County industrial authority (IDA) members discussed in November that the Georgia Renewable Power Plant (GRP) was behind on its bills in the amount of $379,000, which included $206,500 in construction costs and another $173,000 in past due water bills (including $64,000 in past due fees).
The IDA received a check the following morning after the meeting in the amount of $103,000 on its water bill.
And though the topic of GRP debts didn’t come up at the IDA’s Dec. 4 meeting, The Journal followed up with a request to know how much, if anything, GRP still owes the county. However, IDA director Frank Ginn said he “could not give this information at this time.”
GRP is seen as a major revenue source for Madison County through water billing and property taxes. The company has a tax bill due Dec. 20 to Madison County for $1.658 million, which will be split between the county government, schools and industrial authority.
In other IDA business, the authority postponed a decision for the second time on another water line project recommended by Ginn. The proposal involves issuing a change order to the IDA’s current contract with Griffin Brothers engineers to engage in a proposed $461,000 project using Georgia Environmental Finance Authority (GEFA) loan funding to incorporate a well on the site of the Columbia feed mill on Hwy. 72 between Carlton and Comer. The well, which reportedly pumps 150 gallons per minute, would then be used as an added water source for the county water system. The project would also include extending those water lines across the rail line from the well and into the City of Comer, with Comer paying to connect the new water line to their water system.
Ginn had recommended they move forward with the project at the authority’s November meeting, arguing that the move would build the county’s water supply in its industrial area, give “redundancy” to the Columbia feed mill’s water supply and add an interconnection with the City of Comer. He also expressed concern at the November meeting about having enough water for the Georgia Renewable Power (GRP) plant.
While Ginn listed this as his immediate recommendation, he said he is exploring other options to provide additional water sources to the county. This includes working with Jackson County to develop a tie-in to the neighboring county’s water system from Lloyd Nelms Road.
Ginn said he is also looking at the costs of installing a booster pump station at the Franklin County line.
“My biggest fear is to make sure we have enough to service our water obligations,” Ginn said, adding that he’d love to see redundancy in the water system to avoid the situation of having more demand for water than they have the capacity to meet.
He said other water source expansion plans include looking at agreements with private wells where they would be brought up to municipal standards and to also develop better interconnections with Danielsville and with Comer.
Authority member Pat Mahoney said she still doesn’t feel they have enough information to move forward on the new well and extension and recommended the group explore other less costly water sources.
She also said she is very concerned about the IDA’s debt.
“The IDA has just shy of $11 million in debt,” Mahoney said. “I find that just staggering for the population and revenue that this county has.” She said she couldn’t see the IDA incurring another $500,000 in debt when they have other less costly options.
“We have a responsibility to the county as a whole, not just the feed mill, even though I do understand their concerns,” she added.
Authority member Marc Perry said he’d like to continue to wait for all the water tests to be completed on the feed mill well. He also said that he feels they should pursue the booster pump station with Franklin County first, saying that would be the biggest source of additional water for the least amount of money.
“I believe they could sell us a million gallons a day if we could move it,” Perry said.
Perry added that he feels the IDA should develop additional water sources by starting where the county can get the most water for the least amount of money, then go to the next highest source for the most economical price and so on, pointing out that the new line from the well at the feed mill to Comer would provide the least amount of water to the county system.
But Ginn argued that the IDA should aim to serve the industrial corridor along the rail line by developing an additional water source in that area, saying if they don’t serve this area adequately now, it would reduce the odds of getting another potential industrial customer to come in.
The feed mill and the (GRP) plant are the two industries currently located along the rail line.
“I don’t want us to fail those industrial customers,” Ginn said.
In a related matter, Ginn told the board that the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority (GEFA) will consider an 18-month extension on their current loan agreement in January while they decide what project(s) to pursue.
Acting Chairman Josh Chandler said if the extension is not approved, they will need to begin making payments on the amount borrowed for the GRP water line extension in April.
The construction close out date on the current project to supply water from Elbert County to GRP was Dec. 1.
In other business last Wednesday, the board agreed to sign an intergovernmental agreement with the county government to process payroll for IDA employees on the county’s payroll system and to bring IDA employees under the county health insurance plan. They also voted to provide and contribute to a retirement plan for full-time employees.
The board also approved the modified job description of the utility director with a 3 -1 vote, with Mahoney opposed.
