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Activism Works

You CAN take on a behemoth. When a polluter came courting our town, here’s how we fought back.

By Jill Neimark

The mid-sized city of Macon, Georgia, was about to host a greenwasher until community activists got involved. Credit: Alamy.

“They are bending over backwards to bring the plant here.”

Those were not the words I wanted to hear last August when a local environmental advocate returned my phone call about the largest plastic waste processing facility in the world, slated for Macon, Georgia, where I live. Proposed by the San Francisco–headquartered company Brightmark and welcomed by state and city politicians, the plant would be situated 10 miles from my home. It would sprawl across a 5.3-million-square-foot site and would process up to 800 million pounds of plastic waste a year. Unfortunately, Brightmark’s intention was to turn the waste into diesel fuel and naphtha, a volatile form of petroleum. The chemical transformation would be accomplished by pyrolysis, an energy-intensive process that applies high temperatures in the absence of oxygen. Pyrolysis is notorious for causing explosions and fires in similar plants abroad.

Brightmark bills itself as Earth’s Cleanup Crew. I saw instead a company hoping to make money by collecting plastic garbage originally made from fossil fuels and burning more fossil fuels to turn it back into fossil fuels. Worse, I saw no clear accounting of the toxins and pollutants that the plant was likely to release into Macon, a city of 150,000 that is home to three universities, myriad parks, and a lively music scene. Beyond my NIMBY panic, I was pricked with fury that Brightmark could claim its technology was green or good for the planet.

That afternoon, the environmentalist informed me it was a done deal. Georgia had already promised Brightmark $82 million in incentives. The proposed $680 million plant was also likely to be funded by $500 million in tax-exempt government bonds.

Spoiler alert: By April 2022, Brightmark’s plans for a Macon plant had officially gone up in smoke. The death of the deal made national news, picked up by U.S. News & World Report, the Miami Herald, and many outlets around the country.

I learned a lot while minting myself as a newbie activist. Here are some of my takeaways:

1) Listen closely to those who believe you’ll fail—or who want you to fail. They have critical information that will shape your battle. One longtime anti-coal activist told me that Georgia’s Environmental Protection Department had been nicknamed the Environmental Permitting Agency. “It is very hard to get a permit denied,” she opined. (This insight shaped some of our legal strategy later.) Residents who favored the plant crowded onto the Facebook community page I set up, talking about the jobs the plant would bring. Their response helped shape our strategy: explaining just how few jobs Brightmark actually promised—around 100, some of them likely managerial and possibly filled by people recruited from elsewhere, some probably truckers who might not even live in Macon. It also shaped posts I wrote highlighting other companies Macon had recruited that were environmentally sound yet brought far more jobs.

2) As Mister Rogers would say, “Look for the helpers.” When I got off the phone with the environmentalist, I called Tonya Bonitatibus, a Riverkeeper responsible for protecting the Savannah River, which empties into the Atlantic near Georgia’s Tybee Island. Waterkeepers and Riverkeepers form local and national alliances that are extraordinarily effective. Tonya’s keen strategy and coalition building had helped kill the $1 billion, 360-mile Kinder Morgan Palmetto pipeline crossing the southeastern United States in 2016. “I have watched five people contact a senator and that alone shifted him, so you can make a difference,” she told me. She put me in contact with an amazing organization that would turn out to be critical to a successful outcome, Environment Georgia. She also joined a Zoom call that I had with the director, Jennette Gayer, and the 22-year-old clean energy associate at the organization, Jessica Wahl.

In my notes for that call: “Tonya says the very first place for us to start is to create a giant Excel spreadsheet with air, water, and DOT [Department of Transportation] permits. List all the pinch points of possible interaction where you can make a difference.” She noted that Macon already had 70 permitted facilities, half of which discharged cancer-causing air contaminants. Because Brightmark would add to the toxic load, “this will give you good leverage,” she explained. Later, she was generous enough to make us a map showing the demographic injustices in the existing hazardous waste risks, as well as the location of permitted facilities, areas with elevated cancer risk, and contaminated sites. The area around the proposed Brightmark site “is 90 percent low income,” she wrote, “and 80 percent have less than a high school education.”

