Career change takes Altamaha Riverkeeper, group, in new direction

After a decade of fighting pollution, the Altamaha Riverkeeper advocacy organization came to a crossroads this year. Its founding riverkeeper, James Holland, retired after building the organization from a few dozen passionate activists to a 1,200-strong group of supporters with political and legal clout.

His replacement, Atlanta-area attorney Sonja Cox, comes from a very different background and takes the organization in a new direction. She said she aims to see its geographic focus expand, with a much greater presence in Macon and the Atlanta headwaters of the state’s largest river system.

Holland was a Cochran farm boy with a ninth-grade education who spent a career crabbing before being converted to environmentalism. He spent much of his time doing fieldwork, especially on the coast, and educating rural Georgians about conservation in terms they could understand. He was known for his confrontational approach toward both polluters and regulators.

Cox, on the other hand, has worked for high-powered Atlanta legal firms and county governments, specializing in contracts and real estate law. She sees herself as more of a negotiator who will be working with companies, local governments and the state legislature.

Cox took over the job in October and is still being trained in water testing and other fieldwork. But she says she hopes to turn over more of that aspect of the job to trained volunteers throughout the watershed, which includes the Ocmulgee, Oconee and Ohoopee rivers and their tributaries.

“We thought based on her background and her vision -- although it’s a different view from James’, by the same token things are different now than they were 10 years ago when we were a fledgeling organization,” said Len Hauss, president of the Riverkeeper board. “Where James was an old river guy, she’s a courtroom person.”

In its early years, Hauss said, the Riverkeeper needed to grab the attention of polluters and regulators and establish the organization as a player to be reckoned with.

“I think now we’ve passed the hammer and baseball bat stage, and now we’re getting their attention through the legal system,” he said.

Cox was raised on a Douglas County cattle farm and learned a passion for the natural world from her mother, an ocean scientist who now lives in Darien. Cox began her career as a journalist before returning to law school, where she studied local government and environmental law. She has worked as an assistant district attorney, assistant county attorney, and an independent attorney doing contract work for major Atlanta law firms, including working on Georgia Supreme Court cases and major tobacco litigation.

“Earlier this year I realized I needed to be doing something I could put my heart and soul into, that I needed to seek that out,” she said. “It was sort of a life decision. I saw this job opening and didn’t look any further.”

Members of the Riverkeeper board said they were impressed by Cox’s attitude and legal experience with local governments.

“County government law is the place we’ve always been so weak,” said Neill Herring, secretary of the organization and state lobbyist for the Sierra Club. “She knows exactly how government processes work and has contacts with a lot of county attorneys. Among riverkeepers, she’s uniquely equipped.”

Cox said local government is where the most important land use decisions are made.

Ken Bernard, Douglas County attorney and Cox’s most recent boss, said that in her last job Cox drafted local ordinances and state legislation for Douglas County and worked closely with elected officials and department heads. She also reviewed contracts, including those related to a $120 million jail project.

“I have worked with a lot of attorneys in 21 years, and Sonja was one of the brightest,” Bernard said. “She’s handled everything from the most mundane to huge projects with vigor and did an excellent job. ... I know this is a dream job for her and she’ll only lift up that organization.”

Deborah Sheppard, executive director of the Altamaha Riverkeeper, said the group hopes Cox can help with preventing problems before they start.

“Sonja’s experience in law and local government can help us identify ways to work with local governments on zoning and ordinances, and work with utilities to understand why things go wrong with contractors,” Sheppard said.

Although she won’t act as counsel for the Riverkeeper organization, her law background could change the group’s tactics. It might actually file fewer lawsuits because lawyers see litigation as an expensive last resort, Cox said.

“My first instinct is always to reach out and try to open a healthy channel of communication where all parties can be heard and understood with decency and respect, and to try to understand where everybody is coming from so if there’s any possible way of working together ... we can do that,” Cox said. “Picking sides and fighting is a last resort for me.”

During the Altamaha Riverkeeper’s first 10 years, the organization filed lawsuits to stop a “mega dock” on the coast and to challenge environmental permits for a proposed coal-fired power plant in Washington County. Holland and Sheppard also worked out voluntary agreements with private companies such as SP Newsprint in Dublin and utilities like the Macon Water Authority.

The watchdog organization has had a varying presence on the Ocmulgee River over the years. Early on, it hired Macon activist John Wilson as an Ocmulgee Riverkeeper to assist Holland. But he left after a year, and the organization decided it couldn’t afford to maintain the position. More recently it has hired an Oconee projects coordinator.

At times the group has negotiated with the Macon Water Authority over the utility’s investment in its sewer system and has pursued Houston County about its erosion enforcement. But in recent years the focus has seemed to be on the coast and proposed power plants within the watershed.

Cox and Sheppard said the board of directors has now formed a committee to focus on the Upper Ocmulgee between Atlanta and Lake Jackson.

“We’re going to be paying very close attention to the entire Ocmulgee portion of the watershed,” Cox said. “My goal and intention is to be more present in Macon. We’ve got a lot of support in Macon, and so we owe it to Macon to be responsive to concerns up there that fall under our purview.”

The Riverkeeper recently added a Macon member to its board of directors, Sheppard said. “We’re definitely looking to establish a stronger presence in Atlanta, Decatur, Athens and Macon,” she said.

Cox said she contacted the Macon Water Authority in December to introduce herself and learn more about repeated sewage spills from pump stations.

Sheppard said, “We hope to work more closely with the Macon Water Authority to help them use their resources to ensure they’re spending money in ways that actually result in eliminating sewer overflows.”

Cox identified other potential concerns in the Macon area, including the unlined city landfill and the effect of aging stormwater systems.

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.