The Newtown Story: One Community’s Fight for Environmental Justice

The Newtown Story: One Community’s Fight for Environmental Justice

By Ellen Griffith Spears; Photos by Michael A. Schwarz

Vol. 20, No. 4, 1998 pp. 12-15

The following excerpt is from The Newtown Story: One Community’s Fight for Environmental Justice, written by Southern Changes managing editor Ellen Spears and photographed by Atlanta independent photojournalist Michael A. Schwarz. This oral history chronicles the story of Newtown, an African-American neighborhood in Gainesville, Georgia. Following a deadly tornado that ripped through Gainesville in 1936, segregated housing for black residents was built on a landfill beside the railroad tracks. Industrial development burgeoned in close proximity. Formed by women of Newtown in the 1950s, the Florist Club started with members caring for the sick and buying flowers for community funerals. Through the turbulent 1960s and 70s, the Florist Club members became vocal leaders for civil rights and community improvement. By early 1990, members of the Club realized that many in the community had been dying from the same kinds of cancer and from lupus. Suspicious, they began canvassing the neighborhood, taking family histories and piecing together a puzzle that remains unsolved. As part of the movement for environmental justice all over the South and the nation, local organizations like the Newtown Florist Club are tackling the disproportionate degradation of the environment pervasive in communities of color. Women are playing key leadership roles, defining and transforming culture in place-based, identity-affirming organizations to fight the politics of growth, corporate abuse, and the exclusion of people of color from business and government decision-making.

In the rising heat of a Georgia spring morning, community leader Rose Johnson guides several dozen visitors on a somber mission. The date is May 7, 1993. This African-American community on the south side of Gainesville, about fifty-five miles north of Atlanta, reports unexplained high rates of throat and mouth cancers, excessive cases of the immune-system disease lupus, and a variety of respiratory ailments. Too many people have died.

The visitors from the Racial Justice Working Group of the National Council of Churches, along with city and state officials, follow Johnson “door-to-door, neighbor-to-neighbor” as she places black ribbons at homes where residents are sick with cancer or lupus or a family member had died.

The observers sense firsthand the sharp contrast between the Newtown community–where the acrid odor of toxic industry and scrap yard presses in on the little park and well-tended homes–and the flourishing green lawns and flowering trees of Longwood Park and the generous homes on the north side of town where most whites live.

On this already overheating day, an intolerable picture emerges. The seventy-five homes in Newtown, built atop an old dump, are surrounded by thirteen toxic industries, two identified potentially hazardous sites, numerous hazardous waste generators, and a rat-infested junkyard.

This neighborhood next to the railroad tracks is encircled by so many toxic sites that the local paper called it “an industrial fallout zone.”

As guide, Johnson represents the younger generation of leaders of the “one group that didn’t mind tackling anything”–the Newtown Florist Club. Founded nearly fifty

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years ago to pool funds for funeral wreaths, today the Club is working aggressively to uncover the environmental links to the diseases affecting residents-and to halt the toxic assault on the community.

Johnson, who played along Desota Street as a child in the 1960’s, introduces the Club members and other residents one by one. Faye Bush survived her own battle with heart disease and lupus to steer the Club in key phases of the fight; her daughter Jackie Mize fondly remembers the close-knit community. Bush’s sister Mozetta Whelchel lost her teen-aged daughter, Mozzie Lee, and son, Deotris, to lupus. Her husband, Lee, died of cancer after a lifetime of

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work in the starter motor plant he could see across the railroad tracks from his back door. Geraldine Coffins raises her voice to protest despite throat cancer. Mae Catherine Wilmont, who lost her nursing job after she contracted lupus, is coming forward as a leader in the Club. Jerry Castleberry watched his mother die of lupus and now faces the daily pain of the disease himself.

Others have passed on-people like Ruby Wilkins, who hosted vote-seeking white politicians at her dinner table and counseled a generation of neighborhood youth who played basketball in her side yard. Ruth Cantrell, who survived the deadliest disaster in Gainesville history, the 1936 tornado, was too ill from battling cancer to leave her oxygen tank to greet those gathered for the Toxic Tour on that day in 1993. She has since died. Neighbor Roland Wailer, who worked with Lee Whelchel over vats of toxic chemicals at the starter motor plant, had to give up his vegetable plot because the ground was so contaminated, not long before he died, too, of congestive heart failure.

“I thought I was immune to the pain of it,” says Johnson, “but I don’t guess I am.”

She explains that the Florist Club began its work in 1950 with a simple traditional mission: to care for the sick and comfort families as they buried their dead. The Club’s concern for the health of individuals led inevitably to action to protect the health of the entire community.

Tested during segregation, shaped by the civil rights movement, the women and men of Newtown came forward to resist every indignity faced by Gainesville’s black residents. Braving personal illness and tragedy, members have organized an endless variety of community-building, youth-developing, race-uplifting strategies. When the Klan tried to march near Newtown, the Club backed them down. When the city’s election system undermined black voting strength, the Club took them to court. When awareness of the environmental threat emerged, the Club tackled toxic polluters, demanding changes from industry and pressing city, state, and federal officials for results.

