Left behind by a shifting economy, many rural Southern communities face a tough question: Do we take the money from companies that want to store coal ash in our towns, even though toxins could wind up in our groundwater? Or do we just say no? Today, one of the South’s greatest ecology writers, Janisse Ray, takes us to Jesup, Georgia, where it appears the community has decided it no longer wants to be one of big industry’s waste dumps.
The lawyer in the black suit is jumpy. Every eye in the house is trained on him, and there are lots of eyes, since every seat in the Coastal Pines Technical College auditorium is occupied. People kneel in the aisles, and more lean against the walls – more than 500 people. The lawyer steps toward the microphone then backs away, as if he’s too angry to speak. He twists for some papers in his briefcase, leans forward, and turns fierce dark eyes on the crowd.
All these people have come to hate on coal ash, because what’s not to hate about coal ash? And coal ash is coming at them. It’s being fast-tracked at them, 10,000 tons of it a day poised to roll down the CSX tracks to Broadhurst, Georgia, a ghost settlement a few miles south of Jesup.
This is a public meeting about coal ash, and the town lawyer for Jesup, the closest municipality, is on stage. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Mike Conner is on hot coals up there, and if he doesn’t move, he’s gonna burn up. His whole body is fidgeting, shifting. He unbuttons his coat, closes it again. Now he leans again toward the microphone and starts to talk in an accent that is Southern but not insipidly so.
He says he grew up in Wayne County, grew up poor. His people knew how to work hard. He invoked his 102-year-old grandmother who gardened at the corner of Ty Ty and South Macon streets on a little piece of dirt she loved.
“I left a lucrative career as an attorney in Savannah to come home,” he said, “because I love this little piece of dirt, too.”
And now a toxic dump? He takes a stack of paper and tosses it on the podium. “This is the permit application,” he says. “I want to put it right here so that nobody forgets what’s in it.” He throws a dirty look at the two guys from Republic Services, a Fortune 500 waste-services corporation based in Arizona that owns the “extraordinary, beautiful” landfill at Broadhurst, which was built as a regional landfill but is speed-skating toward being a federal Superfund site if this permit goes through.
“Because apparently somebody forgot,” continues Conner, “when they came here tonight and told you they have no plans to store coal ash at this landfill.”
The landfill guys had talked first. One is a marketer and the other an environmental engineer. The PR man looks like a young Mickey Rourke, although more polished, seriously like a movie star — cowboy boots, blue jeans, white shirt open at the neck, black coat. He’s tan, and his black hair is slicked back ’50s-style. The environmental engineer is in khaki pants with a blue button-down, and he wears rectangular, geek-chic glasses. He is taller and thinner than the other guy and looks increasingly stressed.
When things get a little out of hand in a community, these are the guys Republic sends to calm the waters. These are the guys Republic sends to do the greasing. The guys have been backtracking. They’ve been fast-tracking. They’ve been changing lanes. They say no coal ash will be brought in 2016.
The tighter the room gets, the more I feel sorry for them, although I temper my empathy by trying to guess their salaries. I know one thing: You couldn’t pay me all the money in Phoenix to do their job, which is to employ rhetoric and subterfuge to paint a picture of a pig and convince viewers that it is actually a pony. I would never apply for the job of liar.
So we’re in this theater of the damned so that the community can ask some questions. The meeting has been called by the Wayne County Commissioners, who are in a tight spot. They have inherited a mammoth problem. Men of their ilk contracted for a landfill in the first place, and these guys too want to bring in money and jobs. One of them has gone on record saying, “If it comes down to property rights and jobs, I’ll take jobs.” But the background noise from the public is getting louder and louder on this issue, like a hive of Africanized bees. You hear the buzzing from one or two at first. But before long, the entire hive is stinging mad.
More than two decades ago, the Wayne County Commission approved a regional facility to accept household waste. Four years later, in 1996, this dump was purchased by Republic Services, a publicly traded company that owns almost 200 active landfills across the country and pulls in more than $9 billion in annual revenue. Quietly, Republic began to add to its land holdings, until the 1996 tract of 902 acres had expanded to 2,200.
Then this past January, a Spartanburg, South Carolina, company called Central Virginia Properties, which as it turns out is a subsidiary of Republic, filed an application with the Army Corps of Engineers to tear up 25 acres of wetlands south of Jesup, in Wayne County, near the Broadhurst landfill. They planned to lay a rail spur adjacent to the CSX line, so they could bring in something called “CCR” via rail, 100 gondola cars a day.
In fact, they would construct four tracks, about 36,000 linear feet, or more than 6.8 miles total. One of these would be long enough to rush a 100-car train off the main line, which is used by CSX for freight and also by Amtrak’s New York-to-Miami passenger service. Two prongs would connect the nearby CSX main line to Broadhurst Environmental. A fourth siding would be used to stash empty cars waiting to go back wherever they came from and bring more of what they’re bringing.
To understand what was happening, you have to know that the acronym “CCR” stands for “Coal Combustible Residuals.” That’s coal ash.
It’s bad stuff, and this country has plenty of it. In fact, hundreds of holding ponds in the U.S., often adjacent to rivers, brim with coal ash that needs to go somewhere safe, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t have a clue where. Think spent nuclear rods. More than 1,400 coal ash sites pock the U.S.
Read the permit application: “The applicants (sic) stated purpose of the proposed project is to establish a rail yard complex that will accommodate CCR and other non-hazardous waste streams, including municipal solid waste.”
The company would build unloading structures, a wash-down facility to clean unloaded cars, dump truck turnarounds, an employee office and a haul road to the landfill. The rail yard would be 250 acres. “Work is planned to commence immediately upon successful issuance of all required permits,” the application says. In addition to the Corps paperwork, Republic needs a Georgia Department of Natural Resources permit since the state Environmental Protection Division, which is part of DNR, monitors landfills. Republic says it has been in contact and that the DNR will readily grant their permission if the Corps signs off.
