Madison County commissioners have heard for months from citizens concerned about pollution from the new Georgia Renewable Power (GRP) plant in Colbert, but the board agreed Monday that it’s time to do more than listen. It’s time to act.
Citizens who packed the county commissioners’ meeting room Jan. 27 applauded board members after hearing the five district commissioners voice their support for citizens troubled by the power plant’s burning of creosote-treated railroad ties as a fuel source.
Derek Doster, who represents District 5, where the plant is located, spoke up first at the board table about the need for action. His talk followed more pleas from local residents who took to the podium imploring the board to do something to help them.
Doster said he has been studying the issue for some time.
“I’ve spent numerous hours riding, looking, listening, smelling at various locations and vantage points and surrounding area,” he said. “It’s become apparent to me that the impacts from the plant are different related to your distance, weather, topography, daily activities and other numerous conditions that are variable in nature and uncontrollable. I patiently waited over time and hoped things would be better when they transitioned from startup to full operation.”
Doster said he’s not satisfied that enough has been done to address air quality. He also said he feels GRP, which is only allowed to use crossties as 20 percent of its fuel source, can eliminate the creosote-treated wood.
“It would seem plausible that the plant could operate without this fuel source,” he said. “And it seems like the only variable that can quickly be addressed or eliminated.”
Doster proposed that the board work to find a suitable course of action.
“With the support of this body, I request the appropriate staff and departments review and recommend the best course of action and a proper resolution or ordinance to reduce or eliminate the potential health concerns regarding impacts from burning creosote rail ties,” he said. “And I request this by our next voting meeting.”
Doster said the action could include many players, such as code enforcement, the sheriff’s department, the chairman’s office, the county attorney, the industrial authority, magistrate court, state legislators, the EPD and potentially the attorney general’s office.
“I’m not sure what is needed today to do the proper justice on an ordinance or a resolution,” said Doster. “But I want to be diligent in our approach and thoughtful from now to our execution, so I can have a better understanding of what we can and cannot do. My fear is that any lack of movement now to move toward that end game somehow may prohibit us in the future from taking formidable action if needed.”
Doster’s remarks were followed by loud applause from the audience.
Other commissioners echoed Doster’s sentiments. Commissioner Tripp Strickland said creosote-treated railroad ties are not a clean energy source.
“There’s been a long-time push for industry in Madison County and we know we need that to offset the tax burden on our homeowners,” said Tripp Strickland. “GRP could have been that. And it still can be that. But we don’t need it at the expense of our health. One life is not worth $1.68 million by any means. We were sold the idea of green energy. And if you Google ‘green energy,’ you get sunlight, wind, rain, tides, plants, algae, geothermal heat to reduce the dependence on coal, oil and natural gas. Biomass — the definition is recently living natural materials like wood waste and sawdust, leaving less of a carbon footprint than petroleum-based fuel sources. What is creosote? A dark brown oil distilled from coal tar. So what are we accomplishing there?... Whether it’s air pollution, the dumping of ash, wastewater or biosludge, if I have anything to do with it, it will not be permitted in this county.”
Strickland said GRP wasn’t forthright about plans to burn the railroad ties. He said he didn’t know anything about them until they showed up.
“We’ve tried to work with them,” said Strickland. “We’ve tried to be reasonable. But when it comes down to it, we haven’t been told the truth. Actions have not been taken fast enough. And it’s time for us to take a stance, because we don’t know if those actions will ever come about.”
Commissioner Lee Allen agreed that GRP wasn’t honest with the county.
“When this was all being discussed, they said construction straps and pallets would be their main fuel source,” said Allen. “As a colleague of mine in Franklin County said, I do feel like we were deceived a little bit when they started burning these railroad ties…I echo what Commissioner Doster said, ‘Why can’t they stop that (burning railroad ties)?’ Let’s take care of our community over any kind of tax dollars…We’re not touting $1.68 million like that’s better than any one person in this audience or near that plant. That is not the case. It hurts my heart to hear people think that way. Just know all five of us up here as commissioners, we want to do what’s right for the entire county.”
