October 11, 2017

In Coal-Ash War, Neill Herring is our Paul Revere

     When I first learned of Paul Revere’s famous ride is unclear.  It could have been 1957 or 1958.  After all these years, I recently read that the Massachusetts silversmith, galloping on a borrowed horse named Brown Beauty, might not have said, “The British are coming!”  Instead, it was more like, “The Regulars are on the move!”  On April 18, 1775, the Regulars were the minutemen’s red-coated adversaries, marching to arrest patriots John Hancock and Samuel Adams.
     Whatever Paul Revere said put him in America’s history books.  And when Wayne County’s history of our current coal-ash uprising is recorded, Neill Herring will be our modern-day Paul Revere.  Our friend hoofed it—afoot—to 252 W. Walnut St. to alert Derby Waters.  The Corps had changed its public-notice procedure.  The Press-Sentinel wasn’t on the list, but Neill was.  Central Virginia Properties LLC had some big plans for Wayne County.
     That’s exactly what Republic Services Inc. had hoped.  Who in Wayne County would pay any attention to an unknown entity such as Central Virginia Properties?  The answer is almost no one except Neill Herring.  The bespectacled environmental lobbyist is a voracious reader with encyclopedic knowledge of the sausage-making ways of government.  Neill knows the value of reading the fine print and asking questions.
     On Jan. 4, 2016, Central Virginia Properties LLC filed an application with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build a rail spur to service its parent company’s Broadhurst Environmental Landfill.   The mystery name didn’t trick Neill.  That’s why he went to see Derby at The Press-Sentinel.  But why did Republic want these mile-long, wetlands-destroying sets of railroad tracks?
     The answer was there for the reading.  The rail spur was to accommodate up to 100 rail cars per day.  And what was going to be in those rail cars?  Oh, as much as 10,000 tons of toxic coal ash.  Coal ash?  What’s coal ash?  Most of us knew as much about coal ash as we did about Central Virginia Properties LLC.
     With nine days gone in the Corps’ 30-day public-comment period, the race was on to slow this dangerous almost-runaway-train scheme.  You know what happened next.   The newspaper told you what we learned, and we hired a team of environmental lawyers.  A grassroots citizen group was formed to oppose the rail spur and the dumping of poisonous waste in Wayne County.  Twice the Corps of Engineers extended the public-comment period.  As the public uproar continued, Republic pressed on, confident its 2005 contract had county officials handcuffed and neutered in the fight.
     And on April 5, 2017, Republic made a surprise “good-neighbor” offer to drop its rail-spur and coal-ash plans and discuss the possibilities of a new, less onerous contract.  Cheers erupted.  Then, we waited and waited.  Several months later, the new proposal surfaced.  The good-neighbor plan had a multimillion-dollar price tag dangling from it.  Cheers turned into jeers, but we are still hoping Republic will do the right thing.  In the meantime, we cannot back down.
     I have never seen Wayne County this upset or as galvanized in its resistance to an issue.  Piling millions of tons of pollution in our ultrasensitive ecosystem isn’t just an issue for today.  It’s an unhealthy risk for our children’s great-grandchildren and beyond.  I repeat, “If you won’t stand up for the people and place you love, what kind of person are you?”
     And I repeat, “Thank you, Neill Herring.” 
     If you hadn’t sounded the alarm, Wayne County would have lost this coal-ash war without even knowing Republic’s “regulars” were “on the move.”


