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Local Govt & Politics

    Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on Wednesday announced that the city had reached its goal of raising $50 million to provide 550 homes for the city’s homeless population. About $25 million came from private donations that range from a few thousand dollars to $15 million. The United Way of Greater Atlanta partnered with the city to raise the money. The other half is from the Homeless Opportunity Bond sale that began under former Mayor Kasim Reed. Bottoms was on the city council when the plan was approved in 2017. “This is one of the things I had the fortune of walking into when I was mayor,” Bottoms said. City officials said the final donation of $114,000 came recently from Ameris Bank, and allowed the city to reach its goal. “Homelessness leads to broken dreams and shattered potential,” Ameris Chief Executive Officer H. Palmer Proctor Jr. said at a press conference with Bottoms on Wednesday. Bottoms said there are 3,217 homeless people in Atlanta, half the number that was recorded a decade ago. One of the city’s most difficult challenges has been connecting people living on the streets to the services available to them, Bottoms said. The city’s approach to addressing homelessness is based on the concept of rapid rehousing — a philosophy that recognizes most homeless people are forced to the streets after a financial crisis. The idea is to quickly provide a temporary home, which allows them to focus on rebuilding instead of where they will sleep. Under the rapid rehousing model, the belief is that the faster someone gets back in a home, the more likely they are to avoid becoming homeless again. “It is a miss-perception that many people have: that homelessness is represented entirely by the people they see on the streets,” said Jack Hardin, Co-Chair of the Atlanta Regional Commission on Homelessness. “A far larger proportion of people experiencing homelessness have incomes and function at very high levels, but live on the margins of the economics of our society and any hardship can derail.” The city’s plan for raising $50 million was announced in 2017, about the same time that it closed the city’s largest homeless shelter — a 100,000-square-foot building at the corner of Peachtree and Pine streets that housed as many as 500 people a night, but was also blamed for tuberculosis outbreaks.
  • Residents of Cobb and Fulton counties on Monday said they want state and federal environmental agencies to do more to ensure the safety of the air they breathe at a town hall meeting about a Smyrna plant and emissions of a carcinogenic gas known as ethylene oxide. Community groups have been outraged since July when a media report highlighted a 2018 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study that warned of potential increased long-term risk of cancer in census tracts near the Sterigenics facility in Smyrna. It also found potential higher long-term cancer risks near a similar sterilization facility in Covington that also uses ethylene oxide. >> Two Dem state lawmakers call for Sterigenics closure On Monday, the EPA and state authorities held the town hall with panels about the risk of ethylene oxide and the steps regulators are taking to curb emissions at the Sterigenics plant. They urged calm to the crowd of well over 1,000 inside the Cobb County Civic Center, and said the 2018 report showed that more study of ethylene oxide emissions is needed. Residents held signs saying “No ETO,” an acronym for ethylene oxide, and many in the crowd sported orange shirts reading “Stop Sterigenics.” Some booed as speakers from state and federal agencies tried to assure residents that working with the company is the quickest way to reduce emissions and ensure compliance. VIDEO: Previous coverage of this issue Albert Luker and Mindy Rolnick made the trip from the Smyrna area to the civic center in Marietta to get answers. Luker, who worked at a facility less than half a mile from Sterigenics from 2014 to 2017, was diagnosed with cancer in his sinuses in January. Luker stumbled across the WebMD and Georgia Health News report on ethylene oxide a few days before he was scheduled to have surgery on July 25. “I was shocked,” he said when he read the report. He sent the report to a former co-worker who was also diagnosed with brain cancer. “How can two people who sat beside each other both get cancer?” Luker asked. The National Air Toxics Assessment, the EPA report that raised alarms last year about potential cancer risks, is “a high-level screening tool” that flags potential air pollution risks, said Mary Walker, EPA Region 4 Administrator in Atlanta.  