Commissioner Brian Kirk said he supports taking action, but he said the federal and state government allows the burning of railroad ties as a fuel source and that the county may face difficulties in stopping GRP.
“I’m all for resolutions; I’m looking at what we can do,” he said. “But we’re going to have people at the state level and the federal level that are going to see it much differently. I could see we’re going to be in for some challenges as we address this. They weren’t forthcoming in exactly what they were going to do. And I’ve come to see that, I think. Hopefully, the plant can provide for the community and be something that’s safe and air quality and sound issues can be taken care of, but right now we have a situation we can’t wait on them. We’ve got to go ahead and take some initiative in this.”
Commissioner Theresa Bettis said she supports citizens’ health first and foremost.
“I want you to know you are our friends, our constituents, our family, our neighbors,” she said. “I stand by the people.”
Earlier in the meeting, commission chairman John Scarborough, who announced Monday that he will not seek re-election this year, read an update provided by GRP plant manager David Groves about what is happening at the plant (see related story.) Scarborough didn’t offer an opinion as the five district commissioners voiced their views.
Drago Tesanovich, co-chairman of the Madison County Clean Power Coalition (MCCPC), addressed the board and asked the members to consider several proposals from the group.
MCCPC asked for a resolution demanding that GRP stop burning treated railroad ties, that the board pass an ordinance prohibiting the burning or chipping of treated railroad crossties, that the board call a special meeting to discuss GRP’s impact on the county and that the commissioners pass a resolution recognizing the adverse effect of the plant on the health and quality of life of citizens near the plant. The group also asked the BOC to reverse an August decision to exclude industries from the noise ordinance, that the county hire an accredited laboratory to perform environmental testing around the plant and that the cost be covered by a portion of the yearly tax revenue from GRP.
The citizens’ group asked that the BOC create a citizens’ committee to study the environmental impact of future industries proposing to locate in Madison County, that the BOC work with the tax assessor department to evaluate property values within a five-mile radius of the plant and provide tax relief to those affected. MCCPC asked that the commissioners restructure its relationship with the county industrial authority and that the BOC have more oversight over the IDA and that the “executive director of the IDA should be a person who has the best interest of all the citizens of Madison County as his or her first concern when developing future projects.”
Commissioners heard from a number of citizens about GRP Monday. They spoke of their fears of negative health effects from the burning of creosote ties. Leigh Ann Jones of Colbert told the board that she has a serious pulmonary disease and that her doctor recently asked her how fast she could move away from Colbert to get away from GRP. She and her husband spent considerable time and money remodeling an old home in the town and don’t want to move.
Citizens spoke of the dumping of GRP ash at a Hwy. 172 locale (see related story). They said the board needs to be responsive to citizens first, not GRP.
“Please hold their feet to the fire,” said Alisa Claytor to the BOC about GRP.
Ruth Ann Tesanovich said she observed black chips being blown from the facility Monday to a neighboring property. She said the company should not be allowed to police itself and that third-party monitoring is needed.
Dennis Moon, who owns a farm next to the facility, said he’s not opposed to the plant but that he does oppose the burning of creosote railroad ties.
“How in God’s name can creosote be allowed to be shot up in the air, which is a poison?” he asked. “The plant pulled one over on us.”
Harriet Gray told commissioners that she couldn’t abide seeing any county leader be “shameless apologists for GRP.” She urged them to take action to protect citizens, not the company.
GRP RESPONDS TO BOC
The Journal asked GRP for a response to the BOC action. Here is what company president Steve Dailey said:
“This is the first we have heard of this action by the commissioners from Madison County. We will work diligently with the commissioners and have scheduled a plant tour with them in the near future. We are committed to operate in full compliance with local ordinances and regulations, as well as all state and federal statutes and regulations governing its operation. Among other things, GRP Madison operations in respect of emissions and air quality are in full compliance with the law. As you know, such matters are governed by State law pursuant to the State of Georgia’s implementation of the federal Clean Air Act. It is pursuant to such law that the State of Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Environmental Protection Division, Air Quality branch has issued an air quality permit to GRP Madison. That air permit specifically authorizes the burning of railroad ties, just like the federal EPA permits. GRP Madison is, and will continue to be in compliance with its permit. GRP has not breached its air permit by the introduction of 20-percent rail ties. We have stayed underneath our emissions limits because the facility was designed to handle 20 percent fuel oil. As previously stated in our letter, the creosote residuals left over in the cross ties we burn is minimal and significantly lower than the design threshold of the facility. It is also consistent with what is allowed by law. Additionally, as mentioned in our letter, we are taking additional measures not required legally to ensure that the community concerns are addressed in the burning of rail ties.”
