Down to Earth
A 1,000-mile search for Georgia’s environmental soul.
Atlanta Magazine | November 1992
The hardwood and pastured vales of Douglas County are lush pledges for the next frontier of suburban republics and nouveaux country living. Two-laned blacktops, not yet ripped up and fitted for sewer pipes and fiber-optic cables from Atlanta, lie shaded between the mimosa, white oak and sycamore trees. Tulip poplars curl their silver-sided leaves toward the July sky in worship of a distant rain. And although the drive is soothing, I have not quite decided if the lady in my car is rightfully scared or just crazy.
“They’ve renamed those roads four or five times to confuse people. It’s one of their tricks,” she says, crouching in the seat while guiding us toward the dump site. Occasionally she asks if anyone is following us.
In the last three hours, I have climbed a chemical refinery’s back fence, crossed corporate property with her thoughtful advice to not get shot, crept past a sheriff, and absorbed enough environmental conspiracy theory to spook Oliver Stone. She is, by one colleague’s description, “a radical’s radical.”
But she did have maps. We studied them earlier in her modest trailer home tucked in the pines, a good hideout, she said, from which to organize cross-country peace marches, research human-rights issues and, in this case, investigate the industrial trashing of Douglas County. One poster board, for example, documents that the Sweetwater-Creek watershed is a 245-square-mile toxic gauntlet of leaking landfills, metal and chemical waste, and illegal dump sites that span four counties before emptying into a contaminated reservoir, from which the city of East Point draws 12 million gallons of water a day. Her map represents a similar fate for Douglasville’s newly impounded Dog River reservoir.
“I could draw you a map like this for every county in the state,” she said, and indeed may not be crazy. But she is at least afflicted with the nervous nature of people who know too much, the kind of knowledge that rattles bones in corporate closets and makes the rearview mirror an object of obsession.
Waving halls of green retreat into the dusk. Despite this enveloping verdancy, the fact is that Georgia, like the rest of the South, has been a beggar state since the end of the Civil War, using its plentiful natural resources, docile work force and slack environmental regulations to attract big, exploitive industries. As a result, the South consistently scores lowest of any area in the country on major environmental indexes, which track everything from pollution output to water resources and environmental racism.
Douglas County was the first stop on a nine-day trip to examine sites representative of that legacy, to which Georgians are reacting with complacency and denial, rage and violence, flippancy and humor, and sometimes with measured steps to begin finding out what is happening in their own back yards. In every case, however, they are motivated as much by the fear of what they do not know, as by what they do.
Last year, my guide helped break the story of Harriet Foster’s worst fears. Her Douglas County horse farm, her dream home, had become a toxic-barrel nightmare plagued with men in moon suits, federal health assessments, and an EPA emergency cleanup now known as the Basket Creek Drum Disposal Site.
More than 4,200 rusted, dented and leaking barrels of industrial solvents and other cancer-causing substances that had been illegally dumped and buried years before Harriet bought her property were excavated from a four-story hole in her front yard. The cleanup effort left only a shell of a house, vandalized and abandoned, at the lip of a feebly reseeded gully. The project was terminated abruptly at the adjacent fence line of prime development property.
“You know the dumpers didn’t stop there,” she says, staring at the gully wash in disbelief.
Southwire Co., a multinational wire and cable manufacturer out of neighboring Carroll County that is currently being investigated for shipping hazardous waste overseas, now owns the adjacent property. Just downhill from the Basket Creek cleanup, Southwire is clearing land and constructing two lakes along the Chattahoochee for possible future development. The company says their property is not contaminated, but Harriet Foster and some other local residents are outraged.
“And [developers] are going to build more subdivisions, malls and businesses next to more contaminated sites without telling anyone of the dangers,” says the activist. At last count, the state Environmental Protection Division’s list of contaminated sites in Georgia that may threaten human health was approaching 1,000.
“People think it is not in their back yard. I’ve got news for them. Harriet’s was just the beginning,” she says. “And people ask me if they should move. Well, where to?”