The study, released last year but based on 2014 data,  found dozens of census tracts in the U.S. have potential high risks for cancer for people with long-term low level exposure to chemicals such as ethylene oxide, but that those areas require additional study. Dr. Ken Mitchell, deputy director of the air and radiation division at the EPA Region 4 office in Atlanta, said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution before the hearing that modeling in June showed lower levels of cancer risk than the NATA report. Since 2014, the company has reduced its emissions by about 90 percent, officials said. The June modeling, based on state modeling of Sterigenics emissions data, did not find cancer risks above the EPA’s thresholds of 100 cases in 1 million individuals in residential areas near the plant. It did find an elevated risk at businesses in the immediate area near the Sterigenics plant. Mitchell said state and federal regulators are working with the company to improve emissions controls which should solve the problem. “This is not a run for the hills situation at the Sterigenics facility and we expect it to become better in short order,” Mitchell said. The state EPD and Sterigenics entered into a consent order in which the company agreed to extensive improvements to its emissions control systems. Mitchell also said ethylene oxide has been found to be more pervasive than initially understood. Background levels in testing done around the country has found the gas in unexpected areas or in concentrations that were more than expected with sources that were difficult to pinpoint. During the two-hour formal presentation, a moderator read questions submitted in advance. One that got a round of applause asked why the public wasn’t informed of the 2018 EPA assessment and learned about it through the media. “I hear you we should have talked to you long before that. I hear you,” said Karen Hays, chief of the air protection branch of the state EPD. “Our focus, right or wrong, was to take the NATA results and find out what was going on on the ground.” More testing sought Cobb and Smyrna officials have announced plans to fund air tests near the Sterigenics facility. On Monday, Atlanta City Council approved legislation to join the Cobb and Smyrna tests. Though the facility is not in Atlanta’s city limits, two council districts are within about a mile of the plant. “The city wants to ensure that our communities have clean air,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said in a news release. “While there is no evidence our residents have been impacted, we must do our due diligence to ensure the well-being of our families.” Last week, after mounting pressure, the state Environmental Protection Division announced it too would conduct air tests near the Smyrna plant and the BD facility in Covington. On Friday, Gov. Brian Kemp said state leaders would meet with executives of Sterigenics and BD this week to ensure the companies “take responsibility, embrace transparency, and work with their communities to build trust.” “As a parent, I understand why local families are worried,” Kemp said in a video message Friday on Twitter. “The results are confusing, the news coverage is frightening and the public has been left in the dark. This situation is simply unacceptable.” Ethylene oxide is a colorless and combustible gas used to fumigate some agricultural products, sterilize medical equipment and in the manufacturing process of other chemicals such as antifreeze. The gas is long been known to be harmful, but in 2016 the EPA reclassified ethylene oxide as a carcinogen. The gas has been linked to breast, lymphoid, leukemia and other types of cancers. Cobb resident Don McWeaty, who lives near SunTrust Park, said he’s concerned that officials have done little to address what he said is a “known carcinogen.” “I spend a lot of time outside,” he said. “I’m a bicyclist and I may be riding through it.” McWeaty said the government and corporations have a track record of either downplaying or dismissing reports that certain products have devastating consequences on human health. He used the tobacco industry’s decades-long denial that its product was linked to cancer as an example. “We have a long history of being lied to about these things,” he said. Michael Power, a Smyrna resident and representative of the Georgia Chemistry Council, said ethylene oxide is used to make products such as glass and adhesives. Power said it should be noted that ethylene oxide is a naturally occurring chemical that is produced by human bodies, car emissions, cigarette smoke and tree decay. “There are natural sources for it,” he said. A Sterigenics spokesman said the company was not invited to the town hall. In an interview last week, Sterigenics President Phil Macnabb said the company is investing $2.5 million as part of a 12- to 24-week project to enhance its emissions controls system. The new system will improve emissions that go through its stack but also scrub so-called fugitive emissions that can escape detection. “Our mission and our company is all around safety,” Macnabb said. Artemis Tjahjono, who lives in Mableton, said she is worried about exposure to children in schools near the Sterigenics plant and wants to see air testing done within school buildings. Tjahjono, who is expecting her second child, said her 6-year-old son attends St. Benedict’s Episcopal School and takes music classes nearby. Tjahjono said the voluntary steps the company is taking don’t give her much solace. “We can’t just take their word that this is going to happen,” she said. “You want to relax during your pregnancy, not fight the system and become an activist.”
