A majority-Black rural community in Georgia is battling to stop a railroad company from seizing private land for a new train line they say will cause environmental and economic harms.
Residents of Sparta, a poor community of 1,300 people located a hundred miles south-east of Atlanta, are opposing the construction of a rail spur that would connect a local quarry to the main train line, enabling the gravel company to vastly expand mining that already causes dust, debris and noise pollution.
Residents, including direct descendants of James Blair Smith, the African American farmer who against all odds obtained and farmed the land almost a century ago, have so far resisted efforts by the railroad company to convince landowners to sell portions of their properties needed for the project.
Now, fears are mounting that the company, which claims the project will generate a dozen well-paid jobs and boost the county economy by $1.5m (£1.2m), could impose the 4.5-mile (7km) spur on their land, generating environmental hazards and depressing property values.
Last month, the Sandersville Railroad Company filed a petition with the Georgia public service commission (PSC) – the first step to seize land by taking advantage of the state’s 19th-century eminent domain law. Eminent domain refers to the process by which the government or an authorised private entity may expropriate property for public benefit – without the owner’s consent but with compensation.
Our community is already like a dumping ground, so we’re going to fight this to the end – there is no compromise
But a grassroots coalition of Black and white residents say they will not back down.
“Our community is already like a dumping ground, so we’re going to fight this to the end – there is no compromise,” said Janet Smith, a retired school teacher and army veteran who has organised petitions, letters, yard sign placements and prayer rallies, and spearheads the “no railroad in our community” coalition.
“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,” added Smith, 64, whose husband is a fourth generation descendant of the original landowner.
Sparta is a rural town in Hancock county where 70% of the population is Black, and almost one in three people live in poverty, according to US census data.
Sparta’s Black history dates back to the Jim Crow era in the deep south, when Blaine Smith managed to purchase 600 acres (240 hectares) of land and started a company farming cotton, then peas, butter beans and corn. He fended off efforts from white residents to take the land, which over the past century has been divided and passed down through generations, enabling his descendants to accumulate wealth to pass on to their children and grandchildren. Black households still face systematic barriers to building generational wealth, which fuels a large racial wealth gap, according to the Center for American Progress thinktank.
Last year, residents – Black and white – started receiving letters from Sandersville, the railroad company owned by the politically influential Tarbutton family.
The company wants to build a spur through Sparta to connect the Hanson quarry to the main rail tracks that run along a nearby state highway. Currently, the quarry relies on trucks to transport its gravel and sand, but the railway would enable thousands of additional tons to be moved every week, which means more blasts and dust and debris for nearby residents.
The train tracks would cut through eight properties, and run close to many other homes that mostly belong to retired Black families. The first petition filed at the PSC pertains to the land owned by David and Sally Garrett, a retired white couple opposed to the rail spur, which would split their property in half.
Sandersville says the proposed train would make one round trip a day while reducing truck traffic and therefore greenhouse gas emissions. “After surveying the land, the chosen route is the most efficient and least impactful route,” said Ben Tarbutton, owner of the Sandersville Railroad Company.
“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,” Tarbutton said.
We have enough burdens. This is environmental injustice
The company vehemently denies that the proposed route is linked to “race, color, creed, poverty level or any related factors”.
But residents and their legal advisers are skeptical about the promised benefits, while worrying about derailments and pollution.
“This predominantly Black community obtained and maintained this land, building generational wealth for their families in the south against all odds,” said Jamie Rush, senior attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is advising the community. “The company claims it will provide public benefits but really it seems like a project to generate profits to the detriment of the Sparta residents.”
Smith added: “We have enough burdens. This is environmental injustice.”
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