Lessons from Georgia. A Local Proposal for Sustainable Development

This article was written by Simona L. Perry, co-founder of c.a.s.e Consulting Services

A perspective on sustainability

This is a story of a tragic event that happened on the Ogeechee River in a rural area of the U.S. State of Georgia.  As both an environmental and social scientist it is my hope in this essay to provide some new perspectives on how understanding and caring for the Ogeechee River and its waters, as well as any wild and natural ecosystem, cannot be separated from understanding and caring for the people who live and rely upon that ecosystem. And, I contend that this way of caring for a place and the natural environment, as you would care for your home, your grandparents, your child, or your neighbors is perhaps the only way to find a common vision to locally protect the Mighty Ogeechee, to reach the Sustainable Development Goals, and to sustain any natural ecosystem we treasure and depend on, for generations to come. Here’s what happened.

Tragedy in Georgia’s Ogeechee Watershed

In May of 2011, the Ogeechee River experienced one of the largest fish kills in the U.S. State of Georgia’s history.  Over a 77-mile stretch of the river at least 38,000 fish were found dead, along with alligators, turtles, and birds. This trail of devastation began in Screven County, just downstream of  the discharge pipe of a textile treatment facility employing up to 500 employees – King America Finishing (KAF), owned by Westex, Inc. Water samples taken at the time and analyzed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency showed elevated amounts of formaldehyde, ammonia, and hydrogen peroxide.  Tissue samples revealed that the dead fish were killed by columnaris disease – the result of a bacterial infection.  This particular bacterium is commonplace in freshwater and typically results in fish kills when there are other environmental stressors at work.  But alarmingly birds and reptiles were also found dead in and near the river on that May day in 2011, so columnaris disease alone could not explain the event.

Early morning on the Ogeechee River in October of 2017. Courtesy of Two Lane Media

Upon further investigation by the State of Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division it was discovered that the plant had added a new flame retardant process to their textile line in 2006 without updating their U.S. Clean Water Act pollution discharge permit with the State.  For five years, KAF had been dumping their wastewater (with unknown contents and volumes) into the Ogeechee River. The plant was fined $1 million by the State of Georgia, and a permit that included monitoring for formaldehyde, ammonia, and peroxide and discharge limits on those chemicals was issued in 2012. The State, however, never concluded that the plant had been ultimately responsible for the fish kill instead blaming drought conditions and poor oxygen levels in the river.

The local reactions

This human-caused environmental disaster shook communities along the Lower and Coastal Ogeechee to their core. How could this be allowed to happen to a place that was just as much a part of people’s lives as it was to their ancestors? A place treasured so deeply, as evidenced from the memories and stories of generations of coastal Georgia residents, that seven years later people who found those dead fish outside their front doors cannot speak of the fish kill without tears welling up in their eyes or shaking their heads in disgust. The Ogeechee, and its main tributary, the Canoochee River, is and always has been a sacred place, not only in the lives of individuals but in the collective human history of the Georgia Coast.

As Lauren Porter wrote in her locally published ode to the Ogeechee River entitled “A Place to Call Home”:

“My love for this river is rooted deeply like the Georgia pines that live on the banks… Though the river’s current is swift and ever-changing, there is something oddly familiar about its presence.  Maybe it is because this black water stream is one of the last free-flowing rivers in our state. Walking up to it is like catching a glimpse of the last frontier, unscathed by the disruptions and modifications of human hands.  Everything is in its natural place, and being there just feels right for that reason. Who said you needed to travel great distances to see one of Earth’s natural wonders? All you need to do is drift down the river and you will be amazed by the world that inhabits it.”

How to ensure that this doesn’t happen again

On a local and regional level a closer examination of what went wrong leading up to the 2011 fish kill can lead to greater understanding of how to prevent another pollution tragedy and how to protect the resilience of the watershed in the future . This understanding and the dissemination of these lessons  help to understand the important steps that need to be taken in order to reach the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which are a global roadmap for peace, dignity and prosperity worldwide.

This is particularly relevant to SDG Goal 6, Clean Water and Sanitation. Three of the targets of this Goal are directly applicable to the Ogeechee story: 1) protect and restore water-related ecosystems, including mountains, forests, wetlands, rivers, aquifers and lakes by 2020, 2) improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally by 2030, and 3) Support and strengthen the participation of local communities in improving water and sanitation management.  

All of these targets which were agreed upon by an extensive consultation process with non-profits and governments have been missed by a long shot.  But why?

A closer examination of the inequalities along the banks of the river

How could the 2011 Ogeechee fish kill have occurred in the first place? Was it only the result of a catastrophic failure of Federal and State clean water regulation and monitoring within the Ogeechee River as many environmental groups contend? Or, is there more to this story than “polluters will pollute,” a lack of financial or staff resources for State environmental agencies, or even a scarcity of funds and capacity among clean water advocates in the watershed? All of these factors certainly contributed to this failure, but left unexamined in most articles or conversations about the Ogeechee fish kill is the historic, social, economic, and political context.