  • The city of Atlanta said Monday it plans to join with the governments of Cobb County and Smyrna to conduct air testing near the Sterigenics plant over concerns about emissions of a toxic gas. City Councilman Dustin Hillis, whose district is near the Sterigenics plant in Smyrna, has introduced legislation to join the local governments to test for ethylene oxide, a carcinogen. “As a health professional, resident, and representative of the area, it is very important to me that we partner with our neighbors in Cobb County and Smyrna to commission this air testing and monitoring,” Hillis said in a Monday morning news release announcing Atlanta’s plans. The City Council, which meets today, must vote to approve the agreement. Earlier this month, Cobb and Smyrna approved funds to pay for testing by GHD Environmental and Consulting Inc. to determine the concentration of ethylene oxide in the area. The chemical is used by Sterigenics to sterilize products for health care companies at its Smyrna facility. Public pressure also led the state Environmental Protection Division to announce Friday that it will start collecting air samples soon in Cobb and in Covington, east of Atlanta, near another sterilization plant that uses ethlyene oxide. A single prior state test indicated a baseline ambient concentration of the gas at rates higher than expected. Concerns about emissions emerged this summer after a report by WebMD and Georgia Health News highlighted a federal study that found several census tracts in Georgia, including ones in Cobb and Fulton counties, had elevated cancer risks due to the gas. Sterigenics has said it is in full compliance with state and federal emissions regulations and is in the process of upgrading its emissions controls. Sources of the gas also include petroleum refining and vehicle exhaust.  Its presence in the atmosphere has been found to be more pervasive than previously thought. “The city wants to ensure that our communities have clean air,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said in the release. “While there is no evidence our residents have been impacted, we must do our due diligence to ensure the well-being of our families.” The EPA will hold a community meeting today at the Cobb County Civic Center in Marietta. From 5 to 6:45 p.m., local, state and federal health and environmental protection officials will hold an open house and answer questions one-on-one from residents. From 7 to 9 p.m., officials will hold a forum with presentations by health and environmental experts and overviews of recent government reports. The civic center is at 548 S. Marietta Parkway SE in Marietta.
  • U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren spoke to a crowd of young black Christian voters Saturday morning as part of the Black Church PAC Presidential Forum. The Democratic presidential candidates discussed white nationalism, gun violence, student loan debt and other issues at the front of voters’ minds with Rev. Michael McBride and Rev. Leah Daughtry, the political group’s co-founders. PREVIOUSLY | Presidential hopefuls pitch plans to religious black voters in Atlanta Election 2020: Georgia Presidential candidate visit tracker Warren, who was raised in the Methodist church, leaned into the faith aspect of the program, telling the crowd her favorite Bible verse, Matthew 25:31, is a “guiding principle” in her life and policy. “The Lord calls us to act. To feed the hungry, to give water to the thirsty, to visit those in prison,” Warren said. Both candidates discussed how their policies would benefit African-Americans and combat problems particularly affecting them, including unaffordable prescription drugs and a disproportionately high rate of black women dying during childbirth. Sanders said his Medicare for All plan would drastically reduce the cost of insulin, which diabetics need on a daily basis and which cost an average of $450 a month in 2016, according to the Health Care Cost Institute. Diabetes is disproportionately prevalent in the African-American community. Asked about black maternal mortality — black women die in childbirth three times as often as white women — Warren emphatically pledged further funding for research, doctors and hospitals. Sanders and Warren also condemned white nationalism and white supremacy. Warren described the ideology as a “terrorist