Residents of Sparta, Georgia, Push Back Against Railway Plans That Would Divide Properties and Increase Pollution
In 1926, in the heart of the Jim Crow South, a Black man named James Blaine Smith succeeded in buying 600 acres of land near Sparta, Georgia, and launched a successful farming business.
Nearly 100 years later, his grandson and his family and neighbors are fighting to protect that land from the encroachment of a railway company that would bring further noise and pollution to the majority Black community where one in three people live below the poverty line.
“We have enough burdens,” 64-year-old Janet Smith, the wife of Blaine Smith’s grandson Mark, told The Guardian. “This is environmental injustice.”
Sparta’s 1,300 residents already contend with noise and dust from the Hanson quarry.
“To me, it sounds like Iraq: the constant banging and booming,” resident Kenneth Clayton told WGXA.
Then, in April 2022, Sandersville Railroad Company began sending letters to Sparta residents saying it needed their land to run a “spur” connecting the main CSX rail tracks to the quarry, in order to ship out the gravel and sand on train cars, as the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) explained. The railway says the 4.5 mile spur will create 12 permanent well-paying jobs, in addition to 20 temporary construction jobs, will bring millions of dollars per year to the community and will allow the quarry to increase output by around 500,000 tons per year.
“As construction and infrastructure improvement demands rise across the Southeast, specifically in the coastal region, Sandersville Railroad is stepping in to help the Hanson quarry in Hancock County increase output,” the company website says.
However, to do this, the company wants to route the spur through eight properties and close to many more, according to The Guardian. The additional production would also increase noise and pollution.
“Our community is already like a dumping ground, so we’re going to fight this to the end – there is no compromise,” Smith told The Guardian. “They didn’t expect us to push back because we’re poor and Black. But this property is all that we’ve got to leave to our sons – it’s the disrespect of it all.”
Despite unceasing letters, residents have held firm against the plans. The company, meanwhile, says that if residents refuse to sell, it will turn to Georgia’s eminent domain laws that allow private rail companies to seize property for the public good, a law dating back to the 19th century when building additional railways was the only way to move products, as the SPLC explained.
“After surveying the land, the chosen route is the most efficient and least impactful route,” railway owner Ben Tarbutton told The Guardian. “While it is not our desire to use eminent domain, we are confident in our legal ability to utilise it if necessary… The project addresses a glaring need in our state, region and nation for affordable raw materials to meet the goals of President Biden’s bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. As the United States embarks on an historic effort to repair, rebuild and reinvest in critical roads and bridges, Hancock county has an opportunity to meaningfully benefit from those efforts.”
However, SPLC said the company would struggle to prove that the spur was for public rather than private use. Meanwhile, there is nothing to stop it from sending pressuring letters in a tactic that assistant professor of African American studies at Emory University in Atlanta Jessica Lynn Stewart says is as American as apple pie.
“It feels familiar, this story,” Stewart told the SPLC. “Beginning with the construction of railroads in the 19th century, and then of highways in the 20th, there tends to be a dark side to how transportation projects are pursued in the name of economic development, and usually that dark side has to do with exploitation of marginalized people. The displacement of people of color in the name of economic development is an American tradition.”
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