Georgia Today: Is coal ash poisoning water In Juliette, Ga.? Residents say yes and they want answers
On this special episode of Georgia Today, we're revisiting one of our favorite episodes of 2021. This is the story of a grassroots fight in Middle Georgia for clean drinking water. GPB reporter Grant Blankenship and photojournalist Evey Wilson, an assistant professor at the Mercer University's Center for Collaborative Journalism, followed the effort for the recent documentary Saving Juliette.
Juliette is a small rural community and it's home to one of the largest coal fired power plants in the country. The film traces what happens when residents discover that well water they rely on could be contaminated by coal ash from the plant. Saving Juliette has been honored at a number of film festivals, most recently at the American Conservation Film Festival, where it won the award for Best Short.
Steve Fennessy: So Evey and Grant, take us back to how and when you both first heard about the concerns that residents of Juliette, Georgia, have about their drinking water.
Steve Fennessy: So, Evey and Grant, take us back to how and when you both first heard about the concerns that residents of Juliette, Ga., have about their drinking water. Where did that all start?
Grant Blankenship: For me, it started probably 15, 20 years ago when I first started working as a journalist in middle Georgia. I worked at the Macon Telegraph as a photographer back then. But back then these stories would pop up, these stories of rare cancers in Juliette, very sick people up around the plant, between the river and the plant. Having lived here as long as I have, it's just one of those things that you just always wanted to get to the bottom of.
Evey Wilson: A friend of mine is actually the pastor at the very beginning of the film. And he invited me to this community meeting. I knew he was going to speak and give a prayer. And so I brought my camera and I was just blown away with what I saw in that first meeting. And as a filmmaker, I try to capture moments as they unfold. And there was just so many things that were unfolding in Juliette. At that first meeting, I realized the magnitude of the issue and the emotions that were in the room. And so I just started following it.
Steve Fennessy: Well, before we talk about what you found and what's shown in your film, situate us a little bit about Juliette, Ga. Where is it and how close is it to Plant Scherer, which is the focus of this film?
Evey Wilson: Juliette is pretty rural. It's about like 20 minutes north of Macon. And Juliette is home to Plant Scherer. So Plant Scherer is in Juliette. And there are 800 to 1,000 homes in Juliette that are all on well water. They didn't have access to city or county water. And so that was what they used as drinking water. Plant Scherer provides jobs and it provides, I think, 60% of the tax revenue for Monroe County. So they have a great school system and a lot of people are employed there. So the people in Juliette are really loyal to Georgia Power.
Steve Fennessy: Where does this coal ash come from? Because coal ash is ultimately what we're talking about here, right?
Grant Blankenship: The crudest way to think about this is you've got to make steam to turn a turbine, right? Plant Scherer, it's burning massive amounts of coal to boil water, to make steam, to turn the turbine. The thing is like, you know, as hot as it gets, not every bit of that coal is going to be burned away. There's still this fly ash left over and they have to put it somewhere. And the somewhere in this case has been the pond adjacent to the plant to the tune of some 16 million tons of it over the course of the lifespan of the plant.
Evey Wilson: And all of that, that 16 million tons, is just in a pond directly in contact with the ground.
Steve Fennessy: What's the problem with that?
Grant Blankenship: The material contains a number of heavy metals. You know, lead. We know lead, what that does to you neurologically, right? There's others: arsenic, boron, things that are — carry cancer risks. The one that's really kind of the sticking point, and it's like the donut hole in the middle of all of this chemistry, is something called hexavalent chromium.
Movie clip: The toxicologist that I've been talking to, he gave me a list of problems that can come from hexavalent chromium exposure. Everything you all have is on that list.
Grant Blankenship: If you know the movie Erin Brockovich, that's the chemical.
Movie clip: And you say that this stuff, this hexavalent chromium, well, it's poisonous. Yeah.
Grant Blankenship: Only two states in the nation have a health standard for hexavalent chromium. It's California, North Carolina. Georgia does not track it at all in coal ash wastewater. There is no legal standard for it in the state — or a federal standard, for that matter — by which people can say, see, this is bad, you need to do something about it.
Evey Wilson: And that was the thing we wanted to make really clear in the film, was that Georgia Power is not doing anything illegal and it's a question of larger regulation. But right now they are in compliance.
Steve Fennessy: They're playing within the lines of what they've been told to do.