After the call, Jennette emailed us a detailed plan of action, noting that Environment Georgia had defeated three proposed coal-fired power plants in Georgia that had seemed like done deals. She advised that “death by a thousand cuts can be a solid strategy.” Those thousand cuts included debunking Brightmark’s claims, organizing strong on-the-ground opposition, challenging permits in courts and at hearings, generating media coverage, and engaging national stakeholders fighting plastics. Much of this came to pass.

3) Find your place in the firmament. Your problem will rarely be only local, so you are not alone in your battle. When this fight began I had no clue that the problem faced by Macon had national resonance. It turns out that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has classified pyrolysis as incineration under the Clean Air Act since the 1990s, even as industry tries to reclassify it as manufacturing and recycling. National players, such as Graham Hamilton, U.S. Policy Officer for Break Free From Plastic, joined our cause and helped build a grassroots national campaign to use the term “plastic incineration” instead of the industry spin of “recycling.” I was astonished to find that my friend Rebecca Altman, a writer and sociologist who lives in Rhode Island, knew about our Macon battle. The fight against pyrolysis for plastic waste was “a global fight,” she explained.

You can bet that if a big, polluting industry is coming to your town, there is a money trail.

4) Make like a tourist: Explore and research everything. On November 15, Jessica Wahl from Environment Georgia emailed to let us know that the Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority (MBCIA) was holding a public meeting at the end of the month to weigh county approval of $500 million in tax-exempt bonds for the $680 million project. “I’m thinking this is something we would want to protest at and/or speak at, since public comments are allowed,” Jessica explained. Thank god for Jessica. If you don’t have a Jessica, then you’re going to have to spend even more time learning all that is happening around a project. My partner, Paul, and I then did a deep dive researching Brightmark and pyrolysis. During our digging, Paul discovered that a catastrophic fire had occurred at Brightmark’s one existing pyrolysis plant, a facility much smaller than the one proposed for Macon. The plant, in Ashley, Indiana, a town of less than a thousand people, had been operational for less than a year when fire struck and required several fire departments and hours to put out.

On November 29, more than 30 activists joined a virtual hearing that allowed public comments. We brought up the fact that Macon had reached EPA compliance for air quality only recently and aired our concerns that Brightmark’s plant might push the city out of compliance again, causing local businesses to be slammed with fines. Several of us brought up the Indiana fire, detailed the perils of pyrolysis, and cited evidence from other plants that the technology might never prove profitable. As Georgia Public Broadcasting reporter Grant Blankenship later noted, “Opposition was almost universal.” Only one commenter, a Georgia Power employee, advocated for the plant. The members of the MCBIA thanked us all on their Facebook page. We had no clue whether they were taking our comments seriously, however.

On December 4, a local reporter, Ashlyn Webb, noted that the Indiana pyrolysis plant had also been cited by the EPA for a violation due to toxic effluent in the water that first year. Then on December 14 came a turning point. The Georgia Water Coalition, a consortium of more than 285 conservation and environmental organizations that works closely with Environment Georgia, put Brightmark on the 2021 Dirty Dozen list, a roster of “the worst offenses to Georgia’s water.” Less than a month later, Mayor Lester Miller, who sits on the MCBIA board of directors, withdrew his support for the plant, which he had initially welcomed as a true recycling facility. “We cannot ignore the long-term safety concerns of this unproven process that have been raised in the last several weeks,” he said. We were thrilled that our mayor, who is widely regarded as visionary and pro-business, understood the perils of such a plant. But we were still nervous; Brightmark CEO Bob Powell told reporters he was still confident the plant would come to Macon.

5) Get legal help. If you can engage legal help from organizations like the Sierra Club, the ACLU, or the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), do so. The SELC has done phenomenal work in the South. Gil Rogers, director of the Georgia office, assigned two attorneys, Nicha Rakpanichmanee and Kurt Ebersbach, to our issue. Kurt spent his final week at SELC preparing comments on Brightmark’s air permit application. With the help of the SELC and Environment Georgia, we managed to get 11 organizations to sign on. The document submitted by the SELC to the Environmental Protection Department was truly damning. For instance, the scrubber Brightmark described as a tool for trapping toxic emissions seemed to be the scrubber for the much smaller Indiana plant. Had the mayor not withdrawn his support, that detail alone might have proved critical to the fight.