Also Wednesday night, Ginn told the board that he, Brian Kimsey of Carter Engineering, Chandler and utility director Steve Shaw met with Seagraves Lake property owners to go over the options on repairing the dam to mitigate the potential hazards of a dam breach at the least amount of cost to taxpayers while also looking at how to keep the lake’s water levels as high as possible.
The IDA took ownership of what Georgia Safe Dams has deemed a “high hazard dam” back in 2007 with the intention of repairing it and using the lake as a water source but has since decided not to move forward with this. The board must now determine to repair the dam with the least expense to taxpayers. Kimsey told the board at the November meeting that there are two major concerns; to minimize the reduction in lake levels for property owners around the lake and minimizing the cost to taxpayers of repairing the dam.
Chandler said the homeowners were given details of the issues they face and asked for feedback and to consider whether or not they would like to contribute to the project.
“They know we need to do what’s in the best interest of the taxpayer and they know we have a short timeline (to make a decision),” Chandler said, adding that he thought it was a positive meeting. Ginn said they hope to hold another meeting with the landowners before the IDA’s next meeting in January.
Ginn also discussed the Madison County Clean Power Coalition’s meeting scheduled for the following evening (Dec. 5) in the Madison County High School Cafeteria.
Ginn told the board that he was concerned that the group had not invited representatives of GRP, the Environmental Protection Division (EPD), National Salvage (who sells GRP railroad ties) and others to also speak at the meeting and that he had expressed those concerns to Coalition members when they took a tour of the plant on Tuesday.
He said he had invited those representatives himself but had been told that they would not be allowed to speak at the meeting.
Ginn said School Superintendent Michael Williams had agreed to allow Ginn and these representatives to use another room if necessary if there were folks there who wished to speak with them.
Cheryl Adams, a member of the Coalition who was present at the IDA meeting, told the board that the reason these representatives wouldn’t be able to speak is that they only had use of the school from 7 to 8:30 p.m. and would need that time to make their presentations.
Adams also told the board that she and her husband live one half mile from GRP and that they, like their neighbors are all on wells and are concerned about the safety of their water due to seepage into the ground from the stacked railroad ties outside the plant. She said they’d like to have their wells tested now to see if any contaminants were already present.
Adams said that like others, they were also experiencing issues with soot, smoke and problems breathing, as well as noise from the plant.
The IDA will meet Tuesday, Jan. 28, at 5:30 p.m. in the meeting room of the historic courthouse in Danielsville.
Board members plan to select officers, including chairman, vice chairman, treasurer and secretary at this meeting.
A number of neighboring property owners of the new power plant in Colbert feel like their health and quality of life are being negatively impacted by Georgia Renewable Power’s decision to burn creosote-soaked railroad ties in its biomass facility. And a large crowd turned out Dec. 5 in the Madison County High School cafeteria to hear from a citizens group that is studying the issue.
The high school cafeteria was nearly full last Thursday night as the Madison County Clean Power Coalition held its first meeting to acquaint the public with the mission of the coalition as well as to hear from three local scientists on the dangers of the chemicals contained in creosote and what it could mean for the environment, air and water quality in the county.
“We are not a radical group against the plant,” coalition member Drago Tesanovich told the crowd. “It isn’t our goal to see the plant dismantled or to stand in the way of the county’s economic progress.”
On the other hand, Tesanovich said they believe the county was “sold a bill of goods.”
“It’s up to us to speak out and demand what we were promised,” he said.
The American Lung Association issued a lengthy statement opposing the use of biomass combustion by GRP for electricity production in Madison and Franklin counties.
“Burning biomass can emit recognized air pollutants, including particulate matter (soot) and other carcinogens, which cause premature deaths and endanger respiratory health,” the statement read in part. “Because of the multiple, ongoing risks to human health, the Lung Association urges (GRP) to consider clean, renewable options to fuel its Madison and Franklin County plants, instead of biomass.”
The statement went on to say that biomass is far from “clean” and that burning it creates air pollutions that “cause a sweeping array of health harms, from asthma attacks to cancer to heart attacks, cardiovascular disease and even death.”
It noted that particulate matter can also cause lung cancer.
“Railroad ties, like other wood products, can contain other chemicals from its years that may be highly toxic, including particulate matter and other carcinogens,” the statement read. “Particulate matter is a recognized carcinogen as well as a cause of premature deaths.”
