Georgia Renewable Power in Colbert seeks the state’s permission to discharge pollutants into local waterways, but “No!” was the response of citizens Tuesday night who spoke up in an online hearing about the request.
The biomass power company is currently transporting its wastewater to Elberton, but it seeks a permit from the EPD to release an average of 273,000 gallons a day from the facility, with a maximum of 3.55 million gallons per day. That water will flow into Beaverdam Creek in the Savannah River Basin. The releases will include pollutants, such as chloroform, copper, cyanide, zinc, phosophorus and oil and grease.
Audra Dickson, EPD wastewater regulatory program manager, read a prepared statement to open the approximately one hour and 45 minute hearing. She said GRP evaluated alternatives, such as offsite treatment and deemed it not financially feasible.
“There is not a water treatment facility within 25 miles radius with sufficient capacity to treat the volume of wastewater generated at the facility,” she said.
GRP officials didn’t address the audience Tuesday, though Josh Haar of Trinity Consultants, the firm handling the permit for GRP, gave a brief overview of how wastewater is handled from the cooling tower, boiler and biomass storage area. He said the facility aims to “meet and exceed” requirements on wastewater disposal.
Twenty-five speakers opposed the GRP proposal Tuesday. Opponents said the company’s wastewater disposal predicament shouldn’t be the citizens’ problem. They say the company failed to plan for wastewater discharge when it opened the plant, and now it is seeking a cheap way to deal with its problem at the expense of citizens and the environment.
“If GRP’s current operations for wastewater discharge are no longer feasible for them, perhaps they should have developed a more comprehensive plan from the very beginning,” said Leigh Ann Jones of Colbert.
Stephanie Astalos-Jones, who lives near Watson Mill State Park, noted that this discharge will flow through that park where children play in the water in the summer.
“I literally beg the EPD to use the ‘P’ and protect us,” said Astalos-Jones. “We need protection. Watson Mill State Park in the summer has little children stripping down to bathing suits, bare-skinned, wading around in what will have cyanide and phosphorous and God knows what else.”
Ashley Gabriel of Tumbling Creek Subdivision, less than a mile from the plant, said there are a lot of children in the 60-plus home neighborhood.
“There is a creek that practically runs in the backdoor of our house that all the kids play in,” she said. “I’m just very appalled that we’re going to let this happen.”
Gabriel said there’s been a lot of talk in the neighborhood “about how we’ve been treated and how this all stems from money.”
Tonya Bonitatibus, executive director of the Savannah Riverkeeper, said the permit should not be issued, adding that she failed to see “the rationale that taking an impaired waterway and putting additional contaminants into it would somehow ever make it cleaner.”
She also pointed out that there is no bond requirement that would protect the community if there is a problem.
“There is no bond issuance,” she said. “If you move forward, we believe there should be some financial assurances made to the community so if there is an exceedance of those permits and an issue downstream, then there is funding to make sure that is readily available to aggressively go after the cleanup.”
Josh Marks, an attorney from Sandy Springs, said GRP has demonstrated an “atrocious track record of environmental compliance.” He noted GRP’s fines for water and air violations, a fish kill from runoff at its Franklin County plant, its civil settlement with a neighbor for dumping water on his property. He said the company misrepresented itself to Madison County when it said it would only burn clean debris, then began burning creosote-treated railroad ties, which was eventually stopped after public outcry and subsequent legislation. He said the owners of the company also own Twin Pines Minerals, which is seeking to mine next to the Okefenokee Swamp, adding that the company submitted “material misrepresentations about control of adjacent, private property” when seeking permitting for the mining.
“They have a demonstrated record of violating state laws, of committing material misrepresentations,” he said, adding that there is a ‘bad actor’ statute in state law that gives the EPD director the authority to reject the GRP application, which he said should happen.
Oglethorpe County resident John Robertson said he will be very disappointed if the EPD approves the company’s request.
“This is all about money and it’s not a lot of money, not enough to take chances with the beautiful things we have here,” he said.
Madison County resident Dave Ramsey said he worries that the EPD will allow the wastewater permit, because it “has not lived up to its mission and vision.” For instance, he said the EPD had the authority to stop GRP from burning creosote-treated railroad ties but failed to exercise that power.
“You (the EPD) went ahead and gave them the permit to burn those ties,” said Ramsey.
Madison County resident Maria Antonetti said the discharges will threaten those who rely on groundwater, even city systems.
“This will be a public health concern beyond belief,” she said.
Meredith Davis of Colbert said GRP has proven it doesn’t follow guidelines. She said people will be negatively affected.
“This is not Atlanta; this is a rural county where most of our citizens own wells,” she said. “They’re not getting water from a public source with higher filters, so contaminants will go immediately into their drinking water and to their livestock.”
Jennifer Berry from Comer said she pleads with the EPD to turn down the application. She said GRP was not honest about the railroad ties.
“So how can we trust that they will not discharge increased toxic materials when they were not truthful in the beginning?” she asked.
Gina Ward of Colbert said GRP’s financial issues have nothing to do with protecting environment and public health, which she said should take precedence with the EPD. Ruth Ann Tesanovich said the least expensive plan doesn’t equal the best plan.
County commission chairman Todd Higdon and District 5 commissioner Derek Doster both spoke during the meeting.
Doster said the water that leaves the facility should be as clean as when it comes in. Higdon agreed with that. He said that GRP will remain in business whether the permit is granted or not.
“I do think a water treatment facility would be by far the best option,” he said.
Higdon said that if the permit is passed, the penalty should fit the crime if there are violations, the penalty should be high enough to make the company abide by the rules.