Monday, February 2, 2009

Bitter Tea In Richland: Town's water contamination highlights infrastructure problems statewide
by Bill Osinski
AROUND GEORGIA
Georgia Online News Service

You don't need a visa to go to Richland, Ga.

But anyone heading for this Stewart County town a few miles south of Columbus should heed some third-world travel advice: DON'T DRINK THE WATER!

Basically, the city's water lines have become choked with asbestos contamination. It's gotten so bad that the city must charge a flat rate to all its customers, because many individual water meters around town have become so thickly clogged that they cannot be read anymore.

The situation is getting resolved; about 80 percent of the city's water lines will be replaced sometime this year. Still, the remaining pipes are also bad and Richland is already so in debt from the first round of replacements that it can't afford what remains to be done.

The story of Richland's failed pipes is also one of failed politics, one that may require a state-level solution. It's also a glaring illustration of how much infrastructure renewal — the new watchword of the Obama administration — is needed in places like Richland all over the country.

At Red's Pizza, though, the issue is more local and fundamental.

"My customers are scared," said Brenda Landreth, who runs the Richland restaurant with her husband, Red. "They don't want asbestos in their sweet tea."

To allay such concerns, the Landreths use only bottled water at their restaurant. It raises their costs, and it hasn't yet made up for the drop-off in business since the problem became public in 2006, Brenda Landreth said.

Besides, it makes their hard job even harder. "When I run out of water, I have to run out to the convenience store to buy more," she said.

Mayor Adolph McLendon is trying to keep a lid on local anxiety, while he works to get the new water lines in place. "The people here have had a longstanding concern, and justifiably so," McLendon said.

The problem can be traced to the federally subsidized urban renewal programs of the 1960s, when Richland got a new set of municipal water lines. Problem was, the concrete of the pipes was laced with asbestos, believed then to be a beneficial compound, rather than the dangerous carcinogen it is now known to be.

Over the years, the naturally alkaline waters of the area eroded the interior linings of the water pipes, and the asbestos leached into the water, he said.

The situation came to light in 2006, when the Georgia Environmental Protection Division did random sampling of the water in Richland after some water line repairs.

McLendon said those readings ran as high as 40,000 parts per million of asbestos, several orders of magnitude above allowable levels. Recent readings have mostly ranged between 20 and 100 parts per million, which is still considered elevated, he said.

For the past two legislative sessions, Richland has attempted to get a bill through the Legislature which would give the town special authority to impose a municipal sales tax earmarked for repairs to the water system. The city of Atlanta was able to get a similar measure passed for its infrastructure repairs, but Richland has so far failed in its bid.

McLendon said the sales tax route is preferable to the hodge-podge of grants and loans the city has used to finance the repairs so far. "We don't want to borrow a lot of extra money we can't afford to pay back," he said. He noted that 70 percent of Richland's population of about 1,700 is in the low-income bracket.

Estimates of the cost for the still-needed repairs range from $500,000 to $700,000, he said, adding that the clock is ticking. "The bad pipe that's still in the ground will only get worse," he said.

The Richland situation is the "most egregious" example statewide of city governments having to take a back seat to their county government, said Amy Henderson, public information manager for the Georgia Municipal Association.

Currently, she said, Special Option Local Sales Tax referenda are, by law, presented to the electorate on a county-wide basis. Although the county governments are required to consult with their cities on how the tax revenues are to be spent, typically, the renovations to the county courthouse or the new county jail get the priority. Often, though, the infrastructure repair problems are mostly the cities' problems, she said.

"The county project usually gets the first bite of the apple," she said. For example, Stewart County, which includes Richland, used a recent SPLOST referendum to finance renovation of the courthouse in the county seat, Lumpkin.

A measure offered in the current legislative session, HB66, would give cities the right to propose their own referenda on special tax issues, Henderson said.

In the mean time, Richland has to deal with getting the rest of the asbestos out of its water. Besides the debt burden imposed by the problem, Richland's efforts to develop and grow are being seriously hampered, according to Rossi Ross, chairman of the Richland Downtown Development Authority.

The city would love to market itself as a place to settle for retirees from nearby Fort Benning, he said, but other civic improvements need to be made first. "Before those people would come here, they want a fixed-up downtown, they want doctors and restaurants, they want clean water," Ross said.

And until the tap water gets cleaned up, the people of Richland, up to and including the mayor, mostly buy their drinking water from the store.