threat,” and said the U.S. Department of Justice should treat it as such. Sanders, who is Jewish, told the crowd he understood the threat white supremacy presents because much of his extended family died in the Holocaust. Sanders’ father immigrated to the United States from Poland in 1921. “We will go to war with white supremacy and white nationalism in every aspect of our lives,” Sanders said. The frank discussion was welcome to some in the audience. Clarice Burton, 38, said the increased visibility of white nationalism makes many young black people nervous. Hearing Sanders and Warren speak made her feel like she could “trust the system again.” Burton, a Maryland resident, has not decided who to throw her support behind in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, but was pleased with the topics of discussion Saturday morning. The student debt burden on people of color is an issue she is particularly concerned about; even if young black people graduate from college and obtain advanced degrees, they can be held back by the cost of repaying student loans, she said. Both Warren and Sanders support tuition-free college and canceling student loan debt. Warren outlined how her proposed wealth tax for those with at least $50 million in assets would not only make tuition-free college and student debt cancellation possible, but also provide $50 billion in funding for historically black colleges and universities. Warren and Sanders made up the second day of the forum; U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro and Mayor Pete Buttegieg spoke Friday. The forum was hosted as part of the Young Leaders Conference, a multi-day event for young black Christians. Saturday’s event with the candidates was bookended by sessions about the fundamentals of preaching and preparing young men to be good husbands. This is the second campaign stop in Georgia for both Sanders and Warren. Warren held a rally in Lawrenceville in February and Sanders visited Augusta in May. Like AJC on Facebook | Follow us on Twitter
  • Georgia will test toxic gas emissions around two industrial sites in the metro Atlanta area following weeks of public outrage.  The state Environmental Protection Division announced Friday that it would begin collecting samples in the coming weeks with results expected in early November. The tests will be focused on two medical sterilization plants, one in Covington and one in Cobb County near Smyrna.  But the sampling plan falls short of what residents and elected officials have demanded: 30-day consecutive testing. Instead, EDP will collect samples every six days from four monitoring locations in each community. In a statement, the EPD said it is also testing air in areas that are far from any permitted source of the gas, ethylene oxide, after the state’s first air test indicated baseline ambient concentrations are higher than expected. Ethylene oxide is a carcinogen.  The announcement comes the same week federal health officials said they couldn’t study the impact of toxic emissions on residents without air sampling. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry was responding to a request from State Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, asking the agency to evaluate any potential risks associated with ethylene oxide emitted by the Cobb facility operated by Sterigenics. “Without air sampling results, public health agencies cannot determine the level of ethylene oxide that people are inhaling or the associated human health risk of the ethylene oxide emissions,” the agency wrote in a letter to Jordan that the senator posted on Twitter. “When appropriate air monitoring results are available, ATSDR will evaluate the results to determine whether the ethylene oxide results emissions might represent a public health concern to the people residing near the facility and, if warranted, make recommendations to protect public health.” Sen. Jordan wrote in response: “If you weren't convinced that we need air monitoring before, there should be no hesitation now.” In the absence of state or federal action, the city of Smyrna and Cobb County had pledged to fund independent air sampling around the facility and are in talks with a private consulting firm to do it.  Following Friday’s announcement by the EPD, spokespeople for Smyrna and Cobb said they would proceed as planned with testing. 
