by Robin Kemp
Note: The deadline for public comment on the FTG-01 cleanup plan is Friday, March 26. E-mail comments to Tom Lineer, Chief, Base Realignment and Closure Field Branch (DAIN-ISE), U.S. Army, 1508 Hood Avenue, Room A-103, Forest Park, GA 30297 at firstname.lastname@example.org. Postal mail must arrive no later than Friday, March 26. Learn more about the proposed plan here.
When JoAnn Thomas, an Army veteran who lives at the Park at Fort Gillem, heard about the toxic waste contaminating groundwater plumes near her apartment, she was angry.
“If they can give us a paper promising that there are no bedbugs in my apartment, why didn’t they tell us about the water?”
Josephine Martin, her next door neighbor, was mad, too.
The women huddled under the dripping eave in the chilly rain Tuesday evening. Green moss grows on the shingles and black mold stains the dirty white siding. They showed cell phone photos of raw sewage that had backed up into their kitchen sinks.
Martin had e-mailed The Clayton Crescent because she was worried about whether her drinking water is safe.
“I just received information regarding the water at fort Gillem I have a seriously concern I live in the Park at Fort gillem apts which is the old fort gillem the water is horribly here are we safe?” she wrote.
“The only way the residents found out about this is I have a friend that works with the Board of Education,” Martin said. “She sent me a text Friday night, and she said, ‘Miss Josephine, I know how much you be working, trying to help your community over there,’ she said, ‘Are you aware of this?’ It floored me. First time I ever heard about it. And so I passed the word around here. None of these people have heard about it.”
Thomas agreed.”I had not heard anything.”
Now they have questions, in 2021, about the pollution that began in the 1940s, that the Army has known about since at least the 1970s, and that began to draw occasional news coverage in the 1990s after the Army began testing areas off the base for possible contamination. They question whether the people working in the new warehouses at Gillem Logistics Center are safe.
They are concerned about the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ request for e-mailed comments by Friday, March 26 about the Army’s proposal to inject microbes and additives (similar projects have used vegetable oil or molasses) that scientists say would eat the contamination and break it down into what the Army says would be harmless byproducts. That proposal has to do with a hazardous site on the north side of the base, FTG-01.
However, the site closest to the Park at Fort Gillem, FTG-02, also known as the Southeast Area Dump Site, was also classified as hazardous, according to the nonprofit news site ProPublica–and its final cleanup action was in 2016. The site is being monitored until 2045.
Thomas and Martin say they are angry that no one told them about the toxins oozing into the groundwater–not the landlord, not the Army, not city officials. They also are unhappy that they were told to vote for a ballot initiative the city wanted in order to attract more businesses to the former Army base.
“My thing is, why don’t they move us out?” Thomas asked. “Move us out.”
In the course of conversation, the women reveal that few residents have Internet access or computers. They have kept neighbors informed by physically bringing their cellphones to other people, sharing the information they find.
Thomas called Councilman Hector Gutierrez and demanded to meet with him in person, “to tell me what’s going on as city councilman for Ward 3,” she said. “No one had contacted us, been out here in this particular area. I doubt if they’ve been across the street, which is the county part, I believe, but no one told us [about the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed cleanup plan] and they only said they put it in the paper from February 25th to March 26th. Nobody, there was nothing handed out, there was no alert, you have people over here that’s sick, and there’s people I know that worked at the [Fort Gillem] commissary and different buildings over there, ended up dying with cancer.”
Martin added, “None of the residents knew anything.”
“We knew nothing,” Thomas said. “You’ve got veterans. I am a veteran. Retired. You have veterans in here that’s sick.”
She wants nothing to do with Mayor Angelyne Butler, who she said met with residents, then told the landlord, Paul Kennon, “who-all complained.”
When Gutierrez arrived, Thomas said she had voted for him and that she had requested a meeting with him and former Ward 3 Councilwoman Sandra Bagley. She said crews at the logistics center were “demolitioning all night long,” keeping sickly veterans in the back of the complex awake.
