COVER STORY

Mouthful of ASHES

Residents wonder if they have a voice in county's decision to store coal-burning waste in local landfill

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Kim Morgan is superintendent of the Brantley County School System in Nahunta, Georgia, a community of 1,056 people 25 miles west of Brunswick, about 70 miles north of Jacksonville. She grew up in Nahunta, the Brantley County seat, and she worked the last 23 years as an eighth-grade math teacher and an assistant principal before taking over the district’s top job; now she oversees seven schools and 3,500 students.

Three days before Christmas, Morgan had a choice: attend the Brantley High School basketball game or a public meeting at the courthouse, where a crowd was gathering to oppose a developer’s plan to carve out a municipal landfill on 463 acres south of U.S. 82 near two elementary schools, including one about a half-mile away. The plan raised alarm among residents over a tandem effort to transport and store coal ash, the toxic waste left over from burning coal to produce electricity.

There is reason for concern, say environmentalists.

Landfills and manmade ponds that store coal-burning waste, like ash and scrubber sludge, can contaminate waterways and soil when a hole forms in the protective liner, allowing toxic material to leak through, or when waste seeps into unprotected ground, says Amelia Shenstone of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. She says the waste contains a range of heavy metals, such as arsenic, lead, boron, mercury and chromium, the poisonous compound many people learned about in movie theaters watching Erin Brockovich.

“Coal ash looks like the ash that’s left in the fireplace, but it is pretty toxic stuff,” she said by phone.

Along with its proximity to schools, the landfill would be near private wells and local waterways, including the Satilla River, Little Satilla River and its coastal tributaries. Residents and environmentalists believe the facility poses serious danger to the local drinking water. Many of Brantley County’s 19,242 residents are on well systems and there’s a groundswell of anger concerning the reasons government officials allowed property once considered for residential use to become a heavy industrial site and potential dumping ground for hazardous waste. Coal ash can also pollute the air.

Since the plan became public in late December, opposition has been growing. People have been attending government meetings and reaching out to local authorities, state officials and state environmental agencies. The state Environmental Protection Division says it has been inundated with messages from residents who don’t want the landfill.

Shenstone, whose focus is on the storage of coal ash at power plants, well understands the significant dangers at landfills and said citizens should be vigilant.

“They should be asking their government questions and collecting as many documents as they can find to see how this landfill will be designed,” she said. “This is dangerous stuff for our water.”

Satilla Riverkeeper Laura Early agrees. Though new to the job, Early believes that coal ash is a disaster for the waterway. “We’re keeping watch for now because the application is so new, but protection is important,” she said.

Estimates vary, but at least 100 people, perhaps as many as 200, attended the Dec. 22 public hearing at the county courthouse to oppose the plan. It’s difficult to gauge the size of the crowd with any certainty because the meeting was privately organized by developer Brantley County Development Partners, the Atlanta-based group of five equity firms behind the landfill. No one from the public or local government recorded the meeting and names were not collected. The company filed a permit application for a solid waste handling facility with the state on Dec. 29, apparently believing it had satisfied public meeting requirements. The county maintains it has not. The developer did not respond to repeated telephone and electronic requests for comment.

While Morgan, the school superintendent, skipped the public meeting to attend the basketball game, she finds the landfill proposal unsettling.

Morgan said school officials are concerned that coal ash contaminants in water can seriously harm the health of those who drink it and use it, and that the dangers are especially great in children, who can suffer permanent brain damage from exposure to toxic substances, like lead. The school board discussed the landfill in January; on Feb. 13, it adopted a resolution opposing the plan, saying the landfill’s proximity to local schools would not be in the best interests of students, faculty and administrators. Its main concern, said Morgan, was water quality. The schools are on a well system.

“We weren’t convinced the water would be safe,” she said.

The board’s resolution draws an important distinction: Members did not agree to oppose the landfill; rather, they agreed the current site plan is unsuitable because of its proximity to schools. The document includes longitude and latitude information for the landfill as well as its mileage from several schools. Waynesville Elementary School is less than a mile from the site and Atkinson Elementary School is within two miles of the proposed facility.

“This is about distance,” said Morgan.

The district did not propose an alternate site. But the developers own about 2,400 acres north and south of U.S. 82, the main road into the county from I-95.

