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Bird's-eye view of the "Cop City" site looking northwest, with the Atlanta skyline in the background (Google Earth)

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Fact-checking the City of Atlanta's Claims on "Cop City"


 

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.


[March 2nd, 2023] UPDATE: The Mayor’s Office of Communications has since deleted “Key Facts on the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center”. You can still access the attached visuals and portions of the press release below or through the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine.


Have a tip about the biodiversity at the "Cop City" site, such as native or endangered plants and animals? Send us an email.

 

The ongoing controversy surrounding the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center — widely derided by opponents as “Cop City” — took two new turns. On February 8th, The Atlanta Police Department released body camera footage related to the January 18th deadly police shooting of activist and protester Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran at the site. Saporta Report revealed on February 6th that the project’s land disturbance permit (LDP) is being challenged by Amy Taylor, a member of the project’s Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee (CSAC). Joined by Dekalb County Commissioner Ted Terry, whose district includes the South River Forest, she has sought an injunction at the Fulton County Superior Court to stop construction work. Another member of the CSAC, Nicole Morado, resigned the same day of the killing of Teran.



In light of the new information and ahead of the injunction hearing on February 16th, The Xylom fact-checked some of the “Environmental Stewardship” claims made in a press release, “Key Facts on the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center” by the Mayor’s Office of Communications on January 31st, to see if they hold up against the new details.


A rendering of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center site included in the January 31st press release. (City of Atlanta Mayor’s Office of Communications)

 

CLAIM: “The 85-acre facility will be constructed on a set of parcels owned by the City of Atlanta that total 385 acres. The rest of that land will continue to be greenspace.”

OUR RATING: FALSE


Three parcels owned by the City of Atlanta were originally included in the site: 15-081-08-001, 15-081-08-002, and 15-082-01-001. Their boundaries can be seen in figures included in the site-specific Phase I Environmental Safety Assessment (ESA) carried out by Terracon under the ASTM E1527-13 standard for APF.

A 2021 site diagram used by Terracon in the Phase I ESA, with parcel boundaries before the redrawing in 2022 outlined. (Atlanta Police Foundation)

However, as first reported by Saporta Report and others, “in a move that was not publicized nor reviewed by the CSAC, the APF got three parcels comprising the Prison Farm site combined and redrawn.” According to data obtained from the Dekalb County Parcel Viewer, the redrawn parcels (15-081-08-001 and 15-082-01-001), both zoned for residential use (R75) but permitted for “governmental use”, total approximately 296 acres. What was part of the old Parcel 15-082-01-001 is now part of Parcel 15-081-01-037 (33.49 acres), which no longer falls under the Ground Lease Agreement.


There is no evidence to back up the “385 acres”-number raised by the City of Atlanta; it is mathematically impossible to have both an 85-acre training facility and even “265 acres for greenspace” promised in the Ground Lease Agreement. This also means that the amount of green space is oversold by at least 40%.

The use of the term “continue” is also inaccurate, since approximately 7 acres of the land earmarked for greenspace an active Atlanta City Police Firing Range (more below).


 

CLAIM: The facility will not be built on a forest. The training center will sit on land that has long been cleared of hardwood trees through previous uses of the site. Arborists have confirmed the existing vegetation on this land is overwhelmingly dominated by invasive species like brush, weeds, vines, and softwood trees. Much of the site contains rubble from old building structures and asphalt from old parking lots.


OUR RATING: MOSTLY FALSE


According to a guide prepared for The University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension Service, the terms “softwood” and “hardwood” have little to do with the actual hardness of the wood.

  • Hardwood trees lose their leaves at the end of the growing season and use flowers to pollinate for seed reproduction. Examples of hardwoods include oaks, maples, birches, and fruit trees.

  • Softwood trees are evergreens, and do not have flowers, but use cones for seed reproduction. Examples of softwoods include pines, spruces, firs, and hemlocks.


Using the most recent Google Street View data and satellite imagery dating back to February 2021, hardwood trees that shed leaves in the winter can clearly be identified within the boundaries of the proposed site. The City's claim that the land “has long been cleared of hardwood trees” is false.


The Xylom reached out to Dr. Nancy Loewenstein, an Extension Specialist at the Alabama Cooperative Extension System at the Auburn University College of Forestry, Wildlife, and Environment. She specializes in invasive species and plant identification. In an email response to The Xylom, Dr. Loewenstein “confidently” identified the native softwood Loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) in a few locations.

  • According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Loblolly pine is “the most commercially important forest species (emphasis added) in the southern United States”, where it is dominant on about 29 million acres and makes up over one-half of the standing pine volume. Hardwood trees exist as shrubs beneath the pine canopy in secondary succession, in which plants and animals recolonize a habitat after a major disturbance — such as human activities on the Old Atlanta Prison Farm.

  • The Loblolly pine has also been chosen by Trees Atlanta, a partner of the City of Atlanta, as a Top 50 Atlanta Tree.

The City’s claim that shrubs and softwood trees are not part of a forest and are “invasive species” is largely unfounded.


While a fraction of the site does contain dilapidated structures, rubble, and waste, whether you consider one or all of the above, one thing is clear: The facility will be built on a forest. The City of Atlanta’s complete misunderstanding of basic, well-established ecology facts is at best poor research and science communication, or at worst, an intent to confuse the public about the nature of the South River Forest.


 

CLAIM: The parcel is the original site of the police and fire departments’ training centers and has been in continual use for outdoor tactical training for Atlanta’s public safety agencies for more than 50 years.


