In Georgia, a small-town newspaper owner takes on a goliath waste company

Dink NeSmith

Dink NeSmith is a man on a mission. He’s determined to stop the second largest waste management company in the country from dumping coal ash in a landfill in the rural South Georgia county where he grew up. It’s a David-versus-Goliath battle, NeSmith likes to say, and he has a point: He’s going up against a company valued at about $17 billion, which looks to have some good legal arguments on its side.

But NeSmith comes armed with a unique weapon, too: He owns the local newspaper.

For the past five months, The Press-Sentinel, a twice-weekly paper with a circulation of about 6,500 based in the town of Jesup, has delivered full-throttle coverage of the landfill project, galvanizing community opposition and prompting the property’s owner, Republic Services, to complain about “activist journalism” and slanted reporting.* There have been packed county commission meetings, protests with homemade signs, a Facebook group, even a second-grade class assigned to write essays on why they don’t want coal ash in their town. “It will get us all sick and that will be bad,” wrote one student, whose short essay ran in The Press-Sentinel late last month, under a picture of smiling 7-year-olds holding up their work.

It’s the kind of press that can make a Fortune 500 executive blanch.

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And while NeSmith says he would back the publishers at any of the other 25 newspapers he co-owns in Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina if they were facing a similar fight, the Press-Sentinel’s approach is clearly informed by his personal connection to Jesup, where he was born and raised. He still owns property in Wayne County, downstream of the landfill.*

“I’ve got cypress in my swamp tract that were growing when Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane,” he says. “I’m going to leave that land to my children and grandchildren. I don’t want my great-grandchildren to say, ‘It was real nice of grandpa to do this for us, but why didn’t he stand up? Why did he let coal ash get dumped here?’”

The fight began in January, when The Press-Sentinel’s Derby Waters broke the story that the company had applied for a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers to construct a rail yard at the landfill that could accommodate 100-car trains. The application noted that the rail yard could receive coal ash along with “other non-hazardous waste streams” like municipal trash, and included a description of how coal ash in the trains—up to 10,000 tons a day, county officials who had been briefed by the company soon told the paper—could be transferred to the dump site. It took some digging just to figure out who was behind the plan, because the permit was filed under the name of an obscure Republic subsidiary.

Since then, The Press-Sentinel has aggressively covered every aspect of the process, from the Army Corps’ initial reluctance to participate in a public meeting and subsequent change of heart to efforts in the state capital to require more transparency when a landfill leaks. Waters, the paper’s only staff reporter, and a part-timer at that, has toured the landfill and written an explainer story on how it operates. He also tracked down the minutes of a 2005 Wayne County commission meeting in which the agreement with Republic was modified in ways that put sharp limits on the county’s ability to oppose the project today. The paper’s editor, Drew Davis, has pitched in with stories, too.

“Their efforts have been herculean,” said Eric Denty, the paper’s publisher.

Beyond its news coverage, the paper has run dozens of columns, editorials, and letters to the editor fiercely opposed to bringing coal ash—which can be legally stored in lined landfills under federal regulations, but poses environmental and health risks if improperly handled—to the site. A cartoonist has been commissioned specifically to help wage the battle. Denty has penned the editorials, but NeSmith himself has written many of the columns; though The Press-Sentinel’s work is generally behind a paywall online, his commentary is readily accessible on his personal website. (NeSmith, the newspaper owner, and Nesmith, the author of this article, are not related.)

I don’t want my great-grandchildren to say, ‘It was real nice of grandpa to do this for us, but why didn’t he stand up? Why did he let coal ash get dumped here?’

In March, before the public meeting with the Army Corps, The Press-Sentinel printed a 20-page, ad-free special section with some of the previous stories, new stories, and more editorials, including a guest column from the editor and publisher of The Blackshear Times, which covers a neighboring community. The paper printed 15,000 copies of the special section, delivering it to its own subscribers and providing it to two papers in neighboring communities to supplement their coverage.

State Rep. Bill Werkheiser, who represents part of Wayne County, says The Press-Sentinel is driving the debate.

“They probably have had more influence on that issue than any entity in the county,” he says. “On a scale of one to 10 in terms of how much influence? Eleven.”

Other outlets, large and small, have also weighed in, most notably The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which broke the news in February that toxic metals from coal ash had leaked into groundwater at the site at an earlier date. The AJC’s Dan Chapman dug through hundreds of pages of records at the Georgia Environmental Protection Division’s offices to uncover the leak, which Republic reported to the state, but not the community, in 2011. (The environmental division “says there’s no evidence the metals have reached nearby wetlands,” Chapman reported.)

The disclosure of the leak prompted the legislature to pass a law, signed by the governor, to require landfills to notify local governments whenever there is a release of “a contaminant which is likely to pose a danger to human health.”

Werkheiser, the state representative, proposed the new disclosure law. He says the newspaper’s coverage has been fair, though at times it has frustrated him. “[O]n both the county and state level… every time we try to do something there’s a legal road block, and sometimes it’s viewed and reported as we’re not doing enough,” he says.

Wayne County Commissioner Ralph Hickox, who opposes coal ash disposal at the landfill, doesn’t think the rail yard plan can be stopped because of the 2005 agreement. But he’s grateful to The Press-Sentinel for reporting on the issue.

“I think the paper’s done a service to the community by publishing this stuff,” he says. “Republic may think this is a dump of a town, but I love Wayne County.”