As it turns out, a detailed map may be the sharpest weapon in the fight to block the landfill.

An environmental lawyer hired by the county in January has said buffer zones around residential areas, schools, wells and architectural sites would successfully block development on some of the acreage proposed for the site, though it is not expected to cover the entire property.

Amanda Durden, who moved with her husband and six kids to Nahunta last year from Jacksonville Beach with plans to start a farm on their 10 acres, wants the landfill stopped, not moved to another location.

“This is going to affect more than Brantley County,” she said. “Do people realize how dangerous this is for Nassau, Duval and Clay counties and how catastrophic it will be to the environment if something happens?”

Durden has knocked on neighbors’ doors to spread the word about the potential landfill. She is often met with silence. “Am I the only one bothered by this?” she asked. “This wouldn’t happen in Jacksonville Beach. People there would’ve stopped this in five seconds.”

Durden, who also opposes plans for incinerating waste, is angry at the officials who zoned the large land tract for high industrial use in 2016. “They sit up there like they’re so clean,” she said. “If this company fills out the paperwork correctly, they’re going to get the permit.”

Durden says she’ll seek legal action against the county if the landfill is approved. “There should be somebody protecting my rights and safety,” she said.

Former County Commissioner Mike Edgy stated in published reports last year that he supported the landfill after the Federal Emergency Management Agency raised the need for a local site to dump debris after a hurricane. Edgy, who could not be reached for comment, has publicly maintained that coal ash was not part of the plan when he agreed to industrial zoning.
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WHAT EXACTLY WAS THE PLAN?
don’t know,” said former County Manager Carl Rowland, who was dismissed April 6 by the County Commission after four-and-a-half years on the job. “[The developer] came up here several times and proposed several ideas.”

The suggestions included warehouses, a call center and a waste energy program, he said.

“They were not specific when they talked to us, but a waste energy program can be as simple as solar panels,” he said, in an April 3 phone interview.

Rowland says the developer also talked about a diesel fuel processing facility, but never mentioned a coal ash facility. “They never did say that,” he said.

Rowland says the developer asked the county for a heavy industrial land-use designation and the County Commission agreed. On Sept. 8, the board adopted its first countywide land-use designation ordinance. According to Rowland, the ordinance requires compatibility with adjacent and nearby properties, like “sound, smell and noise.”

“It’s a powerful document with protections,” he said.

Rowland added that any request for a landfill permit must be approved by the county planning board and the County Commission. “There are layers of approval,” he said.

Rowland said he had been instructed not to contact the developer because of the potential for litigation. His dismissal was supported by the local Republican Party Chair Jonathan Thornton, who called for transparency and accountability to ‘build a better Brantley,’ on the organization’s Facebook page. Thornton also announced plans to run for the County Commission in 2018.

In November 2014, Rowland sent letters to the developer’s engineering firm saying the property for the proposed solid-waste handling facility was consistent with the county’s land-use plan and five-year short-term work program for 2010-2019. “Brantley County at the present time does not have a zoning ordinance,” he wrote in the letter.

He says it still doesn’t.

Megan Desrosiers, executive director of One Hundred Miles, a nonprofit organization tasked with watching and preserving Georgia’s 100-mile coastline, called the county’s effort to OK high industrial land use “the biggest mistake.”

According to Desrosiers, landfill developers are known to target low-income rural counties and are often attracted by ‘tipping fees’ at landfills. “The county gets a cut and that sweetens the pot,” she said. “These developers come in and offer an economic incentive to a community that is starved for business and anything looks good.”

State lawmakers, she says, are concerned with storing coal ash on the flood plain. “There’s a huge industry starting to gain momentum for the transportation and storage of coal ash and if we don’t put our foot down, our rural communities are going to suffer,” she said.

In nearby Wayne County, about 30 miles from Nahunta, residents worried about safe drinking water received good news earlier this month when the operator of a local landfill suddenly announced that it had dropped plans to accept more coal ash at the facility. Republic Services, which owns and operates the Broadhurst Environmental Landfill, south of Jesup, said in an April 5 announcement that it wanted to be a good neighbor and was withdrawing a 2015 request to amend its solid-waste handling permit with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division to accept more toxic waste. The landfill is said to have stored nearly a million tons of coal ash.