Local folks got word of the plan and set off a chain reaction that altered the arc of this narrative forever. Now, it’s March 16, and there’s an “info-gathering” session sponsored by the commissioners to which more than 500 people have shown up and the room is tight and getting tighter. The city attorney is up on stage shaking the permit at the two Republic guys, telling them that nobody is forgetting. He’s angry because the company tried to tiptoe through the application process. He’s angry because the company reps keep saying things that aren’t true. He’s angry about other things, too.
I’m sitting in the audience watching something I haven’t seen in a long time.
My story, which is always on the side of the people, starts with Neill Herring. Neill has been a close friend for almost 20 years, a fact that doesn’t interfere with my ability to represent him clearly. Neill is the most famous environmental lobbyist in Georgia, a brilliant, handsome man with a steel-trap mind and a caustic tongue. Nobody wants to face off with Neill Herring in an intellectual boxing ring.
Every January he leaves his home on Elm Street in Jesup — a really appropriate street for Neill to live on, because he’s a woodworker too, which is to say he loves trees alive but if they’re dead he makes sculptures and bowls out of them – to spend three months knocking on doors and “glaring at people” in the State Capitol in Atlanta.
He lives and breathes politics, especially Georgia’s environmental politics. Back in the day, he was on staff of The Great Speckled Bird, an underground leftist newspaper in Atlanta, but these days he keeps his hair short and his shoes polished. Every morning Neill wakes up before daybreak and reads 25 newspapers. He reads them online, which is necessary given the rural character of his town. He collects the stories pertinent to the Southern environment, and he blasts off digital copies in a huge list-serve. He has done this for 10 years, a free clipping service, entirely volunteer. It’s impressive.
Then if he’s home in Jesup, he goes out and takes a long walk around town. He has perfected the ability to read while walking, so he takes along Aeschylus or some other esoterica. You can see him around town, devotee of Aristotle, peripatetic and cogitating. If you want to know anything about anything, call Neill, and I do not say this facetiously. He has the most vast, most comprehensive, most facile brain of anyone I know. Hands down.
One morning in early January 2016, just before he left for his annual three-month pilgrimage to the Legislature, he stopped in at The Press-Sentinel, Jesup’s newspaper, to see his pal Derby Waters. Derby, a kind-faced man with a Fu Manchu, who once had a small-town politician hold a knife to his throat and warn him to shut up, has spent 20 years as a journalist. That makes him well-seasoned. Above his desk, a cartoon shows a Model T that has driven off a bridge, with the caption “Typewriting While Driving.”
“Did you hear that the landfill’s trying to bring in more trash?” Neill asked. Derby had not. “They want to destroy 25 acres of wetland to build a railroad.”
“Serious?” asked Derby. His once-red hair is lightening to gray. “Why haven’t we heard anything about it?”
“I saw a notice online from the Army Corps of Engineers. Republic’s requesting a permit.”
After Neill left, perambulating home past the renovated railroad depot, past the tattoo parlor, past Café Euro, the new Internet coffee shop that holds art openings and serves frappes, Derby called the Corps. “Why wasn’t this notice run in the legal organ?” he asked, and the answer: “The Corps no longer notifies legal organs about permits. We have a subscriber-based online mailing list.”
Meanwhile, any person wishing to comment on the application had 30 days from the Corps’ receipt of the application, which had been Jan. 4. In another irony in this circus of ironies, the Corps will not accept comments electronically.
Nine of the 30 days were already up.
As you may or may not know, I have lived most of the five decades of my life in the rural South. It’s called the “Deep.” I now live about 45 minutes from Jesup, in the nearby county of Tattnall, four hours deeper than Atlanta.
The homeland I knew as a child is not the South of today. As a child, I knew the Deep South to be lovely and loving – a place of blackberries and honeysuckles, front porches, magnolia trees, Easter egg hunts through wisteria, Sunday dinners … I could go on and on. Old trucks, old tractors, fine old men. Cowpeas, cornbread, smoked ham, mustard greens. Ecstasies of azaleas.
It wasn’t a myth. Unlike Quentin Compson in “Absalom, Absalom!”, I really didn’t hate it.
But as I aged, I learned that “Deep” had come to symbolize, when a person was not actually there, something that became more twisted, more tortured, more pathetic the farther you went. There was no other side. “Deep” was not geographic. The South was a bottomless black hole; thus, it was very possible for a person to spend a lot of time – a lifetime, even – treading water so as not to sink into its awful Stygian depths. I did my tryout dive for scuba in such a murky place, an abandoned quarry in Alabama, at the algae-coated bottom of which was an entire ’50s-model fire truck, mouldering metal pipes, a greenish toilet. All I could think of was getting out.
Over time I, too, have come to see the South as an outsider. Something has been happening to it. What was here is almost gone. The people who thought trees were sacred and didn’t question that belief … who believed in manners first and foremost … who contained their complicated and colorful lives in story … who loved the land … who spoke with Elizabethan lilt and lyricism … who didn’t mind hard work: Those people are replaced by the twisted, the tortured, the pathetic.
The principal reason is because rural places are hemorrhaging smart people. More and more of the educated kids don’t come home again, meaning the people left are less educated, less well-traveled, more fundamental, more easily caricatured. It isn’t good for a society. The old intellectuals die. The young intellectuals get out and don’t come back. Thus, the culture of the rural South distills into a fundamentalist kind of turpentine, redder and redder. I, commentator that I am, will be the first to admit that our culture is boiling down to something that tastes pretty vile. The Atticus Finches and Hatties of the purple-colored South are fewer and farther between.
We are suffering out here in rural America. We are watching agrarian landscapes turned into industrial ones (giant clear-cuts, giant glyphosated fields, giant genetically engineered eucalyptus plantations), and we are watching the high quality of rural life, with its hummingbirds and purple martins, its trilliums and turnips, its streams and lakes, made toxic.
