March 24, 2020

Just when we thought we’d seen everything

           Here I sit.
And there you sit.
We are probably doing the same thing, wondering what’s next. Just when we thought we’d seen everything, the coronavirus proves we have not.
            I remember that Tuesday morning, Sept. 11, 2001. As I was walking to the office copier, someone said, “A plane just hit the World Trade Center in New York.” My immediate thought was: “A small plane got into trouble and couldn’t make it to a landing strip.”
            Within minutes, I learned what the world knew: “This was no ordinary plane crash.” By the time we were told terrorists had commandeered and crashed four planes, we knew those evil deeds had turned our world upside down. As the country had been after Japan’s surprise strike on Pearl Harbor, America was stunned. How could this happen to us, the United States?
            I wasn’t alive when the bombs dropped, but my parents told me how Dec. 7, 1941—which FDR described as a day of infamy—changed their lives and the lives of others. I was alive on 9/11, as many of you were, too. Did you ever imagine something this unimaginable would ever happen again?
            And now here’s 2020’s COVID-19 pandemic. Look into the eyes above the masks. See the angst and fear. One day, America is celebrating a robust bull market. The next day, Wall Street starts a downward spiral not seen since 1987’s Black Monday. Some economists believe the market will get even worse before it gets better. Millions of people are wondering whether their jobs and money will survive this real-life horror movie.
But what good is a paycheck or a 401(k) if you are dying from the coronavirus? There are people who minimize what’s going on. I am not one of them. The government might not be able to give us all the assurance we want. That’s why we must depend on common sense and safe practices. Ample amounts of prayer, ingenuity, flexibility, cooperation, compassion and determination will be required for America to rebound. And we will.

We know the social-distancing and wash-your-hands drills. We should heed the advice. I want your family and mine to be able to look back and say, “We did the right things to protect ourselves.”
            At this moment, I am also focusing on economic survival. A key question is “How long will this last?” The best answer is perhaps “Who knows?” I expect circumstances will change. I am viewing the future in 30-day bites. We must get through this month—one day at a time—knowing abrupt battlefield decisions might be necessary.
            Businesses—big and small—are in peril. Consider restaurants, airlines, hotels and brick-and-mortar retail stores. The list is endless. Profits from your spending keep businesses, including this newspaper, in operation so workers can get paid.
Readers in our business are essential, but advertisers are the major source of income. Circulation and advertising profits support the jobs that keep our presses running to keep you informed. Our business is for you to know, especially in times of crisis. We are grateful—more than ever—for your support.
            As I sit here, I’m pondering the stealth attack on our health and our economy. I am sure you are sitting there wondering, too, how we will survive. I am confident that we will endure just as Americans did after Pearl Harbor and 9/11.
            I believe the only approach is by working together, doing what it takes and then some.    That means we must creatively support each other, even if—for the time being—it’s at a safe distance.

March 18, 2020

Juliette underscores dangers of toxic coal-ash pollution

Something green and fried put Juliette on the map.

That was something to celebrate in 1991.

Something grayish-black has put Juliette back on the map.

Now it’s 2020, and there’s nothing to celebrate about the new notoriety.

First, it was Hollywood’s version of Fannie Flagg’s book Fried Green Tomatoes that sent droves to 
Juliette’s Whistle Stop CafĂ©. We craved a taste of the movie’s namesake.

Today, almost no one craves a swig of Juliette’s water for fear of being poisoned. On March 9, I saw that in the faces of more than 200 in Monroe County’s small village. In the parking lot of Maynard Baptist Church, people—filling bottles and jugs from the water trailer—underscored the anxiety.

If you have been snoring through the toxic coal-ash chatter, Juliette says, “Quit hitting the snooze button. Wake up! Rub the sleep out of your eyes. Pay attention!” 

The Middle Georgia Water Alliance has rallied the community to get schooled on coal ash. In Juliette’s backyard is one of America’s biggest coal-fired electric plants. There are who-knows-how-many tons of harmful waste floating in Plant Scherer’s unlined pits. Those coal-ash ponds reach below the ground into the aquifer which provides Juliette’s water source. Some household wells are showing unsafe levels of toxic substances found in coal ash.

During this year’s General Assembly, more than 30 Juliette residents chartered a bus to take their concerns to Georgia’s lawmakers under the Gold Dome. There’s a mad scramble to prove who’s right and who’s wrong. Georgia Power believes there’s no reason for alarm. What I’ve witnessed doesn’t subscribe to that company line.

The volunteer group invited me to their most recent town-hall meeting. To get to Maynard’s sanctuary, I had to drive past that big tank in the parking lot. Pastor Matthew Bishop’s congregation is doing close-to-home missionary work by also supplying free drinking water.

I visited with Chase and Krista Willis, who were filling plastic containers, while their child waited in the car. Krista explained, “We live right at the plant’s entrance. And when our neighbor said her well was tainted, I figured we better stop drinking our well water, too.”