ONE DOES NOT HAVE to be an activist to know that something is wrong. Even when our eyes and nose and ears say differently, most of us can intuitively sense what is not right. As I park for a moment off road 219 to gaze across the emerald expanse of West Point Lake, I realize that this was perhaps the case with my grandfather, who lived and died here in Troup County, just this side of Alabama. Back in the mid-’70s, when he was not urging us to come down and take a ride in his old cantankerous boat, he sometimes drove out here alone and privately marveled at the reservoir.
He called this recently completed miracle of hydro-engineering The Backwater.
They are dying images now, of fishing for black crappie and “titty” bream, and even of the first time I floated the source of this lake nearly 20 years ago, my heels and haunches dangling from an inner tube and numbed by the Chattahoochee River. I was never happier about water than then, nor sadder than now, picturing the reality of a man-made lake: tide after tide of insecticides, herbicides, fertilizers, detergents, heavy metals, inks, dyes, motor oil, condoms, tampons, turds, urine, milk jugs, Styrofoam frags, sofa cushions, old tires, dead goldfish, pet turtles and silt—ton upon ton of silt—the waste of a dozen upstream counties settling into this impoundment at the mouth of the Chattahoochee in Franklin, Ga., where the iced tea tastes like kerosene, and where fishing for keepers is, to me, unfathomable.
But today there are no warning signs along the little riverside park in Franklin, and even had there been, the black man sitting back there on a five-gallon bucket in his overalls probably could not have read them.
“Little while ago, I saw the ’speriment man taking some samples over yonder, so I figure it’s okay.” He flipped his cricket and 20-cent bobber at the bank stumps and retrieved the slack. “But I do hear ’em talking about some kind of merkry in the water.”
A few years ago, the phosphate foam used to pile up in the bays and coves like meringue, and fish kills were common. There has since been a 50 percent reduction in total phosphates, but even that success is next to meaningless in the total scope of Georgia’s reservoir system, a staircase of catch basins that are losing their storage capacity to sediment loading and their water quality to industrial, agricultural and urban runoff.
Competing interests for West Point’s water include downstream barge navigation below Columbus, upstream recreation on Lake Lanier, flood control, industrial needs, crop irrigation, hydroelectric power, and adequate flush to dilute pollution in Florida’s Apalachicola Bay. West Point has about 20 percent of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin’s reservoir storage capacity, and is a coveted tap for Georgia, Alabama and Florida water users. As time passes, however, the so-called “Water Wars” are becoming more contentious across even smaller political boundaries within the state.
“We think the Olympics will be our best chance to make them clean it up,” says David Barrow, Regional Development Center director in Franklin. He refers to Atlanta’s raw sewage discharges and the folks in Franklin who think they can toilet train Atlanta by 1996. “We swear down here that at halftime of every Falcons game, the river rises a foot.”
The problem, called Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO), is the unfortunate side effect of Atlanta’s interconnected sewer and storm drain systems. Thousands of acres of parking lots and roads channel rainwater into the sewer network, so that now, every time it rains an eighth of an inch or more, raw, untreated effluent erupts at five overflow points around Atlanta.
Atlanta’s deadline to correct CSOs is 1993, with possible fines up to $250,000 a day thereafter and a total moratorium on new sewer hookups. But there is little chance that Mayor Maynard Jackson will dig up Five Points and permanently disentangle the problem. And compliance actually only means that Atlanta must strain the solids from its overflowing waste and treat the rest with chlorine, itself a poison. The most likely fix will be a bill introduced in the next session of the general assembly to extend Atlanta’s deadline.
Nearly every urban area in the state has a problem with CSOs, but a more distressing dynamic is the number of pollution sources that cannot be pinpointed. Every unknown buried drum and leaking underground storage tank, each gallon of pesticide runoff (for which there are no state-regulations), every soil particle lost to erosion from development and every cow defecating in his placid farm pond contributes to the cumulative toxification of our creeks, rivers and reservoirs. And as for West Point Lake specifically, Barrow says, “There’s no telling how many pipes there are illegally going into that river between here and Atlanta.”