The sacred and sublime environmental history of the Ogeechee, including tragedies like the fish kill, have been intertwined with fights for economic equality and racial justice, unique subsistence livelihoods and heritage practices, and a clear preference for individualism and libertarianism for generations. Much of the Ogeechee watershed is like many rural places across the United States where people just want to be left alone and where outsiders coming in are typically met with deep suspicion and sometimes a shotgun. All of these qualities make this a rich and diverse (and sometimes dangerous) cultural landscape, but also one that has been misunderstood and therefore caricatured as “backwards,” “dumb,” “redneck,” and “dirty.”

One magnified characteristic of Ogeechee residents by outsiders that does hold true is “poor,” or put into polite Southern chatter, “lacking in economic opportunities”. Some of today’s poorest towns in the State of Georgia, and the United States, are those African American communities that were most rooted to the Ogeechee River in Chatham County like Chevis Road, Frogtown, and Yamacraw, and the upriver communities that were formerly thriving railroad towns like Wadley, Millen, Midville, and Louisville. By taking a closer look at the community and household economic context of two small towns along the Ogeechee, Wadley and Rocky Ford, we begin to see how economic inequalities across the watershed may have played a pivotal, yet unexamined, role in how the 2011 fish kill occurred in the first place.  

Wadley, Georgia

Wadley, a town of almost 2,000 souls in the Upper Ogeechee watershed, is a textbook example of 21st Century American poverty as it spreads across rural landscapes in the United States.  Once a destination on the Nancy Hanks, a passenger railroad train to and from the coastal city of Savannah to Atlanta, Georgia, the Jefferson County town of Wadley consists of boarded-up department stores, restaurants, bakeries, and old soda pop shops. In July 2018 a local resident took me on a tour of Wadley and past the abandoned Riverside Manufacturing textile factory where proud local people made a living on the outskirts of downtown for years. The abandoned factory building was adjacent to a subsidized housing development that was strewn with garbage. Trash strewn across neighborhoods in these rural Georgia counties is a common sight since public funding towards trash collection does not exist in most places.

When the Nancy Hanks passenger rail cars stopped coming from Savannah, the shops in downtown Wadley lost their customers. When the textile mill that had relied on the high quality craftsmanship of local artisans found cheaper labor elsewhere, the good paying jobs went away. White families in Wadley of any means looking for a better life for their children in the 1970s and 1980s encouraged their children to attend the state University in nearby Athens, Georgia. Most college graduates never returned to the dying town. Middle class and poor white and black families hung onto their timberland, their farms, or their homes as best they could as the jobs went away. Those with family members elsewhere or other opportunities for employment moved away, those with nothing else stayed.

A look at U.S. Census data gives us a picture of the current state of the population in Wadley. In 2016 the estimated U.S. Census data showed that 19%, or 124 out of the 655, total households in Wadley had a median income of less than $10,000 per year. Over 60% of Wadley households live at or below United States poverty levels, as calculated for a family of four ($30,750 per year). At the other end of the wealth spectrum, less than 19% of Wadley households had a median income equal to or greater than the $53,559 median income of all Georgia households. The income inequalities and grinding poverty is evident in the hollowed out and abandoned human-built landscape, trash strewn neighborhoods, and the aging black faces that dominate the front porch stoops, while in stark contrast green-grass estates of the more wealthy white residents can be seen behind fences of pine trees leading to grand driveways. These wealthier and lighter-skinned residents own the bank, run the hospital, and own and manage the main industry in town, the lumber mill.

Rocky Ford, Georgia

One hundred and ten miles southeast of Wadley the town of Rocky Ford, once an important river-crossing and agricultural railroad town, sits directly upriver from the KAF textile plant that caused the devastation to life in the river in 2011. Geographically, it is the closest town settlement to the plant in Screven County. 2016 U.S. Census data estimates for the town of Rocky Ford reveal that out of 144 households 12.2% had a median income of less than $10,000 per year. In addition, 58.2% of Rocky Ford households live at or below the United States poverty level for a family of four; while 34.7% of Rocky Ford households had a median income equal to or greater than the median income of all Georgia households.  The economic disparities in Rocky Ford might not be as striking as those in Wadley, however the statistics from this town that are most revealing show population declines of between 29% and 5% since the 1930s, and a current estimated total population of about 240 people.