Bill Osinski has been a reporter for 36 years and during his tenure at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he reported from 130 of Georgia's 159 counties for his Main Street Georgia column and for in-depth stories. Osinski was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting.   [full bio]


Editor's note: Hello, Georgia. The Georgia Online News Service (GONSO) is in its second full week of distribution. More than 30 of the top journalists are busy creating content that's important and entertaining for all Georgians. Newspapers and broadcasters throughout the state are receiving complimentary editions of GONSO. We hope you read our work, use it and tell us what you think.

Today's offerings touch on a series of controversial issues in Georgia.

Veteran roaming reporter Bill Osinski goes to Richland, a town south of Columbus. There he tells us about a failed water system don't drink what comes out of the tap, please! and the failed politics that led to the crisis.

Two guest writers both lawyers weigh in on some critical problems. E. Wycliff Orr laments the injustice in the justice system, and notes that in this period of economic downturn, we need legal opinions from judges that tilt the balance toward common folk. And, J. Randolph Evans says the current crisis with contaminated peanut products, which has given all of Georgia a black eye, can be blamed on lax enforcement by Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin.

Finally, we have a real treat. Debuting today is the first column by best-selling author and humorist Hollis Gillespie. Don't expect anything less than a stimulating, sometimes infuriating, read from Gillespie. I knew her for years when she was the brightest marquee writer at Creative Loafing, and I've got to tell you, she's a killer. Now she's writing for GONSO. What place in Georgia truly deserves to have Gillespie drop in? The state Capitol, of course, and in today's column she talks about the brisk sales of pain-killers at the Gold Dome.

John F. Sugg, Executive Editor


Today's GONSO

Peanut catastrophe makes clear one thing: Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin's retirement is long overdue

by J. Randolph Evans
In 1969, Georgia's current Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin took office. Since then, Commissioner Irvin has been reelected nine times and is serving his tenth term. Commissioner Irvin has been a relatively popular Agriculture Commissioner, especially among those whose businesses he impacts the most. Indeed, Irvin has accumulated one of the largest campaign war chests in Georgia history - so large that he has undisclosed investments that rival the wealthiest Georgians.

Unfortunately, all this popularity has not meant much for the protection of Georgians, and now Americans, from contaminated food generated in processing facilities in Georgia. There is no better illustration of that responsibility than the salmonella contamination of peanut butter from the Peanut Corporation of America processing plant in Blakely, Georgia. The consequences arising from the shipment of contaminated peanut products have been serious. More than 500 people nationwide have gotten sick and eight people have died.

Full Story

Pain Relief at the Capitol

by Hollis Gillespie
It looks like Tylenol is the pain reliever of choice in the Georgia Capitol, though the snack kiosk across from Gov. Sonny Purdue's office also offers Advil, Motrin and a half dozen other options. Rex, who is the cashier – and Rex is not his real name, his real name is very clearly printed on his Georgia state employee badge, but you will have to visit him to see it – has been working at the kiosk for five years now, and you can consider him the resident expert on pain-reliever options at the Capitol.

"I got to restock them Tylenols," he says. "They really like the Tylenols."

Full Story

Bitter Tea In Richland: Town's water contamination highlights infrastructure problems statewide

by Bill Osinski
You don't need a visa to go to Richland, Ga.

But anyone heading for this Stewart County town a few miles south of Columbus should heed some third-world travel advice: DON'T DRINK THE WATER!

Basically, the city's water lines have become choked with asbestos contamination. It's gotten so bad that the city must charge a flat rate to all its customers, because many individual water meters around town have become so thickly clogged that they cannot be read anymore.

The situation is getting resolved; about 80 percent of the city's water lines will be replaced sometime this year. Still, the remaining pipes are also bad and Richland is already so in debt from the first round of replacements that it can't afford what remains to be done.

Full Story

It may be the law – but is it just and do our judges care?

by E. Wycliff Orr
As the economy seems to be collapsing around us, where are the courts in Georgia? How will they rule on cases that will inevitably be spawned by the hard economic times: foreclosures, firings, plant closings, repossessions.

More than the public realizes, courts have powers, written and unwritten, to craft practical win-win solutions, and to mitigate the plight of those standing before the bar of justice. Much of this comes down simply to the judge's attitude, and to whether or not judges are willing to exercise those powers, as opposed to simply processing the case, rendering judgment, and clearing the docket. Although they have neither the time nor resources to be "nannies" in every case, with a little creativity and compassion, judges can often relieve the law of some of its inherent severity.

Full Story

Tomorrow's Budget
When business has failed so utterly, it isn't "socialism" for government to set things right
by John Sugg
Economic downturn could produce a level playing field for baseball
by Paul Kaplan
Perdue should not hike the cost of home ownership or medical care
by Sam Olens
Georgia Power's Nuke-Sized Nightmare
by Lyle Harris

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