There’s less money. Less education. More welfare. Poorer health. More cancer. Fatter people. More aggression and less fight. Fewer manners. Broken community.
Let’s face it. The one thing an education offers a person is choices. Less educated people have fewer choices and because of this, fewer resources.
On what other people would big industry dump its poison?
If you look at the sites where coal ash is being stored now, you will find that it’s mostly located in small rural and minority communities in the Southeast. The ash from the Kingston, Tennessee, spill got sent by the boxcar-load to Uniontown, in the Black Belt of Alabama. According to the U.S. Census, Jesup is an impoverished rural city of 10,000.
But what corporations like Republic do not bargain for is a powerful paradox about the rural South, one especially true for Jesup, Georgia. Jesup has caught Republic off guard.
For a little town built at the crossroads of two railroads, beset with all the challenges facing the rural, suffering from economic and cultural disadvantages, Jesup is associated with a startling number of creative and bright people. Randall Bramblett, the blues and jazz musician, Susan Murphy, the aerialist, and Len Hauss, the football star, were all born there. So was Fred Bennett the photographer. The town produces more than its fair share of genius. Although Neill Herring was born in Dalton, he adopted Jesup as his hometown back in the 1980s and raised his two equally brilliant daughters there.
This brings us to tall, silver-haired, charismatic Dink NeSmith, born in Jesup in 1948, spanked on the bottom, like so many others, by Dr. Alvin Leaphart Sr. He came from hardscrabble beginnings and was raised on West Orange, in a tiny apartment in NeSmith Funeral Home. Dink plunked down $3,000 in the early ’70s to invest in the town newspaper and, as time went on, own lots of newspapers; his was a meteoric success that can be attributed to his fiery genius and perseverance. In time, he moved to Athens, but he owns land in Jesup and calls it home.
In an irrepressible irony, county newspapers in general are thriving while their urban sister papers are in decline. Rural people still want local content, and they need papers for it – reporters to attend council meetings and keep track of school boards and tell them who’s getting married. You can’t count on Facebook for this.
True, county papers often can’t entice top-notch journalists to move to backwater stinkpot towns to earn salaries below the poverty line, which means that retired English teachers across rural America read their weekly papers with red marker in hand. Not so with The Press-Sentinel. It’s been around since 1865 and sets the bar high for content, design and grammar. Speak of oasis. Part of this is because the paper is owned by Dink. He expects you to sit up straight and act right. He expects you to wear a sport coat and comb your hair. He expects the twice-weekly editions of The Press-Sentinel to be flawless.
The newspaper is thus part of the South’s remnant cultural elite, the unexpected rural intelligentsia, and this, more than anything, has gobsmacked Republic.
Dink’s a friend. I’ve known him since my first book came out, when he wrote to say how much he liked it and would I like to come see the cypress on his piece of river property? Since then, I’ve been invited umpteen times to his family retreat on a string of oxbow lakes in the Altamaha River swamp, and I hope to be invited many more. Once Dink gave me a CD of his theme song, Buddy Jewell’s “I Wanna Thank Everyone.” “I want to thank ever’one who ever told me no,” it goes. The word no will turn some people into victims, but others it turns into powerhouses, because they’ll work night and day to prove a naysayer wrong. Dink’s gonna turn a no into a yes sure as you’re born.
He could be retired but he’s still logging 60-plus hours a week, and suddenly in Jesup, he’s driving the editorial process. He understands very clearly what coal ash means.
The newspaper jumps on the story with both feet.
It’s telling people where to send comments. What sneaking Republic has done. What the EPA says. What’s wrong with coal ash. What happened in Kingston. What happened on the Dan River. What’s happening in Uniontown. What’s going to happen if this stuff comes to Wayne County. What leachate is. The definition of a Subtitle D lined landfill.
“They thought they could bring in CCR, and we wouldn’t even know it,” Derby, the pesky reporter, told me. He wore a plaid cotton shirt with a pen in the pocket. “They had a little hitch in their giddyup.”
If you come in thinking that everybody flies a Confederate flag and votes for Trump and doesn’t have a high-school diploma, hates Muslims and gays and feminists, never heard of tea-tree oil or kombucha, then you’re in for a shock.
Let’s talk about coal ash. When you burn wood, you get ash. When you burn coal, you get ash, and what’s so bad about that? After all, coal is simply organic matter, highly compressed, sealed within metamorphic rock for eons.
I went to my go-to.
“Coal is like wood to the thousandth power,” said Neill. “Coal is the remains of an immense ancient tropical forest of giant ferns. It contains every element, from beryllium to uranium. All this, detritus of the eons, is concentrated in the ash.” So coal char, with its green beginnings, ends up laced with toxins – heavy metals, light elements, neurotoxin, endocrine disruptors, carcinogens. Everybody knows this and nobody denies it. But in October 2015, the EPA ruled that coal ash be classified as a “non-hazardous” material.
So please explain to me, I said to Neill, how 10,000 tons a day of this soot can get dumped in a landfill designed for household garbage.
“You’ve got a little bit of a semantics game going on,” he said. “Ash itself is non-hazardous, but everybody knows it’s full of hazardous components. These components are dangerous as hell.” He was struggling for a metaphor. “It’s like putting poison in a cardboard box and saying the cardboard is safe.”
Coal is trouble cradle to grave. When it’s being mined, it causes black lung in miners. Tunnels collapse under the weight of mountains of dirt and rock above them, and miners die. Strip mines liquidate acres and acres of forest and dale. Mountaintop removal vaporizes up to 1,000 vertical feet of mountains, according to Earthjustice.org. In the past few decades, more than 800 square miles of the Appalachians have been leveled and 2,000 miles of stream have been buried, and conservationists warn that those figures are underestimated.
