ALBANY — As officials with the Flint Riverkeeper organization prepared for a downtown street party to celebrate the environmental group’s 10th anniversary Saturday, most of the revelers who were planning to dance in the streets of Albany knew very little of the group’s accomplishments in its decade of service.
But as Riverkeeper Gordon Rogers, organization board member David Dixon, Director of Development and Outreach Jayme Smith and volunteers like Jessica Rutledge took care of the details of the celebration late Saturday morning, they reflected on some of the landmark events that have shaped the riverkeeper’s legacy.
“The organization of the Flint Riverkeeper was a very organic thing,” the busy Smith said between phone calls. “The foundation was laid by landowners and sportsmen who are very passionate about the future of the Flint River.”
The nascent organization made its presence known before its board had even hired staff. As word circulated that politicians in north Georgia were considering quenching the abundant thirst for water in Atlanta by damming up some of the Flint’s headwaters, the riverkeeper organization sprung into action.
“This was before I was even on board, so the members of our board just jumped right in,” Rogers said. “When the folks up in Atlanta started talking about damming the Flint, the Riverkeeper Board started putting pressure on all of the candidates — Democrat and Republican — who were running for governor, getting promises from them that they would not follow through with that plan. I’ve never seen a sounder thrashing.
“Before the election, every candidate in the running had foresworn that they would not support damming the Flint. I’ve never seen organized opposition to what could have been a catastrophic decision raised to that level before or since.”
During a conversation, Rogers and other Flint Riverkeeper officials list other significant “wins” during the organization’s first decade:
— Stopping three coal-fired energy plants, including a pair of south Georgia plants in Early and Ben Hill counties;
— A victory (“We can’t talk about the details right now; we’re in settlement talks”) over a fabric dye plant in Upson County that was recognized as one of the biggest polluters of the Flint;
— Promise by Georgia Power to remove coal ash away from the edge of the Flint near Plant Mitchell and Plant Crisp;
— Halting plans to build a landfill on a mountainous area of Upson County (“A truly disastrous idea”);
— Beginning an investigation into a metro Atlanta business that was dumping grease into the river, an investigation that was taken over by the GBI and led to arrests and a conviction;
— Advocating for legislation that halted a “$1.1 billion storage and recovery scheme” in Atlanta that would have impacted river flow in southwest Georgia.
“We haven’t won all of our battles,” Rogers said. “Sabal Trail (natural gas pipeline) was a defeat. And even though we’ve won several court battles, that pipeline has been built.”
Saturday’s downtown celebration is the third musical event the Flint Riverkeeper has held. Dixon said it’s an opportunity to show off the organization’s new offices on Pine Avenue and to share with others what the riverkeeper organization is all about.
“We want people to come and talk with us,” the former board president said. “This amazing river is 340-plus miles long, and we wanted to celebrate all of the people who share it. We’ve had an event in north Georgia, so it was only right to have one here. Plus, we can show off our new offices.”
Smith said Riverkeeper officials had to convince city of Albany officials that the organization fit with the city’s downtown master plan.
“We’re glad (former Downtown Manager) Latoya Cutts was part of that process,” Smith said. “She saw the viability of what we were doing and how it tied the city in with the Flint.”
Rogers, meanwhile, said the Flint Riverkeeper organization has no plans to rest on the successes of its first 10 years.
“You guys have been writing about it in the paper the last couple of weeks, the Albany sewer situation,” he said in response to a question about future issues of concern. “That’s an issue that needs to be settled efficiently, so that we can maintain clean water in the Flint and so that taxpayers in the community get the response they deserve.
“The city owes it to the taxpayers to tell them what they’re going to do to fix this aging sewer system, and they should tell the citizens what it’s going to cost and how long it’s going to take. The city of Atlanta had chosen to ‘just pay the fines’ when it was cited for leaking pollution into the Chattahoochee River, and that led to the formation of the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. It’s taken them 23 or 24 years, but it’s now where I feel the river is safe enough for my son to paddle the ‘Hooch.”
Rogers said he’s pleased that protection of Georgia’s waterways is recognized as a nonpartisan issue.
“Some people mistakenly label us ‘liberals’ and ‘tree-huggers’ because of the issues we’re involved in, but then they look at the makeup of our board of directors and they see that they’re just wrong,” the Flint Riverkeeper said. “I dreamed 30 years ago that we’d reach this point, that preserving our waterways would get transpartisan support.
“I dreamed it, then I asserted that it was true. Now, I’m elated to say that it is the truth. I’m proud that the concern for our natural resources by people of all political persuasions is the truth at a time when that really matters.”