Brantley Development Partners purchased the land in December 2014 in a bank foreclosure sale for $2.6 million; the value has been assessed at $1.8 million, according to the assessor’s office.

The developer is registered with the Georgia Secretary of State; its registered agent is C. Lee Woodall. The Atlanta address listed for the company is also used by other limited liability companies for which Woodall is the registered agent, including Southwood Development Company, Equity Resource Partners, Chen Timber and Chen Development Company.

According to Southwood Development’s website, southwooddev.com, the companies develop retail, residential and timberland properties throughout the Southeast and have been involved in more than one billion dollars in transactions. The website says Equity Resource Partners was organized to reinvest in distressed property and non-performing loans. “Since 2008, Equity Resource Partners has bought or sold more than $300,000,000 in distressed assets,” the site states. The company has members with strong business connections around Georgia, according to its contact page, which lists Asa Candler VII, a descendent of Coca-Cola’s founder, as part of the organization.

Waynesville resident Steve Smith, who has lived in the county for nine years and says his wife’s family has been there for 30 years, is outraged about the landfill.

“If the citizens of this county realized the amount of pollutants going into the river, there’d be nobody in this county who isn’t outraged,” he said.
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“THEY’VE GIVEN UP”
In early March, Smith drove Folio Weekly around the landfill site. The undeveloped parcel is filled with trees and wetlands. He started south of U.S. 82 along Waynesville Road, and turned off at a subdivision nestled around the eastern edge of the property. The homes looked tidy, but more prosperous days are a thing of the past. The community’s front gate had toppled into the weeds, sections of a once-stately landmark sign had fallen down and the roadway was deeply pitted.

Smith next stopped on the western edge of the site, along C.R. 110, at an empty two-story house, with a broad deck overlooking a pond, a swimming pool and a small red barn. A bank notice was on the door.

Smith drove another minute or so along the county road and then turned into a long driveway, passing a recently clear-cut field that curled up to a pretty two-story house. An ATV was parked in the yard and a happy Labrador ran across the grass. Hearing the car, owner Jay Sweat came outside. Smith knows Sweat. The men talked easily; Smith asked Sweat, a guidance counselor for the school district, if he has heard much reaction to the landfill.

“Everybody is on the same page,” he said. “No one wants it.”

So why, said Smith, aren’t residents going to meetings to protest the landfill?

“People are busy. They’ve got stuff going on and just want to go home at the end of the day,” he said.

Sweat’s opinion is that most people are resigned to life with a landfill and believe that meetings, protests and petitions aren’t going to change the inevitable. “They’ve given up,” he said.

Sweat lives in the house his family has owned for decades, but says he may leave the area if the landfill opens for business. His son, he said, is in high school and will soon be off on his own.

Smith understands. But he’s not giving up, for now. Back in the car, he said, “I’m not letting my family stay here with the landfill,” he said. “Our health is too important.”

Brantley is a rural bedroom community for Brunswick, Waycross and Jesup. Smith commutes to his job with an oil company and environmental waste oil recycling company in Jacksonville. Many residents choose to make the commute so they can live a country lifestyle, where lush foliage is a step away from the door and vegetables can be plucked from the backyard garden, if the deer and rabbits can be kept away.

Most jobs in the county are in the service industry or construction; according to the Georgia Department of Labor, the largest employer is Bayview Nursing Home. In 2010, the median household income was reported at $37,928. That year, the average median household income in the U.S. was $51,144.

Low taxes are part of the community’s appeal and the housing stock is relatively inexpensive. With the average home having a value of $109,635, families can get more square footage and acreage for their money than in urban locales, though some will say you get what you pay for. Schools test below the state average and the graduation rate is 74 percent, compared to the national rate of 83.2 percent.

Smith, whose children are home-schooled, believes the county is an ideal locale for ecotourism—presuming there is no landfill. He has a dozen kayaks and plans to open a paddling business on the Satilla River. But he’s holding off until a decision is made about the landfill.

“I’m leaving if it goes through,” he said.

