Study finds low risk of fire from launch failures at Spaceport Camden

ATLANTA – The risk of a fire on Cumberland Island from a launch failure at a proposed commercial spaceport in Camden County is “so low as to not be credible,” according to a new study.

ARCTOS, an engineering consultant with more than 60 years of experience in launch and reentry risk analysis, found only two scenarios in which a failed launch could result in a fire on Cumberland: a low-altitude breakup resulting in a fireball or debris hot enough to cause a fire.

In the first case, according to the study, a mid-air explosion could not create a fireball large enough or lasting long enough to cause a ground fire. In the second, the likelihood of debris hot enough to cause a fire is low.

“Opponents of Spaceport Camden have said that ‘[their] biggest concern is fire’ that ‘destroys cottages and the natural environment, and possibly kills or injures inhabitants,’ ” said Gary Blount, chairman of the Camden County Commission. “The ARCTOS study conclusively proves that these fears are unfounded.”

The county has been the main driver behind Spaceport Camden as a potential economic engine for southeastern Georgia and has spent $11 million pursuing it.

The project cleared a major hurdle late last year when the Federal Aviation Administration approved a launch site operator license authorizing up to 12 small-vehicle launches per year.

But the spaceport’s supporters have suffered two significant setbacks this year. In March, Camden County voters overwhelmingly rejected a referendum that would have allowed the county to buy a 4,000-acre site to house the facility.

Late last week, Union Carbide, which owns the site, announced it no longer intends to sell the property to the county.

Kevin Lang, who owns property on adjacent Little Cumberland Island, called the study a “red herring” by Spaceport Camden supporters to divert attention from the obstacles blocking the project.

“I question the timing,” he said. “It looks like this is an attempt to distract the public from the more relevant news.”

Lang also questioned the study itself. He said ARCTOS focused on an unrealistic launch trajectory.

“They launch the rocket almost straight up … to minimize the dwell time over Cumberland Island,” he said. “There’s never been a rocket launch from Cape Canaveral with that trajectory that we know of. …The normal pattern would be flatter.”

“Rockets do launch and explode,” added Dick Parker, another Little Cumberland Island property owner. “That’s why in the United States, we don’t launch rockets over houses.”

Despite the referendum, the county is continuing to pursue the land deal through an existing contract with Union Carbide. The case has landed in the state Supreme Court, which has set oral arguments for Aug. 23.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Abortion rights advocates challenge Georgia abortion ban in state court

ATLANTA – Georgia abortion rights advocates filed a lawsuit Tuesday challenging the state’s post-six-week abortion ban in Fulton County Superior Court.

The lawsuit represents the latest step in attempts to block the so-called “heartbeat” law, which was upheld last week by a federal appellate court. Plaintiffs in the new case include SisterSong, the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia and Planned Parenthood Southeast.

Initially adopted during the 2019 legislative session, the law bans abortions in Georgia after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, usually around six weeks of pregnancy.  

Last week’s ruling by the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals put the Georgia law into effect immediately. The federal court’s decision came in the wake of last month’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.

Now, Georgia abortion rights advocates are turning to the state constitution to block the law. They contend its guarantees of privacy makes the abortion ban illegal under state law.  

“This lawsuit is grounded in more than a century of Georgia Supreme Court precedent, establishing that the Georgia Constitution is highly protective of an individual’s right to be free from political interference with their body, health, and life,” said Julia Kaye, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project.  

Kaye said the group has requested a hearing for next Tuesday to ask the judge to grant a temporary injunction to block the law pending the outcome of the lawsuit.

“It is difficult to imagine a greater infringement on an individual’s right to liberty and privacy than to be forced to undergo 34 weeks of pregnancy and hours or days of labor and delivery and then in most cases, parent a child for the rest of their lives,” she said.

Gov. Brian Kemp pushed the heartbeat bill, officially known as the Georgia LIFE Act, through the General Assembly during his first year in office.

