The Altamaha River rambles for 137 miles through Georgia toward the Atlantic Ocean. Only five roads and two rail lines cross it, leaving the river mostly in a natural state. More than 125 species of rare or endangered plants and animals exist along its welcoming banks, as legions of birds soar overhead.
The Altamaha River Partnership describes the river's idyllic residents:
"The shortnose sturgeon and the manatee swim through the Altamaha's lazy meanders. The gopher tortoise and the eastern indigo snake coexist among its sand ridges, and the sandbars and sloughs are home to seven species of pearly mussels that live nowhere else in the world."
With a population of just over 10,000, the small town of Jesup sits on the banks of the Altamaha deep in southeast Georgia in Wayne County. There's an Amtrak station, a drive-in movie theater and some of the best catfishing in the state.
But Jesup's been in the news recently for something not so wholesome: coal ash.
More than 20 years ago, the Wayne County Commission approved a deal for a landfill in Broadhurst, about 10 miles south of Jesup. Although the Broadhurst Environmental Landfill started out as a place for household waste, according to the Bitter Southerner, the dump was soon purchased by waste company Republic Services. Not only did the acreage of the site expand, but so did its business model.
The site grew from about 900 to 2,200 acres and, for at least eight years, the landfill has quietly accepted coal ash with little uproar from the community, reports the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
What is coal ash?
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, coal ash is primarily the byproduct of coal-burning in coal-fired power plants. With 110 million tons of coal ash generated in 2012, coal ash is one of the main types of industrial waste generated in the U.S.
And it's not without possible dangers. The EPA says, "Coal ash contains contaminants like mercury, cadmium and arsenic. Without proper management, these contaminants can pollute waterways, ground water, drinking water, and the air."
Large coal ash spills near Eden, North Carolina, and Kingston, Tennessee, caused "widespread environmental and economic damage to area waterways and properties," according to the EPA, which demonstrated why federal regulation was necessary for coal ash disposal.
However in October 2015, the EPA defined coal ash as non-hazardous, and many people weren't happy. The rules allow for coal ash to be disposed in lined landfills, but include restrictions about where new landfills can be built and require monitoring to uphold new standards.
Back to Georgia
Community members in Wayne County, Georgia, have been vocal about not bringing more coal ash to the Broadhurst Environmental Landfill. This is what mounds of coal ash look like at the Cane Run Power Plant in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo: Censusdata/Wikimedia Commons)
Wayne County makes $1.80 for every ton of trash that comes into the landfill. Broadhurst took in a total of 800,000 tons — about 200 to 300 tons every day — of coal ash until it quit accepting it in 2014, according to the AJC.
In January 2016, Central Virginia Properties, a subsidiary of Republic, applied for a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to tear up about 25 acres of wetlands adjacent to the landfill to build a railyard. The railyard would let trains dump up to 10,000 tons of coal ash every day. The application did not specify where the coal ash would come from.
The growth would put millions of dollars into an unwealthy area's coffers, but along with it could come potential health and environmental issues.
"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," points out writer and author Janisse Ray, who lives about 45 minutes from Jesup, and who covered the story for the Bitter Southerner.
"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," Ray writes.
"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."
Community members are working together to fight coal ash dumping in Wayne County. (Photo: Georgia Climate Change Coalition/Facebook)
In Wayne County, the community isn't just quietly accepting a sooty fate. Residents and elected officials have had meetings, being very vocal about their opposition to coal ash. They have accused Republic of trying to sneak their plans by them.
“They generally target poor, rural communities and hope they can wave some money under our noses and slip it past us,” Dink NeSmith, owner of a chain of community newspapers including The Jesup Press-Sentinel, told county commissioners during a community meeting.
“If we just wanted to get rich, we’d turn to trafficking dope or pornography. We need to find the right stone to bring down Goliath.”
A warning story
There was a 25-foot wall of ash about 1 mile from the retention pond in Kingston, Tennessee, after a monstrous coal ash spill in 2008. (Photo: Brian Stansberry/Wikimedia Commons)
The Arrowhead Landfill in Uniontown, Alabama, took coal ash after an infamous coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee, in 2008.
Barbara Evans describes Uniontown in a story for Physicians for Social Responsibility:
The coal ash came into Uniontown by rail, and soon there was a mountain of coal ash visible from miles away. Today, blowing ash can cover automobiles — taking paint off the roofs of vehicles — and the small gardens and fruit trees residents need for survival. At certain times of day, it has an acrid smell that is horrendous. When it rains (and the rains in Alabama are often torrential), the ditches are full of run-off from the dump. It stinks.
For every ton of coal ash that came into Uniontown, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) made $1, Evans writes. Although the county made $4 million, Uniontown, home of the dump, saw little of that money. Although community members packed public hearings in protest, the dump's permit was renewed in 2011.
Quality of life has certainly changed in the area, Evans writes.
"No longer do residents sit out on their porches enjoying the country air. People have stopped planting gardens because they are afraid to eat what they grow. Fruit trees don’t produce like they used to, and people are afraid to eat the fruit. Small farmers are afraid for themselves and their farm animals. In a place where black folks had to struggle so hard for the right to vote and own property, residents can’t move because their land is now worthless and unsalable. Buzzards in huge quantities blacken the sky, droppings falling over yards and roofs. It is a community destroyed."
And residents are starting to complain about health issues, like respiratory illnesses and even cancer.
“People in Uniontown have all kinds of health problems that they didn’t have before,” Ester Calhoun, president of Black Belt Citizens for Health & Justice, Alabama, tells Environmental Health News. “I am only 51 years old and I have neuropathy. The neurologist said that it may be caused by lead, and it is not going to get better.”
In this impoverished community, coal ash was considered a windfall. County commissioners thought the funds and jobs it brought in would help improve citizen lives, Calhoun said. Instead, she says, there were social, health and environmental costs to the people and the land. No one, she said, informed the public about the possible hazards.
America's trash bin
And Uniontown isn't the only place where coal ash has invaded the community, causing health and environmental fears.
According to a combined report from Physicians for Social Responsibility and the nonprofit environmental law group Earthjustice, the EPA has formally identified 63 “proven and potential” damage cases where coal ash poison has contaminated drinking water, wetlands, creeks or rivers. Earthjustice and the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project documented another 70 cases shown to have caused contamination.
Back in South Georgia, the people of Wayne County look at what has happened in Uniontown and other communities when coal ash comes to town.
"We do not want it here," County Commission Chairman Kevin Copeland told the AJC. "Would the community get more money out of it? Yes, but at what costs? There's no amount of money is worth my citizens' health."
Newspaper owner NeSmith said he's never seen the community this united … or this horrified.
"We would become the trash bin for America," he said.