In other business Jan. 27, the board of commissioners approved a salary increase of $4,423 annually for county chief appraiser Robin Baker. Tax commissioner Lamar Dalton addressed the board in support of Baker, saying that a raise is warranted for the job he does. The board agreed to contribute $1,500 annually to an administrative assistant position with the county extension office. The board set the qualifying fee of $10 for county surveyor. The board also heard from new county extension agent Carol Knight.
Rosemary Brookshire is explaining why she is sitting on the side of Hwy. 72 in front of Georgia Renewable Power Jan. 25 when a white pickup truck roars past, belching smoke from its exhaust. She pauses, chuckles, then resumes.
“We came out here to brave the cold — it’s not so bad — because we need to do something,” said Brookshire. “We want to do something calm and civil, but still, make a little bit of a noise about it. It feels like somebody’s finger is in this pie, because it’s just too ridiculous to be poisoning us. We’re a poor county. I feel like we’re being taken advantage of. And that’s all — just need to make a stand.”
A crowd gathered off Hwy. 72 Jan. 25 on both east-bound and west-bound sides of the road, holding signs to protest pollution from GRP. The company has been the source of considerable dismay from some locals, who are particularly concerned with the burning of creosote-treated railroad ties as a fuel source.
Larry Wade wore camouflage and a gas mask while carrying an American flag.
“My kids need creeks to walk in, land to go on excursions on, and bad things are happening to the land by people with big money,” he said. “And I’m just here to try and make a stand.”
Kim Long said she lives three miles from the plant, adding that she and other family members moved to the county for the clean air and water and lack of noise and light pollution.
“All of this that’s happening right here without any public input and without anyone voting on it is totally unacceptable and we want to get it shut down eventually, but we want them to stop burning the railroad ties,” said Long. “That’s totally unacceptable. There’s no way that’s clean energy. And we’re going to fix this so it never happens again. We’re going to make sure Madison County has some kind of business licensing committee that checks and assesses how it’s going to affect the community. And this just can’t happen again. It’s ridiculous. We’re very intelligent residents here and we’ve been sleeping and now we’re woke up.”
Don Smith said he opposes the burning of creosote-treated railroad ties, because he is concerned about the air and water.
“It would be nice to have a little more information on the process and the decision making, who decided to burn the ties for power and who’s paying who,” said Smith. “There’s obviously money involved. I just wonder how they could make that decision to burn these ties when they’re loaded with creosote. That can’t be good.”
Betsy Gandy joked that standing by the road with other protestors made her feel 27 again, but she said the issue warrants everyone’s attention.
“I’m here for the sense of unity and standing behind a strong position we need to take — nothing political about it, just everybody should be out here fighting for it,” said Gandy.
John Scarborough will not seek seek re-election as the Chairman of the Madison County Board of Commissioners.
“After much thought and consideration, I have decided I will not seek re-election at the end of my term this year,” said Scarborough. “It has been a great experience and I’ve had a wonderful opportunity to work alongside so many good people here in Madison County. I choose now to step aside and spend more time with my family.”
Scarborough offered an endorsement for his replacement.
“Our current County Clerk, Mrs. Rhonda Wooten is announcing her intentions to run for Chair of Madison County,” he said. “She has the experience and knowledge to continue leading our county. I urge your support for Mrs. Wooten. It is my prayer Madison County will continue to progress and that citizens will support and work with all locally elected officials. It has been a true honor to serve Madison County.”