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Legislators propose ban on burning creosote

Two local legislators — Alan Powell and Tom McCall — have introduced a bill to ban the burning of creosote-treated railroad ties as a fuel source.

The action follows months of outcry from citizens in Madison and Franklin counties about the danger of burning of creosote-treated railroad ties at new biomass Georgia Renewable Power (GRP) plants in Colbert and Carnesville.

Bill 857 proposes: “Permits issued for industrial biomass boilers shall prohibit the use of wood

products treated with creosote compounds or treated with naphthenate compounds for purposes of commercial electricity generation."

GRP had no comment this about the proposed bill.

Powell said he initially wanted to see local governments given more right to determine what could be burned in their communities, but he said such action wouldn’t hold up in court. He decided to take legislative action after attending a recent citizens’ meeting in Franklin County about the power plants.

“It struck me, they (GRP) came in with one business model and it didn’t include creosote,” said Powell.

The state says only 20 percent of the wood burned at the plants can be railroad ties.

“But how do you audit this?” asked Powell, who added that he is troubled by water runoff problems at the facilities, not just the emissions.

Powell, who was also joined by Rep. Rick Jasperse as a sponsor of the bill, said getting the legislation through the General Assembly will take work. He urged those supporting the bill to make their wishes known to other legislators with a short email in favor of the action.

“I’ve been around long enough to know that even the simplest bill is never easy,” he said.

McCall and Powell both note that GRP facilities in Colbert and Carnesville are the only two businesses burning railroad ties in the state.

“I had no idea you could even do that,” said McCall.

McCall said he was first contacted about the problem by a farmer concerned about the creosote emissions on his produce, but then the floodgates opened and he began hearing from more and more citizens.

He said the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maintains that the crossties can be safely burned, but

both Powell and McCall voice skepticism about the ability to burn such a substance without affecting local residents and the environment.

State Senator Frank Ginn, who also serves as executive director of the Madison County Industrial Development and Building Authority, said he feels science is there to validate the burning of the ties, but he said there is a clear public perception of harm. He added that he will support the bill if it reaches the Senate.

“If it gets through the House, I’ll get it through the Senate,” he said.

However, Ginn added that state action on outlawing the burning of the ties may ultimately be overridden by federal law.

Drago Tesanovich, co-chairman of the Madison County Clean Power Coalition, praised the legislative action.

“I want to thank Representatives Alan Powell, Tom McCall, and Rick Jasperse on their efforts to introduce legislation that will prohibit the burning of chemically treated wood products, including rail road ties, as fuel for power generation,” said Tesanovich. “After talking to Representative Powell today I realize that the proposed bill has a lot of hurdles to go through before it can become a law. This legislation would go a long way towards protecting all the citizens of Georgia from a practice that endangers everyone.”

Tesanovich urged the public to contact state legislators to support the bill.

“Your health, your neighbor's health and your children's health are worth our concerted effort to make HB 857 the law in Georgia,” he said.

Ruth Ann Tesanovich, secretary and treasurer for MCCPC, said she’s proud of concerned citizens who have cried out for action.

“I am proud of all of the concerned citizens who have worked so hard to make their voices heard,” she said. The EPD air, water and land divisions responded promptly to our many complaints, investigated, and issued violations when warranted. Our House Reps Alan Powell and Tom McCall worked for us! Our fight is not over however. Now we have to write to our legislators across the state in support of HB 857. Hopefully, this bill will pass both House and Senate and become law. Then we will continue to work on other issues related to the GRP plant such as noise and light pollution.”


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Local poultry farmers take Pilgrim's Pride to court

Four Madison County poultry farmers allege that they were the victims of a scheme by Pilgrim’s Pride to force small, family chicken farms out of business.

Pilgrim’s Pride responded in federal court, saying that it has “legitimate, pro-competitive business justifications for its conduct” and that allegations of unfair treatment don’t hold up under the law.

David P. Echols, Stanley L. Dove, along with James and Teresa Dove of Trinity Farm of Madison County are among several area poultry producers suing Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia Athens Division.