So does Dink NeSmith, though he doesn’t live there anymore. A newspaper ad salesman before he became an owner, NeSmith once served as president of the local chamber of commerce. His home is now in Athens, about 200 miles away, but he still has family in Jesup, and he still owns that property, a large piece of cypress swamp and piney woods. NeSmith has been open about his personal interest in the issue. He’s spent about $50,000 of his own money on the fight, hiring lawyers to look for openings to stop Republic’s plans, and is prepared to spend more.

“I threw my heart into this battle first, and then my wallet followed,” he says.

Penny Abernathy, a leading journalism professor at the University of North Carolina, says her research has found that privately owned newspapers are more willing to wade into a public battle than newspapers owned by publicly traded companies or private equity.

They probably have had more influence on that issue than any entity in the county. On a scale of one to 10 in terms of how much influence? Eleven.

That’s often a good thing, though locally connected ownership can have its downsides, too. And when the NIMBYs come out in force to oppose anything from a halfway house to waste disposal, the solution often ends up being the relocation of the facility to a community that doesn’t have a powerful voice, or strong media to amplify it, regardless of the merits. There’s no justice in that.

NeSmith acknowledges that as long as we’re burning coal, the ash will have to be disposed of somewhere. The Press-Sentinel has also acknowledged in its news coverage that disposal in a lined landfill may generally be preferable, environmentally speaking, to open containment pits.

But NeSmith believes his community, dotted with fragile wetlands, is the wrong place. And he believes his paper, which traces its roots to 1865, is doing what any local paper should.

The Press-Sentinel is the oldest continuously operated business in the community,” he says. “We feel like, as one of the pillars of the community, it’s our place to keep people informed, and raise hell when necessary.”

Republic naturally sees things differently. Early in the debate the company apologized for not being more open with the community, and vowed to do better. The company set up a website about the landfill where it says, among other things, that it “has no immediate plans to accept coal ash.”

But Republic has also loudly criticized The Press-Sentinel’s coverage. On May 19, Republic’s area president, Drew Isenhour, wrote a letter to county commissioners warning them that “encouraging or participating in the current efforts to oppose Republic” would violate specific sections of the 2005 agreement. He went on to complain that The Press-Sentinel and NeSmith “have been and continue to be a source of substantial misinformation, exaggeration and false and unwarranted attacks”—and to say that the company “is not now entertaining and does not intend to entertain withdrawing the current project or the plans for possible receipt and disposal of CCR materials,” or coal ash.

The paper published the three-page letter in its entirety, and Waters wrote about it, though the paper says Isenhour did not respond to a request to clarify what he considered misinformation in The Press-Sentinel’s reports.

Denty, the publisher, defends the paper’s coverage. “Derby toured the landfill and we had all their glowing and positive comments in the story. They do run a fine landfill,” he says. “When you are a small newspaper, you wear lot of hats. We work very hard to make our news stories stand on their own and make our editorial pages as hard-hitting and lively as we can make them.”

When I reached out the company directly, Republic spokesman Chip Lake repeated the complaints about misleading coverage. Pushed for specific examples of inaccuracies in news stories, he cited early reports of a 250-acre rail yard—it’s only going to be about 70 acres, he said. Other outlets also initially reported the rail yard would be larger, based on reporters’ understanding of the language in the permit application.

Lake further complained that in reporting on the prior leak at the landfill, Waters had described it as a “spill.” In fact, the story actually makes reference to a “leakage”—and cites Lake’s denial that a “spill” had occurred—though it quotes one county commissioner using the word “spill.”

Lake also insists that while the company owns more than 2,000 acres in the area, Republic has no plans to expand the 270-acre footprint of the current landfill. NeSmith fears all of that land may one day be turned into a Mt. Trashmore, and his columns don’t always note the company’s position.

The spokesman’s other complaints boiled down to the tone of columns, editorials, and letters to the editor, and the actions of Dink NeSmith, which he seems to think are not befitting of a journalist.

“Even in the Press-Sentinel’s own newspaper, they refer to themselves… as Representatives of Wayne County, and not journalists covering the [Environmental Protection Division] hearing. Again, totally OK as long as they are not denying the ‘activist journalist’ label,” Lake said in an email.

Lake forwarded to me a letter NeSmith wrote to Bill Gates, a Republic shareholder, in which he implores the Microsoft founder to get personally involved.

NeSmith sent me the same letter. He also sent me a house ad the paper has been running to urge residents to write to Gates and to Republic’s board of directors. He doesn’t shrink from the hometown activist role.

“A person who won’t stand up for his family, his friends, and his hometown isn’t much of a person,” he says.

NeSmith may not win this fight. The Army Corps’ decision on the rail yard application should come this summer, and it looks likely the permit will be approved. But the newspaper owner isn’t going to make it easy.

“We’re scaling Stone Mountain barefoot and it’s going to be tough,” he says. “I don’t want this to be our tagline: ‘Oh yeah, Jesup. That’s where they dumped all that coal ash.’”

*This story originally stated that the circulation of The Press-Sentinel was 5,000, based on information provided by the newspaper to CJR. Following publication, NeSmith clarified that the paper’s circulation is 6,500. The relevant sentence has been revised.

Also, another sentence that referred to other papers owned by NeSmith has been corrected. The company has newspapers in North Carolina, not South Carolina.

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Susannah Nesmith is CJR’s correspondent for Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. She is a freelance writer based in Miami with more than 25 years working for regional and national outlets. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith.