Mark Woodall

The first time Mark Woodall showed up at the Georgia State Capitol, in January 1990, he hoped to find a band of fellow environmentalists who could help him “keep big business from wrecking Georgia.” He and his neighbors were in the middle of an ugly fight to protect their rural community in middle Georgia from a proposed hazardous waste incinerator.

Instead, he found just two environmental advocates working to prod government agencies and stop polluters. Those advocates, Neill Herring and Jim Kulstad, lobbied for the Georgia Chapter of the Sierra Club and Campaign for Prosperous Georgia, respectively.

Thirty-three years later, Georgia is home to dozens of conservation and riverkeeper organizations, many of whom often work together to oppose bad bills (legislation that could harm the environment) and support good ones. Impressively, Woodall is still showing up every winter as a volunteer lobbyist for green causes; for the past 30 years, he’s served as the legislative chair for the Georgia Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Saving a river, stopping an incinerator

A tree farmer whose ancestors settled in Talbot County nearly two hundred years ago  (where they made wood products for everything from peach shipping containers to furniture) Woodall became an ardent environmental activist when he was in high school. A federal dam and reservoir proposed at Sprewell Bluff on the Flint River, not far from his home, ignited a fiery opposition movement, which he joined. Then-governor Jimmy Carter personally reviewed the flawed cost-benefit analysis used to justify the project and—50 years ago—stopped the dam with a veto. Today, the Flint is one of only 40 rivers in the country that flows unimpeded for more than 200 miles.

Woodall’s lifelong commitment to the environment was cemented when he became involved in the battle against a hazardous waste incinerator. In 1987. Then-governor Joe Frank Harris announced a $50 million plan to build the incinerator to burn harmful chemicals, pesticides, solvents, and other toxic manufacturing byproducts. Without any public notice or assessments of likely impacts on public health and the environment—and using a distorted ranking system—officials selected a site in Taylor County near the Talbot County line.

Harris’ hazardous waste management authority and local county commissioners supported the plan; the commissioners had met secretly to vote, violating open meetings laws. No consideration was given to the nearby Black community and its residents, dependent on wells that could be contaminated by waste seeping into groundwater. The head of Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division, an active incinerator proponent, said at the time that it would be a waste of taxpayer money to conduct any environmental studies because the safety requirements for the facility would be “so rigid.”  

Local residents organized. They were led by two powerful women: Marie Jarrell McGlaun and Debbie Buckner, now a state legislator who has been an ardent protector of Georgia’s environment for the past twenty years. The protesters would not back down, even when they were threatened with losing their jobs and teachers were effectively put under gag orders. Governor Harris and incinerator boosters refused to budge from their original plan. When it became evident that Georgia didn’t have enough hazardous waste to justify building the incinerator, proponents said that waste would be imported to Georgia from around the Southeast.

When Woodall arrived at the State Capitol in 1990, he and others took a different approach—working on waste reduction, instead of waste disposal. Later that year, Zell Miller was elected governor, promising to tackle the incinerator issue with transparency and science. He reconstituted the authority overseeing hazardous waste issues, appointed technical experts as members, and supported a bill to reduce the use of hazardous waste. Lt. Governor Pierre Howard appointed Woodall to the authority. 

Ultimately, the incinerator was axed. It simply wasn’t needed. Today, the people of Taylor and Talbot Counties can breathe more easily, literally.

Milestones celebrated, climate issues loom

I decided to write about Mark Woodall and these decades-old stories to emphasize a point. It is “we the people” who must demand that our local and state officials protect the safety, health, and welfare of all of us. In my experience, the only way to prevail against those driven solely by the love of money and power is for those adversely affected to take bold and persistent action.

This year marks milestone anniversaries of some of Georgia’s most effective environmental organizations and coalitions that speak truth to power. The Georgia Chapter of the Sierra Club is 40. Coosa River Basin Initiative (Rome) is 30. Flint Riverkeeper (Albany) is 15. One Hundred Miles (Brunswick) is 10. Last year, Georgia Water Coalition celebrated 20; Chattahoochee Riverkeeper will be 30 next year; and Georgia Conservation Voters is nearing 25. Our state’s oldest conservation group, Georgia Wildlife Federation, will be 90 in a few years.

While the movement to protect Georgia’s air, land, and water is much stronger, Woodall notes that environmental issues have become dramatically more partisan than in the past—adding that he’s “appalled” by how little state legislators seem to care about the opinions of average Georgians. Who routinely gets their way at the Gold Dome? The state’s dominant electric utility (Georgia Power), road contractors, and businesses represented by the state and metro chambers.

As we grapple with climate change—the biggest threat to our health and prosperity now and in the future—we have a chance to make some real progress. Belatedly, Georgia is finally embarking on its first climate mitigation plan, as is metro Atlanta. Let’s take, and demand, bold action now, before it’s too late. 

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and an environmental and sustainability advocate. Her award-winning Above the Waterline column appears monthly in Atlanta Intown.