At first blush, the idea of taking on a polluting facility or industry may conjure up ideas of the battle between David and Goliath. However, while it may seem daunting, you do have the power to make your voice heard – remember, David came out on top!
You deserve to live in a clean and healthy environment. While you may not be able to stop every polluter, you can make a difference for your community.
This chapter presents:
1) a brief guide to help you get started in your efforts to protect your community, and
2) a road map to assist you as you utilize the rest of the EJ Green Book; therefore, you will see many references to other chapters of this resource.
We will walk through how to use the EJ Green Book to identify pollution sources, reach out to organizations, start your own community organizing, document pollution and gather necessary information, and how to get your voice heard.
If, while using this resource, you become overwhelmed, confused, encounter roadblocks, or just need some advice, you can always pick up the phone and call us. Environmental justice organizations often collaborate on issues and will be happy to help you in your efforts to protect your community. In addition to the resources offered by the Turner Environmental Law Clinic, SELC, and Hummingbird, there is a list of organizations and contact information in Appendix B.
If you are concerned about pollution in your community, you can employ strategies in the following roadmap to encourage polluting facilities to be better neighbors. Sometimes, gathering this information and presenting it to the facility can be enough to make it change its behavior. Often, however, fighting Goliath requires a more active approach – up to and including getting lawyers involved.
While fighting big polluters is a daunting task, the rewards are priceless – improved health for you, your neighbors, and your environment.
It is important to know that you can do it! And it’s important to remember that there are many people that are eager to help you along the way.
Identify Pollution Sources
You may already know the potential polluters operating in and around your neighborhood, but if not, it is important to identify these facilities. Some examples include industrial farms, landfills, petroleum refineries, chemical plants, electrical facilities, sewage treatment plants, and dry cleaners.
It is often the case that citizens do not even realize they live close to pollution sources. Unfortunately, some do not know until they experience negative health effects, so it is helpful to be proactive when possible. Walk or drive around the neighborhood and take note of industrial and municipal facilities (city-owned structures such as water treatment sites).
You should also speak with your neighbors about potential pollution sources and ask them what they have seen, heard, smelled, felt, or observed in the area. Talk with long-term residents about their past experiences with industry in the area. Take notes as you are speaking with people so that you can notice any patterns that may arise.
Search the Internet.
Several Internet sources can also help you discover sources of pollution in your area. For more detailed information about how to locate the source of the pollution, see Knowing What’s In Your Neighborhood.
Finally, you can contact local government agencies responsible for regulating pollution. The Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) has several branches that deal with different types of pollution – air, water, land, hazardous waste, etc. – called the specialized branches, and it has more localized regional branches which cover specific areas of the state. (Tip: if you are not sure what your concern specifically entails, your complaint might be addressed more quickly if you contact your regional office rather than one of the specialized branches.) Contact the appropriate branch and ask for information about the possible sources of the pollution that concern you. You can email EPD at email@example.com, or for a list of contacts to the various branches and EPD offices, see Environmental Agencies in Georgia: Who’s Who?.
It can be intimidating to pick up the phone and call a state agency.
Since the best way to take on a Goliath of a problem is to have a clear plan, here is advice directly from EPD on how citizens can voice their concerns:
When you call one of the specialized branches or your regional office, the first person to pick up will likely be a receptionist who will transfer you to someone who can address your questions and complaints. Briefly explain what it is that concerns you, and the receptionist will get you in touch with the correct person.
For example: “Hello, my name is ____ and I have noticed a horrible smell coming from a facility two blocks from my house. I would like to place a complaint with your office and ask them to investigate.”
Next, you will be put on hold and transferred over to someone who can help you log your complaint and possibly give you more information about what concerns you. If someone answers, wonderful! You are off to the races to record your complaint. The following is information you are likely to be asked to supply:
What it is you saw or smelled (e.g. noxious smells, polluted water, dust filled air, etc.).
The location of the pollution – a specific address is very helpful, but not always possible; for instance, when the pollution is on the side of the road.
What times you noticed the pollution.
Whether or not you saw any company names associated with the site of the pollution.
Finally, they may ask you some specific questions associated with the type of pollution you are describing.
When you are able to speak with someone, if you decide to lodge a complaint, make sure to ask them for your “Complaint ID.” This will allow you to track your complaint and see if any action has been taken by EPD because of it.
If no one picks up, you will be able to leave a voicemail. Leave your name and number along with a short description of why you are calling. Give the agency at least 24 hours to respond, but if you have not heard back, keep calling.
As you keep calling and moving forward with attempting to log your complaint, try asking your questions a different way, ask other community members to make calls as well, and ask a variety of questions. The EPD is a state agency, so even when the people you are talking to want to help, they may have limited funding and staff to respond to every complaint in a timely manner.
After you get your complaint logged, you may wonder what happens with it. If you call one of the specialized branches, it will forward your complaint to your regional office. The regional office will then contact the facility about your complaint and might send someone to inspect the site.
While this process can take a while, don’t fret!
