A new, young employee was the first fuel-yard worker at the Georgia Renewable Power (GRP) to complain to Eric Keen about the creosote burning his skin and eyes.
Keen, a shift supervisor for Veolia, the company managing GRP plants in Carnesville and Colbert, remembers being dismissive of the guy.
“I told him, put a dust mask on and whatnot,” said Keen. “I get the fact that it’s dusty, and we told them to wear dust masks. And they said, ‘Even with the dust mask, it burns my eyes, my chest.’”
Keen remembers a 60-year-old, fuel-yard worker, backing up what the young worker said. The creosote was bad.
“I’m ashamed to admit this, but when he (the older worker) told me, I finally started to listen,” said Keen. “I remember walking out there in the fuel yard, not running a dozier, not pushing it around, not mixing it up, just walking on top of it. It would take your breath away.”
GRP’s burning of creosote-treated wood as a fuel source at its two biomass plants in Colbert and Carnesville has been a subject of great distress for many people living near those plants, who say their health is at real risk from the pollutant. Those neighbors have been outspoken about their concerns and have drawn the support of local leaders and legislators.
In fact, the Georgia House of Representatives unanimously passed HB857 in March, which would ban the burning of creosote as a fuel source at biomass plants, such as GRP’s. The bill stalled due to the coronavirus shutdown, but the state senate is back in session and action could come this week.
Meanwhile, permitting for the chipping and burning of creosote continues. National Salvage and Service Corporation, which handles the processing of creosote-treated railroad ties for GRP, has a grinder with a “potential throughput of 100 tons of railroad ties per hour,” according to its air permit application with the state Environmental Protection Division (EPD).
VIEW FROM THE INSIDE
Keen held a variety of duties as shift supervisor.
"I was responsible for ensuring the plant was generating at whatever power generation we were required to be at that day, as well as environmental issues, and preventative maintenance, a whole gamut of things," he said.
He says he doesn’t believe either Madison County or Franklin County citizens should trust that GRP will look out for their interests when it comes to handling creosote or other matters, such as water runoff or sound control. The former Veolia employee at the GRP plant in Carnesville said he witnessed first-hand a number of troubling practices while working at the power plant.
“The broadest picture I know how to paint is that GRP has no idea what they’re doing in the power plant field,” said Keen. “None. Somehow, some way they developed this group and they decided in a poker game or golf course, hey, let’s build a power plant. None of them knew what they’re doing.”
Veolia and GRP officials adamantly dispute Keen’s characterizations. (See their statement at the end of the article).
Keen has worked at power plants for 30 years with a range of responsibilities, including serving as a control room operator of gas turbines, crane operator and trainer, and shift supervisor. He has worked at power plants in Michigan, North Carolina, Utah and Florida.
Keen said he has worked at startup plants and the GRP plant seemed like a good opportunity. He started in January 2019. He left in March of this year.
“People who’ve been in this profession and worked in power plants and electrical generation, doing a start up is kind of a brass ring,” he said. “You glean so much information. You learn so much. It’s just a great opportunity.”
EARLY ALARM BELLS
But Keen said he saw things early on that raised his eyebrows, especially in how the plant was designed and constructed. He spoke of one early corrective measure with the boiler feed water pump that caught his attention.
“It (the pump) is a pretty vital part of the power plant,” said Keen. “And I remember watching them, with the pump built on a pedestal and bolted down, and the pump was aligned. And I remember watching them try to put the suction pipe up to it and they had to have a crane pull the pipe two feet to marry it up with the pump. That’s insane. Any millwright worth his salt would cringe or throw a fit if he had to move that pipe three quarters of an inch. And I saw them hook a crane up and move it two feet. I saw them do it on steam piping. We wiped out every pump out there. Every pump has been replaced at least once. That’s crazy.”
Keen said the plants were built on the cheap and without due diligence. He said the dryers were marketed as new, state-of-the-art technology at biomass plants, but he said the dryer purchases were necessary due to bad boiler purchases.
"The fuel dryer came in as an afterthought, because anytime you’re going to build a power plant, there has to be due diligence,” he said. “If you’re a billionaire and you come to me and say, ‘I want to build a power plant and I want to burn wood.’ I’d say, ‘What type of wood and what’s the moisture content?’ There’s a lot that goes into it. And I’ll tell you what size of boiler you need and what it’s going to cost. What happened here was there was no due diligence. They just bought a boiler and they said it’s a boiler we can use. And when they started running fuel samples, they saw there’s no way in the world this is going to work with that fuel.”
Keen said GRP then looked at other options.
“So they bought these fuel dryers, a 16-foot wide 300-foot belt with eight different fans on it, and it’s supposed to reduce the moisture content,” he said. “It was never proven. Nobody had ever ran one. No one knew how to commission it.”
CAN’T RUN AT MAX CAPACITY FOR LONG
Keen said there’s no way the GRP plant in Carnesville can run at maximum capacity for long. He only has first-hand experience with the Franklin County plant, not the Madison County plant, but he said the facilities are basically the same in design. He said the Franklin County plant could run at 60 megawatts or 30 megawatts or not at all.
