by Eden Burgess
A bill that exempts Georgia Department of Transportation projects that cost up to $100 million from the Georgia Environmental Policy Act (GEPA), has been signed into law, despite strong opposition from archaeologists and tribal interests. Governor Nathan Deal signed the bill into law on April 26; it goes into effect on July 1, 2016 (SB 346; Act 339). Georgia’s archaeological community, led by the Georgia Council of Professional Archaeologists and the Society for Georgia Archaeology, however, were successful in amending the bill to remove cultural resources from the exemption.
In 2015, the Georgia Legislature passed a 10-year, $10 billion transportation funding bill. This new bill allows the state to fund major construction initiatives strictly with state funding, removing the need for federal support. State funded projects must comply with GEPA, which insures that state agencies take environmental effects into account during government undertakings. In order to lessen the environmental review on state funded projects, the Legislature passed SB347 exempting projects costing less than $100 million from the GEPA process. The Georgia archaeological community’s ability to amend the final bill to exclude cultural resources from the GEPA exemption is a great accomplishment that the SHA supported. But, the lessening of state environmental review is a concern, as is the movement to shift new transportation construction to state funding while using federal funds for maintenance and other non-ground disturbing work.
SHA is concerned that the Georgia bill may be the start of a national trend. Several states have increased transportation funding by raising local gas taxes and registration fees, and through other funding mechanisms. Consequently, states may be able to advance stalled transportation projects by using state-only funds, thus avoiding compliance with federal requirements in most cases. Instead, the legal protections for historic and archaeological sites affected by state-funded projects will be limited to state laws, such as Georgia’s GEPA and state versions of the National Historic Preservation Act. As the Georgia situation demonstrates, legislators that have passed gas tax and fee increases are anxious to see construction underway, and are willing to bypass state-level environmental and historic preservation reviews to make that happen.
The SHA Governmental Affairs Committee will be monitoring states considering the passage of laws similar to Georgia’s, and urges SHA members to notify Terry Klein or Marion Werkheiser with any information on these types of efforts in their states.