A protester holds up a hand-lettered sign, white on black posterboard: "STOP! ENVIRONMENTAL RACISM." A number of other people are marching alongside them.
Activists participate in a March 2023 protest against a police training facility being built in an Atlanta forest. A recent civil-rights complaint filed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asks for intervention on the project. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)


This story was republished in partnership with Capital B Atlanta.

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Opponents of the developing Atlanta Public Safety Training Center have adopted a new strategy to stop the so-called “Cop City” from being built.

Activists filed a complaint with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of External Civil Rights Compliance last week, arguing that the 85-acre site in unincorporated southern DeKalb County is damaging the ecosystem in surrounding Black and brown neighborhoods. They contend that its construction is a potential violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that could compel the EPA to put a halt to construction. 

The complaint marks the opening of a potential new legal front in the long battle between city officials and opponents of the center. In addition to the EPA complaint, the South River Watershed Alliance sued the city of Atlanta and the Atlanta Police Foundation in August over sediment discharge from the training center allegedly violating the site’s Clean Water Act permit, Reuters reported.

With direct action efforts so far failing to impede construction and litigation over a referendum on the facility still awaiting its day in court, activists have turned to federal rules that link the protection of marginalized groups to the environment as a means to an end. In the meantime, the old tactics are still at play: Hundreds of Block Cop City activists looking to physically obstruct construction efforts clashed with police near the training center site Monday morning as part of a week-long protest effort.

The EPA confirmed last Thursday it is reviewing the complaint filed Oct. 30 by a coalition of DeKalb County residents, three environmental advocacy nonprofits, and Community Movement Builders, a nonprofit working to achieve Black liberation. The EPA declined to specify how long it would take to review the complaint and decide whether to open an investigation. 

The office of Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens rebutted the allegations on Tuesday, saying the training center construction process has strictly followed approved local, state, and federal erosion and sediment control best practices and guidelines.

“This site has been active for the better part of 100 years and was originally designated the site of a public safety academy by Mayor Maynard Jackson,” a Dickens spokesperson said via email. “The current construction has withstood multiple legal and administrative challenges regarding environmental impact.”

The complaint lists several potentially harmful impacts as reasons the center should be scuttled: 

  • that clearing 85 acres of trees has likely already increased water and air pollution in an area where 74% of the residents are Black and Hispanic; 
  • that a smaller tree canopy is already making the area hotter; 
  • that increased waterway sediment will kill off area wildlife; 
  • that the reduction of greenspace will hurt nearby property values; and 
  • that the South River and its Intrenchment Creek tributary, which runs through a predominantly Black and low-income neighborhood near the center, are already a notorious dumping ground for raw sewage and for other pollutants.

“The clearcutting of the South River Forest and the dumping of illegal levels of sediment into the South River is either intentional discrimination or disparate impact borne by the Black and Hispanic communities of DeKalb County,” the complaint reads.

South River Watershed Alliance Board President Jacqueline Echols told Capital B Atlanta that sediment levels in the South River and Intrenchment Creek already exceeded safety levels set by Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division before construction of the training center. She suspects site prep work has only made things worse.

“It impacts the fish and macroinvertebrates in the stream,” she said. “Without macroinvertebrates and fish in a healthy stream, the stream dies.”

But it’s hard to know how much damage has already been done because the U.S. Geological Survey, a federal agency that conducts routine water quality assessments in local waterways, stopped posting data from its station near the training center site in mid-February. That was around the time authorities began clearing the area in preparation for construction of the training center, which Echols thinks is not coincidental.

“Atlanta essentially did not want that testing site there to continue to upload data on the sediment discharges into Intrenchment Creek,” she said.

Vic Engel, USGS South Atlantic Water Science Center director, disputed Echols’ assertion.

Engel said his team stopped collecting samples in February due to “growing safety concerns,” from “ongoing activities” related to clashes between Stop Cop City demonstrators and law enforcement officials. Those clashes reached an apex when Georgia state troopers fatally shot protestor Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, also known as “Tortuguita,” on Jan. 18. After that, Engel said, he asked for police escorts for his staff members when they visited the Intrenchment Creek site, eventually deciding it was no longer safe for them to continue.

“At no time has the USGS received a request from the City of Atlanta or DeKalb County to stop monitoring water quality at this or any other location,” Engel said via email. “My staff has not returned to the Intrenchment Creek site due to continuing safety concerns.”

While the battle plays out over the training center’s possible environmental impact, local residents are left to figure out what construction means to them.

Clergy advocate and policy consultant Tiffanie Mackie, 36, bought a house in a subdivision near the training center site in 2019, unaware that a massive deforestation and construction project would soon follow. Now she’s concerned how noise, smoke, or other possible pollution will affect her and her neighbors’ quality of life.

“They have other facilities that are in more remote areas for a reason,” she said. The Fulton County Public Safety Training Center, located in the city of South Fulton, for example, “offers coursework in basic law enforcement certification, basic jail certification, specialized, advanced, and in-service training to law enforcement personnel across the state,” according to its website. It sits roughly 21 miles, or about a half-hour’s drive, from the site of the proposed new center.

“It does not make logistical, environmental, ethical sense,” Mackie said regarding Cop City.

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Chauncey Alcorn is Capital B Atlanta's state and local politics reporter.