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County’s biggest business seeks permit for improvements, increased emissions
Madison County’s biggest business, Trus Joist (now called iLevel), wants to improve its production capacity a move that will increase emissions of toxins into the air in Colbert.
Both company officials and representatives of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division assured Colbert residents Thursday night that the proposed emissions increases are minimal and that the company will still fall within clean air guidelines.
“There will be some increase (in emissions), but we will remain well below the permitted levels,” said new Trus Joist (iLevel) plant manager Lee Sneed, who added that he lives two miles from the facility.
But a number of Colbert residents voiced concerns, noting cancer cases already around the forest products mill and saying that an increase in toxins into the air will potentially harm nearby residents, along with the Colbert Elementary School students and children at three neighboring daycare centers.
“Since the early 1990s in our community there has been a widespread outbreak of different types of cancer and neighbors with breathing problems,” said Barbarianne Gaulding Russell, a Trus Joist neighbor who has battled cancer herself. “When you have this at every household within a one-mile radius, it seems there’s something going on.”
Trus Joist (iLevel) is seeking a permit from the EPD to allow the installation of six generators, a measure that will boost business by increasing the quality of company products and decreasing downtime in its production cycles.
According to charts presented by the EPD at Thursday’s hearing at Colbert Elementary School, Trus Joist (iLevel) currently emits about 35 tons of pollutants into the air a year. The primary toxins released are methanol, formaldehyde and phenol, with formaldehyde being the most dangerous of the pollutants, known to cause respiratory cancer after long-term exposure at high levels.
The main toxin released by the company is methanol nearly 30 tons annually. Trust Joist (iLevel) emits approximately four tons of formaldehyde per year from its press and veneer dryers.
According to the EPD figures presented to the audience Thursday, the projected increase in emissions is 3.06 additional tons of methanol, .37 tons of formaldehyde and .06 tons of phenol per year.
If those numbers are accurate, they represent an approximate 10 percent increase in total emissions annually from Trus Joist (iLevel). However, emissions projections for the Trus Joist proposal have not been completed.
And some citizens questioned whether the EPD or the company really have a firm grasp of how much toxins are actually released into the air, since computer models can only provide estimates of pollutants released.
“My only concern is the welfare of the people in the community,” said Colbert Mayor John Waggoner. “Sometimes common sense is better than a computer model....We’d like to keep it like it is. We don’t want an increase in pollution in Colbert. They (Trus Joist) have been good neighbors, most of the time.”
District 5 commissioner Bruce Scogin suggested the company consider purchasing land around the facility and planting trees to help keep the air clean and protect the health of Colbert residents. He added that computer models can’t adequately reflect the potential impact on real people.
“I have respect for computer modeling, but computers don’t breathe and don’t eat,” said Scogin. “...Anything you can do to help keep the air clean, we’d appreciate.”
One EPD official noted that the pollutants released by the mill methanol, formaldehyde and phenol are all “highly volatile” and begin to dissipate very quickly, meaning they shouldn’t travel far from their source. He said the EPD builds in a “large cushion” in its figures. For instance, the EPD looks at keeping a citizen safe even with constant exposure to the pollution at a close distance for 70 years.
Kelly Kincaid, a mother of three who lives across from the Trus Joist (iLevel) facility, said she didn’t understand why the EPD would hold a hearing without having computer models completed.
“Why are we having a meeting before the modeling is done?” asked Kincaid, adding that she is concerned about the possible health effects on her children.
Sneed reiterated that even with the increase in emissions, the plant will “still be below the permitted levels.”
Jac Capp, manager of the stationary source permitting program of the EPD, said the public hearing at Colbert Elementary School was not required by law, since it will require no new restrictions on Trust Joist (iLevel). He added that the EPD felt that holding such a hearing was “the right thing to do” for the people of the community.
But he said the EPD has “390 applications pending” and does not have the resources to hold additional public hearings once emission projections are finalized for Trus Joist (iLevel).
“We haven’t finished the modeling yet, but we’re expecting it to pass,” said Capp. “We’re not going to hide any information...We’ll be happy to release the information when the modeling is done. But we can’t commit another event like this because it’s a big use of our resources.”
One audience member asked if the meeting had any purpose at all, wondering if the public could say anything to talk the EPD out of issuing a permit to the company.
Capp said that all companies are entitled to a permit if they meet all the guidelines.
“So what you guys are telling me is that no matter what people say, you’re going to do it (issue the permit), so we’re just sitting here talking to ourselves?” asked Neal Jordan. “Can you look me in the eye and say it (the increased emissions) is not going to harm my kids, my grandkids. I don’t think so.”
Though most talk centered on emissions issues, Colbert Elementary School principal Jodi Weber praised Trus Joist (iLevel) for its support of local schools.
“I want to thank Trus Joist for their commitment to the schools,” said Weber. “Usually the bigger the company, the less involved they are with the schools. But they (Trus Joist) are always there to help.”
Sneed noted that Trus Joist (iLevel) is Madison County’s largest business with 270 employees. He noted that the company contributed $275,000 in taxes to the county last year, that the company supports numerous local entities, such as the schools and civic clubs. And he pointed out that since 2000, Trus Joist has volunteered over 2,000 community hours and donated $254,000 to Madison County and neighboring areas.
While the community donations by Trus Joist were noted, the company’s pollution was the focal point of Thursday’s meeting.
Jill McElheney, who began a ministry called MICAH’s Mission, after her son and four other children living near an Athens plant were diagnosed with leukemia, drew the only applause of the night. She said the public should not lose focus when it comes to monitoring air pollution, maintaining that public health should always take priority over company profits.
“If there is any risk to any person, Micah’s Mission requests that the Georgia EPD require the best available pollution control technology,” said McElheney. “Not one person should have to live thinking she is the one in a million who will be diagnosed with cancer, or the 1 in 1,000, or whatever stat your scientific model predicts. If you OK this permit for Trus Joist as it stands to increase the cancer agents it releases into the air of residents nearby, then you have failed to do your job. It is unacceptable that anyone living in the host community of Trus Joist will be a predicted cancer statistic.”
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