At least 500 of the oldest mountains in the world have been dismantled. Of this, Ben Sollee, the Kentucky cellist and songwriter, sings a tragic ballad, “Panning for Gold,” about God roaming through the Appalachians, unable to find his rivers, forests and mountains. “Son, I used to know where I put things,” God says. “I used to know.”
Coal-fired power plants are sooty and dirty. Coal ash is giving kids asthma, making people sick, enveloping people’s house trailers and pickups with coverlets of grit and dust, crusting their lungs with dust, causing neurodevelopmental disorders. Coal is sabotaging our atmosphere, creating chaos in our climate — heating up the world, confusing winter and summer, spawning bigger storms.
After all that destruction and pollution and suffering, coal ash is left. It drips from the unlined holding ponds. In Kingston, it turned 300 acres of subdivision into a dead zone. It blows off rail cars and contaminates the rail lines. It drifts. It leaks into groundwater and aquifers. It doesn’t look back.
Coal is lovely when it’s in the underworld where it belongs, but when it’s torn out, it’s black death. It’s the plague. It’s the devil.
I’ve gone to jail in opposition to coal. I’ve anguished over lost mountains. I’ve taken my stand in books, essays and speeches. I’ve taped pictures of ruined mountains over my light switches. All my adult life, I’ve been neurotic about living a life as green as possible … always moving toward greater and greater sustainability, or if you have a problem with the permeability of that word, toward a slimmer electric bill. Switches on the hot-water heaters. LED lights. Energy Star appliances.
Turn down. Turn off. Unplug.
Back in Wayne County people were starting to wake up to what 10,000 tons of coal ash a day was going to mean. “The real problem will come when those heavy metals leach out,” said Dink. He prophesied that it will leak out of rail cars, and it will leak out of the landfill. After a while, a trickle becomes a torrent.
Two county commissioners met privately in a “study session” with representatives from Republic. After the powwow had begun, a third commissioner joined the group and thus created a quorum, turning the study session into an illegal meeting. Commission Chair Kevin Copeland, a local electrician and business owner, apologized and reported that Republic’s reps had said “there would be a substantial increase in host fees paid to the county and numerous additional jobs to be filled.” But he was rubbing his eyes.
The modus operandi of the commissioners was to act helpless.
“My theory is to get all the facts before I make a decision,” said longtime commissioner James “Boot” Thomas. This is saying, in essence: I need to do more homework before I decide whether to poison my community for generations to come. Eh, come again? Republic’s official line was that it was properly licensed to accept coal ash, which is approved by the EPA for lined landfills, and the landfill at Broadhurst would be lined. True. The only permit they needed was the Corps’ permission to upend wetlands for the rail line. True too. Helpless 1 created the landfill in the first place. “Then Republic comes along, and it’s Helpless 2,” said Neill.
Some believed that Georgia Power itself planned on sending coal ash to Wayne. Because Georgia Power is mentioned in the permit application, one could speculate the company is the ultimate customer. According to the permit application, Georgia Power coal plants annually "generate approximately 6 million tons of CCR," about half of which currently is marshaled into surface lagoons. Last month Georgia Power, whose parent is Southern Company, announced that it is preparing "to permanently close all of the company's 29 ash ponds located at 11 coal-fired generation facilities across the state." As Earthjustice.org pointed out, almost half of Georgia Power's coal-ash lagoons are over 40 years old (and a couple are over 50). Some of them are uncovered, some lack a leachate collection system, and some have no monitoring wells. Two are rated as "high hazard," meaning that loss of human life is probable in the event of a blowout.
Then the newspaper uncovered something still more alarming. The landfill was already accepting coal ash — and had been for eight years. It had been coming in by truck from the Jacksonville Energy Authority, some 800,000 tons between 2006 and 2014. The landfill reps admitted to the verity of this. In early February, the Wayne County Solid Waste Authority, which contracted the landfill in the first place, held an open meeting with reps from Republic.
“It ain’t right for Wayne County to take other people’s coal ash,” Commissioner Jerry “Shag” Wright said. It was at that meeting that a member of the public asked Republic’s environmental engineer, Jeremy Poetzscher, if drinking a glass full of coal ash sludge would kill him.
“I wouldn’t recommend it,” said Poetszcher.
The group Physicians for Social Responsibility have named the six deadliest toxins in coal ash: arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and selenium. These cause a staggering slate of diseases, from asthma to birth defects to cancer to emphysema.
Then the newspaper, with the help of Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Dan Chapman, discovered that there had been a leak already. In 2011, beryllium and zinc levels were elevated in one of the test wells on site. In 2015, cadmium exceeded Georgia drinking-water standards. Arsenic levels in the soil were “slightly high.” The EPD detected mercury. To make matters dire, the dump sits directly atop the Miocene and the Floridan aquifers — underground streams. A creek runs through the Republic property on its way to the coast at Darien, headed toward the Golden Isles, St. Simons and Little St. Simons.
By this time, Dink was emailing me. Although the company reported the problem to the EPD, Dink wrote, “The good people of Wayne County, where the spills occurred, didn’t find out until this week, thanks to a hard-digging newspaper reporter.” He wanted me to write some articles. “We must shine light into this dark and very dangerous corner. We are David up against Goliath. But with the right stone (information), we can land it in the right place to bring down the giant. Personally, if I were dying, I would find the strength to crawl off my deathbed to throw one more punch in this fight.”
The county commissioners were handed a couple of escape routes. One is a rule that in the original landfill contract forbids radioactive material in Broadhurst Environmental, and coal ash is radioactive.
Secondly, in a stroke of immense good fortune, one day Neill found a dusty environmental-protection ordinance that had passed in 2000, something even he didn’t know existed in Wayne County. The county commission must grant a permit before any wetlands can be disturbed. “This ordinance was prophetic,” said Neill. “It was as if someone in the year 2000 could foresee what Republic in 2016 would pull. Unless the county repeals the ordinance it is illegal for them to permit the dump.”