With education and involvement, Barrow believes there can be better days for Georgia’s reservoirs. Downstream, I suppose one can only survive as an optimist. Others who have studied the system in its anti-holistic, septic entirety see the edge of an abyss, a time when artifice gives way to nature, and disasters will not be stalled.
And standing here off the old fishing bank, smelling the dead carp and cursing the engineering mind, I recognize a memory in the water, an old man’s cancer-pained smile in a Troup County hospital bed.
You remember going out to The Backwater and riding in that old Glastron I had?
Actually, the old man would not even ride in his own boat. Regardless of his fascination with the impoundment, regardless of how many times he dragged us out there to drive across the new dam, the reservoir’s awesome improbability simply brought the bile of fear to his lips.
A hundred feet deep!
Since he had only a seventh-grade education and probably never even heard the words hydrology or eutrophication, I can only assume it was natural instinct that told him something about The Backwater was not goddamn right.
I SEE, IN MY HEAD, the destructive role that roads have played in the global sense as well as in the New South nightmare of screaming infrastructure; phone wires and billboards, stoplights, go lights, petrol fumes, and painted white lines; jackhammers, Ditch Witches and culvert pipe interred in red clay.
So, after a hot rain, the smell of steaming feces escaping Columbus and wafting through the car window only adds to the distress of my being lost behind the wheel. The road south from LaGrange just stops. You are driving, whistling, and then suddenly brain dead among the barracks, the officer golf courses, and bleachered bombing ranges of Fort Benning.
Only after finally finding a civilian highway out past the fort’s sniper school is there any relaxation, a sigh born out of the vulval, deciduous rounds of hardwoods in the piedmont and deflating into level miles of peach, peanut, corn and pecan plantations.
Southwest Georgia has the highest average coverage rate of pesticides in the nation. But that is only a fact on paper. Visual reality is graceful Old Testament South, in revival season no less, a time befitting the resilience of a floral zone that outside the tropics is the most diverse in the world. Wisteria and muscadine have been resurrected over lone fieldstone chimneys. Katydids hum like high-tension wires. Frogs trill in the ditches. And for a while it is easy to love the road to Albany.
Albany is The Artesian City, a historically agrarian community that has prospered from the good fortune of straddling the world-class aquifers that now run its industrial engines, and secondly of bearing George Busbee, Georgia governor during the late ’70s economic boom. Albany is also the county seat for Dougherty County, which has one of the highest incidences of infant mortality in the state.
In 1988, Tony and Rosemary Winter moved to Albany’s Putney subdivision in cheerful health. Mary was six weeks pregnant, and eventually delivered a baby girl named Jordan, who developed respiratory problems at two weeks and was on a breathing machine by 10 weeks.
Meanwhile, within a year, Tony began having blinding headaches. He had numbness that claimed each big toe and thumb, then each adjacent toe and finger in a mysterious progression. He sensed, contrary to the evidence, that his hands and feet were swelling like balloons. He threw up. He became sterile. At one point, whenever he went to sleep he would stop breathing and had to be roused.
He was concerned about living close to Merck & Co. Inc.’s Flint River plant, which makes pharmaceuticals. In 1989, Merck reported the largest release and transfer of known or suspected carcinogens of any plant in the state. Some was released into the air, some was released into the water. Tony was on city water. What he did not know was that the city was pumping water from a well just behind his house, about a mile from the plant. In addition to Merck’s legal releases, Tony plans to prove in a lawsuit against Merck that for a number of years the plant may have been leaking chemicals from faulty pipes directly into the aquifer. The Winter’s attorney intends to introduce as evidence video tapes, taken between 1987-1989, of at least four such violations.
On New Year’s Eve 1990, Tony had 26 tubes of blood drawn. He tested positive for five carcinogenic chemicals that Merck either uses or produces. Somewhere in the procession of 28 doctors, most of whom did not recognize toxic exposure, one of the prescribed treatments inadvertently cured Tony’s sterility. Rosemary got pregnant again, this time with twins.
