clinic is litigating two lawsuits against federal agencies that seek to force the groups to broaden their thinking in regards to granting development permits that impinge upon Georgia’s natural resources.

The first suit, filed against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, alleges the corps violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in granting a permit to metro Atlanta’s Henry County to build a 1,500-acre reservoir that would help meet the county’s growing demand for water. The second, filed against the National Forest Service, alleges that agency likewise violated NEPA in permitting the Georgia Transmission Corp. (GTC) to run a high-voltage electrical line through 70 acres of the Chattahoochee National Forest in north Georgia’s Rabun County.

Neither suit is directed specifically against the involved development project, per se. Rather, the clinic charges that both federal agencies failed to properly consider alternatives to the proposals, and that regulatory bodies now must think regionally when considering local projects.

“There is very little regional planning going on about water supply in north Georgia, specifically in the Atlanta area,” said Julie Mayfield, director of the Turner Clinic. “There are now 18 proposed reservoirs in the planning pipeline, and nobody is talking to each other about, ‘Well, could we make this a regional reservoir?’ Conservation, of course, is never high in anybody’s plans.”

“This is not about fighting development in Henry County or fighting a reservoir in Henry County—this is about the process the corps goes through in evaluating whether to approve reservoirs in north Georgia,” said Larry Sanders, the clinic’s staff attorney. “It’s a much broader, big-picture issue.”

Mayfield and Sanders both were speaking about the Henry County case, but the issues are highly analogous in the GTC lawsuit, which claims neither GTC nor the Forest Service properly considered alternatives before moving forward with plans to clear out a 100- to 150-foot-wide, six-mile-long power easement through pristine national forest.

“Pretty much, the power company said, ‘Here’s what we want to do,’ and the Forest Service looked at the alternatives of building a power line or not building a power line,” Sanders said. “What they didn’t look at it is building it on private property, and they didn’t look at upgrading existing facilities rather than building a new line.”

In all its cases, the Turner Clinic acts as legal counsel for individual or groups of plaintiffs, and there is also co-counsel. For example, in the Henry County suit, the clinic’s clients are the Georgia River Network and the Altamaha Riverkeeper, and its co-counsel is the Southern Environmental Law Center. In the Rabun County case, the co-counsel is a private attorney and the clients are the Chattooga Conservancy, Georgia Forest Watch and the Sierra Club.

Both suits are filed in the U.S. District Court for Northern Georgia (Atlanta division for the Henry County case, Gainesville division for the Rabun County case). The Henry County suit was filed in January, and Mayfield said the presiding judge could issue a ruling as soon as mid-July; the Rabun County suit was just filed on June 13, and the Forest Service now is assembling the administrative record for GTC’s permit application.

Meanwhile, work already had begun in Henry County to clear out acreage along Tussahaw Creek, which would be dammed to create the reservoir, when the corps suspended its own permit in March, pending a re-evaluation of the entire project. Indeed, according to the Macon Telegraph, Henry County started clearing timber and condemning private land in neighboring Butts County even before the corps issued its permit in October 2002; the move prompted lawsuits from Butts County commissioners and private landowners.

The clinic and its four summer student workers (two students each from Emory’s and Georgia State’s law schools) are monitoring the developments, but the Turner Clinic likely will have to finish the litigation without its director; Mayfield said she will leave Emory this month to become general counsel and policy director for the Georgia Conservancy.