There is a complaint tracker online where you can keep tabs on the status of your complaint after it has been logged in the EPD system. Go to https://cts.gaepd.org/ and enter your complaint ID to check up on your complaint.
Determine Whether Other Organizations Are Working on Similar Issues
While taking on a Goliath can feel overwhelming, the good news is you may not be alone – there may already be a group working to remedy a source of pollution in your community. Before attacking a pollution issue on your own, find out if others have already begun the fight and see if you can join forces.
Community groups such as gardening clubs, churches, youth leagues, school groups, neighborhood Facebook groups, Nextdoor, and homeowners’ associations often serve as a basis to begin to organize people with similar interests and concerns into action for a common cause. Talk with the members of local community groups to see if others have noticed the pollution issue concerning you or began attempts to address it.
Contact Environmental Organizations.
Similarly, state or regional organizations that are committed to environmental work may already know of other citizens with similar concerns. Call environmental organizations, especially those committed to environmental justice work, and see if they can put you in touch with others in your community who have concerns about pollution issues. For a list of many of these organizations, see Appendix B.
Search Local Waterkeepers.
If there is a river or stream in the area, there may be a Riverkeeper group in place patrolling the waterway for sources of pollution. The Waterkeeper website provides a directory of local Riverkeeper organizations nationwide. Check the website to find out if there is a Riverkeeper group in your area. For instance, the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper monitors the Chattahoochee River system in Georgia. Appendix B also has a list of Riverkeepers.
Organize Your Neighbors
Talk to your neighbors – if you are concerned, it is likely that others are as well! Even if there is not a group already addressing the pollution issues in your community, there are probably others like you who wish there was. Take the initiative and speak to your neighbors and community members to find other concerned residents. For instance, you can:
Knock on doors and speak with your neighbors;
Attend community association meetings and discuss the issue;
Post on social media and post flyers to invite others to meet virtually through a Facebook group or on a video chat or physically at a local coffee shop, recreation center, church, or other meeting space to discuss pollution issues in your community; or
Find people with connections – for instance, community members who know someone who works at the EPD, a local university, or a local environmental group.
Remember that there is power in numbers. The more ‘Davids’ you have, the more likely you are to take down a Goliath. For more detailed information and ideas about organizing your neighbors, see Understanding Grassroots Organizing.
Gather Information and Document the Pollution
It will be much easier to get the attention of permitting authorities, facility managers, and the media if you have detailed information about specific instances of pollution. Because our memory has limits, it is important to gather the necessary information and document instances of pollution so that you don’t need to rely on your memory to describe them.
Documenting incidents of pollution will also help you notice trends. By keeping a thorough record of instances of pollution, you may find that a trend has developed (e.g., every time it rains really hard, pollution occurs; every time it is really hot, specific smells are at their worst, etc.). Noting these trends may help you, or permitting and compliance officials, discover some of the causes of the pollution. Use your smartphone or a camera to take pictures of spills or leaks but be careful to never trespass while gathering information. For more information about gathering evidence, see Collecting and Using Scientific Data, and see Appendix C-4 for a sample pollution log.
Understand the Organizations and the Laws.
The organizations involved in environmental protection cases are typically local, state, or federal governmental agencies and officials tasked with keeping our environment safe and healthy. To find out which agency may be responsible for regulating the pollution of concern, see What Is An Environmental Agency? and Environmental Agencies in Georgia. For general information about how federal and state environmental laws and agencies regulate different types of pollution, see:
The best way to find out what is going on at a given facility is to review the facility’s records that are kept on file with the regulating authority. You may get a chance to look through information about a facility’s compliance with pollution limits, which are set by local permitting authorities. You have a right to review this information! Referring to your own documentation of specific pollution instances can help guide you on what to look for when reviewing a facility’s compliance information or other reports.
For more information about accessing public records, see Accessing Public Records and Meetings. For sample records requests, see Appendix C-1 and C-2. Remember, if you have any trouble accessing public information, or figuring out where to look for public information, you can always call us for help!
Burden of Proof.
Unfortunately, when trying to motivate agency officials to demand that a facility complies with pollution limits, the citizen often bears the burden of proof. You may have to convince agency officials that the problem is worthy of their attention. It will be much easier for you to accomplish this if you have thorough documentation of pollution incidents. In addition, if you want to bring the issue to the attention of experts like scientists, consultants, engineers, or lawyers, keeping careful documentation of what you have experienced will help set those experts up for success.
Steps to Documenting Pollution
Step One: Keep Pollution logs and records of occurrences of pollution.
Distribute your pollution log to neighbors and ask them to document episodes of pollution as well. Remember not to trespass on private land when gathering this information. The chart below identifies what information should be included in your pollution log.
At a minimum, include the following information:
Other helpful information may include:
– what kind of pollution you see
– how much pollution you see
– when the incident of pollution occurred (what time?)
– where the pollution is
– the name of the person recording the incident
– the weather
– intensity of the pollution as compared to other incidents
– how long the incident of pollution lasted
– action you took to address the pollution, such as agency officials you contacted or reports that were filed.