The ongoing suit, filed in July 2018, alleges that Pilgrim’s Pride initiated a plan in 2017 “to force out a number of older and smaller family farmers who grew chickens for Pilgrims' Athens facility.” Pilgrim’s Pride is a major poultry integrator, receiving approximately 391 million pounds of live chickens to its Athens Complex in 2016 for processing from approximately 115 farms, according to the suit. Chick-fil-A is the Athens complex's largest customer, with Chick-fil-A purchasing over 50 percent of all products processed at the Athens Complex.

“Under the guise of responding to Chick-fiI-A's purported demand for ‘No Antibiotics Ever’ (NAE) chicken, Pilgrim's demanded that 48 growers, including every plaintiff, make costly and expansive upgrades to their existing growing facilities, which have limited other uses and were costly to construct and maintain,” wrote Joel McKie, attorney for the plaintiffs, in the 70-page complaint.

McKie wrote that Pilgrim’s never intended for the growers to make the upgrades.

“Instead, in breach of a number of contracts and in violation of the federal Packer and Stockyards Act and the related USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) regulations, Pilgrim's made these demands for the purpose of pushing the growers out of the chicken business,” he wrote.

The attorney also said Pilgrim’s efforts included deceptive practices to push out the growers, who all rated highly among local poultry farmers.

“In addition to orally discouraging many of the plaintiffs from making the upgrades, Pilgrim's materially understated the price per pound available to the growers for NAE production after completion of the upgrades, reduced the chick placement per square foot, increased the downtime between flocks, and undertook other unfair practices aimed at forcing the plaintiffs out of the chicken business,” wrote McKie. “Plaintiffs in this case seek to hold Pilgrim's liable for its unfair and illegal practices.”

The plaintiffs seek compensation for the “loss of anticipated profits of no less than $75,000, costs of the completed upgrades, loss of equity, diminution in property value, attorneys' fees and costs of litigation, and other compensatory and special damages.”

Pilgrim’s Pride attorney, Clayton E. Bailey, wrote in a motion for dismissal of the case that the plaintiffs made a business decision not to upgrade and that Pilgrim’s Pride could not be held liable for that decision. That motion for dismissal was denied by the court in September.

“Plaintiffs filed their lawsuit after they each made a business decision not to upgrade their older, less technologically advanced poultry houses in order to raise a new and unique type of chicken demanded by Pilgrim’s ‘largest customer,’” wrote Bailey. “As a result of plaintiffs’ business decisions, Pilgrim’s either terminated their contracts, referred to as a ‘Broiler Production Agreement’ (BPA), or plaintiffs quit providing grower services.”

Bailey added that the BPA offers “no promises as to the specific number of birds to be placed, the number of flocks per year, when the birds will be removed, or the types of feed or birds provided to plaintiffs.”

The defendant’s attorney wrote that the “BPAs expressly permit Pilgrim’s to engage in the conduct plaintiffs complain of in this case.”

The lawsuit alleges that Pilgrim’s Pride knew in 2015 of upcoming no antibiotics requirements but failed to notify the farmers in a timely fashion, pushing for expensive upgrades without suitable notice.

“Pilgrim's has acknowledged that it could have cost as much as $66,000 to upgrade an improved grow-out house to class AAA housing standards,” wrote McKie. “(The) USDA concluded that it would take approximately 20 years for an impacted grower to recoup the $66,000 in additional capital investments.”

These upgrades were being required on older farmers, some over the age of 60, who may not be able to recover the cost of investments.

The plaintiffs maintain that Pilgrim’s Pride is not holding true to its statement to investors in its “sustainability report.”

“Our business can only be successful if our family farm partners succeed and are fairly compensated for their work,” stated the Pilgrim’s Pride report, as quoted by McKie in the lawsuit. “We value our relationships with our family farm partners and work in partnership to raise chickens with improved health, welfare, performance and efficiency.”

The suit states that Pilgrim’s Pride controls the local poultry market, with the plaintiff’s attorney saying the business “is a monopsony or is part of an oligopsony for poultry grow-out services in and around Athens.” McKie said his clients sought agreements with other integrators but did “not have a reasonable opportunity to escape Pilgrim's control by moving to another Integrator.”

According to a Jan. 28 court filing, “the parties held a teleconference call on January 16, 2020 in an effort to resolve disputes related to the interrogatories.” But a discovery dispute remains.