They had moved out of the Putney subdivision and Jordan’s respiratory problems had ceased. The effects of Tony and Rosemary’s suspected exposure, however, had not. In the eighth month of Rosemary’s pregnancy, sonograms showed that one of the twins was dead. But because they were identical twins in the same amniotic sac, Rosemary had to carry both fetuses to full-term. The macabre consolation was that the boy was at least filtering poisons, like an extra liver, for his brother.
He was never named.
Merck contends that all its releases have been legal and that the Winter’s health problems are in no way related to the plant. Tony believes that his lawsuit will precipitate a number of similar claims in Albany. Regardless, his case is one that symbolizes a more subtle tragedy. At the heart of our petro-industrial existence are nearly 70,000 chemicals in commerce today, of which less than 2 percent have been faithfully tested for health effects. Cause and effect between long-term, low-level exposure to toxins and disease is difficult to prove, but the anecdotal evidence—patterns of ill health—is fast linking an array of human ailments to a century of unparalleled industrialization in this country.
The toxicological profile of many chemicals reads like the very symptoms of American society itself: confusion, depression, numbness, lack of coordination and mood swings.
But the single most disturbing trend is the deterioration of health in young adults. Nationwide between 1979-83, the most recent years for which such statistics have been codified, there was a 147 percent average annual increase in mortality among young adults from a wide variety of immune-related infectious diseases, everything from AIDS to tuberculosis. Major types of heart disease and cancers are also being linked to immune-system suppression from toxins, while at the same time, microbes that cause disease have become ever more resistant to chemical medical treatment.
And while his peers are out climbing the corporate ladder, Tony Winter, age 28, is at the bottom holding it up. Tony has what he calls a kind of “chemical AIDS,” and a prognosis of leukemia within the next six to eight years.
“Do you know that every factory has a Human Bag Limit?” he asks. “That’s how many people a plant can legally kill.”
Uninsurable and unemployable, he has a lot of time to research industry; It is tedious and provocative work for which, he believes, the FBI has already opened an “activist” file on him. But the long hours of networking similar cases through a nationwide Right to Know computer file keeps him from dwelling on his own misfortune, or from crashing his car through the front window of the Merck plant on a final fiery mission.
AT NIGHT, AS I was driving into Brunswick, the Georgia-Pacific pulp and paper plant had suddenly appeared across the estuary like an amber-lit ship, silently mired in smog. Up close by daylight it is a hissing and booming money machine, a mechanical herbivore truck-fed and fattened on the thousands of square miles of private timber that lie inland between Tifton and Brunswick, where the soil converges off the highway in a monotony of gray furrows broken along the way only by vast tracts of pines, perfectly spaced and ripe for harvest.
“I think big industry and people can live together,” said Daniel Parshley. This seemed an unlikely statement, considering that the contraption before us represented an industry that annually accounts for the largest share of known total toxic releases in Georgia.
Parshley, a Brunswick community activist, has also just toured us past a chemical plant that was leaking chlorine gas, a creek once so polluted that the shrimpers used to moor their boats there to kill the sea worms, several tidal inlets where the local residents can no longer eat the fish or crabs, and two federal Superfund sites.
The Hercules 009 landfill, built over marshland, is as disturbing as it is unimposing. A mall, a car dealership, fast food joints, a strip plaza, an elementary school and a day-care center border this pleasant grassy lot, the remaining undeveloped ground in the heart of Brunswick’s new commercial zone. Underneath are 19,300 tons of toxaphene-contaminated waste legally buried there between 1975-80 by local Hercules Inc., which makes, among other products, additives for chewing gum. Toxaphene, a banned insecticide, is a 670-chemical compound and a known immunosuppressant in animals.
There is a trailer court less than a hundred yards away, with nothing unusual about the modest sandy lots except, maybe, that the fire ants will not nest there. And sometimes the pigeons in Pam Whittington’s yard inexplicably pick up and die.