“At 45 (mw), no, you’re going to be all over the map on emissions,” he said. “At 23 (mw), same thing, all over the map on emissions. And it couldn’t run at 60 while I was there, because the pump capacities wouldn’t allow it. You run out of condensate. You run out of the ability to feed water to the boiler. You can’t maintain vacuum. There are so many things. It goes back to the piss-poor design and engineering in the way it was built. It can’t be done. They can run 60 megawatts four or five days, sure, but something is always going to happen.”
DEMAND FOR FUEL
Keen noted that GRP constructed two biomass power plants 32 miles apart, with a third biomass power plant run by a different company in Rabun Gap located just 50 miles from the GRP Franklin plant.
“Now you have three plants within a 200-mile radius fighting for fuel that we’re all saying is renewable power,” said Keen. “Typically a biomass plant is going to get their fuel within a 500-mile radius. They (GRP) always talked about they’re going to take this fuel and then replant trees. I never heard about a replanting group. Raise your hand if you know who runs the GRP replanting group.”
Keen said there’s not enough wood supply to serve all three plants, which means the GRP plants can’t be picky about what wood they use.
He said the C&D (construction and demolition) materials they received from New Jersey led him to ask questions.
“We would get chunks of asphalt and raw material from buildings,” he said. “And we asked them, ‘Hey, what’s in this? Is there any asbestos or anything like that being dumped in the yard? And they said, ‘Well, we’re going to conduct a test.’ Then in three months they conducted test. So for three months, my guys and everybody who worked out there were exposed to this. And they came back and said, ‘No, everything is fine.’ And then a week later, we stopped receiving C&D.”
LATE-NIGHT CREOSOTE DELIVERIES
Keen said he was initially told fuel deliveries were only between 4 a.m. and 8 p.m., when a scale house attendant was working. Then, there was a switch to an automated program.
“But the only time that we got deliveries at like 2 or 3 in the morning was when they were delivering creosote,” he said. “And my fuel handler would call me and say ‘Hey, we’re getting deliveries tonight. We’re cool, because we’re hand-to-mouth on fuel right now.’ And I was told via emails that we don’t turn down any fuel deliveries anymore.”
Keen said he’s not making a claim about the late-night creosote deliveries being legal or illegal, but he said it was odd.
“The whole thing just painted a picture of keep your eye on the red queen, the whole three-card-Monte thing,” he said. “And I kept seeing that.”
FIRE UP ON CREOSOTE
Keen said the plant’s “Continual Emissions Monitoring System” (CEMS) only kicked in when the generator synchronized to the power grid.
“On a cold boiler, we could fire that for 18 hours before we ever paralleled or synchronized the generator,” he said. “And once we paralleled the generator to the grid, then we have another four hours before our CEMS ever started reporting.”
He said that meant with a cold boiler, the plant could burn creosote for 22 hours without the emissions system kicking in.
“We were told on firing up, to fire up on creosote,” said Keen.
REVIEW OF PERMITS
Keen said the company documents were in an online cloud. He recalled reviewing environmental permits.
“At one point in time, I thought, I need to see what our air permit is,” he said. “There were so many variations of air permits. And none of them were deemed irrelevant or out of date. They were just open. These are all the air permits we have. I remember asking my boss about it at the time. I said, ‘What’s up with all these?’ He said it was just ‘legal jargon.’ I said, ‘No, that legal jargon will get me thrown in jail or you thrown in jail. I’ve done this long enough to know that this is real stuff.’”
THE FISH-KILL INCIDENT
The Georgia Environmental Protection Division and the Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Resources Division were called in last fall to investigate the death of fish from fuel-yard runoff water at the GRP Franklin plant.
Keen said GRP was stockpiling too much wood for too long. He said he and several supervisors and operators were “telling our boss at the time, this is a bad idea.”
“They were stockpiling fuel six months before we ever had any intention of firing the plant up,” he said. “We had all this fuel out there. I remember telling them, ‘Look, you are piling wet fuel on top of wet fuel. It’s going to degrade and when wood chips and C&D, creosote, anything, when it starts degrading, chemically it will break down and create heat, and when it creates heat, it will combust.’”
Keen said the plant’s operations manager “told us to put fire hoses on the fire.”
“And we had a water canon coming right off fire hydrants spraying it right onto the fuel pile,” he said. “We’re doing this for weeks on end. And we raised the question, ‘Hey, this is all going into the runoff pond, which eventually is going into the creek.’ I remember scratching my head thinking, this can’t be real because there was never any monitoring of the water going into the creek, ever. We were never told to do that. But when the fish started dying, all of the sudden, then it was a problem. You’re not sorry cause you lied, you’re sorry cause you got caught.”
PREPARATION FOR TOURS
Keen said he was troubled by a general attitude of disregard for rules and regulations and for the resulting animosity faced by anyone who questioned suspect operations. He said the management also presented a false front to the public.