“They forget about that people live back here,” Martin told Gutierrez. “They don’t let nobody know.”
“They don’t care about nobody,” Thomas replied.
“We’re gonna stop that,” Gutierrez, himself a veteran, promised. “This is the first time I’m aware that y’all wanted to meet with me, but I’m here now. I’m gonna give y’all my card.”
Thomas told Gutierrez, “I be at council meetings, but then, after the COVID hit, you know, I didn’t know how to get in touch with. Nobody comes out here until voting time. We are like trash until voting time.”
“Are you aware of what’s going on with Fort Gillem?” Martin asked.
“Well, I’m aware, I know that they’re developing, after reading [The Clayton Crescent’s] article, I became aware of all those things,” Gutierrez replied. “According to the reports we get, that they’re following all the state guidelines, that they’re cleaning up, and everything is being done.”
“That’s been over 30 years they’ve been telling us that same lie,” Thomas said.
She last took a bath when she was visiting her daughter out of town. And she says she can’t use her dishwasher because “it smells like sewage.”
And they listed the names of residents and former residents –most of whom had worked at Fort Gillem’s commissary or warehouse–neighbors who the women said either have cancer or have since died of it.
There’s the gentleman with prostate cancer. And the man who died a few buildings away about ten years ago. There are two women with breast cancer.
“What was Otis’ last name?” Thomas asked Martin. “Well, it was capital S. They stayed here. And they stayed in the back.”
Mr. Ernest had worked at the warehouse on base for over 20 years. Mr. George. Mr. Collins. Mr. Laughley. The big white guy they found dead in his apartment about ten years ago had worked on the base. They all had worked on the base, the women said, and they all died of cancer. And, they say, many others who worked on the base died of cancer.
“The gentleman that stayed here, he knew something was wrong,” Thomas said. “We all knew something was wrong. You know if you’ve got bunkers buried underground, eventually, And I’ve got somebody right now, searching out every–what each and every one of those chemicals does to the body.”
She’s not only worried about the other veterans and seniors. She questions whether the food in the new warehouses is safe to eat.
“You’ve got children. The majority of them that goes to school from out here have been diagnosed with [ADHD]. Go down–what’s the name of that school down there where we go vote?”
“Anderson,” Martin replied.
“My great-granddaughter. She started acting [out],” Thomas said. “You’re drinking this water. You’ve got to walk around here and stuff just happens, and you wonder where it’s coming from.”
The women say they don’t know where their water comes from.
A small white box on the side of the women’s duplex is connected to the water meter. Each month, tenants get a bill for water and sewer charges from a third-party billing company, Commercial Water and Energy. The company’s website says it offers “submetering” for multifamily property owners and trains property management companies how to read tenants’ meters. It then bills tenants one of three ways:
- Full-capture billing: “bills each multifamily resident based on exactly what that resident consumes”
- Partial-capture billing: “residents are billed for their captured consumption as calculated through the wireless water meter reading system as well as a portion of the unmetered water amount”
- Ratio utility billing: “residents are billed according to a ratio utility calculation based on pre-established criteria”
The women also pointed to a small white building near the base. Sometimes, Thomas says, a light comes on at the building and trucks come, she says, to pump out the complex’s cesspool. If they are on county water, they ask, then why does sewage back up into their sinks? Why does the water come out gray sometimes? And why does it smell bad?
The Clayton Crescent asked the Clayton County Water Authority whether the Park at Fort Gillem is on county water and sewer service.
According to CCWA spokesperson Suzanne Brown, “We serve the complex through a master water meter, like most all apartment complexes. Anything beyond the meter is an issue on the customer’s side, so the property owner or management company would need to have a plumber come out and see what is going on. The sewer system inside this complex is privately owned. They also have a private sewer lift station in the middle of the complex. Any sewer issues inside the complex [are] the property owner’s responsibility. According to our records, this was originally housing for the military at Fort Gillem, so the apartments have been there a long time. Typically, if sewer is backing up into sinks, tubs or toilets, it means there is a blockage or some defect in the pipes that is keeping the sewer from making its way through the pipes to its end destination. It could be the lift station is not working properly.” A sewer lift station, Brown said, “is designed to pump sewage from a lower elevation to a higher elevation when it cannot flow by gravity.”
