Environmental Issues Impacting the State of Georgia (Part Two)

Alan Bailey
8 min readMay 31, 2024

In the previous article, I introduced some very alarming environmental problems that currently affect my home state and within the west central region. This is a continuation of that list with others which pertain to the rest of Georgia. Everyone who lives here should be informed of what’s happening and have the courage to take action when it matters most.

The last entry explored coal ash deposits and pollution in the Chattahoochee River with those in power not doing enough to resolve them. If the people of Georgia don’t collectively speak up and pressure our leaders to be accountable for the harm that’s been done, nothing will ever change despite the effects we observe on a daily basis. This part in the series will cover the spread of invasive species, increased sedimentation and cultural eutrophication in the Chattahoochee, and air pollution’s pernicious effects on minority communities. These are a lot more complex in nature and will require every resource as well as an array of experts to tackle. The list resumes below.

3. Invasive Species in Georgia

Although climate change and several different forms of pollution are certainly problems for Georgia, invasive species are often forgotten about by the public. These unwanted organisms can alter ecosystems, harm native flora and fauna, and physically damage the landscapes they now reside in. In their natural environs, they coexist with multiple competitors that keep their population numbers in check through means of natural selection. However, as they spread to other parts of the world, they are less likely to have other species to compete with in those new ecosystems which leads to a population explosion. One invasive plant species that’s been of serious concern lately is Chinese Privet.

It was used for more than a century as a landscaping plant for aesthetic purposes, but now seven species cover more than 600,000 acres of forest and urban and rural yards. According to Georgia Department of Natural Resources botanist and ecologist Mincy Moffett, “Privet and dozens of other invasive exotic plants are a big and under-rated factor in why scientists are seeing steep declines in insect numbers and bird numbers in Georgia and elsewhere.” Georgia Power Company has been spending millions of dollars trying to control the spread of invasive plant species that are also attracted to areas that have been heavily disturbed by storm systems, including Hurricane Michael which leveled enormous tracts of private timberland in Southwest Georgia.

Furthermore, research has also revealed that privet causes the soil it grows on to become acidic and weakens the soil on riverbanks, leading to erosion and increased sedimentation in the water. This information and a list of different invasive species can be found at https://www.augustachronicle.com/story/news/2019/09/30/invasive-plants-crowding-out-georgia-plants-wildlife/2652647007/.

An article from The Georgia Recorder has identified additional nefarious organisms that are wreaking havoc here. Some include the aphid-like hemlock wooly adelgid, the emerald ash borer, Nepalese browntop or Japanese stiltgrass, and Argentine black and white tegus. Many foresters are very familiar with the emerald ash borer. Per the publication, “If left unchecked, this little beetle could completely wipe out entire tree populations. Ash is important both for animals like squirrels and birds that eat its seeds, and for humans who rely on the valuable wood these pests tunnel through.” You can read the article at https://georgiarecorder.com/2021/10/12/joro-spiders-get-the-publicity-but-georgia-hosts-armies-of-invasive-plants-and-critters/.

Chinese privet may have a beautiful appearance, but this plant causes significant harm to Georgia’s ecosystems and others. Source: Chinese Privet: A Biological Invader in Louisiana’s Forests (lsuagcenter.com)

4. Increased Sedimentation and Eutrophication in the Chattahoochee

Many people are cognizant of pollution in the Chattahoochee River that comes from litter and sewage, but increased sedimentation from erosion and eutrophication from nutrient buildup have become some of the most pressing issues affecting this resource. Stormwater runoff from construction sites is one of the leading nonpoint sources of erosion. A nonpoint source can’t be traced back to a particular location whereas point sources, like industrial plants or sewage systems, can. Under the Clean Water Act, any kind of sediment-laden runoff is considered pollution.

From the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, “Erosion is the process by which the land surface is worn away, as sediment particles are detached by water, wind, ice, or gravity. This can happen in undisturbed areas, but the rate is generally very small. Erosion is intensified by human activities such as farming and construction. Sedimentation is the process by which eroded sediment is transported and deposited by water, wind, ice, or gravity. Sediment that is deposited in rivers and streams is a concern.” Georgia’s population is booming which will contribute to more of these events in the coming years.

For aquatic organisms, sedimentation is a lot more than just simply turbid water. It can block out sunlight from plants, make it harder for fish to find food, and hinder the ability of different species to reproduce. As for the public, it increases water treatment costs and decreases availability, causes property damage and lowers values, increases flooding from clogged stormwater pipes/systems, and reduces recreational enjoyment. Check out https://chattahoochee.org/gtdo/impacts-of-erosion-sedimentation/ for further reading.

On a positive note, “A new USGS study reports that landscape management actions across the U.S. aimed at reducing concentrations of suspended sediment in streams and rivers may be seeing some success. Between 1992 and 2012, concentrations of suspended sediment decreased at almost 60% of the 132 U.S. stream sites considered. Sediment concentrations increased at 17% of sites.” Underlying factors in the study were noted as well.

“At more than 80% of the sites, trends in sediment concentrations were primarily attributed to changes in land management, such as conversion from one type of land use to another. Sediment trends were primarily attributed to changes in streamflow at just 8% of sites, for example because of changes in dam operation or precipitation. However, streamflow changes contribute to trends in suspended sediment at about 60% of the sites.” Information was cited from https://www.usgs.gov/news/concentrations-suspended-sediment-decreasing-many-us-streams-and-rivers.