Later that night, after a County Commission meeting in Nahunta, where a resident appealed for a leash law so she wouldn’t have shoot her neighbor’s dog when it gets in her yard, and the board decided 3-2 to pave some roads, Smith met county resident Betty Jean Smith at Jerry J’s Country Café for dinner and to talk with Folio Weekly. The place was crowded, people huddled around plates of fried chicken, steak and fries. Betty Jean, no relation to Steve, is a retired attorney and probably the most outspoken opponent of the landfill. She routinely speaks at meetings and has reported sightings of heavy equipment on the proposed landfill property and what she believes are the beginning stages of a rail spur. The coal ash is expected to be shipped by train, she said. Betty Jean estimates that she has spent four figures researching the landfill, but wouldn’t give an exact amount.

“I spend my time and money because this landfill shouldn’t be here,” she said.

Betty Jean is well-known in the community; within a minute of sitting down, Linda Harris of Nahunta and Tommy Jacobs of Hoboken, both retired, stopped by to say hello. They asked her about the landfill project and promised to help—but said they can’t go to meetings. “Oh, no, we couldn’t stand up in public,” said Harris. After they left, Betty Jean smiled and shrugged. “A lot of people don’t want to get involved,” she said. “It’s a lot of work.”
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Kimberly Hale of Kazmarek Mowrey Cloud Laseter LLP in Atlanta, who was hired by the county in January to help block the developer’s permit request, believes authorities can enforce buffer zones around residential areas, schools and wetlands, up to several miles. She offered remarks to this effect during a status report at a special commission meeting on March 28. About 50 people filled the small boardroom in Nahunta.

Hale said buffer zones would also apply to architectural sites. The county has two properties on the National Register of Historic Places—the courthouse in Nahunta and the Mumford House in Waynesville, the closest landmark to the proposed landfill. Perhaps ironically, the house is nationally recognized for being near local bathhouses where travelers came to soak in the mineral springs in the mid-1800s. Chuck Connors, president of the local historical society, said Mumford House was seriously damaged by fire in 2005 and later razed. He said hunters now rent the land and that the house was removed from the register. “How could a house be on the register when it’s no longer there?” he said by phone.

Hale said buffer rules do not apply to churches and the county can’t outlaw private landfill operations because there are no local rules or zoning restrictions to keep them out of the community.

The news wasn’t all bad. Hale said the developer’s application for a solid-waste facility is not in compliance with the county’s solid-waste management plan and, in her legal opinion, could not be built on the proposed site. Further, Hale said, the developer did not submit or pay appropriate application fees.

She also said the water quality of private wells is important and there are “clear regulations” to protect wells from the “potential for leachate getting into
the groundwater.”

Before Hale could take questions, a man in the back of the room shouted, “Are we winning?” Hale would not be held to a yes or no answer. She said she was working with a “terrific” landfill engineer and more study was needed. She is expected to return for a public meeting in June.

There was a suggestion for the county to buy the property (for $6 million) and questions about the responsibility when the landfill eventually closes. (Nassau County has a 30-year obligation to spend $1 million each year to monitor the West Nassau landfill, which closed in 2013, according to the Public Works department.)

Longtime County Attorney Deen Strickland declared it a good meeting and the audience clapped, pleased that their concerns were being heard.

In January, the board passed a six-month moratorium on taking any action on any type of waste facility. Commissioners, through their attorney, also let the state know they opposed the landfill’s siting. In a Jan. 6 letter to the state Environmental Protection Division, Strickland wrote that officials believe the developer’s public hearing in December was not properly noticed or compliant with the state’s open meeting laws. He also said no quorum of the County Commission was present.

Commissioner Ray Griffin, a retired truck driver and county road maintenance worker, who joined the board in January, says he opposes the landfill.

“I don’t know anyone in the county who wants it,” he said by phone. “It’s close to the Okefenokee Swamp and it could contaminate the swamp. I’ll fight this.”

The permit application, for now, is stalled, according to the state. On Jan. 6, the EPD issued a letter of non-compliance, informing the developer that information was missing from the application. As of March 31, the division had not received any additional documentation from the company, according to Chad Hall, who manages solid-waste management plans.

Betty Jean Smith and other opponents are not waiting around for the company to respond.

“This issue is too important for us to sit back and wait for them to make the next move,” she said.

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