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Ogeechee riverkeeper paddling away

POSTED: February 9, 2011 12:47 p.m.
Photo by Hallie D. Martin/

Chandra Brown, who is pregnant with her second child, has been the Ogeechee riverkeeper for the past 10 years. She's stepping down for her family.

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Chandra Brown joked that she can’t handle three children.
“The riverkeeper is my first baby,” she said. “And it’s time to give it up for adoption.”
Brown, who is pregnant with her second child, has been the Ogeechee riverkeeper for the past 10 years. She’s stepping down from the post and executive director sometime before her baby, a girl, is born in late April.
It’s time for the not-for-profit organization to flourish under a new leader, Brown said. She plans to be involved in the organization as a volunteer, but will stay off the payroll, she added.
After her daughter is born, she said she’ll focus on her “geeky, technical” side for a few years.
“(I’ll) build on my science background,” she said.
The organization will split Brown’s job as the riverkeeper and executive director into two positions.
The group’s volunteer board of directors is accepting applications until Friday for the riverkeeper, who will be the “advocate” and head of the organization. The board hopes to hire someone in March.
The search for an executive director will take a little longer because the board wants to find someone with a lot of experience running a nonprofit organization, Brown said. Brown said she’ll stay on as interim executive director until one is hired or her baby girl is born.
The Ogeechee Riverkeeper organization formed in 2005 with the merge of the Canoochee Riverkeeper and the Friends of the Ogeechee River organizations. Brown has been involved since 2001, when the Canoochee Riverkeeper organization was formed by three sisters from Claxton who successfully sued Claxton Poultry under the Clean Water Act.
The poultry company’s waste was polluting the Canoochee River, contaminating a part of the river near the property where Linda Smith, Claudelle Smith Molnar and Sylvia Smith Reynolds grew up, Brown said. 
“The Canoochee literally turned green at their property,” she said. “It’s a heartbreaking story of loss due to pollution.” 
Part of the lawsuit made the company set aside money to establish a riverkeeper organization, Brown said. She was a graduate student at Georgia Southern University at the time, studying nitrogen pollution in the Canoochee River. 
Linda Smith, one of the sisters who sued the company, said they had contacted a professor at Georgia Southern for a recommendation.
“And that was Chandra,” Smith said, adding that Brown’s degree qualified her for the job. “I just don’t think the organization would have ever been what it is if it wasn’t for her.”
Around the same time as Brown was fighting to keep the Canoochee River clean, three men in Louisville, Ga., nick named the “sludge brothers,” started a fight to keep the Ogeechee River free of imported waste that would contaminate groundwater.
A company was importing sludge from Augusta to the rural community and putting it in an area that was vulnerable to pollution, Brown said. The brothers later formed the Friends of the Ogeechee River. 
Around 2005, the Canoochee Riverkeeper’s seed money from the lawsuit was running out. Brown said the two organizations negotiated a merger because it made more sense to have one organization that represented the rivers from the headwater to the coast.
When Brown first took the job as riverkeeper 10 years ago, she thought it would be her responsibility to convince people that something was wrong with the river. She soon found out that people already knew that – they just didn’t know that they could do something about it. 
Brown’s job soon turned into “galvanizing” people to speak up and protect their water, she said. That’s an aspect of her job that she will miss the most: “Seeing people speak out for a place that they love,” she said.
For the past 10 years, it’s been Brown’s job to stop garbage and sludge from being dumped in Georgia and contaminating its streams. She’s fought “so rural Georgia isn’t seen as a cheap place to dump waste,” she said.
When the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island, N.Y., closed in 2001, there was a proposal to bring barges here to dump the garbage and waste, Brown said the riverkeeper organization stopped that from coming to fruition.
In Bryan County, Brown has worked to reduce the amount of wetlands lost. The area has lost 270,000 acres of wetlands since 1973, leaving areas prone to flooding and pollution, she said.
“We get involved in the regulatory process,” she said.
In Richmond Hill, Brown and her colleagues are looking at the new wastewater treatment plant near Sterling Creek that is facing a major upgrade and expansion soon.
She said she’d like to encourage the city to use a full re-use system in which treated, though non-potable, water is used for irrigation rather than being discharged directly into the swamps and rivers. Brown said that proposal in on the books and she hopes to start wiring letters by March.
Mercury contamination from coal-fire plants is also an issue the organization is working on. Mercury gets released into the air when coal is burned at plants – there is one plant in Savannah and another in Effingham County, Brown said. The toxins eventually make their way to the bottom of rivers in dead leaves. The bugs in the water eat that decay, the small fish eat the bugs, the big fish eat the small fish and humans eat the big fish. Mercury is not in the water, it’s in the food chain, Brown explained.
In 2009, the Ogeechee Riverkeeper worked with volunteers to catch local fish and test for mercury. The freshwater fish were all “extraordinarily contaminated with mercury,” to the point where the organization would not recommend that pregnant women and children eat large mouth bass caught in fresh water, Brown said.
“There was no such thing as a mercury-free fish from this water system” she said.
But fish caught closer to the coast had less mercury in them, she said. There still needs to be more testing, but Brown said Georgians have a right to hunt and fish without having to worry about contamination.
The Ogeechee Riverkeeper helped win a lawsuit in December that halted the issuance of an air and water pollution permit for a coal-fire plant in Sandersville, which is near the Ogeechee River, Brown said. The organization is also encouraging people to reduce their energy consumption and dependence on coal, she said.
“Mercury reduction is a cornerstone of the (organization’s) position at this point,” Brown said. 
Brown has stood up to the “good ol’ boys” of Georgia and for what she believes in, Smith said. She’s worked countless hours for the organization and has firm beliefs.
“She’s just a very strong personality and has a love for the environment,” Smith said of Brown. “She’s just been the ideal person. I hate that she’s leaving, but I understand it.”
Diana Wedincamp, the program director at the Ogeechee Riverkeeper, said Brown has done an outstanding job and has fought hard to keep the Canoochee and Ogeechee rivers clean.
“She’s been phenomenal at her job,” she said. “Her shoes will be hard to fill.”

 

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