‘Inland port’ stirs dissent in quiet corner of Georgia

The proposed “inland port” site sits across the two-lane Georgia Scenic Byway from a park with baseball fields, an old brick church and a scattering of homes. Sumac Creek skirts two sides of the tract, while Grassy Mountain, 3,700-feet tall, looms over the Fairy Valley.

“The only places I get to are church and that porch,” said Wilma Tankersley, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and lives smack dab across from the proposed depot. “I’ll just look at those mountains. It’s one of the most peaceful, peaceful things you’ve ever seen. God has given me something nobody else can.”

Tankersley doesn’t necessarily oppose the Appalachian Regional Port and the jobs it may bring. But like many others in this quiet corner of Murray County, she wants it built elsewhere — maybe in nearby Chatsworth, or in Dalton, the busy home of flooring factories, warehouses and truck stops.

Opponents hope to gum up at least one link in the state’s strategy to build a network of inland ports to provide quicker access to the port of Savannah and world trade.

They’ve established a nonprofit to fight the project, hired an Atlanta attorney, enlisted environmental groups, created a Facebook page with 276 friends, convened town hall meetings and filed open records requests seeking evidence of official shenanigans in the site’s selection.

They’ve invited outdoors-loving Atlantans, 100 miles away, to join their fight. Their hopes lie largely with state and federal regulatory agencies which must sign off on a variety of environmental issues. Lawsuits, though premature, haven’t been ruled out.

Supporters say the inland port will bring jobs, economic activity and reduce truck traffic, albeit mostly in metro Atlanta.

“We see this as an economic engine for that region,” said John Trent, a Georgia Ports Authority senior director who manages the Murray County project. “All indicators point to that north Georgia market, and that east Tennessee market, as being one of the fastest growing areas in the country over the next 10, 20 years from a business perspective.”

Mega-development projects like this one face increasingly rough roads to completion. Citizen outrage helped kill a Texas company’s attempt to build a pipeline through eastern Georgia. Another pipeline in southwest Georgia hangs in the balance after a huge public outcry.

A landfill in southeast Georgia faces heated opposition over plans to accept millions of tons of toxic coal ash. And, in Paulding County west of Atlanta, a regional airport’s effort to add airline service is stuck on the runway amid citizen opposition that has turned a couple of pro-airport commissioners out of office.

“We’re just a bunch of small town, country people here trying to fight CSX, the port authority and the governor of Georgia,” said Michael Jones, the postmaster in nearby Cisco who’s also president of North Georgia Citizens to Preserve the Environment.

“They wanted to slam it on us all at once hoping we’d suck it up and take it. But that didn’t work very well. We will continue the fight until it’s 100 percent up and running and even after that if we can.”

Jobs and more jobs

Gov. Nathan Deal joined local and state officials last July outside the century-old courthouse in Chatsworth to announce the $24 million inland port. Jobs and more jobs were promised for a region that got hammered in the Great Recession and still carries an unemployment rate, 7.4 percent, two points higher than the Georgia average.

Truck-train depots feeding ports are all the logistical rage these days. CSX Corp. operates 40 intermodal yards in the eastern U.S. including two in metro Atlanta. Not only do the yards take trucks off the interstates — the Crandall project is projected to keep 40,000 big rigs out of Atlanta each year — but retailers and manufacturers expect cheaper shipping costs.

The Georgia Ports Authority (GPA) plans a half-dozen depots around the state’s periphery, most near interstates. A private depot in Cordele, in the heart of the Southeastern cotton and peanut belt, opened in 2011 near I-75. The Crandall port is a public-private venture, with the state kicking in $10 million, the ports authority $7.5 million and CSX $5.5 million. Work hasn’t started yet but the port is scheduled to open in 2018.

Trent expects between 10 and 20 full-time jobs. Hundreds of other jobs, though, are likely if warehouses, factories, truck stops, convenience stores, motels and other businesses join the depot along U.S. 411.

The ports authority also looked hard at a site in Dalton with adjoining CSX and Norfolk Southern lines. But the estimated $50-$60 million cost to turn the Dalton site into an intermodal yard proved prohibitive, Trent said.

The port could give a boost to CSX as the nation’s No. 3 railroad grapples with a slowdown in coal-hauling — down 31 percent in the first quarter of 2016.

But Kristin Seay, a CSX spokeswoman, said the Crandall site wasn’t chosen to augment traffic on the Etowah Line that runs from Atlanta north into Kentucky coal country. No additional trains will be run to accomodate the inland port, she added, referring site selection questions to the ports authority.

Trent said the CSX line is significantly less utilized because of the reduction of coal and other products, so it makes that line certainly more viable for our facility.”

Murray County’s pain?

Anti-depot signs, like spring buttercups, pop up along U.S. 411.

“No Inland Port in Murray County,” they read. “Don’t Get Railroaded by CSX.”

Opponents say Atlanta’s gain — 40,000 fewer trucks — is Murray County’s pain.

“Those trucks have to go somewhere and that will be here,” said Jones, 65, the postmaster who once owned a trucking company.

All roads in the northern part of the county are two-lane. Truck-heavy Interstate 75 is 20 miles away. Jones and others expect a number of blacktops to be four-laned one day, especially if the depot attracts factories, warehouses and truck stops. GPA lists about 30 parcels of land — totalling 3,000 acres — available for development along U.S. 411.

“It will be like Fulton Industrial Boulevard through here,” said Greg Cockburn, whose family settled near Cisco in the 1840s. “Murray County has some of the most beautiful mountain lands in the Southeast and they want to turn it into an industrial park.”

The citizens’ group has enlisted hydrologists to determine whether the depot might let spilled diesel or chemicals enter the groundwater and, eventually, the nearby Conasauga River. Last year the Conasauga earned the state’s first “outstanding” waterway designation for environmental protection.

“We’re really concerned about stormwater runoff from the site; it’s in a really sensitive watershed,” said Gil Rogers, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Atlanta. “And this is certainly not a project that seems in keeping with the purpose of the Cohutta wilderness designation.”

Wilderness areas are federally protected lands where logging is prohibited and outdoor activities encouraged.

Trent says measures will be taken to prevent runoff. An earthen berm and tall fence will also surround the depot which will deploy 60-foot gantry cranes to move containers between trucks and trains.

“Anytime there is change there is always opposition and some level of discomfort,” said Brittany Pittman, the county’s sole commissioner. “But in order to provide a better future we have to move forward and diversify our industry. This is a great way to do that.”

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