Bush holds his summit amid the toxic waste sites

Georgia beauty spot chosen by President for G8 summit lies along one of America's most polluted stretches of coast
Click to follow
The Independent Online

President George Bush is to bring leaders of the world's richest to Sea Island next month to showcase his "environmental stewardship".

But the island - the most beautiful of the sub-tropical Golden Isles off the Georgia coast - is in one of the most polluted areas of the American South. Glynn County, which contains Sea Island - the site of next month's G8 summit - is home to 16 hazardous waste plants.

A nearby polluting paper mill is being closed down while the leaders of the world's richest countries, including Tony Blair, are in the neighbourhood.

The locals describe the island as "somewhere between Venice and heaven".

The 18th-century colonists from England thought it was the Garden of Eden, and it certainly must have seemed like paradise to the President's parents, George Snr and Barbara Bush, when they honey-mooned here 50 years ago.

Bush family sentiment is thought to be one of the reasons President Bush is bringing the world's leaders here for the summit on 8 June. The salt marshes and lazy creeks are also host to a proliferation of vegetation and wildlife, making the area possibly the most environmentally important on America's East Coast.

There are more than 200 species of birds here, including the yellow-bellied sapsucker, the boat-tailed grackle and the northern cardinal. Deer and wild turkeys inhabit interior forests of pine, magnolia and ancient moss veiled oaks. Egrets, pelicans and herons skim the surf. On moonlit summer nights, endangered loggerhead turtles creep on to the beaches to lay thousands of eggs.

The summit's website says that the President wants to "showcase the complementary benefits of environmental stewardship and a strong economy".

But critics will point out this is another case where the environmental facts belie the President's words. For there is an unhappy parallel with Venice, in that ecological danger lurks over the horizon.

Of the 16 hazardous waste sites within 10 miles of the island, four are so contaminated they have been designated for government treatment programmes. They include a tidal creek and landfill dump full of a banned pesticide; a former chemical factory that dumped toxic mercury in local creeks; and a defunct wood preservatives factory.

Before the clean-up began, shrimpers used to dock their boats in one of the creeks so the pollution would kill the barnacles on their hulls.

The most visible sign of pollution is the Hercules factory, emblemised by its two tall stainless steel chimneys gorging large clouds of vapour over the causeway leading to Sea Island. Its smell - a cocktail of glue and stewed cabbage - hangs like a pall.

The factory makes a variety of things, including paper and resin products, but the G8 leaders won't smell it, since it will be closed down during their stay for "holidays".

The locals are resigned to it. Emerson Gay, a retired policeman, says: "Some folks say the smell is the smell of money, which is why it's lasted so long. At least the stuff they're burning in it now is not as nasty as it was."

But the summit - and George Bush's boasts - are unlikely to make things much better. Virtually none of the millions spent on the G8 will find its way into environmental projects. On the road approach to Sea Island last week they were busy stuffing in mature palm trees and erecting quaint lighting. But there isn't much else.

Gone are the dreams of a large pot of money to clean up the environment. "I'd say stuff hasn't gone much faster than the path we were already on," says the Glynn County Commissioner, Cap Fendig. "No monies have hit here. Most of our stuff was for the police department."

The only substantial benefit has come from the telephone company Bell South, which has just completed a $7m (£4m) upgrade for fear of embarrassing world leaders phoning home with their previous creaking system.

Indeed many are concerned about serious further damage to the coast when so many security men and personnel are crammed into such an ecologically sensitive area. So far, the only major concession is that those guarding the beach in front of where the world leaders will stay have been told not to trample on turtle nests.

"I have no concept of why in the world we do this event whatsoever," said Judy Jennings, a Savannah-based environmental campaigner. "I see no reason why we invite thousands of people to trample over the beach so eight men can get together and talk. It's an atrocious use of our environmental assets."