– Nov. 8, 2023 –

Good morning. It’s the day after Election Day. If you went to bed before your local races were called, we’ve got you covered with an elections results roundup here. Our newly elected municipal leaders will likely have much to delight in and much to deal with here in Coastal Georgia. We’ll take a look at some examples of each in today’s newsletter, starting on the hopeful note of three “water heroes” who have protected the coast for everyone’s benefit.

Coastal ‘water heroes’ honored

The Georgia Water Coalition last week announced its annual “Clean 13,” a celebration of people and projects that do right by the state’s water resources. Several coastal entities were among those getting a shout out. They are:

• Horsepen Creek Improvement Team (Camden County) A public-private partnership replaced 44 residential septic systems over a six-year period. The result? A 92 percent reduction in fecal bacteria levels in Horsepen Creek, making it once again safe for swimming. Partners included the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, Camden County, the St. Marys Riverkeeper, the local health department plus homeowners. The project prompted the Camden County Commission to
adopt a new ordinance requiring that septic systems be inspected
and in good working order before owners could rent or sell their

• Stevens Hill Inc. (Liberty County) For Meredith Devendorf Belford, protecting 10,000 acres of marshes and maritime and upland forest along the coast in Liberty County continues a family tradition that stretches back to her grandfather, John Porter Stevens, who bought the property. In the 2000s, Belford and her mother fought off an attempt to develop an industrial park on their land.

Today, some 450 acres has been set aside for public use as the Melon Bluff Nature Center. The remainder of the land, in addition to
serving as an active commercial forest, is a living laboratory managed
in concert with the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry and
Natural Resources, Georgia Sea Grant, the Archaeology Institute of the
University of West Florida, and Seabrook Village Foundation. The property is open to any researcher in humanities, social and environmental sciences.

Belford even hired an engineering firm to monitor stormwater on the property to gauge the impact of the changing landscape around it. There’s plenty to monitor: Liberty County recently rezoned more than 1,000 acres nearby from agriculture to industrial to make way for more warehouses.

“We think we have outgrown the land,” the report quotes Belford saying. “But we can never forget that the land is where everything comes from. People from the coast, they get marsh mud in their blood, and they have to come back to it.”

 (Meredith Devendorf Belford is a major donor to The Current.)

• Andy Jones (Glynn County) Jones, an arborist and St. Simons’ native, tirelessly documented the aftereffects of the Golden Ray’s capsizing in St. Simons Sound. “On the day of the wreck, he launched his 21-foot Minorcan Mullet on the Sound with cell phone in hand. The next day, he went out again, and the next…and the next…for more than two years,” the Georgia Water Coalition reports. Jones created more than 400 videos documenting fires, oil spills, fouled beaches and marshes, shrimp trawlers hauling in car parts and more. He shared his work online and assisted both local environmental nonprofits and reporters to get out on the water and see what he was seeing.

Read the full 2023 Clean 13 report here.

Golden Ray crane lifts last piece
10/18/2021: The last large section of the Golden Ray–the ship’s middle–lists on it’s left side in St. Simons Sound where salvage operations have removed most of the 4,200 cars aboard the ship that ran aground in September 2019. Credit: Beau Cabell/For The Current

Public health monitors for spill-related illness

The Coastal Health District is monitoring for increases in reported illnesses that could be related to a chemical spill at the DRT America facility in Effingham County in September. The Environmental Protection Division is investigating the site, as the Savannah Morning News reported. A faulty gasket allowed the release of 500 gallons of pretreated sulfate turpentine. The spill was captured in a concrete containment area at the facility, a Nov. 3 update from EPD stated.

The Coastal Health District began its surveillance after receiving complaints of illnesses. It advises residents or visitors to the Ebenezer area who are experiencing symptoms believed to be related to the chemical spill to contact their healthcare provider or call the Georgia Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222 for medical advice. To report symptoms to public health, complete the following survey: coastalhealthdistrict.org/effinghamspill 

The Coastal Health District will “continue to do surveillance as long as it’s needed,” Risk Communicator Melissa Watts told The Current in an email. Those filling out the survey should not expect a response.

“If individuals have any questions or concerns about their symptoms or illness, they should contact their healthcare providers,” Watts wrote. 

The Coastal Health District last conducted surveillance related to a chemical spill following the King America Finishing chemical spill in 2013. 

DRT is in the process of permanently closing Pinova, its sister plant in Brunswick, after it suffered a massive fire in April.

Whale Week returns

North Atlantic right whales should be back in the waters off Georgia soon. These bus-sized whales, only about 340 of which remain, give birth off the Georgia and Florida coasts. To celebrate their impending return, Whale Week kicks off on Sunday bringing a slate of scientific, cultural, and historical education events to the coast. Activities run Nov. 13-18 and include an indigenous blessing on the beach at Tybee; multiple screenings of the film, “Saving the Right Whale,” on Tybee and in Savannah; and an art show and fundraiser at the Tybee Island Marine Science Center. Find a full listing of events here.

Vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear are the main threats to right whales. Efforts to expand federal regulations that limit boat speeds have met with resistance from industry groups representing recreational fishers as well as from harbor pilots. U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, who represents Coastal Georgia, in June proposed legislation to block the expanded protection. The protections have not yet been finalized.

Right whale Catalog #2029 ‘Viola’ and calf sighted on January 6, 2023 approximately 11NM off Cumberland Island, GA. Catalog #2029 is 33 years old and this is her 4th calf.
Right whale Catalog #2029 ‘Viola’ and calf sighted on January 6, 2023 approximately 11NM off Cumberland Island, GA. Catalog #2029 is 33 years old and this is her 4th calf. Credit: Photo credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, taken under NOAA permit 20556

Climate change vulnerability assessed

Georgia ranks as the fifth most vulnerable state to climate change, according to a study from the Environmental Defense Fund. The study looked at both susceptibility to climate disasters and factors that affect the ability to bounce back, such as poverty and poor health, as Emily Jones of WABE/Grist reports.

The EDF’s Climate Vulnerability Index also ranked county and census tract levels within states, weighing factors beyond extreme events like fires and hurricanes. Georgia’s most vulnerable county according to the analysis is Macon-Bibb, largely because of existing conditions like poverty and poor health.

Coastal counties were near the middle of the pack, with Glynn’s rank of 72nd most vulnerable the highest on the coast. Camden fared best, with a rank of 125 out of 159 counties.

The study also reports climate impacts separately. The vulnerability to these impacts is relatively high on the coast. McIntosh, for example, ranked third in Georgia, driven by vulnerability to disaster-related deaths, vulnerability to wildfire and to the cost of climate disasters in the county.

Wildfire burned this area of the swamp earlier this century. Climate change is making wildfire more frequent. Credit: Justin Taylor

If you have feedback, questions, concerns, or just like what you see, let us know at staff@thecurrentga.org.

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Mary Landers is a reporter for The Current in Coastal Georgia with more than two decades of experience focusing on the environment. Contact her at mary.landers@thecurrentga.org She covered climate and...