January 22, 2020

Dinah Washington was right: ‘What a difference a day made’

In her signature velvety voice, Dinah Washington purred, “What a difference a day made … 24 little hours.” Ever since 1959, romantics have swooned to the songstress’s purr. A day can make a difference in many things. How about 1,471 days, or 35,304 hours (and counting)? That’s how long we’ve been fighting against the harmful effects of toxic coal ash on Georgia’s health and environment.
The wakeup call came on Jan. 9, 2016. If you had slammed my thumb with a sledgehammer, I wouldn’t have yelped any louder. Coal ash jumped off the pages of John Grisham’s Gray Mountain and into the lives of everyone in our community. We are now in our fifth year. This is the 104th time that I’ve written on toxic coal ash. I think a good-news-bad-news reflection is appropriate.
Bad news
Central Virginia Properties, LLC, an unknown subsidiary of Republic Services Inc., almost slipped past Wayne County its Corps of Engineers application. The proposed rail spur would have opened the way for Republic to ship an estimated 10,000 tons—per day—of toxic coal ash into its Broadhurst Environmental Landfill.
Good news

Neill Herring read the fine print on a government website and tipped our newspaper, The Press-Sentinel. Immediate coverage began. Residents rallied and demanded to know more. Coal ash became a supper-table topic.
Bad news
Many people shrugged their shoulders and moaned, “There’s nothing we can do.” Phoenix-based Republic Services Inc., owner of the landfill, seemed to have its heels dug in.
Good news
Persistence pays off. We were encouraged when Republic introduced a different executive in charge. Drew Isenhour, now a company-wide vice president, embraced a welcoming we-are-listening attitude. Four years later, no permanent agreement reached, but not an inch of rail line has been built or an ounce of toxic coal ash added in Broadhurst.
Bad news
Georgia’s General Assembly has been reluctant to strengthen laws governing disposal/storage of toxic coal ash. The perceived reason is that too many officials are so “deep in the pockets” of Georgia Power that they can’t see what’s best for 10 million Georgians. Check the legislative record since 2016. Shamefully, it’s bad enough to make the Pope cuss.
Good news
Toxic coal ash is no longer lurking in a dark corner. Georgians and citizens across America are awake and asking hard questions. A growing number of our state legislators are pushing for better/safer laws. Voters will carry their environmentally friendly passion to the ballot box.
Bad news
Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist and now director of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is determined to change the EPA’s definition to the Environmental Pollution Association. If you visit some Georgia landfills, you might want to cuss, too. Why? They are loading up with out-of-state coal ash, courtesy of a 2018 bargain-basement coal-ash tipping fee set by the General Assembly. The goal was to benefit Georgia Power and its millions of tons of toxic coal ash. The unintended consequence is that the Carolinas and Florida are racing to dump on us what they don’t want in their states.
Good news
There is much work yet to do, but never underestimate the impact of the court of public opinion. In 2019, Georgia Power announced that it is quitting coal-fired energy. And if the giant utility would loosen its vise-grip on the Gold Dome, that really would be good news.
In early 2020, look what a difference 1,471 days—35,304 hours—of effort have made. The credit goes to millions of Georgians who believe something can be done to better protect our natural resources and environment.
For inspiration, someone sent me this:
            “First they ignore you.
             Then they laugh at you.
             Then they fight you.
             Then you win.”


January 14, 2020

Dr. Percy Pierre’s story worthy of a book

            When his midwife grandmother lifted him into the world of the tiny St. James Parish village of Welcome, Louisiana, she had no way of knowing our nation would be “welcoming” an African-American history maker. Percy Pierre’s grandmother’s mother was a slave, as were his other seven great-grandparents. His ancestors would have been proud to know that he was our country’s first African-American to earn an electrical-engineering Ph.D.
            On New Year’s Eve 2019, my friend pointed to where he was born on Jan. 3, 1939. The small house—long gone—is now just a patch of head-high weeds, a seven-iron shot from the Mississippi River levee. His cousin, Willis Octave, lives 100 yards further back. 

From there, he escorted me and my grandson Wyatt Wilson to the St. James cemetery where his parents—Percy Sr. and Rosa Villavaso Pierre and other family members are buried. We also stopped to read the historical marker of the Settlement of Freetown, established by former slaves. Three of Percy’s ancestors or relatives were founders. As Dr. Percy Pierre climbed into the upper echelons of academia, he remained connected to his roots, embedded in the rich dirt of the Mississippi Delta.
Percy and I grew up three states apart in a segregated South. How did our paths cross in western New York? A mutual friend, Erroll Davis, connected our dots by inviting us in 2018 to his family’s home at the Chautauqua Institute. When I served on the University System of Georgia Board of Regents, Erroll was its chancellor. Erroll and his wife, Elaine, have known Percy and his wife, Olga, for decades.

It was there—under the canopy of trees on that storied campus—where Percy and I walked and talked. I am forever curious about the lives of others. By our second conversation, I could tell my new friend was enjoying a storybook life. In his quiet, reflective way, Percy told how his family moved downriver to New Orleans when he was 4. Stories of visiting with his grandparents reminded me of summers on my grandmother’s farm.

While attending all-black St. Augustine High School, the faculty recognized the future valedictorian’s gifts. His mentors championed their top student. Full-ride scholarship offers arrived, including Ivy League’s Amherst and Princeton. Percy chuckled and told me, “If I had told my friends that I was going to Princeton, they wouldn’t have known what or where Princeton was.”
Then Notre Dame came knocking. Because of football, everyone in Percy’s Catholic circle knew about the Fighting Irish. In South Bend, Indiana, Percy earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Graduating from Johns Hopkins University with his doctorate and serving as a White House Fellow in the office of President Richard Nixon launched Percy on a rocket-ride career. Consider these milestones:
  • Howard University, dean of College of Engineering
  • Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, program officer
  • Assistant secretary of the U.S. Army for research, overseeing $12 billion budget
  • Acting secretary of the U.S. Army, first African-American to hold that position
  • Prairie View A&M University, president
  • Michigan State University, vice president of research and graduate studies
  • Michigan State University, professor of electrical and computer engineering
  • Glenn L. Martin endowed professor, University of Maryland
By now, you’d think the 81-year-old scholar would be ready to prop his feet on the veranda railing of his and Olga’s century-old home, which has been featured in Life magazine. Not so for the history-making native of Welcome, Louisiana. The couple divide their time between New Orleans and the Washington, D.C. area, where daughters, Kristin and Allison, live. That also allows Percy to serve as adjunct professor at the University of Maryland. Percy was born to teach, inspire and do research.

I would struggle in his engineering class, but I am fascinated with his genealogical research. For years, Percy has dug through mounds of musty records to trace his lineage back to his great-great-great-great-grandmother. Theresse, a member of the Macou Tribe, was captured in East Africa’s Mozambique and transported—in chains—to lower Louisiana, not far from where her great-great-grandson’s wife delivered Percy.
What a life.
What a story.
What a book this could be.