There’s an old saying about the difference in minor and major surgery. It goes, “If you are having surgery, it is minor. But if I’m having surgery, it’s major.” There’s nothing “minor” about what’s happening in Juliette. And that’s how I got the call. Juliette wanted to hear about Wayne County’s crash course on that grayish-black waste, coal ash.

Not one person said Plant Scherer should be shuttered. The good-paying jobs, the local taxes paid and the electricity provided are much appreciated. What Juliette wants is what every community—with a coal-fired plant—should want: a cleaner, safer source of energy. And that starts with prompt and responsible cleanup of the toxic coal-ash waste.

Another thing that I noticed on March 9 was the passionate but respectful way the speakers expressed themselves. Remember Kathy Bates’ VW-smashing character, Towanda, in the Fried Green Tomatoes movieShe wasn’t there. Mike Pless orchestrated a model town-hall gathering.

The moderator asked whether there were any Georgia Power representatives in the audience. No hands were raised, but surely the message will find its way back to Atlanta.

And if Georgia Power listens and does the right thing, that’d be something for Juliette to really celebrate.

March 11, 2020

Ancient cypresses inspire less pollution, more protection

You can’t see these from your car. You have to get into a boat and wend your way through the swamp of “The Amazon of the South.” That’s what we were doing when the whine of our outboard softened to a purr, as our boat gently bumped the base of the towering tree. Reaching over, I patted the bark of the mammoth cypress.
“This tree,” the forester said, “was growing in the Altamaha River swamp when Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1492.” Imagine that. I craned my neck to spy the top. There it was, high above the flood-induced butterscotch waterline lapping our skiff.
River-rafting old-timers would say the Altamaha is on a “hoss.” The incessant North Georgia rains have flooded the Oconee, Ocmulgee and Ohoopee rivers, pushing clay-colored water into the typically green-brown flow of the Altamaha on its way to Darien and beyond.
The “hoss” lets you explore. We were exploring when the forester pointed at an even bigger cypress, one that made the Christopher Columbus tree look like a newcomer. If the four of us boaters had been standing on the ground, we couldn’t have joined hands and reached around the massive trunk. The expert surmised the cypress was growing when Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.
So why am I telling you this?
Those two irreplaceable reminders are on the list of reasons that I love Georgia’s environment. As I travel this state—from our coastal saltwater creeks to the mountain brooks and waterfalls and back to the wiregrass region with longleaf pines— I dream of finding a moss-draped live oak. Under that shaded canopy, I would offer thanks for our God-given diversity of natural resources.
There’s some argument about who first said, “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” Regardless of the credit, I take the message to heart. And when I look into the eyes of our eight grandchildren, I want to do more than just say “amen” to the admonition about our “inheritance.”

That is why I entered—in January 2016—the fight against toxic coal-ash pollution. And for that I have been called an environmental activist. President Theodore Roosevelt was an “environmental activist.” Walk-softly-and-carry-a-big-stick Teddy’s activism protected America’s treasured lands and gave us our national parks.
One person suggested that—because of my activism—I might be a “Bernie Sanders Democrat.”
Americans have a right to campaign for anyone, including Bernie Sanders. The Vermont senator is a self-proclaimed democratic socialist. I’m on the other end of the political spectrum. My voting record and yours should be a private matter, but I promise that I won’t be checking Bernie’s box on the ballot. Protecting the environment shouldn’t be a Democrat or Republican issue. In Georgia, all 10 million residents should be concerned.
In 2018 I endorsed Republican Brian Kemp for governor. I was convinced he would listen to concerns about our environment and natural resources. And he has. Gov. Kemp has opened legislative doors that were previously closed. I can say the same for Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan. Several bills—concerning safer regulation of toxic coal ash—are being considered in 2020’s General Assembly. The public is asking for better protection. Let’s hope the majority of House and Senate members are listening, too.
Now, imagine you are back in the boat with me.
Reach out and feel the feathery bark of those ancient cypresses.
Don’t you feel inspired to pollute less and protect more?
My belief is that, if you aren’t willing to stand up for the people and places you love, you should be ashamed to look in the mirror.
If my philosophy—by your definition—makes me an “environmental activist,” I’ll wear the badge with honor.

March 3, 2020

‘The difference between quantity and quality?’