In the latest action, the plaintiffs filed a request of court to “compel Pilgrim's to produce the requested information and materials.”


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BOC to seek bids on courthouse roof replacement

Madison County’s historic courthouse, which has suffered from significant leaks over the years, will soon get a new roof.

County commissioners are seeking bids on the replacement of the roof for the iconic structure in the center of Danielsville. The estimated cost is in the $100,000-to-$150,000 range.

The commissioners still have $80,000 left from the 2008 special purpose local option sales tax (SPLOST), another $42,000 from the 2014 SPLOST and another $50,000 allocated from the SPLOST renewal last year.

Madison County Board of Commission Chairman John Scarborough said the 2008 sales tax funds must be spent by June. He said the project is estimated to take two-to-four months.

In other matters at their Feb. 3 meeting, the board discussed but took no action on several matters, which will be considered again at their business meeting later this month. These agenda items included purchasing a backhoe for the road department with sales tax money. The group discussed naming Robin Purcell to the recreation board. Commissioner Derek Doster talked about having local boards and departments meet with commissioners to go over their goals and how to achieve them. He also said he wants a master log of county training schedules to know who is up for certification and when.

The board discussed amending its purchasing policy to increase the threshold for when bids are required. Scarborough said it’s difficult for the county to participate in any auction process for purchasing items at current thresholds.

The commissioners met in closed session to discuss a potential real estate transaction.


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Shaw resigns as county utility director

Long-time Madison County Utility Director Steve Shaw has resigned from his position, effective Feb. 19. He has taken a job with the City of Elberton.

“I’ve enjoyed working with the county and seeing the system grow all these years,” said Shaw, noting that there are roughly 1,500 county customers compared to 350 when he started 14 years ago.

The county industrial authority is now advertising for a new water and wastewater system director. The job will pay $55,000 to $65,000, depending on experience.

In other industrial authority matters, IDA chairman Josh Chandler spoke with the group about asking the commissioners and the school board to consider allocating some of its property tax revenue from Georgia Renewable Power (GRP) to the IDA to help cover debt payments on the installation of a water line to serve the facility. The IDA is making the debt payments on the infrastructure, while the commissioners and the school board are handling most all of the tax revenue.

The IDA extended its closing date for its loan from the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority to Nov. 21, 2021. Chandler said the extension is not a commitment to new loans, but it keeps the door open for a loan if needed.

Authority members discussed the $1 million from GRP set aside in an escrow account to help with the water line construction to serve the GRP plant. The authority and the company had over 20 versions of a “memorandum of understanding” (MOU) before the agreement was finalized. The IDA pushed for a clause that would protect the county if GRP went out of business, putting the company on the hook — not the county — for the cost of running a water line from Elbert County to the plant if the company failed. The IDA did not get that deal. Instead, the IDA was deeded a three-million gallon water tank with a value of roughly $1 million and another $1 million was set aside in an escrow account to help the IDA get started with construction. If GRP failed to meet a fall deadline on getting its “certificate of occupancy,” that $1 million would stay with the IDA. If the company met the deadline, the money would go back to GRP. The company failed to meet that deadline and the IDA is now in legal possession of the $1 million. Citizen Mack Adams spoke Jan. 28, asking the authority to commit to only using that money toward relief of the water line debt.

GRP also owes the county $206,000 for the water line construction outside of the escrow money. Industrial authority executive director Frank Ginn said Monday that GRP has performed considerable work for the IDA and he said forgiving the debt might be appropriate. IDA member Pat Mahoney said at the Jan. 28 meeting that she is not in favor of seeing the debt forgiven.

In a separate matter, Mahoney said the IDA needs to get to work on a water rate study and a strategic plan for water and sewer services.

BOC chairman John Scarborough discussed efforts to find a diplomatic solution with the City of Danielsville on water rates. The city recently significantly increased rates on the school system and county government. The county might explore the option of connecting to its own system which runs outside of Danielsville. Scarborough said that option is not the first one, but he said it is on the table.

“As a water authority there’s a logical tie with the county and we might purse whatever options are available to go through the IDA,” he said.

Chandler said he would like to schedule a meeting with new Danielsville Mayor Michael Wideman.