Her children, she says, used to romp in fascination behind the incoming Hercules trucks, and for years played barefoot between the trailers. At least one of her children has underdeveloped kidneys, and some of the adults black out and pass blood without proper medical reason.
“There is so much we don’t know about what we are doing to ourselves, the anxiety is as bad as anything,” says Parshley, whose Glynn Environmental Coalition (GEC) is exemplary of the most resurgent wave of grass-roots environmentalism, founded out of a belief that saving humans is now as critical as saving fish and birds.
The movement is distinguished by local citizens like Parshley (although a marked number of them are women, mothers who view the environment as a human-health issue), schooling themselves in fields ranging from toxicology, hydrology and chemistry, to environmental law and federal aid. The GEC, for example, has logged over 500 volunteer hours to secure a $50,000 federal grant, one of the first such in the South, to begin cleaning up their own back yard.
“I find there’s two types of people involved,” says Parshley, whose activism has made him unemployable as an environmental consultant to industry, and more than once brought the ridicule of his own family. “Those who can get past the frustrated stage, they might become active. But most people are what I call venters. They come to our meetings because they are afraid. They scream and yell and say their bit. And then they never come back.
“You have to stay focused.”
SOMEONE ONCE SAID that people say they feel helpless only to justify the fact that they help less. And I must admit that despite Parshley and others’ optimistic message that individuals can make a difference, I often find myself overwhelmed for want of answers. I am mostly a venter.
But the essence of the long flat miles between Brunswick and Savannah is one of purity and reassurance. Bald cypress, Spanish moss and saw grass, buzzards climbing coastal thermals, manatees and egrets (always the egrets hunting shrimp in the mud flats), swimming mammals and flying fish evoke the ambiguity between fresh- and saltwater, between land, sea and air.
Halfway to Savannah I stopped at the McIntosh County dump. I had heard there was a recent landfill fight there, typical of the dozens being waged in small rural communities against private waste handlers that would like to open a new generation of commercial landfills and waste incinerators in the South. Many are Northern waste handlers, giving rise to what one Sierra Club report has dubbed “An Uncivil War.”
McIntosh County dump looks like nothing more than, well, what we do with our garbage. But the problem arises out of what one cannot see simply by looking at a big hole in the swamp full of trash.
The wholesale shift of waste-management responsibilities from the government to the private sector over the last few decades gives rise in environmental circles to the hands-down favorite conspiracy theory of perpetuating waste through the free market, one that implicates government regulators, captains of industry, environmental consulting firms and organized crime.
Nonetheless, the tangible concern is what happens when we turn waste—from household garbage to toxic ash collected from industrial flues—into a commodity, especially in a political economy now as complex as the fluid web of the estuary itself.
Every waste generator and every commercial waste-management interest in the world is connected through the free market system, and the bottom line is that as long as there is profit to be made by building commercial mega-landfills and hazardous waste incinerators, there will be waste, and alternatives such as recycling and pollution reduction will suffer.
Waste seems to be the natural side effect of an economy founded on narrow self-interest. And this thought is punctuated by the briny, rotten egg smell of Savannah just ahead.
Brick and wood dentils, stained glass and white steeples, the ghosts of Oglethorpe, Bartram, and the Creek confederacy make Georgia’s oldest settlement a time-heavy place. A fortress of cranes that load globe-trotting tankers, and the heaving boilers, smokestacks and storage tanks of 163 factories providing for 17,400 people in the most polluted county in the state, make Savannah a corroded place, too.
On Saturday night, the air is thick with salt. The river shows a skin of oil, iridescent under the streetlamps, and soldiers from nearby Fort Stewart dominate the port’s historic district. They stick mostly to themselves and their girls, but with talk of another visit to the Middle East by year’s end, seem to spoil for conflict in all directions. Across the plastic cafe table is one of those ever-ready, trained-to-kill faces gone slack with beer. Riled by the sappy Dixieland band on the corner, or perhaps just inspired by his mere association with World Power, he suddenly musters a defiant proclamation.
