BARNES, P. J., MCMILLIAN and MERCIER, JJ.
BARNES, PRESIDING JUDGE.
Barrow, III appeals the superior court's judgment entered
against him in this case, wherein he challenged the propriety
of a permit issued by Georgia's Department of Natural
Resources, Environmental Protection Division
("EPD") to the City of Guyton ("City")
for a wastewater treatment facility. For reasons that follow,
we reverse the judgment and remand the case for proceedings
not inconsistent with this opinion.
October 18, 2013, the EPD (acting through its
Director) issued a permit to the City, authorizing
the City to build and operate a land application system
facility ("LAS") upon a 265-acre tract of land
located in Effingham County ("Site"). In connection
therewith, wastewater collected in the City's sewer
system would enter the facility and undergo a series of
treatments,  after which the treated wastewater would
be applied to fields at the Site using spray irrigation.
Approximately 44 acres of the Site will be devoted to
sprayfield usage, and the sprayfield will operate up to five
days each week.
Site is bound on one side by a dirt road, across from which
lies Barrow's 2, 400-acre farm. (On the other side of
Barrow's farm is the Ogeechee River.) Barrow uses his
farm for pine forestry and recreation; he also promotes
wildlife on his property by growing food plots for animals
such as turkey and deer. One section of Barrow's farmland
(that lies next to the dirt road) is comprised of wetlands
that provide a habitat for, among other things, frogs, toads,
salamanders, and turtles.
that surface water and groundwater traveling from the Site
would pollute and degrade the waters on his property and harm
the wetlands and various plant and animal life, Barrow
administratively appealed the EPD's issuance of the
permit. Among the grounds asserted, Barrow claimed
that the EPD had issued the permit without complying with
Georgia's antidegradation rule, Ga. Comp. R. & Regs.
391-3-6-.03 (2) (b). The EPD, and the City as intervenor,
claimed that issuance of the permit was not in violation of
the antidegradation rule, citing further internal EPD
a determination that Barrow had standing, an administrative
law judge (ALJ) conducted an evidentiary hearing on the
merits. Thereafter, the ALJ issued a final
decision affirming the EPD's issuance of the permit based
on her interpretation of the antidegradation rule. Barrow
petitioned for judicial review, maintaining before the
superior court that the EPD had issued the permit without
compliance with the antidegradation rule. The superior court
affirmed the ALJ's decision, concluding that issuance of
the permit was lawful.
discretionary appeal, Barrow contends that the superior court
erred in affirming the ALJ's decision. In related claims
of error, Barrow argues that the relevant part of the
antidegradation rule is unambiguous; that the ALJ's and
the superior court's interpretation of that rule
contradicted the rule's plain language; and that the
EPD's cited guidelines provided no authority to avoid the
clear mandates of that rule.
Court conducts a de novo review of claimed errors of law in
the superior court's appellate review of an ALJ's
decision. Furthermore, the interpretation of a statute or
regulation is a question of law and, thus, is also reviewed
de novo on appeal." (Punctuation and footnotes omitted.)
Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper v. Forsyth County,
318 Ga.App. 499, 502 (734 S.E.2d 242) (2012). With these
guiding principles in mind, we review first the statutory
scheme and rule at issue here.
to the Federal Clean Water Act, the individual states are
permitted to enact and administer their own water-quality
programs, subject to certain federal minimum standards. See
33 USC § 1313; see also Upper Chattahoochee
Riverkeeper, 318 Ga.App. at 502 (1). Toward that end,
the Georgia Water Quality Control Act (Act), OCGA §
12-5-20 et seq., has as a central purpose the prevention of
unnecessary degradation of current water quality. Hughey
v. Gwinnett County, 278 Ga. 740, 742 (3) (609 S.E.2d
324) (2004) (interpreting OCGA § 12-5-21 (a), which
declares the policy on the State's water resources).
pertinent here, OCGA § 12-5-30 (b) of the Act sets out:
Any person desiring to erect or modify facilities or commence
or alter an operation of any type which will result in the
discharge of pollutants from a nonpoint source into the waters
of the state, which will render or is likely to render such
waters harmful to the public health, safety, or welfare, or
harmful or substantially less useful for domestic, municipal,
industrial, agricultural, recreational, or other lawful uses,
or for animals, birds, or aquatic life, shall obtain
a permit from the director to make such discharge. . . . The
director may, after public notice and opportunity for public
hearing, issue a permit which authorizes the person to make
such discharge upon condition that such discharge meets or
will meet, pursuant to any schedule of compliance included in
such permit, all water quality standards, effluent
limitations, and all other requirements established pursuant
to this article.
Board of Natural Resources is the agency responsible for
promulgating rules and regulations governing the issuance of
permits for constructing and operating facilities that
discharge pollutants into Georgia's waters. See OCGA
§ 12-5-23 (a) (1) (C), (J). And pursuant to that
responsibility, the Board has promulgated a rule pertaining
to the antidegradation of ...