6) Reach out to the broader community. On January 28 of this. year, Facebook notified me that our page had reached 4600 people in the previous week. The post that had the most engagement was about jobs—signaling how important this issue was to the community. Meanwhile, Margaret Jones, the president of a local nonprofit called Save the Rivers, did outreach at our local Mercer University and set up tables with posters and information at Smiley’s Flea Market, near the proposed plant. Residents stopped by the table, signed petitions, and expressed concern. Lindsay Holliday, a Macon-born environmentalist and dentist broadly connected to the community here, agreed to pitch in with TV appearances and advocacy. Browsing through the 2021 comments on pyrolysis on the EPA site led me to Science for Georgia, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that helps scientists engage with their communities. They too joined in our fight.

7) Follow the money. You can bet that if a big, polluting industry is coming to your town, there is a money trail. If the company is public, look for SEC filings, bonds, and any background you can find on how it is funding the venture. Look for donations to politicians. Jessica Wahl discovered that Brightmark’s predecessor company, Blue Earth, went bankrupt and was successfully sued by the SEC. That helped us to see how the money flowed.

It turned out that Brightmark and Blue Earth were both funded by Rick Jackson’s investment group in Alpharetta, Georgia. Jackson heads an extraordinarily successful healthcare staffing company, and Atlanta reporter Andy Miller, founder of Georgia Health News, reported that Jackson’s firm got a no-bid staffing contract for over $400 million during the pandemic. Jackson and his companies, his employees and his immediate family members had all donated around $1 million directly to candidates (mostly Republicans) or their PACs since 2010. Jackson's investment company had also agreed to an equity and debt commitment of up to $250 million for Brightmark. It was not surprising, then, that Georgia might provide a home for the company's latest venture.

8) Cultivate reporters. Tonya Bonitatibus told me back in 2017, “We maintain a database of 300 to 400 reporters throughout the entire region. Our reporters are gold. We cannot do our job without them.” Make it easy on your reporters. Don’t bug them—they know how to follow and shape a story. But if you have pictures or videos, share them. If a reporter contacts you for a quick interview on breaking news, be accessible. Whenever the local journalist Ariel Schiller showed up with her camera and microphone for a few quotes on new developments, I’d drop what I was doing and meet her; her reporting and editing skills always impressed me when the segment aired hours later. Don’t be shy about thanking them, as several of us did when Georgia Public Broadcasting’s Liz Fabian offered in-depth reporting on issues we ourselves were fuzzy on—such as her April 11 piece on the death of the deal and how it unwound. Her piece explained that Brightmark had not been able to meet all the MCBIA’s requirements by the 2021 deadline, and that the MCBIA had written a termination letter days after the mayor’s withdrawal of support. Brightmark still paid an extra $100,000 for a deadline extension. The deal died anyway, long before the extension deadline—and MCBIA got to keep the money.

I know that stopping Brightmark from building a plastic waste incinerator in Macon doesn’t stop the company from building it elsewhere. I know it doesn’t mean we as a civilization have found a way to solve our plastics problem. My happy, if exhausting, initiation into activism is tempered by the knowledge of how much there is to do in every town and city to fight for clean air and water. But every win on a local level feels like a triumph to cherish.

June 16, 2022

Activism Works: How residents collaborated to protect their town.
Jill Neimark

is a writer based in Macon, Georgia, whose work has been featured in Discover, Scientific American, Science, Nautilus, Aeon, NPR, Quartz, Psychology Today, and The New York Times. Her latest book is “The Hugging Tree” (Magination Press).

Editor’s Note

In this inspirational account and user guide, journalist Jill Neimark explains how she worked with local, state and national stakeholders to fight a plastics incinerator. We often feel there’s not much we can doin the face of money and government, but this story shows that residents can have an impact and that local officials do listen and act on their behalf.

Pamela Weintraub, co-editor, OpenMind

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