“Rock is dead! It’s industrial music now.”
He tried to pick a fight at the table and then left. I drank to forget, and then left the whole town come morning, slowing once atop the great suspension bridge that crosses into South Carolina for a final survey of the city, spreading like a canker sore at the mouth of a river that drains 10,000 square miles of some of the lushest land in North America.
Just beyond the bridge there is a daisy-eyed girl in a cotton top selling peaches. “Don’t you want to buy some peaches?” She holds her hair off the back of her hot neck and sighs, “Just one?” They are robust, nuclear peaches, but she has no idea what or where the Savannah River atomic plant is. “Sorry, I never heard of it.”
I bought two big fuzzy peaches, and stopped later in one of those sandhill towns that molder in the cypress and hyacinth bogs of the coastal plain, with a painted water tower and a JESUS IS COMING sign on the outskirts of town, and I ate lunch at Grandma’s Diner. In the back room, Grandma showed off a pumpkin her son had grown. It was the size of a large-block engine, so I figured I must be close.
The Savannah River Site (SRS), however, is an even easier thing to find than to see. The only public evidence of Uncle Sam’s dilapidated nuclear plant, one of the largest of its kind in the world, is a bell-shaped tower hovering over the tree line. Once on the actual through road the facility is obscured by dense woods and ominous signage: MAKE SECURITY YOUR BUSINESS! . . . FORESIGHT GUIDES EYESIGHT. … NO STOPPING OR STANDING … And at the exit: NO HITS, NO ERRORS, HOME SAFE.
The 300-square-mile facility hides 35 million gallons of radioactive waste in underground storage tanks, many of which are cracked. There are 313 identified contaminated waste sites on the property. SRS has had and still has frequent releases of radiation to the air and water since it was built, in 1956, on top of several earthquake faults and a major aquifer.
The five reactors have been shut down, and estimates for cleanup run into the tens, maybe hundreds of billions of dollars. Yet the Department of Energy (dubous auspices since SRS has never made one watt of electrical power—it makes tritium and plutonium for nuclear warheads) is pouring more money into upgrading the plant’s production capabilities, specifically the K reactor, to fold SRS into the nation’s 21st-century nuclear supersite complex.
Augusta is upstream of the plant, and has lobbied hard for the DOE’s agenda because of the jobs it would provide. There I spoke by pay phone with a man who already works at the plant. He would not be identified, and actually wanted to talk more about the problems with private industry in Augusta. He talked about the intense conflict between the city and county water authorities, and of the 11 existing Richmond county wells within three marshy miles of 32,000 tons of mercury-contaminated waste in unlined dumps. He talked about how if a paper factory uses chlorine gas to bleach its pulp, then the by-product, dioxin, one of the most poisonous substances known to man, will be present in the paper towels, coffee filters and computer papers that the company makes.
It is a tough interview to keep on track, one full of pauses and static and talk about stripper wells and microbes genetically engineered to gobble up toxins, and about substances that cause human genes to jump track.
But what I wanted to know was if he prayed.
“Yes. I mean, I called earlier, but Ann said you would probably be at church. So what I want to know is, since you work at the nuclear plant, does it ever enter your prayers?”
Another pause, then a broken, pay phone answer.
“We do live right across the river from it … if they ever had a major leak … I mean . . . since I believe God has given man the earth to protect . . . well … I worry about what kind of future my children will have.”
I DO NOT KNOW why I drove on to Rabun County in northwest Georgia. Maybe the longer one drives toward the Blue Ridge, the farther into them one has to go. The only sure thing is that nearly everybody, even without full understanding of the fact that a society at odds with land is a society at odds with itself, is intuitively linked to the interconnectedness that mountains represent. Maybe that is why we call them a chain.
Bob Alexander stopped the truck for a moment to unload his .38-caliber pistol. But Bob usually carries it loaded to the woods in Rabun County now, especially since two timberjacks were arrested for beating up Bruce Hare, who chained himself to a tree to protest the clear-cutting, and because, Bob says, you just never know on these logging roads.