Grant Blankenship: Absolutely.
Evey Wilson: Exactly. People have been talking about that contaminated water in Juliette for years. I met multiple residents who called their county extension office to have someone come test their water, but they test for bacteria. They're not testing for these very heavy metals that are linked to coal ash pollution. And so a lot of people had their water tested, but they weren't testing for the same things.
Steve Fennessy: How did word get around Juliette that there was something going on that seemed outside the norm?
Grant Blankenship: The geography of it made it pretty easy. Sort of the core of the cancer clusters are up and down Luther Smith Road, which is this largely dirt road right up next to the plant and the ash pond among people who are closely related and who've lived there for many, many, many years.
Gloria Hammond: I mean, up this road, out of 13 houses, it's been nine people that have been diagnosed with cancer and all. To me, it's just too much cancer in just one little certain area and too much of a coincidence, I think.
Grant Blankenship: I mean, they were sort of suffering in silence or ignorant of the fact that other people were having these strange experiences. I think it took this water testing, this latest push, to really make people kind of sit up and say, “Oh, man, we're all doing this together.”
Steve Fennessy: Are there any medical specialists trying to connect those dots here, or is this more that the numbers are too great to be explained away by coincidence?
Grant Blankenship: No, there's not been, you know, like an epidemiologist who has done the work to say, yes, there's this one-to-one relationship, you know, causation between the water in these cancers. There's some question as to even how that would be accomplished. And so, yeah, you can't say 100% like the cancer today was caused by coal ash. That has it been proven. But through a preponderance of science, you can say if it's not already harmful, it will be. And that's — that's the scientists saying that.
Evey Wilson: From 2014 to 2018, Monroe County had the highest cancer rates in the state of Georgia, so there is data on that and that's not Juliette-specific, but there's data around really high cancer rates in Monroe County.
Steve Fennessy: There are many scenes in your documentary that take place in the kitchens of the homes of the people who live in Juliette. And they're telling Fletcher Sams, who is the head of the Altamaha Riverkeeper, about health maladies that they and their loved ones have been suffering. We have a clip. Let's listen to it.
Fletcher Sams: Do you drink the tap water or do you drink bottled water?
Christina Cole: I drink tap water like it's going out of style.
Fletcher Sams: You cook with it, too? Do you have any other health issues?
Christina Cole: I have two tumors on my thyroid as well. Me and my husband both are kind of like, we're pretty upset because we never got to have a kid together and we don't understand why, because we both have children with other people and all of a sudden we can't have none together.
Steve Fennessy: Can you talk a little bit about the physical and human toll that living there has placed on — on these residents?
Evey Wilson: Grant and I just spent days following Fletcher Sams around Juliette doing water tests, and I was really blown away. It felt as though every person either was, you know, just been diagnosed with something rare or their loved one had or they had lost somebody. I don't think I went to one house where there wasn't something that hit them close to home. And that really blew me away. I mean, I met one person who had been diagnosed with a rare cancer and at one of these public meetings met the person who lived in the house before her who was diagnosed with the same rare cancer.
Steve Fennessy: So I understand that Juliette is a rural area, but it's in Monroe County, which does have its own water supply. Is there a way to extend water lines to the residents there?
Evey Wilson: Yes, so in the beginning of the film, the county commissioners showed up at these meetings and said there's no way that they could afford to run county water lines, it would be millions of dollars, and they just didn't have the finances for it. And then after all of this activism and after the lobbying that happened at the state level, the county commissioners passed a $16 million bond to run county water lines to the roughly 800 homes in Juliet. So they are getting municipal water, which is amazing, but they still have to pay to hook their individual homes up to those water lines so an individual resident or family needs to pay to hook up to those water lines. And there's a big question as to whether or not people are going to be able to afford that.
Steve Fennessy: Evey and Grant, your film focuses to a large degree on the efforts by Fletcher Sams, who heads up the Altamaha Riverkeeper. How how did he come to first be involved in this?
Grant Blankenship: Well, his predecessor, John Hillburn, who was the Riverkeeper before him, had been sort of paying attention to this issue over the years. I think what was different this time was the regulatory picture. You know, Georgia Power is going to close a bunch of coal ash ponds. They have to ask for permission for their plan. And when that began to happen, there are these public meetings in which facts like the coal ash being submerged in the aquifer came to light, gave opportunity for people in the community to come forward and participate in public hearings about this stuff. And Fletcher went to do this testing. So there was this other body of information that would inform this regulatory process that's going to conclude probably by the end of the year.