Three experts on the possible health and quality-of-life impact of the plant spoke at the meeting giving detailed overviews in their areas of expertise. All three are also Madison County residents.
Wendy Meehan, who holds a Masters of Public Health degree, spoke on what the community was promised and how community members feel that promise has been broken by bringing in creosote railroad ties as a fuel source.
Meehan said the group toured the plant earlier in the week and found it to be a nice structure. She also noted that it had promised to provide a clean energy source as well as a huge benefit to the county’s tax base. Meehan said railroad ties as a fuel source were not a part of what the county was promised.
The pros of the crossties, she noted, was that they are abundant and easy to obtain, but the cons are many. She described how rain falling on the large mounds of ties that are stored outside around the plant runs off into a swampy area behind the plant near the tracks and that oily slicks have already been seen in nearby streams. She said some states require specific protections to prevent runoff like this but that there are no protections like this at the GRP site. She showed pictures of heavy black smoke at startup and overnight steam emissions that bring disruptive noise to homes in the area. In addition, she pointed out that workers at the plant are not provided with personal protective equipment such as facemasks, ear muffs and covers to protect personal clothing.
Meehan said the Coalition demands that the plant stop using railroad ties as a fuel source at least until on-site protections to prevent seepage into ground water are implemented and to provide the appropriate protective equipment to their workers to help protect them from the noise, dust and exposure to carcinogens.
David Vogel, who holds a doctorate in biophysics, described the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in the emissions from burning crossties and how difficult it is to adequately measure the amount that escapes into the air.
He said GRP officials maintain that biomass, including the railroad ties, are burned so hot that VOCs are destroyed; that they are constantly monitoring their equipment and that the EPA are the definitive experts on the matter.
“I think that by the end of the presentation tonight that we will be arguing about the data but not about who the experts are,” Vogel said, adding that the EPA’s data was “sparse and of poor quality.”
He described how the EPA’s own study on VOCs used 57 plants across the country for their data and that out of those, only four burned creosote.
“The idea that the EPA is the source of all knowledge is less true today (due to political influences),” Vogel said, and pointed out that from 2008 to 2016 the EPA said “no” to creosote railroad ties as a fuel source before saying “yes” in 2016. He said the European Union’s Environmental Protection Agency still does not allow their use.
Dave Ramsey, who holds a master’s degree in public health and formerly worked in the CDC’s chronic disease division, talked about the potential hazards from biomass plants as described by the Lung Association and many other health organizations. He also gave a brief history of railroad ties, saying that creosote was first used to preserve railroad ties in 1900 as an effective preservative against weather, insects, plants, etc.
Ramsey also talked about the United States’1,600 “superfund sites” describing them as the most toxic places in the country and said that at least 46 of these are related to poisoning from creosote.
Ramsey said he wasn’t comparing these sites to what is happening in the county with GRP, but noted that a lot of people who once lived in those areas “were promised the same things we have been promised.” He also noted that most of these other sites were also located in rural and poorer areas of the country and he felt that was planned by the original companies as there was less resistance, especially when job and tax benefits were offered as incentives.
He went on to describe how toxins from creosote and other VOCs get into the air we breathe, surfaces we touch and the food we consume.
Ramsey said that he doesn’t feel that GRP has given them a good answer on why they are burning railroad ties, especially when plant officials have told them they have enough biomass to burn without using those ties.
“The only thing I hear is ‘it’s permitted,’” Ramsey said. “Well there are a lot of things you are permitted to do but that doesn’t mean you should….I’d still like to get a direct answer from GRP.”
He said the EPA issued a directive in 1988 that prohibited burning railroad ties and did so again in 2008, before it was allowed in 2016. “What has changed?” Ramsey asked. “The only thing that’s changed is the definition…and that’s the effect of powerful lobbying groups.”
Coalition member Gina Ward gave a call to action at the conclusion of the meeting, saying plainly that she simply wants the plant to “quit burning railroad ties.” She received a loud round of applause.
The group placed petitions urging the plant to stop burning the ties at the front entrance of the room and gave out others for attendees to take to their friends and neighbors to sign. Ward also urged those present to sign up for the Coalition’s emails and texts for updates and most importantly, to take a list of provided local commissioners’ and state lawmakers’ phone numbers and contact information. She encouraged everyone concerned about the plant to “reach out to those who are making your decisions (for you).”
