Critics say bill threatens historic sites with bulldozers

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Construction crew works on a diverging diamond interchange at the Pleasant Hill Road overpass along I-85 in Gwinnett County on Jan. 29, 2013. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Environmental and historical preservation groups are up in arms over a new proposal that they fear would let the state bulldoze over archaeological sites in its haste to build more roads.

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The critics say Senate Bill 346, introduced by Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, would let the Georgia Department of Transportation avoid complying with the Georgia Environmental Policy Act (GEPA) when building road and airport projects that cost less than $100 million, if the projects are fully state-funded.

Beach defended the bill in a statement Thursday, saying it only allows the state to skip filing an Environmental Effects Report. The reports can take months to compile and tie up state resources. But GDOT can only bypass doing the report if a project already complies with six state environmental standards. This includes mandated compliance with the Georgia Abandoned Cemetery and Burial Grounds Act, which covers historical sites used for burial or cemetery purposes, Beach said.

The bill has already passed the Senate. A House Highway Regulations subcommittee will hear testimony about the bill at 2 p.m. Thursday.

“SB 346 is a risky and ill-thought amendment that guts GEPA, the only state statute that ensures government projects consider potential adverse impacts to cultural resources like unmarked cemeteries, American Indian sites, and battlefields,” said Richard Moss, president of the Georgia Council for Professional Archaeologists, said in a statement. “The bill threatens Georgia’s irreplaceable archaeological sites, and may cause costly project delays and public outcry if a historical site is discovered after construction begins.”

Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and Georgia River Network have joined with the Georgia Council for Professional Archaeologists in opposing the bill.

GEPA was enacted 25 years ago to protect Georgia’s land, water, animals, and historical and cultural resources. It requires the state DOT to conduct cultural and environmental surveys and involve the public in reviewing projects.

GEPA protects Georgia’s environment as well as significant archaeological sites.

In recent testimony, the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) noted most state-funded transportation projects cost well below the $100 million cap proposed in SB 346.

“The goal of the Environmental Policy Act is to put taxpayer dollars to work as
efficiently as possible to help Georgia remain the best state to do business, go to
work and raise a family,” said Beach, the bill sponsor.

The legislation is timely because Georgia has only recently been able to contemplate paying for road projects without federal assistance. New money for roads has been pouring in to the state treasury since July 1, 2015, when a gas tax hike and new fees imposed as part of a sweeping transportation funding bill took effect.The landmark legislation (House Bill 170) is expected to raise an average of a billion a year for transportation projects in Georgia over the next 10 years.

RELATED NEWS: New money for Georgia roads pouring in

When the state doesn’t have to use federal money, it means fewer strings are attached. The state can bypass a complicated federal environmental approval process that can delay projects for years. Road and airport projects would still have to clear Georgia’s environmental hurdles as outlined in GEPA, though, unless state lawmakers grant GDOT the ability to start waiving those requirements, as proposed in SB 346.

READ MORE: Georgia governor signs midyear budget with $1.1 billion in new spending

READ MORE: Georgia’s new transportation bill: Five takeaways


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