ATLANTA - Those seeking environmental permits in Georgia can pay a premium for a faster result under a future new law, a perk that gives businesses flexibility but that some say could also create conflicts of interest.
The law applies to all permits issued by the Environmental Protection Division, and its air branch recently asked for public advice on how to create the system. The chairman of the Senate's environmental committee, Sen. Ross Tolleson, R-Perry, said the agency is so short-staffed as a result of budget cuts that it would struggle to quicken the pace of reviews. Tolleson said his measure, which takes effect July 1, will help alleviate that strain by allowing outside reviewers to speed up the process. State officials still get the final say on whether a permit is approved.
The law explains little else, leaving big questions about the system.
"Everyone kind of wins in this," Tolleson said.
Environmental groups say the system is fundamentally unfair to small businesses and those who cannot pay. They also foresee a tangle of ethical conflicts that could arise as government reviews are delegated to private parties.
Stephanie Stuckey Benfield, the executive director of GreenLaw and a state representative who voted against the bill, called it "pay-to-play."
"I think it's a problematic system," said Benfield, who did not seek re-election. "It may have seemed like a good idea at the time in the Legislature, but the devil is always in the details."
The Georgia Chamber of Commerce lobbied for the measure because members said it was taking too long to get permits, said John Krueger, the business group's senior vice president of public policy. The chamber made the bill a so-called scorecard issue for lawmakers, meaning it would advertise to voters whether or not lawmakers supported its plan. The EPD's air branch had a total of 194 permits under review as of Aug. 30, according to a public tally. Applicants typically waited around a month-and-a-half for small issues all the way up to nearly nine months for more complex reviews.
Georgia law already allows outsiders to review some permit applications, although it makes much vaguer promises to speed up parts of the process. The one applicant known to have tried using an outsider review on a dam permit was unable to find an engineer willing to deal with the liability issues involved, EPD assistant director Jim Ussery said.
It remains unclear how the new system will be implemented. The EPD's air branch does not anticipate setting final rules until May. Under one scenario, EPD would contract for the reviewers, using them as if they were government employees.
But there are complications. State law typically requires that money paid to government agencies go into the state's general fund. So it may be impossible for EPD to use the fees it collects to pay for the expedited reviews. As a result, private companies seeking a permit may need to directly pay those who are supposed to be critically reviewing their applications.
Ussery said his department would require that those reviewers have the necessary technical qualifications. Anyone caught manipulating a review could be barred for doing further work or even charged criminally. He said he would want firms to make flat-fee payment to those reviewing their applications, not compensate a reviewer based on whether a permit was granted.
"We certainly don't want any scenario where if I'm paying you to do so, then you may look at it from my angle a little better. ... You might look at it a little more favorably," Ussery said.
Tolleson said his law doesn't create conflicts of interest - though he acknowledged that reviewers with a track record of rejected permits "would not be hired by a lot of firms going forward."
Some areas might be too complicated to outsource reviews, Ussery said. Those special cases could include applications that involve environmentally sensitive land, such as the Okefenokee Swamp. It could also include instances where a permit is likely to trigger lawsuits - for example, an air permit for a coal-fired power plant, or taking water from the rivers subject to a legal dispute among Alabama, Florida and Georgia.
Critics fault the system for creating barriers for small firms unable to pay.
"I don't know why a permit by an ordinary citizen or small business wouldn't be as timely considered as a big business or someone who just wants to pay money to go to the head of the line," said Jerry McCollum, CEO of the Georgia Wildlife Federation, which opposed the change.
Larger businesses have questions, too. Getting a permit quicker would be useful when companies are considering moving production operations and need to know right away whether a new state will allow them to set up shop, said Denise Wood, senior director of environmental services at Mohawk Industries, a large flooring manufacturer. Her office handles environmental regulations with multiple states and sent a representative to a recent workshop on EPD's new program.
Firms may be willing to pay a premium, but Wood said some of the fees discussed at the last meeting were not cheap. While the EPD has not suggested prices, it has noted that South Carolina charges from $3,000 to $25,000 for an expedited review.
"If that expedited process makes everyone else on the regular track get pushed further back in the queue, that wouldn't be a good thing," she said.
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