Ward also encouraged everyone to work to have a conversation rather than an argument about their differences on the plant’s decisions.
“Be nice, we have to work together,” she said.
Tesanovich said like every business, the plant was built to make a profit and that it is up to citizens to hold them accountable in protecting the health and well-being of their neighbors.
Tesanovich also recognized Conolus Scott Jr., a member of the county planning commission, for his letter to the editor in the Nov. 15 issue of The Journal, urging county leaders to stand up for their citizens’ health and safety on this issue and hold GRP accountable.
The meeting was slated to have a 30-minute question and answer session and though numerous written questions from the audience were collected, there was not enough time to present them following the presentations. Coalition members promised to get the questions to the appropriate people for answers and to follow up on them.
The Clean Power Coalition will meet the third Thursday of each month from 7 to 8 p.m. at the Madison County Library. The groups next three meetings are: Dec. 19, Jan. 16 and Feb. 20.
For more information on The Madison County Clean Power Coalition (MadCoCPC), go to madisoncleanpowercoaltion.com or email them at email@example.com. You can also find them on Facebook.
Two-term Danielsville Mayor Todd Higdon bid his farewells at the city council table Monday night, telling the group he was proud of them for what they have accomplished over the past eight years.
“It’s been a pleasure to serve with y’all,” Higdon told the council and city employees during his last meeting as mayor.
The outgoing mayor added that “running a city is a tough deal.” But he said he felt the group accomplished a lot with little money. He said the council was able to accomplish things because it wasn’t hampered by any gnashing of teeth or ill will. Higdon, who will be replaced by Michael Wideman in January, said he felt the group had been a “good steward of people’s money” over the past eight years.
The mayor said the city pushed for the roundabout at Hwy. 29 and Hwy. 98, adding that he felt it was a great move. He said the council did a good job addressing infrastructure needs and improving redundancy in electrical services, securing $200,000 worth of generators through grants. He noted that the city added a 100,000-gallon water tower to provide adequate water and fire protection. He said the city cleaned up town ordinances that were in disarray and that business licenses in the town nearly doubled over the past eight years.
“It’s been a very good term,” he said. “I feel like we can tell our grandkids one day, we done that.”
Higdon said he feels disappointed that there’s not more unity between the cities and the county. He urged Danielsville council members to reach out to the county commissioners, the school board and industrial authority members. He said better communication in the county is much needed.
“Maybe you can re-establish whatever olive branch I broke or whatever wasn’t there (with the county),” he said. “If you do, y’all will have done better than me.”
Along those lines, he said a meeting is being planned for early next year between those involved in planning a new Department of Family and Childrens Services (DFCS) facility at the old school board office off Hwy. 29 in the city. He said Danielsville has been in the dark on the matter and he has asked that the council get an update from those involved on what is in the works and what is expected from city infrastructure to serve the town.
Higdon said a city infrastructure rate study is under way and that there will be significant changes in the coming year that will have minimal impact on residents but affect institutions using water and sewer services from the town.
The outgoing mayor said 2020 will be busy for Danielsville.
“Y’all are going to have a very eventful year,” said Higdon to the council.
In other matters Monday, the council agreed to hold a budget meeting at 8 a.m., Jan. 4 and a work session at 7 p.m., Jan. 6.
The council agreed to pay a $19,000 bill related to an aeration project at the city sewage pond. The project cost roughly $132,000. The initial price quote was in the $240,000 range. But the city agreed to handle some of the work in-house and Higdon said the town saved $90,000 in the process. The council also renewed beer-and-wine licenses for five local businesses.
City police chief Jonathan Burnette reported that the police department responded to 93 calls in November. The department made 22 stops during the month, which resulted in 15 citations and seven verbal and written warnings. The department also investigated eight incidents, including a burglary, disorderly conduct, an accident on private property, criminal trespass, a mislaid property report, a motor-vehicle accident and two motor-vehicle accidents involving deer.
Franklin County Commissioners declared the Georgia Renewable Power plant near Carnesville a public nuisance Tuesday and will take its case to Magistrate Court.
The unanimous vote by commissioners Tuesday came after months of complaints by neighbors of the plant about noise and bad smells and the pollution of a creek by runoff from water used to prevent fires in a pile of wood chips used for the plant’s fuel.
During a special called meeting Tuesday, Commissioner Eddie Wester read a lengthy motion after describing a series of emails with fellow commissioners that began Saturday.
