Georgia Today: How a small Georgia county fought off a granite quarry project
When residents in one of Georgia’s smallest and poorest counties learned about plans for a 500-acre quarry near the Ogeechee River, they rallied together with their neighbors to fight back.
Steve Fennessy: I'm Steve Fennessy. This is Georgia Today. On the podcast this week we go to Hancock County, one of the smallest — and poorest — in the state. When residents there got wind of a granite quarry set to open near a residential area, they joined forces to fight back. Krishna Sharma is a Washington, D.C.-based science writer. He's written about Hancock County's battle against the quarry for the Bitter Southerner online magazine. He joins me now. Welcome, Krishna.
Krishna Sharma: Hi, it's great to be here.
Steve Fennessy: So in your story for the Bitter Southerner about Hancock County, you wrote about this very, kind of unique coalition that formed a face-off against what they saw as a threat to the local environment. What brought you there in the first place?
Krishna Sharma: I came to Georgia actually to research butterflies. I was formerly an ecologist and I was getting my ecology degree at the University of Georgia, and one of the classes I took was an environmental law class. And in this class there was a project where students could volunteer for various issues around Georgia, and one of them was this quarry issue. So I started volunteering for it. And I was simultaneously transitioning from an ecologist to becoming a journalist, and I kind of immediately realized, “Wow, this is a story that deserves to be told.”
Steve Fennessy: Tell us a little bit about Hancock County. Where — where is it in Georgia and who lives there? What are the demographics like?
Krishna Sharma: It's in central Middle Georgia, and it is one of the poorest counties in the nation. It's also what CNN described as one of the Blackest counties in the nation. It has around 70% African American population. The county itself, the eastern border of it, is the Ogeechee River, which separates it from nearby Warren County, and the seat of it is Sparta.
Steve Fennessy: Well, you mentioned the Ogeechee River. What are sort of the main industries of Hancock County?
Krishna Sharma: Hancock is a very sleepy, quiet, rural area of Georgia. What makes Hancock special is that there's a lot of historic sites that actually predate the Civil War. For example, I met a woman who was operating a grist mill that has roots of its foundation back to before the Civil War and it still operates as it once did as a grist mill, which is pretty phenomenal.
Steve Fennessy: I understand from reading your story, too, that the history of Hancock County in particular is unique. And part of that has to do with the fact that such a great percentage of its residents are African American.
Krishna Sharma: Yeah. So when I first learned about this issue, it was because a catfish farmer named Johnny Thornton was talking to my environmental law class, and he mentioned a book called Black Boss: Political Revolution in a Georgia County by John Rozier. And so because this issue piqued my interest, I immediately bought the book. And this book details the fascinating and obscure history of Hancock County, Ga., the life of an activist named John McCown. While Hancock County used to have a lot of agricultural wealth in the 1800s, of course, like a lot of the South that wealth declined as it turned into the 20th century. And when Hancock County became a rather poor area, it also had a lot of racial tension as a lot of the South did in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. And so there was a civil rights activist named John McCown, who came through and was called the "Black Jesus of Middle Georgia." He had a grand vision where he wanted to bring the prosperity to the predominantly Black community of Middle Georgia, specifically in Hancock County.
[News tape] British Pathé: "Mr. McCown, what do you want?"
[News tape] John McCown: "I'd like to see a model of a community that exists within this country where Black and white can walk together without being fear of being intimidated. No one has ever gone out to try to create the model community that other areas could use as examples to better their own economic condition and social condition. I'd like to see here in Hancock County, here in Mayfield, that type of community."
Krishna Sharma: He was elected county commissioner, and he basically was able to successfully get grants from a lot of foundations and some federal programs and funneled today's equivalent of millions of dollars into Hancock County for his grand ambitions. For example, one of them was a catfish farm. He also built a new hospital to be run by predominantly Black people. And he had new steel and pallet mills open up in Hancock County. This was the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, and so the catfish farm itself was built right around 1970. Unfortunately, they all financially sank, including this catfish farm, which never turned a profit, even though it was called one of the most advanced catfish farms in the world by Time Magazine in 1971.
[News tape] British Pathé: "A lot of people in this town hate you."
[News tape] John McCown: "I imagine so. Anytime you go in and ask a man to change his way of life for three or four hundred years, you wouldn't expect him to invite you to dinner. So it's quite obvious that a lot of people would be upset over the fact that they have to deal with Black people as human beings now."
Krishna Sharma: Quoted in that book was a local resident, said “John McCown is the greatest leader and worst businessman I've ever seen.” And so it wasn't long before the hospital, the pallet mill and the catfish farm all financially sank. And the catfish farm specifically, it was defunct for decades. Hancock County itself kind of faded back into obscurity.