“They’re going to burn this county down,” says Alexander, a 47-year resident of a county that is almost entirely U.S. National Forest. He is also a founder of the Rabun County Coalition to Save the Forests. “They get tired of the government not listening and laughing at them, and people start burning. If we can’t change things legally, somebody’s going to get hurt.”
“People control is what it’s about,” says his buddy Earl Cannon, whose back yard has always been the hip of a mountain that at one time was as high as any peak in the Rockies. Earl was on the beach at Normandy. He has gone to church all his life, and stayed active in politics and tried to do what’s right.
“The Forest Service builds a road. They go in there and [clear cut] every tree in sight to the ground. They spray herbicides. And then they put a locked gate across it because they don’t want people to know what’s going on. Pretty soon you won’t camp nowhere but on that Bartram trail. And there won’t be a hardwood tree up here, ’cept along the highway to hide the clear-cuts from the tourists.”
Under the National Forest Management Act, the U.S. Forest Service must “preserve the diversity of tree species similar to that existing in the region. …” Yet the visual evidence suggests that they are ignoring that mandate. These mountain hardwoods have been selectively and sustainably logged for over a century. But the last few decades of clear-cutting have facilitated the growth of expanding tracts of plantation type pines. With pressure to log national forests potentially shifting from the Pacific Northwest back to traditional Southern wood-basket states like Georgia, Bob Alexander wonders whether the biologically rich forests of maple, hickory and oak will ever be allowed to re-establish themselves over the sterile cash-crop pines.
“They want to turn these mountains into tree farms, just like south Georgia,” he says bitterly.
The immediate scene, however, is of an entire Appalachian ecosystem on the verge of collapse. As the headwater mountain tops are scalped, rain runs off the hillsides rather than being stored in the massive hardwood trunks. Drinking wells must be sunk deeper and deeper to strike the water table. The blue, icy swimming holes that Junior Crowe could once dive forever into are now tepid pockets of silt. Beetles infest the sickly pine trees.
Citizens carry guns and matches.
And the last of the Foxfire folk sit and rock on tumbledown porches, stubbornly refusing to be driven into the light, even though the motorized racket and the taste of grit, oil and sawdust drives them to tearful, angry phone calls to Bob Alexander, and even though the spring lizards and wild trout and Coosa bass are up and leaving already.
DROPPING OUT OF THE mountain hollows toward home, finally, my own daydreams reveal the rude fact that, for most of us, the automobile has become an organ of deep thought seemingly as necessary as the brain itself. People see insights, visions, and sometimes The Way as plainly as the broken white line beyond the bumper. I think, however, that for the most part, the world just rolls past, making no more demands on reality than the celluloid world of movies.
In 1990, when the Newtown Florist Club was collecting money for funeral arrangements in one of Gainesville’s southside neighborhoods, they never suspected what they were about to find out. Cargill Feed Mill was there, just beyond the trees. Purina was right out the back window. For years they had breathed the hot mealy smell of cooking soybean, and the grayish fallout that layered the cars and porches. And old-timers said that the mysterious yard sinkholes were probably from the old, abandoned landfill over which the historically black neighborhood had been built.
“We just never talked about it,” says Faye Bush, a member of the Florist Club. After delivering enough flower arrangements to enough homes, however, she and other club members soon saw the pattern. Their subsequent door-to-door survey of 40 nearby homes revealed 38 cases of illnesses: 18 cancer, three lupus, 12 asthma, two emphysema, one tuberculosis, one collapsed lung and one brain tumor, all in the Newtown area.
When the club presented their survey to local and state government officials, the findings were dismissed as the result of too much smoking and drinking among the black folk. There is abundant documentation, however, that all across America minorities have been subjected to a disproportionately high amount of pollution. The practice of locating landfills, factories, hazardous-waste incinerators and other environmental stressors in low-income and minority communities is most blatant in the South.
