Without Tony Bowdoin’s grandfather, Georgia Power might never have come to the quiet town of Juliette. The central Georgia hamlet, just off the Ocmulgee River and a little over an hour’s drive south of Atlanta, is mostly known as home to some of the state’s best shoal bass fishing. Juliette’s only other claim to fame is its turn as the setting for the 1991 Oscar-nominated film Fried Green Tomatoes.
Bowdoin’s grandfather, Marvin, not only helped sell the utility on Juliette, he sold Juliette on the utility’s promises of jobs, benefits, and pensions. By the late 1960s, Georgia Power had started planning to build the Robert W. Scherer Power Plant. Over a decade later, in 1982, its first unit opened in Juliette. The plant breathed life into the old mill town, employing some 400 locals and pumping nearly $7 million annually into Monroe County’s coffers.
But there were downsides: Georgia Power had seized hundreds of acres — including homes — via eminent domain during its early years in town. Tony Bowdoin had also heard whispers about pollution over the years. The 57-year-old had seen the “Save Juliette” graffiti scrawled across a nearby salon and stop sign, but his life’s work — running the family grocery — had left little time to investigate further. So when a neighbor recently called with the news that her tap water contained enough contaminants that she had switched to drinking bottled water, he called an environmental nonprofit to get his drinking water tested.
On a sweltering late-August day, a pair of red vehicles pulled down Bowdoin’s driveway, carrying Jen Hilburn and Fletcher Sams of the Altamaha Riverkeeper. The organization is primarily responsible for protecting a river that empties into the Atlantic Ocean some 200 miles southeast of Juliette, but the Ocmulgee River is one of the Altamaha’s northern tributaries, so any risk to it and its surroundings could wind up in the Riverkeeper’s purview. Because Juliette is far enough from the two closest cities with municipal water systems, Macon and Forsyth, most of its residents rely on wells that draw up groundwater. So Hilburn and Sams had begun a covert water-testing campaign in Juliette, where they suspected there was widespread groundwater contamination linked to Plant Scherer’s operations.
Bowdoin, Hilburn, and Sams headed to the side of the vinyl-sided house, where Bowdoin’s well is located. A 49-year-old who bears a passing resemblance to the Parks and Recreation character Leslie Knope, Hilburn squeezed her hands into a pair of blue latex gloves. Then she broke the seal on a sterile plastic bottle, unscrewed the cap, and delicately filled the bottle one cap full at a time. She repeated this process two more times, as the samples were cataloged by Sams, a stocky 38-year-old ex-political operative dressed in a button-down and khakis. The three samples would be sent to Pace Analytical, a North Carolina environmental lab, to test for boron and strontium — the DNA fingerprints of coal ash, a byproduct of burning coal — as well as cobalt, arsenic, and hexavalent chromium, the toxic chemical that Erin Brockovich found in Southern California drinking wells, which turns up in coal ash disposal sites from Massachusetts to Nevada.
“Nobody’s ever cared about Juliette,” Bowdoin said. He liked Hilburn and Sams — trusted them, even — because they took residents’ concerns seriously. So much so that, after Hilburn and Sams finished testing his well, Bowdoin started his Ford pickup and volunteered to lead them to his family and friends’ homes for more sampling. They eventually reached a stretch of Luther Smith Road, a largely unpaved street that runs along Scherer’s northern edge. On one side, a thick black slurry of coal ash glistened through the cracks among Georgia pines. On the other, Georgia Power’s “no trespassing” signs lined the fences of properties it had purchased from families, mostly within the past five years.
The acquired land could tell a story about the environmental and public health costs of inviting a coal plant to town. The Riverkeeper hopes its testing will provide answers to questions that have roiled growing numbers of residents grappling with stories of sickness and premature death. Its findings could not only tell of contamination that’s already taken hold, but help prevent the burial of tons of black slurry that’s likely to bring more. The environmental advocates are racing the clock — as the very business of coal ash disposal in states like Georgia is in flux, potentially endangering towns like Juliette.
The Article was originally published on A Georgia town welcomed America’s largest coal plant. Now, residents worry it’s contaminating their water.