She explained how plumbing works: “Potable water goes in and everything drains out the sewer line. If it can’t go out into the sewer line, it will back up and find any opening, like a sink.” However, because the sewer system is privately owned, Brown said CCWA cannot send out a troubleshooting team.
“I’m sick and tired of my pipes bursting,” Thomas said. She showed a cellphone photo of a night gecko that she said had come up through her kitchen sink drain.
Landlord: “New plumbing lines” part of 1998 renovations
The Clayton Crescent e-mailed and called the company that owns the apartment, Reliant Development Group, L.L.C.to find out whether it was aware of the issues with the plumbing, as well as other maintenance concerns, and whether they had known about the groundwater issues in the area surrounding Fort Gillem when they bought the property. (Reliant Development Group also owns two other complexes: City Views at Rosa Burney Park and Highlands at East Atlanta.)
A person who answered the phone on March 18 said Paul Kennon was unavailable. A few moments later, The Clayton Crescent received a callback that went to a voicemail that said residents with emergency maintenance problems should call (866) 825-9199. While The Clayton Crescent was leaving a message, the complex called back on another line. The person who had answered the first phone call said that Kennon “does not have a comment.”
According to the company’s website, “Reliant Development Group, Inc. and its affiliates develop and own conventional and affordable residential housing. We focus on providing high quality homes and excellent service for our residents. Our belief in providing first-rate service has allowed us to retain residents and grow our business through both strong and weak rental markets. We strive to improve the neighborhoods in which we operate by substantially renovating existing rental communities. We believe strongly that renovating existing rental communities at its best allows all parties involved to benefit, whether they be seller, lender, government, communities, vendor, resident, our staff, investment partners, or various other project participants. We work creatively and diligently to satisfy concerns of each party to allow a renovation to move forward and succeed. We realize that our business will continue to grow only as long as we continually emphasize integrity, honesty, and hard work.”
The company’s page for the Park at Fort Gillem says the 125-unit, 30-acre complex was built as military housing for troops stationed at Fort Gillem, and that “Renovation costs totaled approx[imately] $10,000 per unit in 1998.” That would be $1.25 million. “Our renovations to the community included new plumbing lines, new electrical lines, new kitchen cabinets, installation of central air, new furnaces, new carpet, new tile floors, new bathroom fixtures, new appliances and new lighting….Rents increased substantially after renovations were complete….Through our affiliates, our role is as property manager and sole owner of the property.”
A 2012 story by Kathy Jefcoats in the Clayton News-Daily about the sale of Fort Gillem noted, “The only private residences to remain on the property are in a 125-unit development owned by The Park at Fort Gillem. The owners have a lease with the Army until 2025, said [then-City Manager John] Parker. The city will assume the lease and deal with any renewal in 2025.”
The apartments used to be living quarters for Fort Gillem, so many veterans and people who used to work on base live–or lived–there. Thomas’ rent is $600 a month, a little less than half the going rate for a decent apartment in Clayton County. For a senior veteran on 100% disability, it’s not much of a bargain. After the utilities are paid, there’s not any money left over to save up for a move.
Martin, who lives with her son, says her apartment is so poorly insulated, “You put a glass of water in the windowsill, and before the night is over, that glass of water is frozen solid.”
A forgotten community
The Park at Fort Gillem is somewhat off the beaten path. It’s a place people drive past on the way to somewhere else–Gillem Logistics Center, I-675, Atlanta. It’s in the middle of a news desert. It’s divided across political jurisdictions and corporate and government entities. It’s a forgotten community amid the hustle of Clayton County’s economic development boom.
Just days after Martin and Thomas spoke out, a lot of powerful people are suddenly paying attention to the residents’ complaints.
Gutierrez said he and Forest Park Mayor Angelyne Butler will bring a computer to the apartments so residents can talk with Planning, Building and Zoning Director James Shelby about their concerns. Gutierrez also said the city is sending out someone from Code Enforcement to check the buildings.