“I can’t even talk to the county commissioners,” Neill said. “They quake in fear that they might have to act.”
I began to hear the metaphor of prostitution. I first heard it from Dink. He said he didn’t want Wayne to turn into a national environmental whore. Then Neill used it. “Our legs are spread,” he said.
In the desolate pine barrens south of Jesup, where Highway 301 shoots its arrow toward Okefenokee Swamp, the town of Broadhurst exists only in memory and revenants. It started as a turpentine camp about 100 years ago on the Savannah-to-Jacksonville rail line. Black men got work scarring pine trees until they bled, then dipping the raw gum into barrels, which were taken by mule and wagon to a rail siding. The mules worked by voice commands, moving without teamster between the dippers. The barrels were loaded into cars and taken to distilleries, where they became the substance turpentine, mostly used as a solvent but also in products like medicines and thinners.
I heard the history from Derby, who has a book about Broadhurst half written. “Many of these black families lived on-site in company shanties,” Derby told me, “depending on the commissary for food. Some of the workers came in on the chain gang, arrested for minor offenses and sent to hard labor. It was really slave labor,” he said, and he called the turpentine camp one of the last vestiges of plantation life.
By the ’50s the sun had set on turpentine, and the pine barrens began transmogrifying into plantation pines. “It’s gone,” Derby said. “Everything’s gone.” Part of a brick drying shed still stands, but otherwise Broadhurst is a stretch of pine flats speckled with low-income dwellings.
People say that the last person left in Broadhurst was a woman people called the “Broadhurst Witch.” Local historian Janet Royal told me about her. She was a thin, small African-American woman who lived at the main crossroads in the settlement. She dressed in ankle-length dresses and long sleeves and pretended to be crazy. She would dance out by the road with her hands over her head, holding a broom, muttering what seemed like curses directly at passersby. Nobody knows what happened to her or where she’s buried. In fact, nobody knows where anybody at Broadhurst is buried. “They moved the cemetery,” Royal told me.
Nowadays, Broadhurst sports an auto salvage yard and a game-processing facility beside a couple of trailer homes. The afternoon I poked around, nobody was home. The whole area looked sad and depressed, scattered with domiciles that were often dilapidated and sometimes trashy, and a few small but tidy houses. Old cars rusted in yards, and unpainted outbuildings and wheelchair ramps had been thrown together with the cheapest grade lumbers. After a crazily warm winter, real spring had arrived, and trees were budding out, in all chromas of green, sprayed with the red samaras of red maple and clouds of yellow jessamine climbing toward the sky. When a wind rose, pollen dispersed through the air like smoke and left its yellow dust everywhere, marbling the roadsides, dimming the windshield.
I saw a man propped in the door of his home, smoking, gazing out at a small human-made pond in his backyard. I stopped and, apologizing for my interruption of his quiet, asked what he thought about the coal ash.
“I don’t like it one bit,” he said. “Whenever they bring in cancerous material, it will kill everything. It ought to be treated like asbestos. Not dump it on us and our families and our grandchildren.”
His wife came out. She worked at the elementary school. I asked if they planned on going to the public meeting. “Naw,” the man said and fell quiet.
The man, who asked me not to use his name, had grown up in the pine barrens, wandering the woods hunting, fishing and playing. “Used to, you could walk through the woods. The trees were huge. Now it’s like that.” He pointed to the tangled, first-growth, impenetrable forest beyond his pond.
He remembered the Broadhurst Witch. As a kid, he was frightened by her, but he knows that her dancing and muttering was a defense mechanism. “She didn’t want to be messed with,” he said. “If she noticed people piddling around, she’d go out and start dancing. She did it to spook ’em off.”
He told me where the Broadhurst Witch had lived, and after I left his house, I drove there, thinking surely I’d find a bottle dump or some rotting pine timbers, maybe a pass-along plant that signified an old homestead. I fought my way through dewberry brambles and young pines, kicking at leaves and needles. Nothing. I saw something growing that could have been day lily, but when I stooped for a better look, found a naturalized spiderwort. That’s a weed.
Dump trucks occasionally passed, headed you know where. A couple of blood-red cardinals flew around in the leafless trees. The sun shone through tangles of gray-brown muscadine vines that made of the place a jungle, dusted yellow in the golden sun. The witch’s den was gone, completely gone.
Naturally, having known something so beautiful as the rural South and its people, I find myself a bit lost these days.
I drop my kid off at the elementary school, and parents aren’t talking to each other. I say hello to the white women driving white SUVs, with their hair cut in stacked bobs, and they stare at me. In the line at the P.O., nobody’s talking. Trees are falling like passenger pigeons. The Lions Club and the Garden Club are aging out, nobody signing up for civic duty. The hedgerows are gone, the bees are dying. I haven’t heard a coon dog in 20 years. I know of two people who still make cane syrup. I can’t find a soul to train a mule.
I say again, this is not the South I knew.
I spend a lot of time like an amnesiac, trying to figure out who I am. Trying to figure out what happened. I go on walks and think about it: What is destroying us? I start lists in my journal:
- Fox News.
- Demonization of black people.
- And Latin people.
- High-fructose corn syrup.
- Meth and crack.
Of course these are the torments of rural America, not just the rural South, and they are urban problems too, but they are chronic where I live. They are Stage 4. They are epithelial. They are organic.
Neill talks about something called “resource paradox.” Every place that has wealth from the earth is poor. “South Africa,” he said. “Gold and platinum and desperate poverty. West Virginia. Wayne County – minerals and timber. Products are shipped to the metropolis where they’re converted into high value. But all the waste stays.”
Neill talks about the troposphere, which is located between the lithosphere and the atmosphere, between ground and air. Here life exists abundantly. “It operates at zero cost,” he said. “The benefits are immense, and they are basically life itself. In Broadhurst we’re trying to turn a natural paradise into an industrial desert. I can’t think of a more evil activity.”