  • Cobb commissioners approved $40,000 in contingency funds Tuesday to go toward independent air testing around a Sterigenics plant in Smyrna following concerns over emissions there.  The county will partner with the city of Smyrna and possibly Atlanta as officials weigh a bid from GHD Environmental and Consulting, Inc. to carry out the tests. GHD is a global firm that also conducted air tests in Willowbrook, Illinois, where a similar Sterigenics facility was shut down after the test results showed high levels of ethylene oxide, a carcinogen.  Commissioner Bob Ott, who represents the area where Sterigenics is located in Cobb, said the testing would give the public a better understanding of any threats to public health. Until now, emissions data has been based on self-reported numbers from the company and modelling by regulators, not air sampling.  “I know that this has been a very tumultuous couple of weeks for the community,” Ott said.  Each of the commissioners spoke in support of the testing, and the measure passed 5-0. Smyrna is scheduled to vote on its funding contribution soon.  READ MORE: Residents want action, not assurance, on toxic emissions READ MORE: Cobb residents dig in for fight over Sterigenics plant emissions
  • Cobb County is the latest Georgia jurisdiction to suspend enforcement of some misdemeanor marijuana violations citing the state’s new hemp law.  Earlier this year, Gov. Brian Kemp legalized hemp farming in Georgia. Hemp is a hardy, versatile crop and has been promoted by some as an economic development opportunity for rural areas.  However, hemp and marijuana are closely related and similar in smell and appearance, making it very difficult if not impossible for law enforcement to differentiate the two, officials say.  As a result, Cobb Police Chief Tim Cox recently announced his department would make “a temporary procedural change” until a “remedy” is found. “After discussions with prosecutors, it appears that arresting someone for misdemeanor marijuana possession is not recommended,” Cox said in a statement. “As a result, effective immediately, any misdemeanor amounts of marijuana that an officer encounters will be confiscated and sent to the Evidence Unit to be destroyed. A criminal charge will not be made until a solution can be found to this dilemma.” Meanwhile, Cobb Solicitor General Barry Morgan said there will be no wholesale dismissal of cases already underway, but new cases brought after the hemp bill was signed in May will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.  “The GBI has told us they are working on finding a new test that could differentiate marijuana from hemp and cases will be held pending that,” Morgan said.
  • “Dirty air, they don’t care!” about a dozen protesters chanted Friday morning at the intersection of Plant Atkinson and Atlanta Road in Smyrna.  They were demonstrating against a nearby medical sterilization plant owned by Sterigenics after reports raised concerns over carcinogenic emissions at the facility.  “We’re here today to let our neighbors know what they can do to get involved and to also demand from our government leaders that they close this plant down,” said Bridget Kurt, who lives about a mile from the facility. She was wearing an orange “Stop Sterigenics” shirt and carrying a sign with the same message.  State leaders are scheduled to discuss the plant today after outrage triggered by a joint report by Georgia Health News and WebMD revealed regulators had failed to inform residents of elevated cancer risks. 
  • Residents and government officials demanded independent air quality testing around a medical sterilization facility in Cobb during a heated community meeting held Tuesday to address concerns over carcinogenic emissions at the plant.  “Self reporting is no longer an option,” State Rep. Erick Allen, D-Smyrna, said to applause from the audience of several hundred.  Allen was referring to emissions data submitted by Sterigenics, the company that owns the facility near Smyrna, that led the federal Environmental Protection Agency to project an elevated risk of cancer in surrounding neighborhoods.  That EPA report was released last August, but the agency did not issue a press release and neither federal nor state environmental regulators informed residents in the affected areas. The issue came to light in an article published by WebMD and Georgia Health News earlier this month.  At Tuesday’s meeting, Sterigenics President Phil Macnabb said the chemical in question, ethylene oxide, is vital to the sterilization of many life-saving medical devices, such as syringes. He explained how the products are loaded into a room which is then vacuum-sealed and pumped with ethylene oxide to disinfect them. Afterwards, the gas is supposed to be captured and channeled through an emission control system.  Macnabb repeatedly emphasized that the company’s most recent emissions data showed the plant emitted a little over 200 pounds of ethylene oxide over the course of a year. What Macnabb did not say, until pressed by an audience member, was that the company’s self-reported 2016 emissions dropped dramatically, from 3,574 pounds in 2015 to 226 pounds. That was the same year federal regulators definitively linked ethylene oxide to cancer in humans.  