State Rep. Sandra Scott, who represents the Georgia House district where the apartments are, said she is going to ask Clayton County Commissioner Sonna Singleton Gregory, who represents county commission District 1, to join her for a meeting with the residents. Scott also said she was going to contact members of Congress–among them, Sen. Rev. Raphael Warnock.
“I cannot stand to see people suffering,” she said, adding that she thought the Health Department should come take a look.
How much community input is enough for the Army?
The Army’s latest call for public input notes that, if enough people show interest, it will hold a public meeting to discuss proposed cleanup methods for one of the contaminated sites, FTG-1, on the north side of the base. However, in years past, the Army has repeatedly said that not enough people in the community turned out, so they must not have cared enough about what happened with the contamination issue.
Lenny Siegel is executive director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight, a group that helps citizens take part in watching over Superfund and brownfield cleanups. He wrote in a 2015 report about contamination outside Fort Gillem, “People have to know that the contamination and proposed response will affect their lives or their property. They need to know that there will be an effort to explain the situation in terms that they understand. And they should be given some hope that by becoming engaged they will be better served by the government agencies making the decisions.”
Otherwise, he warned, “many communities, particularly those that have historically been disempowered and/or have a low level of technical literacy may appear apathetic. However, given proper attention and support, they are usually as engaged and intelligent as those that organize themselves from the start.” He praised the Clayton County NAACP for its ability to mobilize local residents and said the Army should learn from community groups who have the trust of local residents.
But the public comment period is not about all the issues surrounding Fort Gillem. It’s strictly about the cleanup proposal for FTG-01.
“They’re gonna kill these chemicals with sugar and vegetable oil?” Martin asked Gutierrez. “And why weren’t we, as residents, made aware of this? I moved in here, if I had of knew that this kind of stuff was over here, I would have never moved in here! How come nobody didn’t tell me as a new tenant?”
“Why the city can’t move us out?” Thomas demanded. “Because this is still the base. And we are right there. If you go around there, the base is right there.”
“These are barracks,” Gutierrez observed.
“We know,” Thomas said. She said the Army had wooden barracks when she first went in.
“Still, if they’re going to rent it out to residents,” Martin said, “it needs to be safe. I gotta go in the house, but I need to know: what is the real plan for these chemicals?”
“Me, too,” Thomas added.
“I’m gonna address all these,” Gutierrez said. “I’m actually thinking of having a town hall meeting just for this. That way, y’all can bring up all these concerns. I’m gonna call Code Enforcement about the noise, right now when I leave here.”
But the women have more questions.
“Who’s responsible for not letting me know that this was going on here?” Thomas asked.
“When I talked to the environmental specialist,” Gutierrez explained, “he said that they send stuff, or that they put reports on the newspaper to do the comments, like they do now.”
The Clayton Crescent asked how many residents get newspapers delivered.
“Nobody,” Thomas said. “Nobody. Nobody.”
“That’s been over 30 years they’ve been telling us that same lie.”JoAnn Thomas, resident of the Park at Fort Gillem, on the Army cleanup
In December 2014, the Clayton County NAACP, Greenlaw, and Siegel held a community meeting about Fort Gillem’s toxic waste. Siegel has written a report about the issues at Fort Gillem and devoted an entire section to the issue of whether or not local residents had shown enough interest to get the Army’s attention.
Siegel told The Clayton Crescent that local residents did not have the tools to figure out the complex maze of government regulations about the cleanup process, which is long, detailed, bureaucratic, and hard to follow.
He said the Army’s proposal for cleaning up FTG-1, enhanced bioremediation, “is no longer an experimental technology. It might be a worthwhile approach at this site, but I would want to know when they propose to stop active remediation and rely exclusively on monitored natural attenuation, and in particular, what is the monitoring plan.”
Siegel said that, in 2015, “both U.S. EPA and Georgia EPD seemed to be doing a reasonable job of overseeing the Army’s environmental response there, and the draft Proposed Plan says EPD is being consulted.”
