ATLANTA — The state has drafted new procedure manuals for how to respond to environmental disasters, from hurricanes to chemical fires to pollution spills.

Tuesday, the Board of Natural Resources got briefed on the response plans for the Department of Natural Resources and the Environmental Protection Division. Although both report to the board, their operations are kept separate.

The department’s previous plan, written in 2005, focused only on its wildlife division which had mostly assisted in search-and-rescue missions and in using its all-wheel-drive vehicles to transport critical personnel like nurses during floods. The update incorporates the entire department. For instance, the state parks can be sites for housing disaster refugees as was the case in this year’s snow storms.

Sometimes the assignment is to help other state agencies deal with disasters, according to Major Stephen Adams. That might mean the department’s game officers are helping other law-enforcement agencies protect against looting or that its construction workers are clearing roads to hospitals.

The new version can be adjusted to demands of the situation, he said.

“If you’re holding a bake sale, you can do it with (the plan). If you’re holding the Olympics, you can do it with (this plan),” he told the board.

The Environmental Protection Division, which focuses on enforcing air- and water-quality laws, revamped quick-response teams in its six district offices, like Athens, Augusta and on the coast.

“We don’t put out fires, but we deal with the aftermath,” said Bert Langley, EPD’s director of compliance.

Of the 2,177 calls from the public about environmental problems EPD receives yearly, roughly 35 percent are assigned to the emergency-response teams, although timing is urgent in only about one in 10.

One change is a switch to assigning six people to handle disasters full time rather than having 40 or so rotating duty as well as their other compliance responsibilities. The rotation system was used as a way to save money in years of lean state budgets, but it proved to be both ineffective and just as costly.

EPD Director Jud Turner pushed for returning to dedicated disaster experts.

“We’re trying to invest here, and it’s the right thing to do,” he said.

The EPD was criticized in recent years for its response to disasters in Athens and along the Ogeechee River that led to massive fish kills. A fire at a chemical plant near an Athens stream and a pollution discharge into the Ogeechee led to public confusion and frustration by local officials about conflicting information and who was ultimately in charge.

In response, area legislators changed the law to give EPD definite authority. Langley said It reflected what the agency has been doing for 15 years but that putting it into writing ensures that future budget cutters will be blocked from weakening the ability to carry out a clear legal responsibility.

He also said it was an internal review after those two incidents that led to revising some procedures to make sure those problems are avoided in the future.

 

Follow Walter Jones on Twitter @MorrisNews and Facebook or contact him at walter.jones@morris.com.

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