Speaking to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution after the meeting, Macnabb said the company has chosen to stop reporting emissions to federal regulators since then.  “Our emissions are at a level that do not require us to report,” he said. “There have been some lawsuits out there that have been problematic for us.”  Federal regulations, however, are not based on emissions. According to Section 313 of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, a facility must report to the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory if it “manufactures, processes, or otherwise uses” more than 10,000 pounds.  The company’s Smyrna facility used 418,653 pounds of ethylene oxide in 2017, according to data Sterigenics provided to the state Environmental Protection Division at the agency’s request. The AJC obtained the data through the Georgia Open Records Act.  Those numbers were not submitted by Sterigenics to federal regulators, who offered a different rationalization for why the company stopped reporting emissions.  In prior years, facilities owned by Sterigenics categorized themselves in a way that would not trigger federal reporting requirements, but it nonetheless submitted the data, according to an EPA website set up to answer questions about Sterigenics.  “However, none of the Sterigenics facilities submitted (the) data for 2017,” the website says. “Each year, EPA reviews changes in reporting, and EPA is reviewing this change in reporting.”  Bryce Hensley of Romanucci & Blandin, LLC, which represents five of 11 people who are suing Sterigenics in Illinois, said the government was allowing companies like Sterigenics to “exploit” people.  “The EPA and the administration as a whole are deferring to these companies to let them self-police, self-regulate and self-audit rather than taking a proactive role in helping to protect communities,” Hensley said. “They have been reporting their emissions for years and now, all of a sudden, them stopping is quite frightening.”  Community reactions  Mariam Slaibi, a law student at Georgia State, said her family lives less than three miles away from the facility. Her father died of cancer last year, and she fears there may be a connection.  “There are a lot of unanswered questions that aren’t going to come out until something is done, like an independent study,” she said.  Agatha Swick, an attorney, said she lives about two miles away from the plant and has young children who go to school even closer.  “It seems like we’re all in a tough situation … and at this point we’re asked to believe them and trust their word that their emissions have dropped,” she said. “I don’t think any of us are willing to do that.”  A burgeoning campaign to “Stop Sterigenics” in Georgia has received support from residents of Willowbrook, Illinois, who are caught in their own battle against the company over a similar facility there.  The Illinois plant has suspended operations after the federal EPA conducted air tests showing extremely high levels of ethylene oxide in the area.  In May, the EPA announced the plant was responsible for long-term cancer risks up to 10 times higher than what the agency considers acceptable, according to the Chicago Tribune. The paper reported that the risks remained high despite improvements the company voluntarily undertook to reduce emissions, and impacted neighborhoods up to 25 miles away.  A separate study by the Illinois Department of Public Health found women and girls living near Sterigenics between 1995 and 2015 suffered higher than expected rates of certain cancers, according to the Tribune.  Lauren Kaeseberg, an attorney and activist from Willowbrook, made the trip to Smyrna to urge Georgians to stick together in what could be a protracted and difficult fight.  “This is a movement,” she told the audience, many of whom rose in a standing ovation. “Stay united and fight this monstrous company because they only care about money.”  On Wednesday, State Senator Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, filed a petition with the Center for Disease Control asking the agency to carry out an evaluation of health risks from emissions at the Sterigenics plant in Cobb. A similar study around the Willowbrook facility found an elevated cancer risk for residents.  The state response  The report released by the federal EPA last August that first projected elevated cancer risk is called the National Air Toxics Assessment and comes out every three years. It is intended to guide local agencies, who do their own follow-up assessments.  In Georgia, state regulators conducted modeling analyses of the two facilities flagged by the EPA: Sterigenics in Cobb and BD Bard in Newton County.  The EPD says that its subsequent analyses are based on modelling, not air testing, and did not find the cancer risk exceeded the EPA’s threshold of 100 extra deaths per million. However, the facilities were many times above the state’s “acceptable ambient concentration,” a guidance metric the state uses to seek voluntary reforms from industry.  The Georgia EPD has adopted federal regulations on ethylene oxide emissions from medical sterilization facilities that have not been updated since 2006. Those regulations require 99 percent control of emissions and do not dictate concentration levels in the atmosphere.  Other Georgia facilities that emit ethylene oxide are located in Augusta, Madison and Winder.  In a statement, the EPD said it would “continue to investigate the feasibility of conducting air monitoring,” but does not conduct such testing at this time.  “The fastest way to get additional emission reductions at these facilities is through voluntary measures,” the EPD statement said. “That’s why EPD has focused our efforts on securing additional voluntary emission reductions as quickly as possible while we deepen our understanding of the current situation.” This story was updated at 6:11 p.m. on 7-31-19
