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Environmental issues discussed at club anniversary
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Newtown Florist Club 60th
anniversary banquet

What: Featuring former Agriculture Department employee Shirley Sherrod as speaker

When: 7-9 p.m. today

Where: Gainesville Civic Center, 830 Green St. NE, Gainesville

How much: $35 adults, $20 age 18 and younger; call 770-718-1343 for ticket availability


Newtown will have a happy ending, but it'll take unity and possibly some lawyers, an environmental engineer said at a conference Friday.

"I think it's going to be a happy story for you guys, but the big issue here is does the residential or industrial community go?" said Jamie Henderson, an engineer with an Atlanta environmental firm who has conducted studies of the Newtown area on his own time. "You will get justice. I don't know when. You guys have had more than enough patience."

During the Newtown Florist Club's three-day environmental justice conference at the Hilton Garden Inn, part of events planned for its 60th anniversary, Henderson talked about the community's past struggles with the Blaze Recycling property next door. He showed data he presented to Gainesville City Council in November 2008 and later to community members and other city officials in January 2009.

"What's the data here? You can record a lot of great stories, but I wanted to convert them into real data that you can use in a courtroom," he said. "Blaze is the 800-pound elephant, the first to deal with and the closest. I usually work for these big bad industries and have done a lot of chemical research before I started this."

Henderson talked about the history of Newtown and shared his ideas about the neighborhood's noise and health problems while visitors from Atlanta, Athens and Gainesville watched with wide eyes and residents from Newtown sat quietly.

"Attorneys want to know who was there first. Newtown was here before the industries. It was constructed on a landfill in 1936 after the tornado. Racial segregation was extremely strong then, and we know that from history class," Henderson said as he clicked through slides showing maps of when industries moved into Gainesville in the 1960s.

"It was a weakness on the part of the planning department then because the use is incompatible, and it impacts the general quality of life," Henderson said.

Although past studies by the health department, University of Georgia and Environmental Protection Division show some details about the polluted area, most are "sloppy" and "fail to investigate levels of mercury" and other chemicals, Henderson said.

"That landfill is a cocktail of waste," he said.

"However, attorneys need that causation. Newtown has a lupus rate nine times that of the U.S. population rate, but we don't know what causes lupus. Some are genetic issues, and some could be industry, but we need concrete health problems and connections."

The ultimate answer may be to move Blaze to a new site, and city and county officials have identified a new spot about three miles south of where it is located now.

However, Blaze doesn't have an incentive to move anytime soon.

"Getting rid of them overnight isn't going to happen," Henderson said. "Moving operations is very expensive, and if they move, they might be on the hook for doing major cleanup that they can't afford in the area they are now."

But it's still possible. If Atlantic Station in Atlanta can do it, so can Newtown, he said.

"Getting that to happen requires a lot of people working together to coordinate - state agencies, federal agencies, local officials, politicians. Someone's got to do something, and sometimes that means pulling the boxing gloves off," he said.

"Every major environmental movement to really change something was brought about by the court system. The city is not the enemy. They want to fix it, but they only have so many tools in their toolbox. People are afraid to take a stand and end up pointing fingers, so it's going to take major unity in Gainesville to get this done."