              My mind has never been afraid to wander. That’s what it was doing one spring day, wandering off and watching dust motes dance in the air. Earlier, I had been staring out the seventh-grade classroom window. A monarch butterfly had fluttered by.
              And then a baritone voice called my name. My 12-year-old brain snapped to attention. My first thought was, “Uh-oh, I wish I could slink into my Gold Cup socks.”
No chance of that.
I was caught.
Our teacher, Nanelle Bacon, had to be elsewhere. She had asked her husband, James, our Jesup Junior High principal, to substitute for a few hours. He must have noticed my distraction and asked, “Mr. NeSmith, can you tell the class the difference between quantity and quality?”
            “Mr. Bacon,” I stammered, “I will need more time to think about that.”
            Praise the Lord, he chuckled and proceeded to answer his own question.
            Sixty years later—with ample time to “think about it”—I saw the explanation in a sea of faces, as I stood at the podium. I had been asked to give the closing remarks at a gathering. Family and friends were there to share their love and adoration for the late Nanelle Surrency Bacon’s 95-year-old sister, Lauree Surrency Hires. In the audience were her 97-year-old sister, Carobeth Surrrency Highsmith, and Tyler Surrency, her 87-year-old brother.
In 1989 I gave the Rev. James Bacon’s eulogy. But if he had been at Lauree’s party, I could have said, “Mr. Bacon, look around this room. Here is a perfect example of quantity. There are 52 members of your sister-in-law’s family here tonight.” Furthermore, I could have added more numbers to the quantity. Lauree and her late husband, Robie, had seven children. Brothers Jerry and Herschell were the bookends with sisters Toostie, Alma, Robin, Rita and Fain in the middle.
Those siblings provided 16 grandchildren, who have presented Lauree with 55 great-grandchildren. “And, Mr. Bacon,” I could have said, “when you tally five great-great-grandchildren into the total count of the Hires family, well, you have a large quantity.”
If I hadn’t been focused on dust motes and a butterfly, I could have answered my principal in 1960. Likewise for the other word: quality. Substandard tomatoes—stacked in crates as high as the Empire State Building—would give you a massive quantity. But sheer numbers don’t guarantee quality.
Quality isn’t about a count. Quality can be found in one or one thousand. On Feb. 22, I witnessed quality flowing from 108 people. In the wall-to-wall crowd, the laughter, the hugs and the smiles told the story of a money-can’t-buy quality in the lifelong relationships. As Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers sing, “You can’t make old friends.”
Quantity and quality are two very different things, but you can have both.
Just ask Lauree.

February 25, 2020

Travis Tritt could be singing about toxic coal ash

            Pick a subject, almost any subject. There’s a country song that—as they say in the country—“puts it down where the goats can get at it.” Right now, the Georgia General Assembly is knee-deep in discussions about toxic coal ash.
            Travis Tritt, a Marietta-born Nashville star, didn’t have coal ash in mind when he released “Lord Have Mercy on the Working Man.” But listen to it. Read this snippet from the lyrics:
            “Now won’t you tell me if you can
            Cause life’s hard to understand
            Why’s the rich man busy dancing
            While the poor man pays the band
            Oh they’re billing me for killing me
            Lord have mercy on the working man”
            You and I aren’t goats, but this puts the coal-ash controversy down where we “can get at it.” Georgia Power—its executives and shareholders—have profited billions by burning coal, a cheap source, for energy. That would make them the “rich man busy dancing.”
            And who would be the “poor man” paying the band?
            That’d be us, the customers, also known as ratepayers. While we have probably enjoyed lower light bills thanks to coal, the utility’s bottom line has benefited more. In 2020, it’s time to invoke the FRAM oil-filter slogan: “Pay me now or pay me later.”
            Later has arrived.

            Georgia Power has—reportedly—more than 50 million tons of toxic coal ash. Until recent years, coal ash was a keep-it-swept-under-the-rug subject. With that, consider another line from Travis’ song:     
            “Them politicians treat me like a mushroom
Cause they feed me bull and keep me in the blind”
In 2016, when we raised the battle cry over toxic coal-ash pollution, I was assured Georgia Power had “no plans” to put its coal ash in Wayne County. Let’s hope those plans stick, because our soggy, porous portion of the state sits atop two important aquifers and drains into the waters of the Golden Isles.
For four years, I’ve saved two emails from a high-powered Georgia Power executive. When I objected to a proposal to ship in—daily—10,000 tons of coal ash (presumably not from Georgia Power) to be dumped in a private Wayne County landfill, here’s what the million-dollar-a-year company man wrote to me:
“And coal ash (I contend) is safer than other things going into landfills in Georgia ….”
Several minutes later, he added:
“I guess fear and wrong facts do sell papers.”
My dear readers, yes, we do want to sell newspapers. That’s our business. For 49 years, selling papers has been my livelihood. It’s fed our family and educated our children. I cannot imagine any other calling. My passion for community journalism still glows white-hot. Our business is for you to know.             None of us deserves to be treated like a mushroom. You need to be out of “the blind,” because the scientific facts support the fear. Coal ash is poisonous.
            This year, Georgia Power’s vise-grip on the General Assembly could be loosened. Measures to strengthen our laws are before the House and Senate. I have been asked, “What should we do with coal ash?
My thoughts are:
§  Georgia Power should acknowledge coal ash is dangerous, “no bull.”
§  The Gold Dome needs to acknowledge the same and govern accordingly.
§   “The rich man”—who has profited most—should accept the cost of solving the problem.
§  Coal ash should not be transported and scattered around the state, and we should roll up the welcome mat that invited other states to dump on Georgia.
§  Coal ash should be stored in lined pits—on company property—away from streams, lakes, wetlands and groundwater.
§  Georgia Power should be the national example of how to manage toxic coal ash.
             Georgians need Georgia Power, and the utility needs us. Georgia Power is moving away from coal and to more solar. Hallelujah. It’s better late than never, but why not sooner? Travis sings the answer in his opening line:
            “All around I hear the sound of money.”