Steve Fennessy: Next, we'll hear more of my conversation with Grant Blankenship and Evey Wilson. We'll also hear what happens when Juliette residents visit the state capital to call lawmakers’ attention to the town's water problems. This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today; I'm Steve Fennessy. I'm joined by Grant Blankenship and Evey Wilson, the two journalists behind a new documentary called Saving Juliette. The film explores the story of a small community north of Macon called Juliette. The town is also home to Georgia Power Plant Scherer, one of the biggest coal-fired power plants in the country. The film tracks what happens after residents discover coal ash from the plant could be poisoning their drinking water.
Resident at lobbying event: Feeding the pets, the livestock, watering the gardens. We need water. We cannot use our tap water anymore.
Steve Fennessy: One of the many things that strikes me about watching your documentary is how active the community is. Your cameras are there for these public meetings or it was standing-room-only and you have people who are very, very vocal and insisting that something be done. And you get a sense of the frustration when, you know, bureaucrats and government officials kind of just say, “Well, my hands are tied.”
Resident at public meeting: This district here brings in more tax money than any district in Monroe County, so why can't they use some of that Georgia Power tax money to build water lines?
Monroe County Commission Chair Greg Tapley: The biggest issue for bringing water up here is the amount of the distance he was talking about. You're talking about $150,000 for every mile of water line. So you're talking about hundreds of thousands just to get it in the area.
Evey Wilson: I was incredibly inspired by the community. Everybody knows everybody in Juliette, you know, they've married into so-and-so's family or they grew up down the street from so-and-so. And so the outreach there was really powerful to watch because it was such a grassroots effort. And after those public meetings, I mean, a lot of those residents went and knocked on doors. And I think that it was really powerful to see the residents just constantly calling their representatives and getting their representatives on the phone and setting up meetings with their representatives and then seeing the pushback that the representatives also felt with their own connections to Georgia Power became really interesting. They were just trying to get their representatives to represent them as constituents. And there were a lot of obstacles that they faced along the way.
Steve Fennessy: It appears that a good percentage, if not a majority, of the residents of Juliette are diehard Republicans. They voted for Brian Kemp. They presumably voted for former president Donald Trump.
Evey Wilson: Juliette is a very conservative place. Their elected officials said that this was a partisan issue that they didn't feel comfortable supporting, but the residents really saw it as a moral issue. So here's a clip from Amber Joyner, who's now a mother of five, and she's talking to the Republican Tim Echols of the Public Service Commission in one of the early community meetings.
Amber Joyner: President Trump said that one of his goals is to get Internet out to rural areas. Well, if his goal is to get Internet, how much more important is water?
Steve Fennessy: And one of the compelling scenes is the bus ride to the Capitol, where the residents of Juliette are wearing wearing T-shirts that say “Save Juliette” and they're in the lobbies of the state capitol and they're trying to make their case to their elected representatives. And some are listening and some kind of aren't. OK, let's listen to another clip from your film. This scene shows Juliette community members lobbying at the state capitol.
Resident at lobbying event: Monroe County is pretty Republican.
Resident at lobbying event: How many people in here voted for Brian Kemp and are Republican? How many people will convert to Democrat if we don't get some help?
Resident at lobbying event: So is it not possible to see him today?
Capitol staffer: I'm sorry, ma'am. He has a back-to-back schedule.
Resident at lobbying event: So what about tomorrow?
Capitol staffer: I'm not able to commit to that, so...
Resident at lobbying event: He can't be reached. And it's a shame because I elected him.
Resident at lobbying event: Ditto
Resident at lobbying event: You know, I won't support a Republican Party that sits on their hands while this happens.
Resident at lobbying event: This shouldn't be a partisan issue; this shouldn't even be a political issue. This is a moral issue.
Resident at lobbying event: Clean water.
Resident at lobbying event: Do the right thing.
Steve Fennessy: And they're asking for support for bills that at that time were pending within the legislature. What would those bills have done?
Grant Blankenship: So what those bills would have done would they would have made it illegal to store coal ash in any facility that is not lined in a way that keeps the coal ash from mixing with the other earth — or groundwater, right? — into the groundwater. They just they wanted that for coal ash. And so the bill that got the most of their support, it was a House bill, would have would have created that. And that's what failed last year.
