Resembling Kevin Costner, Tom Lovett, a local bankruptcy attorney, orchestrates his minions sensitively, thinking along with them through the cruel fact before us: A 714-acre multiple-use landfill is proposed east of Quitman in Brooks County, Ga., about nine miles from the Florida line. It would be within a mile of the Withiacoochee River, which flows into the fabled Suwannee River in north-central Florida and on across and down to the Gulf of Mexico, feeding water-table and recharge areas and a zillion freshwater springs as it goes. And providing drinking and farming water for hundreds of thousands of people.
Among those whom this water feeds are people moving out of congested south and central Florida into north Florida and south Georgia. With an eye on the trend, a quality housing developer wants to build right where the landfill would go. The alternative couldn't be clearer: urban and sprawl refugees happy to pay cheaper property taxes for the pleasure of rooting down into the post-bellum beauty of this vanishing rural southland. Those taxes, Bill Jordan of Lovett's group has estimated, would totally supplant the "host fees" revenue offered the county by Onyx Waste Systems after skimming the profits from larger fees readily paid them by New York and New Jersey to siphon off their waste stream excesses.
Neither Onyx nor their landfilling customers show concern over the impact of 640,000 to 750,000 tons of waste per year accumulating over stressed liners and seeping into this incredibly fragile limestone groundwater system. Fortunately, the 50 folks in the museum hall, including eight of us from Madison and two from Suwannee County, are informed and geared up. All are painfully aware of the political vulnerability of this typically cash strapped, job-starved jewel of southern ecology and culture.
Lovett digresses to last night when he discovered that the vehicle from which young men were yanking NO DUMP signs out of the lawns of his supporters is owned by the big man behind the land deal making the landfill possible, a certain Johnny Langdale. Nice measure of the insecurity -- and ethics -- of the powerful.
Judge "Mac" McLane lends his authoritative voice and community stature to the process. David Ragsdale announces he's running for a county commission seat to oust a landfill supporter. Those of us from north Florida voice our solidarity with them.
Now it's D-Day. The regular Brooks County Commission meeting will decide the issue early this evening, June 29, 2006, in the school auditorium. Our own Madison County Commission chair, Ricky Henderson, brings both our county attorneys with him and, deprived of the promised meeting inside prior to the hearing, is now meeting standing outside with the Brooks County attorney. I look across the sea of hefty bodies and faces wishing for Superman ears.
The air conditioning fails. Sweat stains seep across shirtbacks. Bone-tired, Lovett, so gentle and modest for a lawyer, nervously fiddles with his Ben Franklin glasses and gives the floor to his dedicated team. It looks and feels like Inherit the Wind, only our Spencer Tracys are two women. Judy Moore leads off strong and clear, drawing thunder from an obvious large majority in the audience opposed to the landfill. Dr. Susan Harding delivers a flawless, well-rehearsed speech that wraps a string of hard facts with vivid human context. All within the absurd three-minute time limit, despite many applause interruptions.
Time runs out before our out-of-town downstreamers can speak, but no matter. The landfill promoters by this time have achieved the status of the credibility-challenged. The other side runs out of speakers before their time ends.
It's rubber-meets-the-road time for the commission. Veering from Norman Rockwell south to Keystone Cops, the commissioners, yearning to be anywhere else, stall on parliamentary process. They go into "executive session" with their attorneys, closing the stage curtain amid a dribble of derision. We all ooze out into the humid air of another beautiful southern night.
In 20 minutes we're back. An attempt by the commission chair for a voter referendum in November fails, twice. The motion to reject the landfill, ringing instant screams of approval from the hall, is made by Commissioner Jones and seconded. Four commission members split even on the vote. The chairman, in measured meter, pleads for another vote, then another. But it stays 2-2 and he's cornered into breaking the tie. Sweat and tension crystallize. He heaves a sorry sigh through thick jowls and says "yes." The audience explodes. My eardrums tighten, my feet vibrate. Many loving arms embrace the shellshocked Lovett. We won.
Groups cluster across the wide, scruffy lawn outside as dusk comes on. We speak of forging a permanent citizens' network across the state line, of our other battles against the coal plant, the paper mill, the cement plants -- all the dirty industry city folks can't stand that now target the rural south. As I join the postmortem talk and replay the passion and logic of our speakers, why am I remembering more the rantings of the black contingent? Every African American who spoke, spoke for the landfill. For jobs. They cared nothing about water table and pollution, liability or property tax revenue. Some were incomprehensible, blasting the microphone as if to destroy it. But two black men were starkly eloquent, angry, righteous. And right.
Because the pattern of chronic unemployment and meaningless, underpaid or temporary work repeats itself endlessly here in the rural workingman's South. Whites suffer some of it, too. Training, welfare, all fail to deliver. Marginalized, black anger ripples, reminding me of the '60s.
My heart considers a peace gesture. I want to tell the black man with the strong shoulders and lock-in eye contact that I understand and, to a great extent, agree with his blistering socioeconomic critique. Of course I know it would be unwelcome, now in the simmering of confrontation from minutes ago, as well as next month, next year. Because I am as irrelevant to him as he is to me in day-to-day terms.
What will I be reading about him, about them, if anything, in the future? How could our paths ever cross naturally? Where can decent manufacturing-level jobs that don't poison or sicken us come from?
We won. Yet we are still losing.
Barry Parsons of Madison, Fla., chairs the Environmental Alliance of North Florida Inc. (www.groups.yahoo.com/groups/EANoF). Phone 850-973-3351.
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