Sample Pollution Log:
Grain Dust Log
Date & Time
Outside the Newtown Florist Club
Y / N
The dust has been there since this morning and seems to be continuing
There is dust on the playground and children are playing—it is a warm day and sunny
Called Georgia EPD Air Protection Branch and filed a verbal complaint—Spoke with Dan Smith
A picture is worth a thousand words, and nothing speaks louder than a good picture of the problems faced by your community. If the problem is excessive garbage, runoff of chemicals, or a facility spewing dirty air over your community, it will be easier to convince others of the problems that you are facing if you have documented them through photographs.
After you take the photo, make note of who took the picture, what day, what time and the precise location of the object photographed. This information will be important if the photos are given to the press, agencies responsible for enforcing the laws, or a court.
Step Three: Pay attention to health concerns.
If you are experiencing health problems that you believe may be related to pollution in your community, contact your doctor immediately and discuss your concerns. It may also be helpful to contact your local community health center or county health department to see if others have registered similar concerns. For a list of some health-based organizations, see Appendix B: Contact Information.
Step Four: File a complaint.
Filing a complaint with the appropriate regulating authority will place your documentation into an official file, giving it added credibility and exposure. A sample complaint form is included in Appendix C-3. For a list of regulating authorities, see Appendix B: Contact Information.
Start at the Local and State Level
Local (city and county) leaders may have more power than you think! New facilities often have to get permission from local government officials like a Board of Commissioners before moving forward with a project. There are several local controls to consider:
Review local ordinances as a first step in addressing polluting industries.
Ordinances are local laws governing what is and is not allowed in certain communities, such as how loud noise levels can be past a certain time.
Contact the local leaders in your neighborhood and elected representatives that are supposed to be representing your interests. Some of these leaders and representatives may include:
Neighborhood Planning Units (NPUs) – only for those within Atlanta city limits;
Most environmental laws that provide for permitting of polluting facilities also provide the public an opportunity to comment on those permits before they are given to a facility.
What is a Comment?
Government agencies, such as the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD), issue permits and implement laws through rules and regulations. When an agency issues new permits or creates new regulations, it often has to provide the public an opportunity to make public comments. A public comment is a way to provide feedback to government agencies on these permitting and regulatory decisions. The agency is required to respond to comments that are substantively related to the permit or regulation.
Regulating authorities like the Georgia EPD, which issues permits to most major pollution sources, must issue a public notice and provide an opportunity for public comment on most new permits and major changes to existing permits. Often, EPD will host a public hearing on major permits as well. The public comment period generally lasts 30 days and if you plan to launch a campaign against a given pollution source, it is very important that you submit public comments.
Draft the Comments.
A public comment on a proposed action is different from a comment left on a news article or online post. It’s more like a letter, so take some time to draft a comment that addresses the substance of the issue. Questions to consider while drafting include:
Why you are concerned about this issue?
How will the proposed regulation or permit affect your community?
What are the reasons you oppose it?
Is there any information the permitting agency has not considered?
What specifically do you want the agency to do?
It can be helpful (and fun!) to organize a comment drafting party with your community so you can include as much relevant information as possible and increase the number of comments your community submits.
For detailed information about the importance of public comments, and about how to prepare comments, see Submitting Public Comments. This chapter also provides information about requesting a public hearing. A form to help you draft a public comment letter is included in Appendix C-5.
Again, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and call the staff of an environmental law organization to help you navigate the public comment period. If you think you may want help with drafting your comments, be sure to contact resource groups early because you have a limited window in which to submit your comments!
Contact Local Press
Get your story out there! Nothing is more effective than shining the light of public opinion on illegal activities.
Consider What You Want to Say.
Take a few minutes ahead of time to think about what topics are the most important to highlight. Find a photo that best shows the problem you want to draw attention to and that you are willing (and able) to share with the press. Be sure to highlight the impacts on people.
Ask for Help.
Have others involved in your initiative help craft and look over your statement.
Call or Email.
The contact details for most media outlets, such as your local newspaper, should be available online. Tell them if you have photos, and/or include them in your email. Make sure to get the name of the person you talked to so you can follow-up later.
Use Social Media.
Often, the best way to get your story out there is posting on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Find photos and personal stories that highlight the problem to which you want to bring attention. Encourage others in your community to share the same posts.
Contact a Lawyer or Other Resource Group
Experienced professionals and advocates often have knowledge that can help you navigate the process. Contact SELC, the Turner Clinic, Hummingbird, or other environmental law organizations (see Appendix A: Legal Resources and Appendix B: Contact Information) to help you find resources that you may need to address pollution problems in your neighborhood.
The steps outlined here reflect one way to go about taking down Goliath, but remember that it is okay if your path ends up looking a bit different!
GETTING STARTED CHECKLIST
Identify Pollution Sources
Explore your neighborhood and list industrial and municipal facilities
Ask your neighbors if they have noticed pollution sources