The environmental fight has stretched the Club in new directions, into the underdeveloped science of ecological cause and effect, seeking toxic sources and health treatments for the ailments that plague the neighbors. When a state health survey blamed high cancer rates on residents’ “lifestyle,” volunteer eco-experts and health and science professionals helped members research the local toxic profile and seek environmental links. Proving a con-

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nection is difficult, but experts agree it’s still fair to limit exposure. None of the work has been easy: corralling the efforts of volunteers, battling the insensitivity of a maze of bureaucrats, bringing pioneering legal claims, and garnering the attention of those who could effect a change.

An old yellow school bus transports the invited guests through the noisy heat, past the industrial sites that surround Newtown. The tour winds through the rapidly growing city of Gainesville, the largest industrial hub north of Atlanta in the state, the last urban center before the rural farmland and mountains heading north, a gateway between the future and the past. Combined with suburbanized Hall County, the area is home to more than 111,000, making it the fifth largest metropolitan area in the state. The city’s business leaders have been remarkably successful in recruiting industry. Many factories depend on the area’s agricultural roots, chicken processing plants and animal feed manufacturers. Gainesville boasts the slogan, “chicken capital of the world;” three poultry processors are located near Newtown.Animal food giants Ralston-Purina and Cargill operate major feed mills within earshot.

Grain dust, runoff, sewage, air pollution, and groundwater contamination create problems that extend beyond Newtown. Toxins endanger other African-American neighborhoods on the south side, where two emergency evacuations in 1995 sent dozens to the hospital and brought residents to challenge Cargill with releasing dangerous hexane emissions.

The tour participants disembark at Bethel AME Church, feeling the weight of the evidence of life in a toxic zone. Newtown’s perseverance against these environmental odds has become a symbol for other communities across the South. Partial victories along the way–and deep faith–have sustained the fight, though much work remains.

Sidebar: “Wheel of Fortune”

“Wheel of Fortune” spun on the television at the Hailey home on Friday, May 19, 1995, when Hall County emergency officials forced the family to evacuate down the street-away from noxious odors that would send Paul Halley to the hospital for five days. Halley was one of more than thirty people hospitalized. Most were treated and released, for severe nausea, skin irritation, headaches, burning eyes and throats, dizziness, shortness of breath and sleepiness.

As emergency vehicles and personnel swarmed on Black Drive, where the Haileys live, and Cooley Drive, near Newtown, local hospital personnel were told to prepare for hexane poisoning. Environmental reports on the spill do not specify which form of hexane was suspected, but the chemical n-hexane may be the most highly toxic member of one family of neurological toxins, according to the recognized industrial toxicology guide. The odorous chemical rates as a severe fire and explosion hazard, and is associated with nausea, eye and skin irritation, dizziness, drowsiness, numbness of limbs, and bronchial and intestinal irritation.

Initial news reports pointed to the Cargill Feed Mill’s periodic cleaning process as the source of the release. Across Athens Highway on West Ridge Road, within earshot of Newtown, Cargill Feed Mill refines soybeans and extracts edible vegetable oil, soybean meal, soybean hulls and crude soybean oil. Cargill, which boasts of being the “planet’s biggest grain trader” and is one of the nation’s largest food companies, built its Gainesville plant in 1966.

Cargill denied any responsibility for the May 1995 spill, but sent letters to some residents offering to pay medical bills. The May 24, 1995 letters from plant manager Catherine Hay read that though it is “not determined what caused” the odor, “Cargill has made arrangements to pay your medical expenses associated with this odor.”

The Environmental Protection Division’s report on the May 19, 1995 event is inconclusive, “The identity origin of the material remains unknown.” But, on the night of the evacuation the EPD investigator advised against sampling, “since the material was no longer detectable.” EPD’s report says, “Ms. Hay clearly stated Cargill’s position that they did not feel they released hazardous materials, but that they had likely released an odor that passed through the community.” While not finding Cargill guilty, the EPD did issue two recommendations: 1) EPD and Cargill identify better procedures for performing annual cleaning to minimize community odors, and 2) Hall County consider forming a Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) to involve the entire community in emergency planning.

Later, in early December 1995, a smaller number of residents from the Black Drive and Cooley drive area had to evacuate.

“Two times last year, we were taken out of our homes. We have never been told what it was,” Paul Halley told residents and supporters gathered at St. Paul United Methodist Church to hear about a health study in 1996. The spills galvanized a new group, Concerned Citizens Against Pollution, formed by black Southside residents from the Black Drive, Cooley Drive, and Jordan Drive area.

The Newtown Florist Club, Concerned Citizens Against Pollution, and other residents filed suit on December 10, 1997, with the aid of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, charging Cargill with a violation of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA) in releasing the hazardous air pollutant hexane. The suit also charges Cargill, Inc. with falling to report the release to the appropriate authorities and with violating the air quality permit issued by the State of Georgia.

The CERCLA lawsuit charging Cargill with a violation of the toxic reporting requirements was dismissed on narrow technical legal grounds on June 19, 1998. A second, personal injury lawsuit on behalf of residents was dismissed in April 1998 by Judge William O’Kelley on the grounds that insufficient evidence of injury was provided during the pre-trial period. Residents are appealing both decisions to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.