He also said it’s important for residents to know “whether any of the on-base drinking water is or has been contaminated.”
While drinking water suppliers generally either clean or replace tap water if contamination levels pose a health risk, Siegel explained, toxic gases that rise up through the soil from the groundwater and into nearby buildings “is more difficult to control.”
As for the sewers backing up, he said, “Both sanitary sewer and storm drains can spread contamination. In fact, in some cases volatile compounds can back up from sewers into buildings–through toilets, for example. But water supply pipes are pressurized, so if there is a leak, water goes outward, not inward.”
In his report about Fort Gillem, Siegel wrote, “The Army has reported that it found insufficient community interest to form a Restoration Advisory Board (RAB) in 1993, 1998, 2001, 2007, and 2009. Twenty-five people attended a public meeting in 1994, but no one showed up for a bus tour in 1997. Even after vapor intrusion became a concern, public interest seemed limited. In October 2014, when the Army organized two poster sessions in cooperation with the city of Forest Park, only a handful of people attended.”
Part of the issue is how good of a job the Army did of informing local residents about the problem. The Clayton Crescent wrote a story about the upcoming public comment period after accidentally running across the public notice online –two weeks after it had been printed in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It’s not clear whether the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Savannah knew of the county paper of record, the Clayton News, which runs legal ads affecting county residents. While the AJC has a larger circulation, the Clayton News would have been more targeted to the local community. It’s possible that residents would not have seen the ad anyway, unless one or more of them got newspaper delivery. Because so few people have Internet access, Gutierrez is printing flyers with information about the town hall meeting and says he will deliver them personally.
If enough people show an interest in the cleanup proposal for FTG-1 by sending in public comments by Friday, March 26, the Army says it would hold a community meeting to explain more about the cleanup. However, there’s no hard-and-fast number of how many comments it would take for the Army to do that.
What constitutes restoration?
The Defense Department has “restoration advisory boards (RABs) that “may only address issues associated with environmental restoration activities under the Defense Environmental Restoration Program (DERP) at DoD installations, including activities conducted under the Military Munitions Response program (MMRP) to address unexploded ordnance, discarded military munitions, and the chemical constituents of munitions.” For former bases that don’t already have an RAB, “the installation will follow the prescribed guidance for determining sufficient community interest in forming a RAB.”
Even when citizens turn out, the DoD has the final say on how many interested citizens are enough and what constitutes “sufficient and sustained community interest.” Under the rule, the DoD lists four possible ways to establish a RAB:
- “the closure of an installation involves the transfer of property to the community” (the Army sold the land to the Forest Park/Fort Gillem LRA)
- “at least 50 local citizens petition for a RAB”
- “Federal, state, tribal, or local government representatives request the formation of a RAB”
- “the installation determines the need for a RAB”
Installation commanders can determine what constitutes “sufficient and sustained community interest” by:
- “reviewing correspondence files and media coverage” (such as letters or e-mails and news stories)
- “consulting local community members and relevant government officials”
- “evaluating responses to communication efforts, such as notices placed in local newspapers and, if applicatble, announcements on the installation’s website”
Should a local community get an RAB, they could lose it if people don’t keep showing up: “a decline in sufficient and sustained community interest should be evident when the public has withdrawn from a role of active involvement, such as a lack of attendance at scheduled meetings.”
Who would sit on an RAB, and whether the board would represent the wider community’s interests as opposed to big business and government, is not clear.
“Highest and best use”
Sometimes, you might hear politicians use the phrase “highest and best use.” It’s part of an economic theory that basically means “get the most for your money out of a given piece of land.”
The scramble to develop–or redevelop–large chunks of Clayton County as logistics and warehousing is driven by Gillem Logistics Center, which sits on most of the land that used to be Fort Gillem. The Army tried to shut Fort Gillem down once before the Pentagon put it on the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) list.
