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Bear Creek meeting gets confrontational

COVINGTON - A public information meeting on the proposed Bear Creek Reservoir turned confrontational Thursday night, with one resident being escorted out of the Newton County Historic Courthouse by sheriff's deputies.

The purpose of the meeting was to give the public a fair say, and opponents didn't pull any punches, challenging the validity of the county's research to establish need for the project and in some cases, attacking county officials head-on.

The county held the meeting as part of a public comment process required before a permit can be obtained from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Representatives from the Corps were on hand to observe and film the event, which started with a subdued presentation by County Attorney Tommy Craig, who went over the project's history and explained the need for the reservoir.

Proposed for southeast Newton on land purchased by the county in 1996 along with Gaither Plantation, the 1,308-acre reservoir will yield 28 million gallons of water per day, with supplemental pumping from the Alcovy River, Craig said.

The reservoir is expected to meet Newton County's water needs through the year 2050; the population by then may top 360,000, according to a study by environmental consultants hired by the county.

The reservoir will impact 136 acres of wetlands and 24 miles of steams, Craig said.

The county examined several alternative sites, including Snapping Shoals Creek; Little River above Shoal Creek; and Little River below Shoal Creek.

But those sites weren't viable for numerous reasons: inadequate yield; more impact on wetlands or

residences; and, in the case of Little River, a location downstream from sewage plants and industrial development.

The Bear Creek site meets the federal law requirement of being the least environmentally damaging, practical alternative that meets the project's purpose, Craig said.

But not all members of the public agreed.

Sam M. Hay III, who recently unsuccessfully attempted to stop bonds from being issued for Hard Labor Creek Reservoir in Walton County, said there is another option the county has refused to consider - drawing water directly out of the South River.

"It's kind of like that Rod Stewart song 'Every Picture Tells A Story (Don't It)," Hay said. "But the picture that you've seen tonight doesn't tell the whole story. You only saw the picture they wanted you to see."

Hay supports a proposal by Thomas Bros. Hydro Inc. to establish a filtration plant at Snapping Shoals and distribute potable water from the South River to surrounding counties using infrastructure and piping already in the ground.

But Craig said he has consulted with a former director and assistant director of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, who both concluded that option was "ill-advised."

The project would require capturing 30 million gallons of treated wastewater released directly into the South River by DeKalb County, Craig said, adding that there are questions about the quality of the river water.

DeKalb frequently has sewage overflows where raw sewage gets into the river; if a plant were downstream it would have to shut down whenever that happened, he said.

In addition, the current flow in the river may not be there in the future if DeKalb approves a proposal under consideration for a sewage reuse plant, he said.

Further, Craig said the EPD will not approve a permit for Thomas Bros. unless DeKalb County writes a letter releasing any claims to that water, a point disputed by Hay and Hoke Thomas of Thomas Bros, who also spoke on behalf of his project.

"If it was a good deal, we wouldn't have to buy it from you, we could just go get it ... but nobody wants it because of the question of quality," Craig said.

With the exchange between Hay and Craig becoming more volatile, Newton County deputies began inching towards Hay, but Board of Commissioners Chairman Aaron Varner called them off.

Minutes later, however, Varner would call them back to remove another resident - Emmett Denby, a former candidate for BOC chairman, whose property will be condemned for the Bear Creek project.

Taking the microphone from another resident without being called on, Denby walked to the front of the room, but before he could speak, Varner called on deputies to, "Take him out of here."

A brief struggle for the microphone ensued between Varner and Denby before deputies grabbed him by both arms.

As Denby was hauled away, he held up a roll of duct tape. "They're taping my mouth up people, taping my mouth up," he yelled.

The accusations flew back and forth throughout the evening.

Jack McBride, a resident on Old Post Road, claimed Craig was a partner with Eco-South Inc., environmental consultants on the Bear Creek project.

Craig, in turn, denied ever having ownership or interest in Eco-South, and said McBride was bitter over condemnation of his property for the reservoir.

Jasper County Board of Commissioners Chairman and Lake Jackson resident Jack Bernard also spoke out against the project.

Though Craig said a Corps' Reservoir Simulator Model used to study the impact of the reservoir on Lake Jackson and the Ocmulgee River indicated "you will not be able to tell the reservoir exists," Bernard said he heard the same warnings before the Tussahaw Reservoir in Henry County went online.

Now, "There is a green slime on the lake. Why should I believe you?" Bernard said.

"I'm not asking you to believe me," Craig responded, adding that engineers make that determination and then report to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, who, in turn, reports to the Corps of Engineers.

A heated debate between Craig and Bobby Sigman, owner of a local real estate company, later ensued over the cost of the project.

Craig told Sigman he did not know how much the county had spent on the project and did not have a cost estimate for how much more would be spent.

"You mean you aren't able to tell taxpayers how much it's going to cost to build this reservoir?" Sigman said

"We're going to have to pay a reasonable cost of impounding water, treating water and distributing water," Craig said.

Craig said the county paid less than $2,000 per acre for the land and if the project falls through, the "exit strategy" would be to sell the property and put the profits back into county coffers.

Craig said he is hopeful state funds will be available for the project due to recent House and Senate bills aimed at assisting local governments with construction of new reservoirs.

Craig estimated it will take another 12 to 15 months to obtain a permit for the reservoir.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.