October 3, 2017

Ray Shirah was so much more than a master farmer

     As he lay dying, a billow of dust boiled behind his house on Shirahland Road in Mitchell County.  His son and friends weren’t going to let Ray Shirah’s possibly best-ever crop of peanuts not get to market.  Ten days ago, I held the hand of my brother-in-law, as he was near the end of a seven-year battle with cancer.  Listening to his soft voice, I could see—through the window—the cloud of topsoil being churned by the peanut picker 200 yards away.
     Forty-eight years ago, on Aug. 23, Ray; his brother, Tim; and their dad, Lamar, parked their peanut pickers early for a special event—a wedding at Hopeful Baptist Church.  I can still hear Pam’s dad, “You mean you planned a wedding right in the middle of peanut season?”  Lamar said it playfully.  And as luck would have it, a thunderstorm rolled through that afternoon.  Tractors would have been idle anyway.
     But “idle” was not Ray’s way or anyone else’s way in his family.  “Industrious” comes close to describing their four-generations-deep farming DNA.  A parching drought almost killed farming in 1954.   A yellowed Atlanta Journal article shows a rail-thin Lamar with his first-in-Southwest-Georgia deep-well irrigation system.  Several decades later, Ray was on the cover of Progressive Farmer magazine.  He was a pioneer in using a GPS system to guide his mammoth John Deere and tell it how to distribute nourishment to the soil his daddy and granddaddy had plowed—first with mules and then with toy-like Ford 8-N tractors.
     Ray remembered the day he had trouble swallowing.  Tests determined there was a problem with his esophagus. Cancer was the culprit.  His doctor warned, “You might have six months.” That was in 2010.  Every day, he prayed for the strength to beat the odds. And before long, he was sharing his story from pulpits across the rural landscape.  Several in those congregations took heed and caught their cancer earlier.  They rejoiced to be alive and to be able to thank him.
     When Ray left Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College (ABAC), he knew where he was going—back to the farm.  He was a farmer’s farmer, but he was so much more.  He learned to fly his Cessna 172, and he enjoyed the aerial views of his family’s farms.
     Ray had the patience of Job, taking things apart and putting them back together.  He was a good teacher.  More than once, he traveled to South America to teach farmers how to operate and maintain giant cotton combines.  Like his dad—with a toolbox—he could fix just about anything.  He couldn’t fix his health, but he fought to stay mentally and spiritually healthy.
      Even in the slog of round after round of chemo treatments, he found the strength to stay competitive with his shotgun in sporting-clay events.  And when you thought “there’s no way,” Ray and Angie would be off on a snow-skiing or scuba-diving adventure. 
     Two weeks before his heart gave out, he announced, “Let’s go camping.”  With another couple, they hitched his fifth-wheel to his throaty diesel Ford, and off they went to Lake Seminole. A happy time for Ray was when he was immersed in music, especially if he was strumming his guitar. Even in his illness, he never lost his sense of humor. His loudest laughs were on himself.
     That spirit, that strength and that faith are why you have to admire and love people like Ray Shirah.  A mutual friend, Richard Lenz, who was responsible for the photo of Ray with his dad and brother, Tim, standing in a cotton field, emailed to say, “Ray was a beautiful man … one of the toughest, smartest and nicest persons to walk the planet.”
     I couldn’t say it any better.

     Rest in peace, my brother.


September 27, 2017

WCHS Homecoming will be special for Class of 1966

     After all these years of the same routine, I don’t even have to look in the mirror to shave.  Monday morning, I was thinking rather than looking, as I scraped the razor across my face.  This weekend is homecoming for Wayne County High School, and it’s a redo for the Class of 1966’s 50-year reunion.
    “Nooooo, it can’t have been 50 years,” I mumbled to myself.  And then I glanced into the mirror.  Staring back at me was evidence: “Yep, it’s been that long.”  Sure enough, if you see an extra sprinkling of gray-haired fans in Jaycee Stadium Friday night, that’ll be us.  We’re the last class before Odum, Screven and Wayne County Training School consolidated with the Orange Street campus.  Even though the sign on the brick wall said Wayne County High School, we thought of ourselves as graduates of Jesup High.
     A half-century can erase some memories, but some just get chiseled deeper.  I’ll never forget:
                  *The staccato click of Peachy Aspinwall’s high heels on the tile floors or the day she promoted me to an IBM electric typewriter.
                  *Dissecting frogs in Delores Roberson’s 10th-grade biology class.
                  *The good humor C.W. Collins used as he tried to teach me algebra.
                  *The laughter coming from the connecting homerooms of Johnnie Hayes and Kathleen Hires.
                  *Principal C.E. Bacon’s booming voice on the intercom: “I know who you are.  You might as well turn yourself in.  You will be dealt with accordingly.”
                  *The stunned silence in the football locker room when we learned our teammate, Cary Bennett, had been killed in an auto accident the night before.
                  *The hasty auditorium assembly, as we watched—on TV--the drama of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
                  *The moment and the place where we were on campus when we learned: “JFK has been assassinated.”
                  *Football camp at Parker’s Paradise in Long County, and the fried-chicken eating contest between Frog Woods and A.T. Hires … and the fistfight that followed.
                  *The growl of Coach Clint Madray, as he chewed Beech Nut tobacco, “I don’t want to see anything but elbows and bleep-holes … go ’til you hear glass!”  Decades later, his words still ring in my ears, as Wayne County stands up to protect its environment from toxic coal-ash dumping.
                  *Coach Madray’s warning to the football team about reported “mooning” at the Dairy Queen.  With a thunderous whack of the paddle on his palm, he roared, “If I hear any more about redeyes, I’ll give you some redeyes!”
                  *Ahhhh, the Dairy Queen.  A.B. and Myrtle Morgan blessed our youth with a social Mecca on the corner of Pine and Macon streets.  There’s no way to tally the courtships which started and ended at the DQ.
                  *The gift Jackie Egan gave her senior English Composition class.  She challenged our teenage minds to think and express ourselves.  We found words in our brains—words we didn’t know were hiding in there.
                  *And going to a pre-Christmas Yellow Jacket basketball game with my official UGA-acceptance letter poked in my back pocket.  I still stare at that letter and say, “Goodness, I’m glad I don’t have to apply today.”
     Most of all, I will never forget the friendships and bonds which have stretched over all this time.  I can’t believe it’s been 50 years.  Well, it hasn’t been.  It’s really 51 years.  Hurricane Matthew disrupted last year’s event.  Thanks to a loyal core of planners, we’re back—full of memories and love for our alma mater.