Steve Fennessy: And what became of John McCown?
Krishna Sharma: He had a federal investigation looming over his head. And according to this book, he allegedly drunkenly piloted his plane and crashed it into the pine trees of Middle Georgia. There's actually a house right next to the catfish farm, Johnny Thornton's catfish farm, behind which he is buried, which I got to visit and photograph.
Steve Fennessy: You wrote about this as a journalist, ultimately, but you were there, in the beginning at least, as an advocate, right?
Krishna Sharma: My role was to work with the legal team, Stack & Associates and the Ogeechee Riverkeeper to find objective data showing what the impacts of the quarry might be. And that goes back into why I was looking for scientific studies. What is some evidence of how this is going to impact groundwater? What is some evidence of how this is going to impact public health?
Steve Fennessy: When you're entering Sparta, which is the county seat of Hancock County, what's it like there?
Krishna Sharma: Sparta is like a time capsule. It has just this main street with what were small local businesses running all along it; you know, lots of brick buildings and hand-painted signs. But a large portion of those businesses are completely out of business now. So it's broken windows, it's faded signs. It's — it's a lot of empty buildings. And there's this giant courthouse that's kind of the central point of Sparta. And right opposite of it is a tall Confederate monument, as well.
Steve Fennessy: So tell me a little bit more about Johnny Thornton.
Krishna Sharma: Johnny Thornton is the current owner of the catfish farm that John McCown had created. And he is a former DEA agent and he actually stumbled upon the farm while hunting with a friend and basically thought that it was something that he could bring back the dream for it. He from then on learned about John McCown. He learned that basically this catfish farm was a symbol of the aspiration to bring Black prosperity to rural Georgia, and he wanted to maintain that dream. So he bought it in 2011. He began renovations. And so he's slowly starting to get the catfish ponds to work again. He hopes to both bring food security by providing catfish to the locals, and he also hopes that it'll bring some economic upturn for the Black community and the Hancock community at large.
Steve Fennessy: And so, Johnny Thornton, you said he came to speak to students at UGA. Was he there to talk just about catfish?
Krishna Sharma: He was there to talk about his resistance against a new rock quarry, which was trying to be built right next to his farm. You know, Georgia is no stranger to rock quarries, this county in particular. It already had a few quarries. This quarry was going to be right on the river, and that's common for quarries to do because a lot of times these quarries will take water from a source and often draw it out of the water table and then use it to make a high-pressure water jet. And so this can lead to damage to the aquifers. This can have ecological consequences for those that — for those systems that depend on, you know, riverways and certain water tables. A lot of these rural areas, you know, they depend on, wellwater and wells draw from groundwater. And so it will kind of concern citizens that if this quarry is sucking up all of the water table, it might dry out the wells that people rely on.
[News tape] 41NBC/WMGT: The Ogeechee Riverkeeper and residents say they're not opposed to development. But the quarry will cause damage to the water system and the animals.
Steve Fennessy: Hancock County residents weren't having it. They organized a campaign to stop the quarry. What happened next, when we come back. This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy.
Steve Fennessy: You're listening to Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. I'm joined by Krishna Sharma, a Washington, D.C.-based science writer and photojournalist. Krishna, when we left off you were telling us about the quarry project that's the subject of your Bitter Southerner story. So how did Hancock resident residents actually come to learn of the prospect of this quarry happening?
Krishna Sharma: This quarry company came in, purchased the land and basically started downing trees to prepare for that site. And one of the main legal steps that the quarry has to go through is they need to get county-level permission to be able to construct that quarry. And so they submitted that permit somewhere around the end of 2020. And that's, of course, public record. And so somewhere around this time period, you know, the neighbors noticed that this was happening and it's a very small community. So it didn't take long for people to think that the county voting process that would permit this quarry was going to happen really fast and without their voices being heard. So they pretty much immediately stepped up and started protesting it.
Steve Fennessy: You mentioned that there were already three quarries in Hancock County. What was it about this one in particular that drew the alarm of residents?
Krishna Sharma: I think there's a few reasons for it, and one is that this property was right adjacent to a few important things to the community. One is obviously Johnny's catfish farm, which relies on the Ogeechee River to fill its waters for the catfish — the Ogeechee River being something that's important to the cultural sites across Hancock as well. And so the thought of something coming in and sullying that river or threatening its flow or its coloration, etc., that worries people who appreciate and have put in their time, energy and money into preserving historic sites that are on the Ogeechee River. The second thing is that there is a community known as the Mayfield Properties community just within a mile of this proposed quarry site, and this community is mostly African American. It's mostly low income. So I think it's kind of all of these things came together. Also, the community felt that there was a lack of transparency for who exactly was coming in, what exactly they were going to do and what concerns of the citizens they were going to address. And they decided that they needed to make their voices heard because this was not something the community was willing to accept.
