Earlier this month, the South River Watershed Alliance (SRWA) filed a civil rights complaint against the city of Atlanta, saying the rapid construction of a police training facility, locally known as Cop City, has caused environmental destruction to the surrounding community. The SRWA filed the complaint with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and says the project’s location constitutes environmental racism. The facility’s construction is planned for a predominantly Black residential area, despite the investors and organizers of the project hailing from mostly white residential areas, and a proposed 43% of police trainees at the facility are expected to come from outside of the state of Georgia.
The SRWA is an organization dedicated to protecting, restoring, and managing the water quality and biodiversity of the South River watershed in Georgia. As a headwater of the Ocmulgee and Altamaha River basins, the South River contributes to Georgia’s largest freshwater system.
In 2017, the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF) unveiled its proposal to build a police training complex on over 300 acres of the Weelaunee forest. Atlanta’s city council approved the proposal in 2021, stating that taxpayers would foot $31 million of the $90 million bill, with the rest supplied by the APF and privately owned corporate donors. However, an investigative piece published by the Atlanta Community Press Collective this May revealed backroom deals and clauses that would increase public cost to $51 million.
Despite efforts from activists to halt demolition earlier this year—resulting in arrests, domestic terrorism charges, and bond denials—development of the facility has been moving at a swift pace.
“We are trying to stop construction at the site because [the contractors] are going at it seven days a week,” said SRWA board president Dr. Jacqueline Echols. “They are really trying to get it to a point where they can make a claim that they have gone too far to stop now. So we are looking to have an injunction put in place for three months so that we can present the total of our complaint.”
A 360 aerial photo taken this month revealed significant algae growth in one of the two ponds closest to the construction site, compared to a photo of the same pond taken in March before construction began. Harmful algal blooms occur when surplus nutrients supplied by runoff pollution prompt rapid algae overgrowth, forming blooms that deplete oxygen from the water and obstruct sunlight from reaching underwater plants. Oxygen is further consumed when the algae dies, rendering the water uninhabitable for aquatic organisms. Toxins from the algal blooms also contaminate fresh drinking water in nearby communities. Bays, lakes, and coastal waters affected by this phenomenon are known as dead zones.
On Aug. 1, the SRWA sued the city of Atlanta and APF, claiming the construction site led to sediment discharge into Intrenchment Creek, violating the project’s Clean Water Act permit.
Sediment runoff, identified as the primary polluter of rivers and streams in the U.S., is a critical concern for environmental protection. Before February 2023, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) monitored sediment pollution levels in a creek 500 feet away from the area that is now the Cop City construction site. The equipment used, colloquially known as a “streamgage,” remotely uploaded sediment data to a live feed that was accessible to the public.
The USGS deactivated the feed on Feb. 16, citing safety concerns for employees doing periodic on-site visits for maintenance. The removal occurred just weeks before Dekalb County closed the public park portion of Weelaunee Forest, limiting access for Cop City protesters.
The SRWA asserted that the USGS’s sediment data from before February already indicated excessive sediment levels in Intrenchment Creek, and that the gauge served a vital role in assessing the construction project’s impact on the creek’s ecosystem.
The SRWA also routinely tests for E. coli in stream bodies that feed into the watershed, a weekly task that requires physically going out and testing at the site location. However, with the construction site closed to the public, this E. coli testing has also come to a halt.
“The data from the streamgage was needed to ensure that the city of Atlanta was complying with the Clean Water Act,” Echols said. “But Atlanta does not want it because they know they are in violation of the water standard that was put in place in 1972.”
The SRWA was also a plaintiff in a 2021 lawsuit regarding a controversial land swap agreement between Millsap and Commonwealth Real Estate LP and the production company Shadowbox Studios (formerly known as Blackhall Studios), which is adjacent to the South Dekalb forestland. The agreement would greatly expand the existing studio complex to just under 200 acres, to the detriment of an estimated 3,000 trees.
“It speaks to the vulnerability of the entire area,” Echols noted. “Both the land and the communities that are there. This area was a public park, and this was the only instance in Dekalb County where a public park had been swapped. So we are working to ensure that acreage remains a public park.”