Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Georgia weekly leads David vs. Goliath battle against proposed disposal of coal ash in landfill

The Press-Sentinel, a twice-weekly newspaper in southwestern Georgia, has spent the better part of 2016 leading the crusade to stop coal ash from being dumped in a landfill in Wayne County (Wikipedia map), home county of Dink NeSmith, president of Athens-based Community Newspapers Inc., which owns the paper.

Some say allowing coal ash in the landfill will boost the local economy through host fees and rail-yard jobs, but others fear the hazards of having toxic materials nearby. County Commissioner Mike Roberts, who said commissioners knew little to nothing about coal ash before the issue arose, said it will take help from state and federal officials to keep coal ash out of the landfill. He told Derby Waters of The Press-Sentinel that it's "the federal government we are fighting, and it’s not an easy fight. We won’t stop fighting it."

Wayne County residents say they fear having coal ash in the vicinity, Candice McKinley writes for The Press-Sentinel. Local resident Judy Butts told her, "We didn't bargain for a mountain of coal ash. We settled in a place with few people and few distractions, because that's the lifestyle we wanted to live. We are scared now that we will no longer have that."

The Press-Sentinel, which is behind a paywall, published a 20-page special section about the controversy on March 12. It included stories, opinions, cartoons, photographs, maps, public notices of meetings, letters to the editor, a timeline of events, a list of Wayne County officials and their contact information, and no advertising, making the section a big investment for the paper. It later ran a full page that included photos of local officials and their views of the proposal.

The story began Jan. 4, when a South Carolina company applied to the Army Corps of Engineers for a permit for a rail spur to dump coal ash in 250 acres of the Republic Services landfill. Officials and residents in Wayne County were not informed of the permit application, despite a required public-comment period. The Corps, which merely put a notice of the application on its website, is involved because the applicant "proposed a discharge of dredged materials into almost 25 acres of jurisdictional wetlands," Waters wrote. "It proposed to construct at rail-yard operation including unloading structures, rail-car wash down stations, parking and an office."

An environmental lobbyist told the newspaper he had seen the notice on the Corps website. In January the county commission asked the Corps for a public meeting on the plan. Officials were concerned that the application was limited to basic information about the physical operation, but nothing about environmental and safety issues or where the coal ash and other materials would come from, Waters reported. Officials also met with Republic officials to find out more about their plans, and discovered that Republic is a subsidiary of Central Virginia Properties, the permit applicant. Commission Chair Kevin Copeland told Waters that Republic was opposed to a public meeting, claiming it was properly licensed to take in coal ash.

In February the commission approved funding for a landfill study and the Corps extended the comment period, after prompting from state leaders. In March, Republic agreed to meet with county elected officials as part of an open house at the landfill.

Meanwhile, The Press-Sentinel learned that if coal ash is dumped in the landfill Republic "could be faced with thousands of dollars in penalties for breaching the terms of timberland conservation easements it now claims when paying county property taxes," Waters writes. For the past seven years "the company has saved in property taxes by making use of conservation easements. The penalty the company could have to pay were all the easements removed at one time could be $326,406."

Dwayne Powell has done many cartoons for the paper. 
The fight has already reaped some rewards, Drew Davis reports for The Press-Sentinel. Legislation by state Rep. Bill Werkheiser (R-Glennville) to require greater transparency, after an apparent leak in the landfill was never reported, was signed into law last month. "The bill requires landfill owners and operators to notify local officials and the county legal organ of toxic leaks."

The fight is an example of the power and value of community newspapers that live up to their responsibilities. "If it is a newspaper’s duty to print the news and raise hell, the Press-Sentinel is answering the call and rattling Satan’s rafters," Teri Saylor reports for Publisher's Auxiliary, the newspaper of the National Newspaper Association.

NeSmith "vows to never stop until he has accomplished three goals: to extract a guarantee from Republic Services that no coal ash will ever be brought into Wayne County; to convince the Corps of Engineers to deny the permit for the rail spur; and to convince the county to renegotiate its contract with Republic, imposing strict rules on the volume and type of solid waste the landfill is allowed to accept," Saylor writes. He told her, “If I were on my deathbed, I’d get up and keep fighting. I will do whatever it takes, and then some. If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere.”

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