Nearly everybody I meet in Wayne County loves being outside. They love coon-hunting, bass-fishing, paddling, tractor-pulling, mud-bogging. “But most of them don’t see it as anything other than recreation,” Neill counters. “And thus, it’s cheapened. Everything is dragged down. It’s like, You have a chance to live in paradise. Or you have a chance to chew all the gum you want.” Why would anyone choose chewing gum?
A pretty little blackwater stream flows through the Broadhurst property, the Little Penholloway. It empties into the Penholloway, dark as coffee and lined with cypress and tupelo, river birch and gum, a tributary of the great Altamaha River.
Neill reminded me that the Penholloway is an estuary that converted to freshwater over a long time, the millennia since the Pleistocene. “In Connecticut or Maine, this would be a tourist wonderland,” he said. “We could have a whole industry based on a wondrous natural system that could be marketed very easily. But not when people would be eating coal ash.” He says this again, to drive the point home, and in this moment I know how much Neill cares about this place, these cut-over flatwoods and swamps, these rich, intricate, storied and beleaguered systems. “Life is so abundant here,” he says. “You can’t suppress it. It could be something like the South Sea Islands. Not if it’s being destroyed. Not if it stinks.”
The Altamaha is a very large but little-known natural wonder. It is a sedimentary river with 100,000 gallons of water per second, on average, coming down it, the third largest river flowing from the Eastern Seaboard. It drains a quarter of the state of Georgia. The Altamaha is noted for a broad floodplain, up to five miles wide down toward the coast, and for the amazing diversity along its length, a global hotspot, with 120 rare or endangered species associated with this globally important basin. The Nature Conservancy has been working in the watershed for four decades on a landscape-scale protection project, a bio-reserve. To date, it has created a 42-mile contiguous corridor of preservation lands, more than 100,000 acres total under protection.
Commissioner Copeland, to his credit, began to push for a public meeting. It would not be an official public hearing, because only the Army Corps could call one of those. It was “an opportunity for the community to ask questions regarding the coal-ash issue.” But the locals could videotape the proceedings and enter them into the public record the best way they knew how.
No doubt Copeland did not expect what was to happen the starless night of March 16.
The newspaper was still hammering the issue week after week. Anti-coal-ash signs were popping up like daffodils in yards around town. Meanwhile, publisher Eric Denty, immediate past president of the Georgia Press Association, moved a few mountains to get HB 1028 introduced in the 2016 General Assembly. The bill, which was sponsored by Rep. Bill Werkheiser and which passed into law days before the session ended, requires public notice of landfill leaks such as the one in 2011.
As for Dink, he couldn’t sleep for thinking about coal ash coming to Wayne County. As soon as daylight hit, he was making calls. He was writing editorials. He was being interviewed on the radio. Dink was becoming the real hero of the story, a title he didn’t want. He was putting together teams of lawyers, writers, business leaders. “I threw in my heart, and then I threw my wallet after it,” he told me.
The community wants three things:
- A guarantee from Republic that no coal ash will ever be brought to Wayne County.
- The permit for the rail line to be withdrawn.
- Republic to agree to revert to renegotiate its contract with the Wayne County Solid Waste Authority. Over the past decade, it has successfully made the contract less stringent — in 2005, for example, a volume limitation on total tonnage was removed. The Authority agreed, as well, not to adopt any requirements “more stringent than those required by federal or state law.” At the same time Republic quietly paved the way for unlimited amounts of coal ash, it kept paying the county the same amount per ton it has paid since 2005, $1.80. Further, The Press-Sentinel reporters found out that Republic has to report its tonnage to the county, but these reports don’t have to be written. Republic makes an oral report and turns over a check to county officials.
The community actually wants four things. It also wants the company to sell back the extra land they have purchased beyond the initial 902 acres. Dink himself is willing to lead the fundraising efforts to repay Republic.
The week of the public meeting, The Press-Sentinel published a special 20-page edition; the entire back page advertised the meeting. But when I stopped by the office, part of the speculation was whether anybody would show up. My thinking was how marvelous it was that the local newspaper led the cavalry. Usually, when a local threat rears up, a group of defenders forms quickly, and in this case, “Protectors of Wayne County” sprang up via social media. But the newspaper is organizing. I’m fascinated by the idea of the press as activist. I shouldn’t be. What is Fox News if not activist?
I spoke to editor Drew Davis about this phenomenon. Drew is a clean-cut, middle-aged man of medium build who seems far more comfortable as questioner rather than interviewee. “Certainly we’ve been very aggressive with this story,” he said. “But I think that the nature of the story and the nature of coal ash’s impacts on our community justify that.”
I asked if other such issues had brought the paper to the mat. “There hasn’t been anything in the past 20 years that has represented as much of a threat,” Davis said.
Part of the awakening in Wayne County — with the newspaper ringing the alarm bell, Dink riding like Paul Revere out into the night — was realizing that an enormous failure of oversight and a paucity of intelligence had gone into landing the county in the mess it was in. Officials were obviously not reading contracts or thinking about what they were doing.
They weren’t thinking beyond revenue.
I seem to be highlighting only men in this story and white men at that. That’s because the big players are men, white men, which is sadly so often the case in the rural South. Someone opined that Trump is so popular with Southern working men because they’re afraid of female power and black power and immigrant power.
However it appears, women are plentiful in this story. Peggy Riggins, a retired high school psychology teacher and crisis counselor, is quietly fighting the coal ash.
“Look at history,” she said. “Nobody pays attention until there’s a disaster. That winds up costing the government a whole lot of money. I think we need to look at prevention.”