Eight of the 10 Gainesville factories that report toxic releases, for example, are located on the predominately black south side of town, and contribute 92 percent of all toxic releases. They are primarily Caucasian-owned businesses. Seventy-three percent of reported releases from these businesses are within a 1.5-mile radius of the Newtown neighborhood, all of it air pollution, all of it legal.
“All we could think of when they brought these factories in here in the ’50s was jobs,” says Faye Bush, a nonsmoker who has had a lymph node removed from her throat, lupus, and triple bypass surgery. “We didn’t think they were going to build factories that would kill us.”
With the help of Atlanta-based Eco-Action, Bush and a few other residents here are trying to galvanize the Newtown community. They have drawn up nonbinding contracts to reduce pollution, which they will submit to local industries. “But most blacks don’t say nothing. They are not aware of the dangers,” says Faye Bush. “And I don’t know what’s happened to our black men.”
By contrast, north Fulton county’s 30318 zip code is dotted with million-dollar mansions. Other neighborhoods in the area are enclaves of smaller homes overhung with ivy and magnolia so thick that the shade itself seems to be growing.
But the single element that for 10,000 years held the Creek Indians here at a trading place called Standing Peachtree, is also the coveted lifeblood of big industry: the Chattahoochee River. And today, less than a mile away, bucolic old suburbia gives way to a post-industrial jungle of blowing brown dust, asphalt, chemical and landfill stink, sewage treatment plants, ash fallout from Georgia Power’s Plant McDonough, heavy truck traffic, vacant shops, vagrancy, and crime. Zip code 30318 is one of the most abused land tracts in the state.
“You smell that?” asked Elena Fash, a lifelong resident of the area. She took another cautious sniff out the car window, pointing her nose toward the steely white smoke that drifts from Atlanta’s sewage sludge incinerator. “Doesn’t that make you jittery?”
She is jittery anyway, born with hyperactivity, she says. But the acrid smoke puts even more zing in her nervous system and makes her wonder if the air that she has breathed all her life is what now makes her joints ache so badly. She could pack up and leave, but instead she networks with local community activists, organizes meetings, and pulls public records from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division files. She writes letters to government officials that read like scientific reports.
“I grew up learning that you just got involved,” says Fash, the daughter of former Georgia GOP representative Bob Shaw. “But most people don’t know how to use the system, because nobody teaches them. And I think that another reason we have so many problems is that our social conservatism makes Southerners feel like they are not supposed to go past the gate or the fence or the keep-out sign to find out what’s going on there in the factory.”
Nonetheless, 30318 and the immediate area is a formidable opponent. There are more than 20 uncontrolled toxic waste sites, several leaking city and commercial landfills, an asphalt plant, a cement factory that Fash and others recently blocked from burning hazardous waste to fire its kilns, a coal fired power plant, three brick factories, two sewage treatment plants, numerous chemical manufacturing facilities and a sprawling rail yard that allows Atlanta to handle and distribute one of the largest inventories of toxic substances in the nation. Dozens and dozens of other smaller but equally inappropriate businesses are located in the small industrial parks that flank the river. Woodall and Peachtree Creek, in the heart of the community, receive much of Atlanta’s combined sewage overflow. And this is only one of the many industrialized sectors of Atlanta.
But land-use conflict in 30318 is of particular concern because right in the middle of that zone sits Atlanta Water Works. Once pumped from the river just a few yards upstream of the Atlanta sewage treatment plant, Atlanta’s drinking water is stored in two open reservoirs, natural magnates of clean water that attract pollutants from the air and through the soil by diffusion.
Down a dead-end street, behind the west reservoir, there is an empty warehouse and an oily bog of reddish water, a catch basin where the Niagara National Corp. chemical company used to wash out its barrels. A couple of years ago, says Fash, a local woman crept onto the property to bottle up some samples from the abandoned bog, about 10 yards off the reservoir levee. The water melted her latex gloves.
One way or another, it seems we are now all downstream. ✦