Steve Fennessy: Was there media coverage of of this permit application?
Krishna Sharma: This is such a small, kind of obscure place. There's only a couple of local news channels that posted brief blurbs about this happening at all, so it's pretty much happening without any media coverage. There's one petition online that's sent around that gets, you know, a good amount of signatures. My impression was that there were kind of two main people leading the organization of this, and one of them was Carla Mayes. She was the rancher who was right across the Ogeechee River in Warren County, but who could see the proposed quarry site in Hancock County.
[News tape] 41NBC/WMGT: Carla Mayes has lived by the Ogeechee River for 16 years. She says the rock quarry will negatively impact her farm animals and home.
[News tape] 41NBC/WMGT: Carla Mayes: "Right now all of my cows are healthy. They're fat, they're sassy. We live one with nature."
Krishna Sharma: She was helping to finance the resources that they needed in order to protest this quarry. She was printing off shirts and signs for them to stake in the neighborhood to raise awareness of it. And they also — she also helped reach out to the Ogeechee Riverkeeper.
Steve Fennessy: What is the Ogeechee Riverkeeper?
Krishna Sharma: The Ogeechee Riverkeeper is a nonprofit. Its mission is to preserve the water quality of the Ogeechee River, and it is a pretty fantastic organization. And the reason that they were able to be involved in this particular situation is because the community was able to actually help finance them, and they donated money so that the Ogeechee Riverkeeper could come in. They, in turn, hired public interest environmental law firm Stack & Associates to help with the court case, and they also helped hire with community donations experts like a geologist and an economist to do assessments, formal assessments for how this quarry would impact the economics, the ecology, the geology and other things, were it to be built.
Steve Fennessy: One of the things that I learned from — from your story in the Bitter Southerner, Krishna, is that there aren't a whole lot of scientific studies that have examined what the environmental or potential health impacts are of rock quarries through —wherever they may be located. What did you find out?
Krishna Sharma: I thought this was fascinating. You know, I am a scientist by training, so I am very used to looking up scientific papers and looking for academic studies. And so while I was doing the edits for this piece, I was trying to find studies that backed up the community concerns. Granite has a lot of natural silica, and when it's mined, it can cloud up and turn into dust and drift away. Now, the reason locals were concerned about it is because the inhalation of too much silica can lead to an incurable respiratory disease called silicosis.
[News tape] United States Occupational Safety & Health Administration, William Stewart Beckett, M.D.: "Usually people who develop silicosis have been very healthy, vigorous people and they find after years of the disease that they're short of breath, that they can't go very far, they can't walk very far, they can't climb the stairs. They may even be short of breath just sitting still. I continue to see new cases of silicosis. And yet there is still no treatment."
Krishna Sharma: Mind you, this is usually associated with granite miners, and it is really hard to find any scientific studies that examine the public health impacts of granite quarries or also the ecological impacts and the groundwater impacts. These are real concerns. They happen around the country. You know, it's — there's houses in the country that have had their walls cracked because of quarry blasting explosions. You know, there are people — there are granite workers who do catch this disease and they're — are not able to find a cure for it. And the fact that there's not much investigation into ensuring that nearby residents won't have these kinds of impacts, that's really concerning to people.
[News tape] Spectrum, Milann Guckian: "Endangered species are an issue. Wildlife is an issue. Property devaluation is an issue, traffic is an issue. Water is an issue. Air is an issue. We don't mind the industry. Don't bring it to us."
Steve Fennessy: So as we're getting closer to the date when county commissioners will say yea or nay to this application for a quarry, what did the lobbying look like by the protesters?
Krishna Sharma: Their movement was very, very down to Earth. Word of mouth. So on the morning of the vote, Carla Mayes, the rancher handed out shirts and signs and they drove around, you know, staking these signs. For such a tiny population, it felt like a huge turnout, even though it was probably around 30 people. But you know, it's not just people in Hancock County, but it's people on the other side of the Ogeechee River, too, in Warren County. You know, they're coming together for this. And so they're just outside of the courthouse, you know, waving down cars, talking to them through their windows, holding their signs up. During the hearing, a few citizens would be able to go in and testify and voice their concerns. Carla Mayes was one of them, and then Johnny Thornton, the catfish farmer, was another. Damon Mullis of the Ogeechee Riverkeeper and attorney of Stack and Associates. And because of COVID restrictions, the hearing itself was streamed. But you know, it was streamed on, like, a smartphone, just placed on a table. So no one could really tell half the time what was even going on in the courtroom. I kind of brought this up to one of the people outside the courthouse and they were like, “Hey, this is Hancock. We should be grateful that they even have a smartphone right now to stream this” because it takes a certain level of infrastructure to have more than that.