For cultural eutrophication, it’s a process that occurs when there is a great repository of nutrients in a body of water, specifically from sources like municipal sewage, fertilizer runoff from farms and yards, runoff from impervious surfaces like roads/bridges, and the flow of contaminated groundwater into that body of water. The nutrient buildup leads to the growth of vegetation on the water’s surface which blocks sunlight from penetrating into the deeper layers.

As these plants start to die, they sink to the bottom and are broken down by bacteria which use all the given oxygen in a specific area. This leads to hypoxia where aquatic organisms will die from a lack of oxygen, forming dead zones where this essential element is missing for so many square miles. Testing conducted by Chattahoochee Riverkeeper revealed high concentrations of Chlorophyll-a, an indicator of eutrophication, in West Point Lake which connects to the Chattahoochee River basin.

Referencing the article, “The results from the sampling indicate that the amount of algae in the lake has trended up since 2014, but algae levels made a significant jump in the past year, jumping from 18ug/L in 2022 to almost 30 ug/L in 2023. EPD standards are set at 24 ug/L for the station where the results were collected.” There is currently no violation unless the chlorophyll is found to be above standard limits again within 5 years, triggering an EPD Total Maximum Daily Load plan to be implemented to target sources from Troup County, all counties upstream of the river, and counties within the basin. Read more about these results at https://www.valleytimes-news.com/2024/02/west-point-lake-algae-levels-rising-concern-lake-still-healthy/.

Algal blooms are a clear sign of cultural eutrophication and can have major repercussions in bodies of water. Source: Does Eutrophication cause Algae Blooms? — Probiotic Solutions®

5. Air Pollution in Urban Areas and Impacts on Minority Communities

The Clean Air Act was created in order to protect Americans from ubiquitous sources of air pollution and was first enacted in 1963. Emissions contain dangerous chemicals that can cause cancer, asthma, heart disease, COPD, diabetes, and an array of other medical conditions that kill thousands of Americans each year. Atlanta has been notorious over the past few decades as a city with higher-than-average rates of air pollution despite recent improvements in air quality. The 2022 “State of the Air” report by the American Lung Association found that the city’s rankings for particle pollution and ozone were improving, but Atlanta still has the fourth poorest air quality in the Southeast.

According to the American Lung Association, “The report found that nationwide, nearly 9 million more people were impacted by deadly particle pollution than reported last year. It also shows more days with ‘very unhealthy’ and ‘hazardous’ air quality than ever before in the two-decade history of this report. Overall, more than 137 million Americans live in counties that had unhealthy levels of ozone or particle pollution. Communities of color are disproportionately exposed to unhealthy air. The report found that people of color were 61% more likely than white people to live in a county with a failing grade for at least one pollutant, and 3.6 times as likely to live in a county with a failing grade for all three pollutants.”

This information was found at https://www.lung.org/media/press-releases/new-report-atlanta%E2%80%99s-air-quality-improves,-reside. Other cities in the state suffer from air pollution as well. Specifically, five urban centers and rural areas of Georgia that have over 7.6 million people dealt with more than 65 days of elevated air pollution in 2020. Georgia averages about 9,000 deaths each year.

Smog is a common sight in the city of Atlanta where air pollution has been a problem for decades. Source: Smoky haze leads to code red smog alert in metro Atlanta (ajc.com)

Even though this particular source is three years old now, the statistics are still concerning while more needs to be done to ensure healthier communities for future generations. Increasing greenspace is one way to sequester more greenhouse gases and lessen harmful pollutants in our air. Georgia must make our infrastructure more sustainable and increasingly turn to nature to help alleviate some of these problems. The above data was taken from https://environmentamerica.org/georgia/center/media-center/new-report-trouble-in-the-air-7-6-million-georgians-experienced-over-65-days-of-polluted-air-in-2020-2/.

A Harvard study revealed even more horrifying data. As detailed in the results, “The average PM2.5 concentration for the Black population was 13.7% higher than that of the white population and 36.3% higher than that of the Native American population. Further, the study found that, as the Black population increased in a particular ZCTA, so did the PM2.5 concentration, with a steep incline seen for ZCTAs where more than 85% of the population was Black. The trend for Hispanic and Latino populations was similar. But for the white population, the opposite was seen: The PM2.5 concentration decreased as the density of the white population increased in a particular ZCTA.”

ZCTAs stand for “Zip Code Tabulation Areas” and PM2.5 denotes particulate air pollution. To make matters worse, “The researchers also found that, from 2004 to 2016, areas of the U.S. with lower income groups have been exposed to higher average PM2.5 levels than areas with higher income groups. In addition, relative disparities in exposure to PM2.5 in relation to safety standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organization have been increasing over time among racial/ethnic groups, according to the study.” For more, go to https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/press-releases/racial-ethnic-minorities-low-income-groups-u-s-air-pollution/.

The third, and final part, of this series will dive into rising temperatures, increasing heat waves and storm systems, rising energy costs for consumers, and unsustainable energy use.

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Alan Bailey

I'm a graduate of LaGrange College with a B.S. in Biology and a student of environmental science at SNHU. I strive to help our planet in every way I can.