Jennifer Lindell, a tall, slim, outdoorsy woman, shot aerial photographs of the site for The Press-Sentinel, for which she freelances when she’s not at her job at the elementary school. She toured me around one afternoon. The Lindells are descendants of Finnish immigrants who settled in the early 20th century in the tiny community of McKinnon, just down the road from Broadhurst (and mentioned as an alternate rail-yard site in the Republic application). Jennifer’s grandfather moved from McKinnon to nearby Odessa, where his family has occupied a beautiful piece of high ground along the south side of Penholloway Creek ever since. Jennifer grew up playing with Barbie dolls and riding horses along the creek, and here she still lives. Of course Jennifer is deeply opposed to the coal ash in Broadhurst’s landfill, since it is plain that the toxins will wind up on her family’s land, via Penholloway Creek. She’s worried for everybody, especially the children.
Elizabeth Anne Chappell, known as E.A., a fierce warrior for justice, also has deep family connections in Wayne County. She owns property a stone’s throw from Broadhurst, where she lived until her house there burned about a year ago. As an activist, she organizes the local community, runs social media sites, and attends local meetings.
E.A. says, “The world isn’t dying. We are killing it.”
I also need to tell you about my personal relationship with heavy metals. Four years ago, we welcomed a little girl into our home. She was our niece, and her family had fallen apart and she had been institutionalized for psychotic behaviors. She had been on psychotropic drugs since she was 3 years old, and now she was 7.
We pursued every avenue to heal our new daughter. Because her symptoms were autism-like, a medical advisor suggested that we test her for heavy metals. She was off the chart for mercury. Mercury, as you may know, is a neurotoxin that disrupts a lot of systems in the body, including the brain.
People wondered how our kid got mercury poisoning. How does anyone become contaminated with mercury? By living near a coal plant. By drinking water tainted with the element. By playing with old thermometers. From compact florescent bulbs. From high-fructose corn syrup. By eating contaminated fish. By just being human on a toxic planet in the 21st century. By living downstream from Broadhurst.
My husband and I embarked on a protocol of low-dose chelation to remove the heavy metals from our child’s body. Immediately plates and forks stopped flying across the kitchen. She stopped beating her head against walls and windowpanes. She began to sit quietly, reading and playing for longer periods of time. She began to laugh and make jokes.
Chelation is a slow, years-long process, and we are still in the middle of things. But I believe wholeheartedly that my child will heal and will join healthy children in being able to lead a fully functional life.
We all now know that mercury is implicated in autism, in the epidemic it has become; mercury is present now in one of every four boys who are diagnosed on the autism spectrum. Scientists don’t know yet how it affects a growing infant or why it causes such damage or why some children aren’t able to dispense of it through normal detoxification. What is clear is that environmental toxins are handicapping us, dumbing us down, making us less fertile, killing us and wasting the lives of a whole generation of children.
When a company decides to take coal ash, it has to make a plan for leachate, also known as “garbage juice.” This is the liquid that forms when rainwater seeps into the ash and collects in the sump. Sometimes it weeps out of the liner or slips over the top. It’s not a matter of if the landfill will leak, it’s a matter of when – that’s common sense. One day when I was there, Dink was walking around the newspaper office with a tiny strip of plastic in his pocket. He fished it out.
“That’s how thick the liner is going to be,” he said. It's barely as thick as the wall of a plastic mop bucket.
Currently the dump produces about 27,000 gallons of leachate daily. Every day or two, a tanker filled with leachate makes its way to the Waycross Municipal Treatment Plant, where the liquid is treated before being released eventually into the Satilla River.
Because the railroad won’t run a car that hasn’t been cleaned out, the company has to figure out a rail-washing system, plus a plan for what will happen to the wash-water. According to the permit application, rail cars will be washed on a concrete pad. The water will be collected, recycled as long as possible and, when impossibly polluted, delivered to the Waycross waste-water facility.
Then there’s the problem of methane, which all landfills produce. Methane is the most dangerous greenhouse gas of all, although it is produced in smaller amounts than carbon dioxide, the most famous. At Broadhurst, both methane and CO2 are pulled by a series of hoses into a flare, where the gases are burned.
Could Broadhurst handle the increased leachate? Could Waycross handle it? Could the surrounding wetlands be protected? Was Republic doing the planning and engineering necessary to not bathe the local pregnant women and children in heavy metals? Could it protect the communities downstream?
Questions demand answers. The date of the public hearing arrived.
By the time I pull in to the tech college, I know there is going to be a hellstorm. The clock reads 15 minutes until 7, and already the parking lot is full, hundreds of cars. People flood into the building. A dozen or so high school students flank the sidewalk holding anti-coal-ash signs.
I don’t get a seat. Already the auditorium is full, not even standing room, and people press into the doorways. I squeeze through and sit on the floor at the end of a row. Beside me an older man in a black ball cap balances a notepad on his lap and holds a ballpoint in his arthritic hand. All I can see are the backs of heads, but there is short hair and long hair, curly and straightened, black and brown and red and yellow, dyed and natural, all shades of gray, spiked and flattened. On stage are two men from Republic, two men from the Corps, and the guy from the EPD in charge of oversight for Broadhurst. The meeting is hosted by the commissioners, two of whom have now publicly opposed coal ash. Some of the people in the audience are wearing black T-shirts with “No Ash At All” printed on them.
The Republic guys lead off.
“We let this community down,” says the PR man, Russ Knocke, from company headquarters in Phoenix. “We let our neighbors down. We failed you. That’s going to change. We want to be more involved.” Perhaps he thinks he’s going to wrangle a manageable platform for himself if he comes off as apologetic from the start.
Of course everybody is wondering how he thinks Republic has failed the community. Republic didn’t engage the public sufficiently, Knocke says. It has changed. It launched a website that very day. It has done an “Open House” and plans more. In fact, one is scheduled for the end of March. He says Republic has no plans to accept coal ash in 2016. He says the landfill footprint will not be expanded. He says the modification to the existing facility is “minor.” He wants to make Broadhurst a “model for responsible landfill management.” The landfill will bring in $2-2.5 million in direct annual benefits to the county. “I am optimistic that one day this community will recognize Republic as an asset,” Knocke says.
