April 12, 2017

Here’s to Republic and a giant step in the right direction

     With its meager start as Station Number 6, Jesup is a built-by-trains town.  Among my most vivid childhood memories is lying in my bunk bed, listening to train whistles and being rocked to sleep by the rumbling rails next to our tiny apartment in the back of NeSmith Funeral Home.  The click-clack had a calming effect on a 10-year-old boy.
      That was then, but that changed in January 2016.  With the surprise discovery of Central Virginia Properties, LLC’s request to build a wetlands-destroying rail spur to haul in toxic coal ash, future train whistles posed the potential to pound sweet dreams into environmental nightmares.  Until The Press-Sentinel reported Republic Services’ subsidiary’s stealth move to haul in up to 10,000 tons per day of poisonous waste, I was just like most of you—asleep.
      I don’t have to repeat every detail of this 15-month saga, our modern-day version of a David-and-Goliath battle.  You know the horror and outrage that’s dominated talk around supper tables and coffee corners in Wayne County.  Even schoolkids dropped piggybank coins into the grassroots legal fund to fight dangerous, what-others-don’t-want trainloads in Republic’s private Broadhurst Environmental Landfill, which is 10 miles from our beautifully restored, historic train depot.
      Since this alarming revelation, I have been among the many whose sleep has been disturbed for more than a year.  At bedtime last Tuesday, I was still staring at the ceiling.  My mind continued to race, as if it were competing in the Daytona 500.  By Saturday, my pillow seemed a little softer.
     Why could I relax, just a bit?
     In a Wednesday visit with Republic’s area president, Drew Isenhour did what he said he would do: keep his word. That sit-down was our third.  Our first didn’t go very well.  It was clear that we were two locomotives roaring toward a head-on pile-up.  The loyal solider of Republic made it clear the $9 billion waste-management giant knew what it was doing.  I made it clear that the community couldn’t and wouldn’t give up its pushback.  We believe the ultrasensitive watersheds of the Altamaha and Satilla rivers are a horrible place to dump toxic waste.  Money would never ease our fears.
     During our second face-to-face, Drew presented some hypothetical what-ifs.  Those who heard his suggestions unanimously shook their heads, but I could see Drew was trying.  Over his 30-year career, starting as a truck driver, he found his niche as a people person, a problem solver—the proverbial fellow with the broom and shovel, cleaning up messes others had made.  Indeed, Republic’s tactics had caused, as my mother would say, a “Mell-of-a-Hess.”  Drew acknowledged as much, giving rise to my respect of him.
     One of my heroes is the late Robert W. Woodruff, who built Coca-Cola into a global powerhouse.  My parents were married in a house—next to the country store which my grandfather operated—on Woodruff’s Ichauway Plantation in Baker County.  And every time I sip from one of those iconic glass bottles, I can hear the “Boss,” as he was affectionately known, saying: “There’s no limit to what man can accomplish when it doesn’t matter who gets the credit.”
     Republic’s April 6 announcement to withdraw its rail-spur and coal-ash plans sent a wave of cheers across Coastal Georgia.  And who gets credit for that?  Get out your pencil, because the list—under the heading of “Teamwork really works”—is longer than those four proposed mile-long rail-spur tracks.  This community’s concerns were embraced by thousands of people we don’t even know.  A legion of people earned gold stars. You demonstrated your faith in the mantra of that British bulldog, Winston Churchill, who growled: “Never, never, never give up!”  That accolade belongs to Drew Isenhour, too.  Just as we did, he wanted an amicable resolve.
     So, where are we now?
     Republic did the right thing by listening and responding.  For now, we can rest easier.  However, we cannot waste this crisis.  Wayne County and Republic must benefit from the past 15 months of turmoil.  What just happened is a giant step in the right direction, but click-clack.  There’s still a trainload of work yet to be done here, as well as in Atlanta and Washington. 
     We must stay awake. 
     You know what happens when you snooze.