The motion read:
“The Franklin County Board of Commissioners finds that the continual and ongoing noise levels and chemical emissions produced by the operation of the Georgia Renewable Power Plant located in Franklin County, Georgia, have created a public emergency where the health and safety of the residents in the immediate vicinity of the plant are in imminent danger;
“The Franklin County Board of Commissioners finds that an emergency condition exists where the dangerous noise levels and chemical emissions produced by the operation of the Georgia Renewable Power Plant located in Franklin County, Georgia, constitute a nuisance as defined in Section 18-6 of Chapter 18 of the Franklin County Code of Ordinances;
“The Franklin County Board of Commissioners hereby refers this matter to the Franklin County Magistrate Court for further action as required in Chapter 18 of the Franklin County Code of Ordinances. The county manager is directed and authorized to begin proceedings in magistrate court and issue a notice of violation to GRP that provides 30 days to achieve reasonable noise levels at or below 60-70 decibels within a two mile radius at reasonable times of the day and a reduction in chemical emissions that have been deemed carcinogenic substances by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to levels that are determined to be safe and nonharmful by that organization.”
Wester said actions Saturday at the plant “threw [commissioners] over the edge.”
A call from Rodney and Tami Black late Saturday afternoon reported that there had been constant noise from the plant since 6 a.m.
“It lasted all day long to the point they couldn’t even listen to the TV because of the noise,” Wester said.
Wester said that commissioners corresponded by email over the weekend about what could be done.
The motion was drafted using research by Commissioner Jason Macomson, Wester said.
After seconding Wester’s motion, Macomson said that it is based on a section concerning “emergency conditions” in the county’s nuisance law.
The section of law reads, “Nothing contained in this article shall prevent the county commission from summarily and without notice ordering the abatement of or abating of any nuisance that is a nuisance per se in the law or where the case is an urgent one and the health and safety of the public or a portion thereof is in immediate danger.”
Macomson said commissioners were declaring “that a nuisance of great public health significance does exist” due to the operation of GRP and ording the plant to “correct the pollution.”
In a prepared statement that he read during the meeting, Macomson said that Franklin County worked to recruit GRP to the county for 15 years and that officials worked to make the plant a success.
“But since the beginning of their operation earlier this year, we’ve had nothing but grief from them,” Macomson said. “Over the last four months we have listened to person after person after person after person stand up here and tell us how miserable their lives and their quality of life have become since this plant begin to operate due to the noise produced and the chemical emissions produced and even water pollution. Not one time during all this has any representative from GRP come before this board to talk to us and to talk to the people who are complaining and address their concerns.”
Macomson said GRP has not done what it promised.
“They promised no noise, then they promised the noise would get better once they reached full operational status, then they said they were going to monitor the sound, they’ve ordered a silencer, they hope to have it installed in four weeks, but still there is no end in sight to the problems created by this plant,” the commissioner said. “We’ve been patient and the residents in that area have been more than patient, and yet what has GRP done? It is a matter of public record that they have been delinquent in paying their taxes. The pollution continues unabated, and it’s time that we the county commission declare the noise and chemical emissions to be a nuisance of great public health significance and order them to abate the nuisances or be penalized until they do.”
Macomson said that when the pollution of Indian Creek happened, the state’s Environmental Protection Division and federal Environmental Protection Agency to force the plant compliance, or they would lose their permits.
“But we need to do something concrete as a county to address the noise and chemical pollution that is ongoing, and help make these citizens’ lives better,” Macomson said. “I believe the Code of Ordinances empowers us to act and I believe we should do so.”
Macomson also read a statment issued by June Dean of the American Lung Association that declared the dangers of emissions from biomass.
Commissioner Ryan Swails asked about the possibility of the county testing five to 10 wells for three to six months to see if there is any contamination and to have a base line if there are issues in the future.
Commission Chairman Thomas Bridges said the county would have to find out what it can do legally on the issue.
GRP Franklin Plant Manager David Groves, who attended the meeting, said he would see if plant operator Veolia would fund such testing.
Citizens from the area around the plant applauded commissioners numerous times for their action Tuesday.
Groves and GRP Operations Manager Ciaran McManus answered questions from the public after commissioners voted during the meeting.
Shane Scoggins is the publisher of The Franklin County Citizen Leader.