– Feb. 1, 2023 –
Right whale rescue
With only 340 individuals remaining, every North Atlantic right whale is important. That’s why wildlife officials responded immediately last month at the chance to save a a 15-year-old male named Nimbus swimming off the coast of Jekyll Island entangled in fishing gear.
Experts from multiple agencies including the Georgia Department of Natural Resources rushed to disentangle Nimbus on Jan. 20 after he was spotted from a survey plane. After maneuvering an inflatable boat close to the bus-sized whale, they used special cutting tools to remove approximately 375 feet of synthetic rope about the diameter of a dime that was threaded through the whale’s mouth and dragging hundreds of feet behind its flukes. NOAA Fisheries chronicled the rescue here.
Responders are optimistic the remaining short segment of rope in his mouth will dislodge on its own. These “urban whales” tend to live close to shore where they get hit by ships and entangled in fishing gear, two of the leading causes of death in this critically endangered species. NOAA Fisheries will examine the removed rope to determine its origin, but Georgia DNR has already indicated it does not appear to be from a Southeastern fishery. The rescuers last saw Nimbus at 5:30 p.m. that day, swimming south about 9 miles east of Cumberland Island.
See a slideshow of the rescue here.
DNR Board update
The board of the Department of Natural Resources met Friday on St. Simons, ahead of the annual “Weekend for Wildlife” fundraiser for the department’s Wildlife Resources Division. With the coastal setting and outdoor activities on their minds, board members got a rundown of the progress of the permitting for the Twin Pines titanium strip mine near the Okefenokee. The mine is a hot button issue for Okefenokee lovers, with more than 26,000 comments already sent in to state regulators. But board members barely probed the permit status with the state’s top regulator, Environmental Protection Division Director Rick Dunn. One member who did ask questions was Nick Ayers, former chief of staff for Vice President Mike Pence. Ayers wanted to know why EPD was planning online-only public meetings for the permit and indicated in-person meetings provide a better way for the public to air its concerns, as The Current’s Mary Landers reports.
Ayers has openly opposed the controversial Pebble mine in Alaska, tweeting in 2020: “Like millions of conservationists and sportsmen, I am hoping@realDonaldTrump will direct@EPA to block the Pebble mine in Bristol Bay.” Trump didn’t direct it to do so then, but EPA blocked the mine on Tuesday, using authority under the Clean Water Act to protect the salmon fishery in Bristol Bay.
In other business, the DNR Board increased Commissioner Mark Williams’ salary by $50,000 to $225,000. The former state representative is co-owner of Harris Real Estate in Jesup. Gov. Sonny Perdue appointed him commissioner in 2010. Williams announced Friday that Georgia Power is donating six Ford F150 Lightning electric pickup trucks to the department. Williams said he’d be driving one around Sea Island for Weekend for Wildlife. “It’s not that I’m getting the first one, but I’m getting the first one,” he said.
PSC’s postponed election
You might recall Georgia was supposed to have two races on the November ballot for Public Service Commission, which helps decide how much Georgia Power customers pay for electricity and how it’s produced. Those races were postponed by a discrimination lawsuit that alleged the system in place diluted the power of Black voters in Atlanta by requiring a statewide vote for each of the five positions. The Black voters who brought the case won. But the state then appealed. We’re still awaiting a decision from the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals after the Dec. 14 hearing. Whatever it decides, a special election is in the offing, as Plaintiff Brionte McCorkle explained recently: “So it’s either the rule is gonna get upheld, we’re gonna go to the General Assembly, they’re going to fix the race, and then there’ll be a special election with new rules. Or it gets overturned and there’s a special election with old rules.”
Another PSC-related lawsuit awaits resolution as well. District 2 challenger Patty Durand, a Democrat, sued incumbent Tim Echols, a Republican, for blocking her on Twitter and Facebook after she criticized him on these social media. Echols unblocked her last month after she filed suit. Durand then dropped the request for an injunction but continues to seek damages and attorneys’ fees, which were awarded in a similar case against former state Rep. Vernon Jones in January.
On Monday, Echols’ attorneys from the Attorney General’s office filed his response. They argue for qualified immunity because “the law is not ‘clearly established’ that Echols’ conduct of blocking Durand from his Twitter and Facebook accounts was unconstitutional.”
The Current contacted The Electronic Frontier Foundation for comment. EFF is a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that defends civil liberties in the digital world.
“It’s always been clear that viewpoint discrimination is unconstitutional,” said Attorney Mukund Rathi. “A lot of courts do apply qualified immunity very broadly. And we think that’s wrong. We think that people need to be able to hold government officials accountable when they violate the law or violate the constitution. But regardless of how broadly a court applies qualified immunity, if you just asked was it clearly established to an official that they can’t block a critic when they’re allowing other people to speak, that’s something that courts have always said violates the First Amendment.”
Coastal enviro events
Join the Okefenokee Protection Alliance (OPA) at 4 p.m. Feb. 5 at the Tybee Post Theater, 10 Van Horne Ave., Tybee, for a free screening of the award-winning film “Sacred Waters: The Okefenokee in Peril.” A brief roundtable discussion featuring leadership from the Okefenokee Protection Alliance and others will happen directly after the 30-minute documentary.
Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary is seeking applicants to serve on its volunteer advisory council for the following seats and terms: Citizen-At-Large, three-year term; Education (University), three-year term. For more information, visit the Gray’s Reef Sanctuary Advisory Council recruitment webpage here or contact Scott Kathey, Advisory Council Coordinator at email@example.com or 912-598-2381.
Build your own rain barrel at a workshop from 1o a.m.-noon Feb. 28 at the Georgia DNR Coastal Regional Headquarters in Brunswick. Registration is $35 and includes a 50-gallon drum, instructions and all supplies needed. Participants must attend the educational presentation and construct the rain barrel at the workshop. Register online here.
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EPD director updates board on mining project near Okefenokee
Mining near the Okefenokee is a hot button issue with the public, but board meeting brought only a brief update and a few questions.
U.S. Supreme Court removes 2 PSC races from November ballot
A usually low-key, down-ballot race for utility regulators has been the focus of several court challenges because of its unique statewide vote for district representatives.
An elected Georgia energy regulator blocked her; now she’s suing
A complaint filed Tuesday in federal district court idetails how PDC member Tim Echols blocked candidate for his post from his Twitter, Facebook feeds after she tweeted criticism of Echols’ failed attempt to pass any of about a dozen changes to Georgia Power’s long-term plan.
Despite ongoing investigation and scientific disputes, a plan for strip mine near Okefenokee advances
While weighing fines for the mining company, state regulators open a comment period on its controversial plan to strip mine near the Okefenokee.
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