OUR RATING: HALF TRUE


The Atlanta City Police Firing Range is indeed located in Parcel 15-082-01-001, both before and after the redrawing of parcels. Based on figures from the Phase I ESA and the APF’s website renderings, the firing range will be designated as “Future Public Park Land” (T).


A rendering of "Cop City" as shown on the Public Safety Training Center Website. (Courtesy of Atlanta Police Foundation)


However, unlike the rest of the Old Atlanta Prison Farm site, where various softwood and hardwood trees have already reestablished their footholds, due to the continuous use of the firing range, it will likely take decades or even centuries for trees to regrow here after the prolonged disturbance.


On the contrary, plans show that trees in the newly redrawn Parcel 15-081-08-001 will be cleared out for a new shooting range in the southern portion of the site (I). If the APF's plan is carried out, dozens of acres of tree canopy around the South River Forest will be irreversibly lost in the foreseeable future.

 


Claim: Atlanta and its nonprofit partners will continue to collaborate with DeKalb County’s planning and environmental officials working to ensure that the plans and development of the Public Safety Training Center strictly adhere to all federal, state, and local environmental standards.


OUR RATING: FALSE


Intrenchment Creek, which forms the eastern boundary of the site, flows into the South River, the namesake of the forest at risk. South River was America’s fourth-most endangered river in 2021 according to American Rivers, its chief threat being “sewage pollution due to lax enforcement.”


Under the federal Clean Water Act, two National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Permits apply to the watershed: GA0039012 (wastewater) and GA0037168 (combined sewer overflows (CSOs).) The closest facility that handles wastewater and CSOs is the Intrenchment Creek Water Reclamation Center (WRC) and the East Area Water Quality Control Facility (WQCF) respectively, both located directly across the Old Atlanta Prison Farm Site; the Intrenchment Creek WRC discharges into South River WRC’s biological treatment system, while the East Area WQCF discharges treated combined sewage directly into Intrenchment Creek. Yet, the City of Atlanta has consistently violated discharge limits as prescribed by the permits, running afoul of various federal and state regulations.


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Georgia entered into a two-part settlement with the City of Atlanta in the nineties over CSOs.

  • In 1998, the City was required to pay a $2.5 million penalty — the largest Clean Water Act penalty ever assessed against a municipality to that point — and required to clean up the entirety of Intrenchment Creek.

  • In 1999, the City was prohibited from installing new sewer lines in neighborhoods where the systems lack the capacity to handle new flow, unless the city either increases system capacity or reduces flow from other sources.

The AJC and the Northside Neighbor reported in 2016 and 2019 respectively that the City of Atlanta had to pay nearly $750,000 in fines under two consent orders with the Environmental Protection Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (GDNR EPD) due to violations at the Intrenchment Creek WRC, including:

  • A bisulfite spill on Oct. 20th, 2011 killed an estimated 1,226 fish and affected 0.7 miles of stream, and

  • An additional 15 sanitary sewer system spills between September 2015 and February 2016 totaled over 30.1 million gallons, despite lacking a permit to discharge wastewater into Intrenchment Creek.

To comply with the permits, the City of Atlanta is in the process of decommissioning the Intrenchment Creek WRC and rerouting wastewater to an improved South River WRC, scheduled for completion in late 2023. It is also upgrading the East Area WQCF by early 2024.


That being said, after the decommissioning of the Intrenchment Creek WRC, a Technical Memorandum prepared for the City of Atlanta Department of Watershed Management, obtained via GDNR EPD’s Watershed Protection Branch Permit and Public Comments Clearinghouse, warns that the South River WRC will be handling more 5-day Biological Oxygen Demand, Chemical Oxygen Demand, Total Suspended Solids, ammonia, and phosphorous than originally designed.


The City also did not explain how it is possible that the construction and operation of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center could possibly be in compliance with existing permits.

  • Sections II and III of Taylor’s LDP appeal cite similar sources to argue that the training center — a point source that causes over one acre of land disturbance — needs but did not receive a permit to discharge stormwater into Intrenchment Creek (The creek has already received discharge several dozen times larger than what is legally allowed.) There were no disclosed plans to address the issue either.

It is also worth noting that the LDP issued by the Dekalb County Department of Planning and Sustainability on January 31st, 2023, first obtained by Saporta Report, only applies to Parcel 15-082-01-001, which contains the Atlanta City Police Firing Range and “Future Public Park Space”, instead of Parcel 15-081-08-001, where the new facility was supposed to be built.


Furthermore, during the Phase II ESA carried out by Terracon for the APF, no water or soil samples were taken at the current Atlanta City Police Firing Range, or anywhere within a 2,000-feet radius of Intrenchment Creek. Firing ranges have been associated with heavy metal pollution, particularly lead; and the potential long-term contamination of nearby soil and watershed is unknown.


It appears that APF or the City of Atlanta have not laid out plans to maintain compliance with federal, state, and local environmental standards, which they have frequently violated in the past three decades, lack the proper paperwork to proceed with any land disturbance, nor have they considered the complete environmental impacts “Cop City” has on the surrounding watershed and potential future users of the site.


 

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Alex Ip

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Alex is the Founder and Editor in Chief of The Xylom, a student-led newsroom exploring the communities influencing and shaped by science. He also recently led a team to translate the KSJ Science Editing Handbook into Chinese (Traditional and Simplified). Alex is pursuing a Master's degree in Science Writing from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; he holds a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Engineering from Georgia Tech.

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