Steve Fennessy: Well, Krishna, now that brings up a good point. The overriding argument for the quarry is that it's going to provide jobs, economic opportunity for this impoverished community. So what did county commissioners have to say about that? Because that's one of their primary jobs.
Krishna Sharma: The politicians, the constituents, they all want jobs to come to Hancock County. But the question is, are these jobs going to actually serve the people? And so one thing that Johnny Thornton, the catfish farmer, told me was, “Hey, there's a quarry three times the size already located here. Go ask them how many jobs it brought.” And he said they came in with contracted workers and they drove their tractors in, and then they took all the wealth out of the county. Are you going to employ locals and are you going to guarantee that this money even stays local? And the actual application that the quarry company put in was very, very vague about their claim that it was going to bring local jobs. This is something that the Ogeechee Riverkeeper and the rest of that kind of anti-quarry team raised as, “Hey, you're supposed to have a real economist come in and do an assessment and say, ‘this is what's going to happen economically, geologically, etc.’” There's even just a simple kind of infrastructure concerns of if you have a quarry, you're going to have construction traffic. You know, this is a place with a lot of dirt roads.
[News tape] WSFA, Gary Fuller: "Then the addition of noise, traffic, vibration, property values, all those things come into play as well."
Krishna Sharma: Contrast that to something that a lot of locals actually do want, which is historic tourism. This is an area rich with pre-Civil War or just old historic sites, beautiful historic sites that they are proud of and that people are unfamiliar with. And so if they're able to boost this tourism industry of “Hey, come look at this incredible grist mill,” that's a source of revenue that's not only non disruptive to the community, but it's something that the locals can actually moderate and be in control of, which is important.
Steve Fennessy: Take us back to the day of this vote.
Krishna Sharma: I'm outside the courthouse. You know, there's the 20 or so people with me and we're watching on our smartphone of the Ogeechee Riverkeeper. He had a big poster and a map with him. Carla Mayes raised her concerns. One of the most clearly heard things was Johnny Thornton the catfish farmer’s testimony. And I think one reason is that he has this really charismatic, kind of booming ,ringing voice. I'll roughly quote, he said, “I was meditating on the Scriptures last night. I am not the owner of the catfish farm. Well, technically I am, but God is its owner. I am not taking this farm with me when I'm gone.” And after that, he started talking about stewardship, as it's referred to in the Bible, and man's duty to protect nature. And this is one of the last things that the protesters heard streamed through before someone finally came out of the courthouse, gave a thumbs up, went back in and the people learned that the county commissioners unanimously voted to deny the permission of the quarry.
Steve Fennessy: Were you surprised?
Krishna Sharma: I'm not sure because nobody was sure at that point. The morning of the vote, I was at Carla Mayes' house and one of the topics of conversation was: How do we move forward if this doesn't work out? It could have gone either way. Are the county commissioners really going to be able to understand the nuances of what is going on here? Right? It's not — it's not a town-level politic. It's a county level political process. They actually all produced a 500-page legal document that was comprehensively saying everything wrong with this quarry. They just produced that in a few months. I think they just made sure that their case was as bulletproof as it could be.
Steve Fennessy: Often we hear about these stories, and invariably it seems, you know, the groundswell of opposition doesn't really result in much and the companies end up getting what they want. This was sort of a reverse of that case. Why do you think that was?
Krishna Sharma: It's a rare thing. You hear a lot of times that corporate interests or the political interests come out on top. I think one of the reasons that this was able to be different is because it was such a small community, and it's — the people just so effectively came together and they just did everything right. They didn't just go into court and just kind of start lamenting. They got legal representation. They got a riverkeeper who was going to run formal assessments and they were passionate about it. They were just very, very passionate about it, and they had the people's best interests in mind. And I think that's a very powerful thing when it comes to local politics.
Steve Fennessy: I've been speaking with Krishna Sharma, a science journalist who wrote about one community's opposition to a proposed quarry and their ultimate victory. Krishna says the residents of Hancock County aren't done yet. They're hoping to change county laws to make the permitting process for such operations more stringent. Georgia Today is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting, Jess Mador is our producer. Our engineers are Jesse Nighswonger and Jake Cook. You can keep up with Georgia Today by subscribing to the show at GPB.org or anywhere you get podcasts. Thanks for listening. See you next week!