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The Board of Natural Resources approved Jeff Cown as the state’s top environmental regulator Wednesday.

Cown, a 33-year veteran of the Department of Natural Resources, currently serves as the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Parks and Historic Sites Division director, but will take over as Environmental Protection Division director Aug. 16 with a $190,000 annual salary.

Cown isn’t new to EPD. He worked for the division for 28 years, serving as chief of the Land Protection Branch for five years. He has a bachelor’s of science in agricultural engineering from the University of Georgia.

The DNR board voted by teleconference at a special meeting called with one day’s notice, approving Gov. Brian Kemp’s nominee unanimously. The public was able to attend the meeting only in person at DNR headquarters in Atlanta.

Cown told reporters after the meeting that recruiting and retaining good staff will be the biggest challenge of the job. EPD has 711 full-time employees, nearly the same staffing as in 2018, spokeswoman Sara Lips wrote in an email. Its fiscal year 2024 budget is about $119 million with the state and federal funding each accounting for about a quarter of the total. The total funding has varied from about $114 million to $121 million over the last five years.

But the state’s solid waste trust fund and hazardous waste trust fund are better funded now after state law changed to allow the dedication of fees to these funds, Cown noted Wednesday.

Cown is taking over the EPD as the division grapples with the permitting of Twin Pines Minerals’ controversial plans to strip mine for titanium dioxide near the Okefenokee Swamp.

“I do have a background in mining,” Cown told reporters. “I managed a mining program many years ago. It’s very different now. So we’ll look at it see where we are with the water resources, everything there.”

Kemp praised his nominee’s experience.

“With an accomplished and dedicated history in this field, he will be an asset to the division as it continues the essential work of ensuring Georgia remains a good steward of our natural resources while balancing the needs of our citizens,” Kemp said in a prepared statement released just minutes after the board vote.

Josh Marks, an environmental lawyer who is leading opposition to the Twin Pines’ mining plan, also said he appreciates Cown’s experience.

“Director Cown should be uniquely qualified to recognize and respect the overwhelming independent scientific consensus against TPM’s dangerous mining proposal at the Okefenokee,” Marks wrote in an email. 

The Tide brings news and observations from The Current staff.

Mary Landers is a reporter in Coastal Georgia focusing on the environment for The Current. It's a topic she covered for nearly 24 years at the Savannah Morning News, where she began and ended her time...

Maggie Lee is a data reporter for The Current. She has been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008, contributing writing and data journalism over the years to Creative Loafing,...