“Georgia is a state that values life at all stages, and the Georgia LIFE Act, which is now law, is one of many measures that reflects those values,” Kemp spokeswoman Katie Byrd said Tuesday. “We will continue the important work of protecting life at all stages and increasing supportive services for mothers and their children before, during, and after birth.”

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Georgia should adopt family leave system, advocates argue

ATLANTA – Adopting a comprehensive family leave insurance system would benefit both Georgia’s business climate and health outcomes, according to a report released Tuesday.

Setting up a system that would allow Georgians to take time off for having a child or other caregiving duties would have numerous benefits, said members of the Georgia Coalition for Paid Leave, an alliance of more than 20 organizations.

“Georgia could create a paid family and medical leave insurance program that would be funded jointly by contributions from both employers and employees rather than placing the burden on employers alone,” said Feroza Freeland, policy manager of the Southern office of A Better Balance, a group that advocates for workers’ rights and a member of the coalition. 

Freeland pointed to a bill introduced during this year’s legislative session that would have provided up to 12 weeks of paid leave to take care of parental or caregiving responsibilities. Though the bill did not advance out of the House Industry and Labor Committee, Freeland said it provides a good model.

“The concept of this is similar to other social insurance programs like Social Security, for example,” said Freeland. “Everyone would contribute a modest amount into this fund, and then everyone could draw from it in case of a family or medical emergency.” 

Eleven other states have set up similar systems that are funded by joint contributions from employees and employers, Freeland added.  

A paid leave system also would benefit Georgia’s business climate, members of the coalition claimed.  

“Our research has shown that small business owners in Georgia support paid leave programs because it makes good business sense to take care of their employees,” said Rachel Shanklin, Georgia director of the organization Small Business Majority.  

Shanklin said many small businesses cannot afford to offer benefits packages that compete with those of larger companies.

“Creating a comprehensive paid leave program in Georgia will help small businesses become more competitive and will also help with workforce retention,” she said.  

Paid family leave also has specific benefits for infant and maternal health, said Madison Scott, policy and research manager for the Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition of Georgia.  

“Eighty-one percent of maternal deaths in Georgia do occur postpartum … after birth,” she said.

Scott said a period of rest after delivery could help women deal with the physical and emotional stresses of giving birth and help reduce postpartum depression rates. 

Paid leave policies also help alleviate pressures on other family caregivers, said Leah Chan, senior health policy analyst at the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank. 

“Many Georgians fall into this sandwich generation, which is the adults who are simultaneously caring for children and elderly family members,” Chan said. “The multifaceted physical, emotional and psychological strain of being a caregiver is really well documented in the literature.” 

Chan said paid leave has been shown to improve chronic health condition outcomes and help lower overall health costs.  

Georgia already provides state employees, teachers and university system employees three weeks of paid leave through legislation the General Assembly passed last year.

The federal Family Medical Leave Act also provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave. However, close to 60% of Georgians either are ineligible for that leave or cannot afford to take it, the new report states.

There is broad bipartisan legislative as well as public support for expanding parental leave in Georgia, said Mica Whitfield, director of the Georgia chapter of 9to5, which is part of the National Association of Working Women. She said she is optimistic about its chances in the next legislative session.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Whistleblowers air abuses at Atlanta federal penitentiary to congressional panel

U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff

ATLANTA – Two former administrators at the federal penitentiary in Atlanta told members of a congressional subcommittee Tuesday inmates have been severely abused amid inhumane conditions at least since 2014.

Terri Whitehead, a recently retired former jail administrator at the prison, and Erika Ramirez, who served as chief psychologist there, described a dilapidated rat-infested facility with moldy walls and sewer backups where drug abuse is rampant and neither guards nor inmates are held accountable for their actions.

“Any suggestion for change was met with resistance,” Ramirez testified during a hearing held by the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. “It’s devastating to see such a disregard for human life.”