He who holds the cards

Both Wadley and Rocky Ford are representative of the rural towns along the Ogeechee River. A body of social and political science research shows that throughout the rural United States and the globe, places like Wadley and Rocky Ford with similar income and power inequalities are disproportionately impacted by water, land, and air pollution.  On the Ogeechee River, could the tragic pollution incident in 2011 be tied directly to the lower incomes, income inequalities, and weak political mobilization capacities in towns like Wadley and Rocky Ford?  Like other polluted places, money and power, or lack of money and power, drive unsustainable development and are a direct threat to protecting ecosystems and people. These power, income, and (in the U.S. South) racial, differentials directly determine who sits on the boards of local and regional economic development authorities, who has the ear of the mayor, the county commissioners, and the state governor. It is much more likely, for instance, that the wealthy white owners of the lumber mill in Wadley have a seat on the development authority than the un- or underemployed porch-sitters. Given this economic, social, and political context, the 2011 fish kill on the Ogeechee is in fact an example of the environmental consequences of economic inequality, rural poverty, and the political disempowerment of local communities across the southern United States and the globe.  

It is clear that economic and political factors determine the spatial geography of pollution. Access to money and political power determines where waste will be dumped, where clearcuts will be allowed, where dirty industry will be sited and allowed to expand or continue to operate, and just as importantly where all of that pollution will not occur.  Add to economic and political factors the social demographics of a declining, aging, and racially marginalized population with limited opportunities for educational or skills advancement and this is all magnified. That is why addressing the social, economic, and political context is critical to preventing future catastrophic failures of Federal and State clean water regulation and monitoring within the Ogeechee watershed as well as waters across the United States and the world.

A supported partnership between the local people and their environment

What we miss by focusing solely on the technocratic, governance, and legal causes of pollution is explicit recognition of the inter-relationships and feedbacks between humans and the natural world.  Because of these relationships our failures to address local social, economic, and political inequalities directly lead to failures in protecting our local ecosystems, places, and the essential services those ecosystems provide.  As local and global citizens we must wake up to the important relationship between caring for local human communities and caring for local ecosystems in order to sustain our common water, land, and air for future generations. This starts with a recognition and understanding that long-term health and sustainability of our ecosystems are both dependent on and sustaining of the health and self-determination of the people and societies that live within those ecosystems.  

In fact, we can compare places in rural Georgia like Wadley or Rock Ford and the upriver and headwaters portions of the Ogeechee River to a human body’s immune system and the critical circulating and filtering organs such as our kidneys, liver, arteries, and heart.  Intact floodplains, forest uplands and lowlands, wetlands, bogs, springs, creeks, and sand bars serve as filtering and enriching mechanisms that allow for fish and wildlife to survive and restore themselves after a tragedy like the 2011 fish kill. Those fish and other critters are then available to provide local people with food, clothing, and medicine. And, the forests and wetlands provide local people and those living downstream with key services like filtration, flood control, nutrient enrichment, and carbon sequestration. However, to sustain these services that everyone relies on, governments and environmental groups must recognize that it is the local people who are closest to these critical ecosystems that must have consistent and long-term access to economic and political resources in order for them to be true stewards, advocates for, and caretakers of the ecosystem.   

A recognition and understanding of the historical, social, economic, and political context of this Ogeechee pollution tragedy can be applied to reaching the global SDG 6, Clean Water and Sanitation, including, protecting and restoring water-related ecosystems, improving water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials, and supporting and strengthening the participation of local communities in improving water management. This application requires that we re-imagine the political and economic realities of rural poor and politically disenfranchised communities from the inside, beginning with an explicit recognition of their cultural connections with the natural environment beyond just production and consumption of natural resources. And, we must honor the historical and social relationships local people have with local environments.

Networks of Caring

7 years later, people living along the banks of the Ogeechee downstream of that textile factory are still suspicious of the waters but the resilience of the community has shown itself. 2.3 million American shad have been placed into the river system since 2013 by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, and the Ogeechee’s channel catfish are even back on the menu at Love’s Seafood Restaurant in Chatham County.

However, honoring the tears, anger, and disappointment of local Ogeechee residents that bitterly linger years after the fish kill disaster means recognizing and incorporating both the informal social support networks for basic services such as physical and mental health care, food, water, and well-being and local peoples’ attachments and understandings of local ecosystems, or what I refer to as socio-ecological networks of caring. Within the Ogeechee watershed these networks of caring include locations along the river where Christian worship and baptisms took place, knowledge of and reliance on productive fishing and hunting grounds, freshwater and mineral spring baths and drinking water sources, family burial grounds, sources of wild plant foods and medicines, and land-based stories of family history. In other watersheds there may be other networks and places that make up these networks of caring. To protect the resilience of any watershed as a buffer against future disasters, to learn the lessons of the Ogeechee pollution tragedy, and to meet targets of the SDGs pertaining to water and sanitation it will be essential to document and prioritize these networks of caring by documenting and highlighting their importance consistently. Protecting these ecosystems is now crucial to the future health and resilience of the Ogeechee river and the folks who live there as well as those who live on the banks of rivers around the world.

This is a part of our exclusive series called “Protect”  which is about sustainability on the coastlines of Georgia and South Carolina. For more on this project, see the Two Lane Films site here.


Categories: Feature, Sustainable Development Goals

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