'If I'm going to jail, at least I'm going to my hometown jail'

By Shannon Sneed

It was the first time I had been on the lake since I moved back home a few years ago, and I couldn’t wait to paddle through familiar waters again.

About 25 of us gathered at Little River Park to join in an educational tour of the waterways around Georgia Power Plant Harlee Branch, learning about the procedure the facility is taking to close its coal ash ponds.

Wrapped safely in a lifejacket from Oconee Outfitters, which rents equipment and provides tours around the lake, I set out in one of their canoes with a lovely young environmentalist with strong paddling arms.

As my partner and I, along with the rest of the group, which included beginner and expert paddlers of various ages, approached the sandy bank just below the ash ponds, both ponds B and C were clearly visible from the lakeshore.

With my eyes fixed on what appeared to be a large puddle of black marsh just beyond the bank, I stepped out of the boat and onto Georgia Power property.

Following the puddle to its source a few feet away, I saw water leaking from the ground near the base of ash ponds B and C.

Having grown up fishing Lake Sinclair with my grandfather, and occasionally getting out of the boat to hang out on the bank, it never occurred to me that I would get in trouble for exploring – until I heard the Baldwin County deputy say, “Ma’am, could you come with me?”

My heart froze, but my legs immediately followed the deputy to the backseat of her patrol car, where I was, according to the deputy, “being detained for Georgia Power Land Management.”

Apparently I had been trespassing on private property, although, as I told the deputy, “I never saw any signs anywhere that said, ‘no trespassing’.”

I had never heard of a private citizen being detained by the police to be questioned by another private citizen. That was new to me, but the whole situation was new to me. “Why didn’t they just tell me to get in my boat and leave?” I wondered.

After a few security officers from Georgia Power arrived, they began questioning me as I sat in the back of the patrol car; questions like: Who are you? Why are you here? Who are you with? How long were you out there? Did you get any pictures?

The interrogations stopped once I was recognized as the local reporter covering coal ash issues.

And that was also right before the head Georgia Power security officer closed the patrol car door, which had been left open by the deputy, and I was left shut up in the backseat of a running car with the heat on.

Still wrapped securely in my lifejacket, which I was wearing over a shirt and a rain jacket, the heat of the afternoon sun and car heater started to become unbearable.

“Could someone roll down the window, it’s hot in here,” I hollered out the driver’s side of the patrol car.

A few minutes later, head security guy opened the door, stuck his head in and said, “What?”

I asked him if he would please tell the deputy to let down the window, it was hot in the car. After staring at me several seconds, he closed the door again.

A few minutes later, I saw the deputy approach the driver’s side and I asked her if she would please at least turn the heat off.

Seeming to just realize how hot it was in the vehicle, she turned the patrol car off and told me I could step out and remove my lifejacket to get cooled off. Putnam County deputies were on their way to issue me a warning for being on private property, the Baldwin County deputy informed me.

Standing at the top of the hill above the lake, I was near the ash ponds and, unlike in the woods down near the shoreline, I was in very unfamiliar territory.

Resisting the urge to dart for the waters behind me, I patiently waited on Putnam County’s finest to show up.

After what I had just experienced with Georgia Power security officers, I was so relieved when I saw our guys driving up the access road around the ponds. “If I’m going to jail, at least I’m going to my hometown jail,” I thought, not so sure that one jailhouse would be any better than the other, but why take any chances.

Thankfully, as Putnam County Deputy Chris Donovan wrote me out a notice for trespassing, he didn’t treat me like a hardened criminal who was set out to destroy those around me; but instead, was very professional and courteous, actually making me feel safe for the first time since the incident began.

Before leaving the scene of the crime, I did apologize to Georgia Power security officers for stepping off the boat and onto their property because it was not my initial intention to leave the water; however, the safe storage of coal ash is a huge concern to many of the citizens around Putnam and Baldwin counties, and as a reporter covering the community for those citizens, it is always my intention to investigate any issue professionally, thoroughly and lawfully.

NOTE: This opinion column by Staff Writer Shannon Sneed appeared in the March 22, 2018 print edition of The Eatonton Messenger.

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