The subcommittee has been investigating the Atlanta penitentiary for 10 months, interviewing whistleblowers from the federal Bureau of Prisons and reviewing internal agency documents.

“Interviews and records reveal a facility where inmates … were denied proper nutrition, access to clean drinking water, and hygiene products; lacked access to the outdoors or basic services; and had rats and roaches in their food and cells,” said Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., the subcommittee’s chairman.

Rebecca Shepard, a lawyer with the federal Defender Services Office, testified the victims of abuse include pre-trial detainees, who are supposed to be presumed innocent. They receive little exercise and inadequate access to showers and telephones to call relatives, Shepard said.

Given insufficient food that often is infested with roaches, many lose weight and become emaciated, she said.

“Clients are treated as though they are in solitary confinement,” Shepard said. “[They] cannot communicate with families, visit with clergy, or participate in productive programming.”

Whitehead said the severity of abuses at the Atlanta facility are unique to the federal prison system.

“Atlanta is far off the grid,” she said.

Michael Carvajal, who has been director of the Bureau of Prisons since 2020, testified he wasn’t aware of the problems at the Atlanta prison until the middle of last year. When they came to his attention, he said he reassigned the facility’s top-level staff and reduced the inmate population.

Carvajal said he also has put in place increased guard training, enhanced security measures, renovated housing units and strengthened accountability for guards and inmates.

“What happened in Atlanta is unacceptable,” he testified. “We are constantly looking to strengthen oversight and do better.”

But Ossoff and Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., the subcommittee’s ranking Republican, expressed frustration at Carvajal’s insistence he wasn’t in the loop concerning the situation in Atlanta until a year ago.

Under intense questioning from the two senators, Carvajal repeatedly testified reports of incidents of abuse at the Atlanta facility did not “rise to my level” and that there was an “obvious breakdown in communication.”

“It’s almost willful ignorance,” Johnson shot back.

“It’s a disgrace for the answer to be, ‘Other people deal with that,’ ” Ossoff added. “It is utterly unacceptable.”

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Georgia ports enjoy record-setting fiscal year

Port of Savannah

ATLANTA – The Georgia Ports Authority handled a record 5.76 million twenty-foot equivalent container units (TEUs) during the last fiscal year, up 8% over fiscal 2021, the agency reported Tuesday.

Several external developments are playing a role in the increased activity at the Port of Savannah, including labor-management disputes at West Coast ports and the diversion of cargo ships to Savannah from an overcrowded Port of Charleston.

A series of capacity increases at the Port of Savannah is allowing the Garden City terminal to accommodate the higher-than-normal vessels waiting at anchor, said Griff Lynch, the ports authority’s executive director.

“Despite the record volumes, the Port of Savannah remains fluid,” Lynch said. “Several factors have contributed to our growing container capacity, including expedited infrastructure projects, our inland pop-up yards, and an influx of truck drivers moving to the Southeast.”

To keep up with the growth in traffic, the authority added 166 workers during the last fiscal year, bringing the agency’s payroll to 1,647.

The authority’s board approved the purchase of a dozen new rubber-tired gantry cranes and other container handling equipment this month. The Port of Savannah already boasts 198 cranes, with an additional 24 on order.

“Growing our workforce and infrastructure is part of the board’s continuing commitment to keep our deep-water terminals ready to take on new trade,” authority board Chairman Joel Wooten said.

Besides the growth in container trade, breakbulk tonnage was up 15.7% during the last fiscal year. Breakbulk cargo includes such items as automobiles, furniture, machinery, and forest products.

Mayor’s Point Terminal at the Port of Brunswick had an especially strong fiscal 2022, with forest products leaping from 52,244 tons during the previous fiscal year to 252,000 tons in the fiscal end that ended June 30.

Lynch said the main reason behind the rapid growth in breakbulk cargo was its relatively low cost compared to rates for containerized cargo.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.