“There were four supervisors for 12 hour shifts and we always got emails and we knew when there was a community tour, when we trying to do the holding hands and kumbaya and all that,” he said. “We were told to hide all the oil barrels, hide the chemical barrels, hide all this that and the other, push all this aside, put it in a pile and put a tarp over it. That kind of stuff. Blend all the fuel together, bury the creosote. We were constantly doing that. You shouldn’t have to do that. You’re a 16-year-old boy and your mom walks in your room and you have to hide things, that means you’re doing something wrong.”
THE CHRISTMAS BLAST
Keen remembers overseeing the facility on Christmas Eve when the plant “tripped.” He said he feels the response he got from his boss typified the attitude he saw from management toward the community.
The incident involved the “notorious 8011 valve.”
Keen said that “anybody who’s ever run a power plant knows you can’t just throw steam into a steam turbine. It has to be superheated steam.” He said the 8011 valve is used to create steam flow, adding that there must be very dry, superheated steam prior to introducing it to the steam turbine.
“This valve, when you open it, it’s loud as hell,” he said.
He said he had recently received emailed instruction not to use the 8011 valve “any time after 10 at night prior to eight in the morning.”
But anytime the plant tripped, the shift supervisor was instructed to call operations manager Dan Rock, who he described as “the one guy that was the straw that stirred the drink” at the plant, the man in charge.
“As a supervisor I called Dan and say, ‘Hey look we tripped and we’re coming back up, we can make pressure, we can make temperature, but we’re going to have to utilize the 8011 valve and it’s 2 in the morning on Christmas Eve, and I got your email a couple of days ago. And he said that was just a common courtesy, that we needed to make power. He said we didn’t have to stick with that and that there’s nothing in paper. So at 2 a.m. on Christmas, we blew the 8011 valve for 25 minutes at a decibel rating well above 130 or 140. And that’s at the front gate. That was kind of the mentality that management staff had.”
Keen said he could see the writing on the wall, that he wasn’t wanted at the plant anymore. He said he had asked too many questions. He said he thinks it was March 10 when Rock “came in and started yelling and screaming at me in front of my crew and yelling and screaming at my crew.”
“By 10 that morning, I realized that I’m too old for this and I was done,” he said. “And I literally walked off the job, never done that in my life.”
Keen said he thinks Veolia, a large organization that oversees many operations outside of the GRP plants, is a good company. But he said he doesn’t see how GRP can sustain itself due to its design flaws, limited fuel sources and poor contractual arrangement with Veolia, which he said got them to agree to terms that were shockingly favorable to Veolia. He said some biomass plants are sailing by on tax credits from the government for “green energy” and don’t have sustainable business models or efficiencies.
“They’re $400-500 million into and not getting a return on their investment, because the plants are so poorly built and mismanaged,” he said. “Left to their own devices, they’re a year away from someone coming in and buying them out at bottom. They’re past the point of recouping their losses.”
Meanwhile, he said he feels citizens around the plants are being done wrong.
“You ask why I walked away,” said Keen. “I’ve been working in this industry 30 years and I’ve never seen a managerial staff or worked for a managerial staff that had such a blatant disregard for the community around them and even employees who worked for them.”
VEOLIA AND GRP RESPOND
Veolia and GRP officials said Keen’s account is full of unsubstantiated charges by a former employee with an axe to grind.
“The plants are extensively monitored and regulated, and consistently exceed regulatory standards for environmental and employee safety,” wrote Veolia and GRP in a joint statement. “This is well documented through frequent site visits from regulators and site documentation recorded daily. The allegations are either patently false or vague to the point of incoherence and make so little sense they appear to rely on the audience ‘and the newspaper’ not understanding how biomass plants work. For example, take the discussion of the 8011 valve: there is zero truth to that, and in fact, the plant was started up after the silencer was installed.”
They added: “Several of the comments clearly show a lack of knowledge in the design basis and operations of the facility. For example, the facility does not receive fuel after 11 p.m. Additionally, the Franklin facility has not received creosote material in over a month. Another example is the facility’s continuous emissions monitoring system turns on four hours after startup on average and is documented in the plant’s computer. The Georgia Environmental Protection Department has additionally prohibited the facility from introducing creosote material during start up. This is all thoroughly documented.”
Veolia and GRP officials said the plant is run in a professional and transparent manner.
“The bulk of these allegations are ambiguous and unfounded suggestions that the plant is operated unprofessionally and is covering things up,” wrote GRP and Veolia officials. “This is diametrically opposed to the reality, which is a plant that does indeed operate with rigorous attention to safety and security. All proof in the form of the ongoing, rigorous oversight over the plant’s operations is to the contrary. The notion that there was a general attitude of disregard for rules and regulations and a resulting animosity faced by anyone who brought up rules and regulations is preposterous. Instead the plant has and always will operate in a culture of safety, guided by the best practices in the industry.”