Chandra Brown: Fighting Pollution in Southern Georgia

As politicians ratchet up the rhetoric on how the Environmental Protection Agency is creating problems for the economy, one woman from Georgia has a different point of view about the importance of clean air regulations.

Chandra Brown resides in Metter, Georgia, with her husband and two daughters.  “Where we live,” she told me, “we are sitting next to some of the most toxic facilities in the country.”  She is referencing the coal-fired plants dotting the banks of multiple rivers situated near her home.  Brown explained, “Their exhaust fumes release mercury, which turns into methylmercury, which ends up in the fish.” (View a visual of “How Mercury Poisoning Works.”)

In the South Georgia Rivers and blackwater systems, the amount of mercury in bass is close to double the amount that the EPA has approved as the standard safety level. Brown stated emphatically, “It comes directly from the air pollution emanating from the coal-fired plants upwind.”

Brown first got involved in river awareness when two mothers, looking for answers on why the Canoochee River had turned green, contacted Georgia Southern University. They connected with Brown, who was in the midst of working toward her Master’s of Technology and Environmental Studies. Her research helped determine that the cause was contaminated ground water from a nearby poultry factory. This involvement led Brown to become a “riverkeeper” (which denotes being a spokesperson for a specific waterway) for the Canoochee River for ten years.

According to Brown, the heritage of southern Georgia’s “primordial” river system was one of pristine beauty—without much industry.  But as more factories started to locate in the area in the 1970s, the situation began to change drastically.

Awareness of the potential liabilities to the area began with state issued warnings in 1991. First advisories in 1991 and 1992 were for shrimp and oysters—followed by those for fish in 1993.  They targeted mercury in the Turtle River System. Later, recommendations for the Ogeechee basin went out, with the warning to eat only one meal a week of catfish, and one meal per month of large mouth bass.  With statistics showing that there were high levels of people living below the poverty line in the rural Georgia Counties, this was a severe hardship for a population that depended on fishing for their food.  Specifically, this hit the Ogeechee Basin hard, where 23.30 percent of people live below poverty level, as compared to the 13.50 percent national average.

Brown spearheaded taking “contaminated” fish to the University of North Carolina in Ashville for analysis, in tandem with the group Waterkeeper Alliance.  The test results evidenced small fish had 0.2 milligrams of mercury per each kilogram of fish.  In essence, it was the equivalent of putting “two drops of mercury on your dinner.” The results were published in 2004, initially leaving area inhabitants equally divided between skepticism and alarm.

In 2008, Brown learned that a new coal-fired plant was being proposed by the consortium POWER4Georgians for placement in Sandersville, near the banks of the Ogechhee River. She believed it would be poisonous.  Since 2004, when a green activist community had developed in Georgia, mobilizing had become easier.  Through education on the issues, the community had become more informed and pro-active, and pushed back.  Although it took two years to wind through the system, in December 2010, a judge ruled that the air pollution permits granted by the Environmental Protection Division of Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources were invalid.

Eight months later, on August 18, a new hearing was held where “slightly altered” guidelines were reintroduced.  Brown related that the hearing had “over 100 people in attendance.”  The Ogeechee Riverkeeper group had organized citizens to attend the hearing and oppose the plant.  Brown’s account had 22 speakers who were opposed to the plant, and two supporting it.  She added that a majority of those who addressed the proceedings were “parents concerned about their kids.”

One of the points that Brown referenced was the “vicious cycle” of factories choosing economically deprived areas to situate—where residents depended on river fish for food.  Brown qualified the population as relatively unknowledgeable about the potential health hazards, and as having no health insurance for pregnant women or young children who may be impacted by the effects of mercury.  For this reason, Brown and her colleagues made mothers their first target audience for awareness about air pollution and mercury concerns.

I repeatedly reached out by phone and e-mail to Brown’s representatives for insights into what their offices were doing to help their constituents.  Despite requesting quotes from the communications staff, I received no response from Rep. Jack Kingston, Senator Saxby Chambliss, or Senator Johnny Isakson.

In the face of the current disappointment with the House vote on H.R. 2018, which “amends the Federal Water Pollution Control Act to preserve the authority of each State to make determinations relating to the State’s water quality standards, and for other purposes,” Brown remains undeterred.

“That’s where the power of moms come in.  Doing what‘s right for our families.”

This piece originally appeared on the website Moms Clean Air Force.

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