The room is hot. When Knocke sits down so the engineer can talk, he pulls a tissue from his pocket and swabs his upper lip.
The engineer talks about a Subtitle D lined landfill with a dual-layer engineered liner. The edges of the liner will overlap. The waste will be topped with another protective sheet. Twenty-one groundwater wells will be monitored every six months. There will be leachate sampling, dust control, flare monitoring. Tests will be conducted by certified labs. The company will manage the landfill for 30 years after it closes. He sits down, visibly relieved to be done.
Dr. Todd Rasmussen, a University of Georgia hydrologist, comes up next. He speaks briefly on why the landfill is a bad idea.
“Coal ash is radioactive just like nuclear waste,” he says. Nuclear waste lasts 10,000 years, and the landfill company will monitor Broadhurst for 30 years. Broadhurst is in the coastal plains, a flat landscape. The area is a regional depression with primarily a vertical gradient. The clays in the soil will pick up toxic material, something called “colloid-assisted transport.” He says that Southeastern landfills fail much more readily than those in drier, colder climates. The highly porous soils of the pine barrens spell trouble for containment.
That’s all we need to know, as far as I’m concerned. Everybody can go home. Boom, fight’s over.
Except it’s not. The crowd shifts restlessly. Someone coughs. Bursts of small conversations erupt. The chair holds up his hands to shush the audience.
Lindsay Thomas, former U.S. congressman and a citizen of Wayne County, approaches the podium. He stands proud, comfortable with the mic and crowds. He speaks with vestiges of a Southern dialect quickly disappearing — the cultured inflection of land-owning Southerners that softens the “r” to a short “u” and lengthens vowels, especially “o.” I love this manner of speaking and mourn its disappearance. I practice it when I am walking alone, although I myself speak the harsher, less cultured patois of working-class Southerners.
True to his origins, Thomas is a top-shelf orator.
“There are no limits or parameters (‘parametuhs’) on what the future really holds for Broadhurst,” he says. He scolds the company for withholding information. “Does a responsible and reputable corporate citizen take the regional landfill and turn it into a national dump without a word to the community in which it is located?” he asks.
The crowd becomes more difficult to control. They applaud thunderously. “Amen!” I hear around me, and “Uh huh.” Thomas calls the reps “gentlemen” and asks them to imagine a 100-year flood or an E-5 hurricane. In the Southeastern coastal plains, neither is hard to conjure.
If everyone else has done their homework on the issues, Mike Conner got himself a Ph.D. His law firm has prepared, with a team of environmental attorneys hired by the newspaper, a 14-page document of questions, complete with 20 exhibits that include letters, photographs, plans, addenda, rules, emails. It is more than impressive.
Now he jerks around on stage as if he has been set on fire. And he is burning up.
“God puts a lot of things in nature,” he says. “But he didn’t put that beryllium in your groundwater.” He points directly at the Republic reps, working like a preacher. “Those people put it there, through coal ash.” The audience agrees vociferously. “Those people put that beryllium there. Not from dirty diapers. Not from burned-up tires. Not from thrown-away notebooks. But from coal ash.” His voice rises into a crescendo. He slams the podium. People are clapping, yelling “No!” over and over.
So much suffering is wrought by industry. For the love of money, land and people are laid to waste. Mountains are blown up, people poisoned, the troposphere ground to nothing, the climate wrecked. But love is stronger than money, and it’s stronger than the law. Love is a powerful, indomitable force that can rip out an enemy at its root. What I see in the eyes of Mike Conner is love, the love he feels for his gardener grandmother, hoeing at 102 on the corner lot. The love for his father, a former deputy sheriff, or his athletic Uncle Paul, a high school coach. He loves his brothers, his cousins, his deep history in this place. All of that is shining in his fierce, badger-like, blackthorn eyes. He crosses his arms over his chest to try to contain it, but the flames of love are burning him up.
Finally it is the community’s turn. One by one residents rise to the microphone and ask highly intelligent and well-researched questions.
“How will you control the fugitive dust particles?”
“What about the endangered hairy rattleweed found only in two counties in Georgia?”
“What happens if there is a spill?”
“Who’s going to compensate me when this landfill leaks?”
“How deep are the monitoring wells?”
The questions go long into the evening. Mostly the answers are short and always involve Republic working within the regulations of the EPD. They are working with their engineers regarding potentialities. They are required to have emergency plans in place, and they do.
The real question is, will big money win? Or will love prevail?
Meanwhile, as the sun goes down over what’s left of the turpentine hamlet, the Broadhurst Witch is dancing through the rows of pines. She has a broom in her hands with which she slashes at pollen-thick air, muttering curses toward the pit. She does not want to be violated. Her long dress whips about her ankles as she dances her bitter jig. When she is done, she walks tiredly to her nonexistent shanty, goes inside, and closes the door. Out on the road, the trucks have stopped and only night-birds break the silence in the long wait for dawn.
Janisse Ray is a writer, naturalist, and community organizer who has authored five books of literary nonfiction and a collection of eco-poetry. She holds an MFA from the University of Montana as well as two honorary doctorates. She is visiting professor at numerous universities, most recently the University of Montana as the William Kittredge Distinguished Visiting Writer. Her translated work has been published in France and Turkey. In 2015, she was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.
Fred Bennett is a Jesup native who has spent his life capturing the human experience. As a sports and rock-and-roll photographer, Fred created iconic images in Athens, Georgia, in the late ’70s before moving to New York City to pursue a career in advertising photography. He returned to Georgia in 1991 to be closer to his aging parents, opening a studio in East Atlanta. He has authored two books of photography on The Westminster Schools, a preparatory school in Atlanta. He and his wife, Ansley Dalbo, live in Decatur, Georgia.
"So, never be afraid. Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion, against injustice and lying and greed. If you … will do this … you will change the earth."
— William Faulkner