Forest Park’s economy had been intertwined with Fort Gillem for most of the city’s history. There’s a reason downtown died–the base had given it life. Remnants like the small motel across from the old front gate, the Carter’s Dry Cleaners sign, and Forest Park Army Navy surplus offer evidence of the base’s central role in the city’s economy. Faced with the prospect of the base shutting down, city leaders (with help from a Washington lobbying firm, Hurt, Norton and Associates, Inc.) and Army representatives began working on a deal for the city to buy most of the base and redevelop it. As part of the deal, the Army had to clean up several toxic waste and munitions sites scattered around the base. The Army and the city entity created for the purchase, the Forest Park/Fort Gillem Implementation Local Redevelopment Agency, came to an agreement in January 2012.
At first, according to Executive Director Fred Bryant, the city thought it would create a variety of uses, including housing and recreation. The official line is that the economic downturn prompted city leaders to switch to warehousing and logistics development.
Officials have been quick to point out that, despite the widespread toxic contamination, the former Fort Gillem was not a Superfund site. It is a brownfield, however–and brownfields can be big-money investments. If a piece of land cannot be cleaned up enough for human habitation, why not put it to use as a warehouse site and jump-start the local economy?
In 2008, the Clayton News-Daily reported, “The Army’s Base Realignment And Closure (BRAC) Officer, Glynn Ryan, has said the main concern in transferring an installation from federal government to local control is creating replacement jobs and shoring up the local economy as the Army vacates. [ILRA Executive Director Fred] Bryant believes the early inquires about available property at the to-be-redeveloped fort is a strong sign of the economic possibilities offered to the LRA and the city of Forest Park.”
Bryant told the News-Daily, “‘What we have here, is just not heard of in the Atlanta area. It’s just not available — this much acreage this close to interstates, the airport and a railroad.'”
The project sounded like a win-win: the city would be able to keep its economy going after the base closed, and the Army would save a lot of money by moving its people to other bases. As part of the deal, the Army would have to clean up the dump and ordnance sites before turning them over them to the city. However, “clean up” doesn’t mean “no toxic waste.” It means that whatever level of contamination remains is under levels acceptable on paper to government agencies like the Environmental Protection Association. Those papers may have one set of rules, regulations, and laws at one time that, with enough political clout, can be rewritten–maybe for stronger environmental standards, maybe for weaker ones.
Before the sale and even after, some citizens had expressed concerns about the toxic soup of carcinogens and heavy metals leaching into groundwater plumes that stretched into surrounding neighborhoods. The Army started handing out bottled water and getting residents off private wells and onto county water pipes. After checking homes and businesses to the south and southeast of the base, where contamination had seeped into a large groundwater plumes, the Army put in a depressurization slab at the Pride and Joy Daycare “because sub-slab soil gas concentrations of trichloroethene were approximately ten times higher than what was detected in indoor air,” according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. Finally, in September 2014, the federal Environmental Protection Agency said the Army was not doing enough to clean up the mess and ordered it to act.
While larger forces all around them are making money off the old Fort Gillem, all Martin and Thomas want is enough money to pack their things and move away from the toxic waste that has spread beyond the fenceline.
“You brush your teeth with this water. You take a bath. You cook,” Thomas fumed. “I’ve got breathing problems developed, got worse since I moved here.” Right now, she says, she’s trying to get ready for an operation, so she’s wary of letting possible COVID-19 carriers into her apartment.
Thomas said she’s had sewage back up into her bathtub and kitchen sink.
Martin said she’s had sewage backing up in her dishwasher. “My dishwasher last year, I opened it up. I very seldom use it. It smelled like sewage,” she said. “The maintenance came over here to clean it out. ‘Well, it’s like this ’cause it hasn’t been used.’ And I said, ‘No, you’re not gonna clean it, you’re gonna get this thing outta here, ’cause it smells like raw sewage.’ And that’s exactly what it smelled like.”
She only showers–she does not use the tub–because, she says, the water smells like eggs. She last took a bath when she was visiting her daughter out of town. She says she can’t use her dishwasher because “it smells like sewage.”
When she asked the landlord to replace her tub, she said, she was told to pay for it herself.