  • Atlanta is about to publicly reckon with slavery and its monuments to the Civil War. As early as next week, the city will begin installing a series of contextual markers around four of its most prominent Confederate monuments: the “Peace Monument” in Piedmont Park, the “Lion of Atlanta” and the “Confederate Obelisk” in Oakland Cemetery, and the “Peachtree Battle” marker in Buckhead commemorating the Battle of Peachtree Creek. The markers have been many months coming, after former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed created a blue-ribbon commission in late 2017 to address the city’s Confederate monuments and street names. The existing monuments are prohibited by state law from being removed or obscured. Each of the contextual markers will be placed either near the foot of or beside the monuments. » PHOTOS: Confederate memorials in metro Atlanta » PREVIOUSLY: Plan to address Atlanta’s Confederate monuments hits snag The markers are significant because they explicitly discuss slavery as the cause of the war. They also acknowledge the campaigns of racial terror waged on African Americans after the war and the legacies of segregation and disenfranchisement that persisted for generations. And, in the case of the Peace Monument at Piedmont Park, one of the two panels to be installed there will highlight African American achievement and resistance from Reconstruction through the early 20th century. Atlanta is the first city in the nation with Confederate monuments to add contextual markers in states with no-removal laws, according to Sheffield Hale, president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center and a key member of the city committee responsible for addressing Confederate monuments. “This city has chosen not to stay silent about the monuments in our midst,” said Hale. “We’re going to tell the truth.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reviewed three of the panels on Wednesday at City Hall. Panels for the towering Peace Monument in Piedmont Park are about 6 feet by 2 feet, whereas the Peachtree Battle panel is roughly two feet square. The panels for Oakland Cemetery are being printed this week. The city council approved the panels by resolution in late May. The history center paid $11,000 for the panels to be produced. Throughout the spring and early summer, representatives from the Historic Oakland Foundation, the history center, the city’s office of historic preservation and City Council Member Carla Smith, who has led the monument committee, worked on language for each sign. Cities across the South have convulsed over how to deal with their Confederate iconography. From New Orleans, where then Mayor Mitch Landrieu made an impassioned case for removal as a moral imperative, to Charlottesville, where Heather Heyer was murdered by a white supremacist, the legacy of the Confederacy has been a cause of conflict and violence. In the aftermath of Heyer’s murder, protesters defaced the Piedmont Park monument with red spray paint. That led the state legislature to pass a law this year strengthening the penalties against vandalizing the monuments and making it harder to remove them. Reed’s blue-ribbon commission led to the creation by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottom’s administration of a three-member panel led by Smith, along with fellow Council Members Natalyn Archibong and Michael Julian Bond. One of the recommendations was completed earlier this year: renaming the former Confederate Avenue to United Avenue. Another was the contextual panels. “It is now real,” said Smith on Wednesday of the new markers. “It means we actually didn’t drop the ball.” » RELATED: Georgia House approves bill protecting Confederate, state monuments » MORE: DeKalb’s Confederate monument to receive contextualizing marker At least one member of the original blue-ribbon commission, however, said that while he was happy to see the city follow through on the panels and renaming Confederate Avenue, he felt more work should be done. “This approach to mediate or add context is an excellent starting point,” said Douglas Blackmon, a Pulitzer-Prize winning author. “But we can’t ignore that there are a couple dozen other streets that glorify slave owners and slave traders.” » RELATED: The complex task of writing history Though the panel is finished with this phase of its work, Archibong said, people will still debate the legacy of the war. And that is the point, she said. “We’ve balanced this history with context the will allow the public to understand our collective journey,” Archibong said. “We’re not rewriting history, we’re giving it context.”