Evey Wilson: Really, what's happening is that the Environmental Protection Division is going to determine whether or not to grant Georgia Power a permit to put a cap on top of the ash pond and leave it as it is on the ground. So that is more of a legislative question and then now a permitting question through the EPA. Now, there's 45 residents as part of a mass tort lawsuit. And as far as I know, they're still waiting. They are looking for medical monitoring of their families and of the residents who live there or who have lived there in the past. They're looking for personal and property damages, compensation for that.
Grant Blankenship: There have been people over the years who've taken out-of-court settlements and then you just never hear from them again. Ken and Susan Brock, they're two Juliette residents who've watched their neighbors and their neighbors' homes just sort of disappear over the years.
Ken Brock and Susan Brock: They go in, tear the house down, pour the well full of concrete. In most cases, put a chain across the driveway and a lot of cases put up a fence and put up "No Trespassing" signs.
Grant Blankenship: Georgia Power's installed these monitoring wells for those houses that Ken Brock was talking about where those houses used to be. Those wells allow Georgia Power to to track the extent to which they're polluting the aquifer. Here's Fletcher Sams, of the Altamaha Riverkeeper, talking about that.
Fletcher Sams: You drive down Luther Smith Road and you see where someone's mailbox used to be. And then right across the street, you see a monitoring well and you really get an idea of the proximity of it.
Steve Fennessy: Evey and Grant, how did you two come to collaborate on this to begin with?
Grant Blankenship: Oh, goodness.
Evey Wilson: I work at Mercer at the Center for Collaborative Journalism, and the partnership at the Center for Collaborative Journalism; we partner with the Macon Telegraph, Georgia Public Broadcasting and 13-WMAZ, a local news station. And so I started going to these public meetings and I saw Grant there and we started trying to see if there were ways, if I was going to a meeting that he couldn't be and if I could share my audio or if he was going to be someplace, if he could take photographs and also film some video. And then we really just started — it was a pretty natural collaboration when we started editing and really thinking through the story. I think I spent a lot of time on the ground with the residents and advocated for the personal side of things. But Grant really knew this story and he's been following it for many years. So he could really contextualize it and kind of keep me on the straight and narrow and making sure that this was just strictly journalism, which was a really natural partnership, I think.
Grant Blankenship: We gathered the string we could when we were able and just kept coming back to each other to try to — to say something meaningful, because I think we both felt like it had to be done, which is really something. It was not easy. I'm glad we did it. But at the heart of it, it was because we both saw that it was something that just kind of needed to be done.
Evey Wilson: Again and again. I think why I was drawn to this story is it's not just a Juliette problem. They say that in the film. And the question of what to do with these unlined ash ponds is a question that people are wondering nationally and that impacts communities all around the United States. We covered a lot of this as it was unfolding and then we went back and did follow-up interviews, you know, well into the pandemic. And at that point, people had lived with this knowledge for months and could speak to, you know, living in an environment that brought them so much joy. They decided to live in a rural place with land that they loved. And now that thought in the back of their head, what it was like to live there knowing that it might be contaminating their water or contaminating or harming them or their families. Also, I just want us to think about the legacy that we leave behind, like a legacy of activism in your own community and looking out for your neighbors and building that community where you're checking in on people, but also a larger legacy of just our environment. I think there's a lot of conversations happening about what we're leaving to the next generation.
Steve Fennessy: My thanks to Grant Blankenship and Evey Wilson. You can watch the documentary Saving Juliette online at GPB.org and on Georgia Public Broadcasting's YouTube channel. Now, a decision on whether to grant Georgia Power’s request to cap plant scherer's ash pond is expected later this year. And in the meantime, Monroe County commissioners have brought in outside experts to help investigate the water contamination in Juliette.
Gini Seitz: We're very happy that our county commissioners have understood what's going on and are moving in the direction of getting us all water. But the reason it isn't enough is because there are 15 million tons of coal ash sitting in my backyard that are contaminating the waters in this community. And something needs to be done about that.
Steve Fennessy: For more Georgia Today, go to GPB.org. I'm Steve Fennessy. Georgia Today is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. You can subscribe to our show anywhere you get podcasts. Please leave us a rating and review on Apple. Jess Mador is Georgia Today’s producer and our engineers are Jesse Nighswonger and Jahi Whitehead. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next week.