Mac and Cheryl Adams can see the new biomass power plant from their house on Zetta Lee Johnson Road in Colbert. They can hear it. And they can smell it.
It’s the smelling that most concerns them. There’s frequent smoke. They can see particles in the air at night through a flashlight beam. They see the stockpiles of railroad ties, which Georgia Renewable Power (GRP) burns to generate electricity, and they worry that burning such ties, treated with creosote, a wood preservative, will harm them. They don’t know exactly what they’re breathing in, but they know it’s something. And they don’t think it seems good at all.
Mac Adams said his wife is suffering physically from the smoke and that her nose, eyes and throat burn. He said she never had issues prior to the plant opening.
“It’s like an allergic reaction,” he said.
He said the smoke is intense at times.
“She took a wet white sock and walked through the yard, and you could see the soot on it,” he said.
Others near the Adams family are expressing the same concerns.
“It is 12:44 a.m. Oct. 2 and again I have been awakened by a loud noise from the biomass plant (GRP) on the HV Chandler Road,” wrote Ted Fowler of Colbert in an email. “I went outside with my flashlight and could see particles in the air through the beam of the flashlight and could smell a strange smell. Not only could this be harmful to humans, there are animals that are breathing whatever this is.”
Angela Muffley, who lives .9 miles from the plant, said she worries what the facility means for her children.
“We worry about our two sons' health,” she said. “One child has asthma and we worry about the air pollution and water safety…. I would like to know what the actual risk to our health is with this plant being located in Madison County, especially those of us who live so close.”
A TALE OF TWO PERSPECTIVES
The new GRP plant in Colbert is a tale of two perspectives in Madison County: money and health. In terms of money, GRP is a new, major business in a rural county long-starved for new commercial tax dollars. For decades, county leaders have preached about the need to boost the county’s struggling commercial base to offset the financial burden on property taxpayers.
GRP is now a major tax contributor to Madison County. And county commissioners were able to pass the 2020 budget recently with a projected year-end cash reserve for the first time in years, thanks to the “GRP bump” — $1.66 million split between the county government, school system and industrial authority. The county also ran a 12-inch, 12-mile water line down Hwy. 72 from Elbert County to the plant at a cost of roughly $4.7 million, but the county received $2 million in grants and will use water sales revenue from GRP to pay back a loan for the line. GRP also deeded a three-million gallon water tank, valued at $1 million, to the county.
(For a question-and-answer interview with GRP plant manager David Groves, scroll to the bottom of this story.)
County leaders have voiced great satisfaction in seeing this come together with GRP. The Hwy. 72 line represents a major new infrastructure asset for the county, since it provides a stable new water source that can improve fire protection and be spread to other parts of the county. The line is also seen as a way to boost industrial growth along Hwy. 72, which is designated as the county’s “industrial growth corridor.”
The financial picture is the focus of leaders who helped make the project happen. But money isn’t the focus of those living close to the plant. Health of their families — that’s much more important to them. They want to know: “Will this power plant harm us?”
PERMIT CHANGES ALLOW BURNING OF TIES
The question of environmental safety is the business of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD), whose online documents show a permit change for GRP that opens the door for burning creosote-treated railroad ties, which were once a prohibited fuel source.
The EPD reports that “creosote treated railroad ties means railway support ties treated with a wood preservative containing creosols and phenols and made from coal tar oil.”
Such a fuel source was not initially in the plans for GRP, which was first issued a permit by the EPD in October 2015 to construct an electric power-generating facility in Colbert. According to EPD permitting documents found on its website, the facility was originally permitted as a “700 MMBtu/hr. stoker boiler burning clean cellulosic biomass with natural gas for startup and bed stabilization only.”
GRP officials met with local leaders in 2017 to give an overview of plans for biomass power plants in Colbert and Carnesville. The company said the facilities wouldn’t have emissions other than steam. No treated wood would be burned, they said.
Dave Shaffer, chief operating officer and president of Georgia Renewable Power LLC, spoke at a luncheon in Carnesville with area leaders in September 2017, addressing numerous details about the plant. He said the plant would produce a cloud, but when asked about emissions, he said it’s all water vapor.
“On a cool day, you’ll see a plume coming out of the top of the cooling tower,” he said at the question-and-answer session following the lunch. “But it will be dissipated within 300 feet of the cooling tower. It’s only water.”
EPD permitting documents show that emissions aren’t just steam and include particulate matter, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which include several known pollutants, such as benzene, acrolein, chromium and formaldehyde.
Initial GRP emission projections were modified after federal regulators relaxed rules on burning chemically treated railroad ties. Those wooden ties are treated with preservatives to help them hold up under the weather. The railroad ties are also periodically replaced. Now, the old ties are an acceptable fuel source for biomass plants, such as GRP.
This is possible because the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) changed federal guidelines in February 2018 to allow “other-treated railroad ties” to be used as fuel. This opened the door for biomass facilities to burn “creosote-borate treated railroad ties,” “copper naphthenate-treated railroad ties” and “copper naphthenate-borate treated railroad ties.” These railroad ties are now classified as “Non-Hazardous Secondary Materials (NHSM)” according to the EPA.
GRP now has railroad ties on site to burn. And while there are no restrictions in Georgia on citizens using railroad ties for landscaping purposes, it’s against the law for a citizen to burn a railroad tie, due to its chemical composition and citizens’ lack of emission control equipment.
“We are not aware of any restrictions on railroad ties for landscape purposes,” said EPD communications director Kevin Chambers. “Citizens are not allowed to burn ties. EPA rules allow the burning of ties in boilers with emission controls designed for this purpose.”
Eric Cornwell, manager of the Stationary Source Permitting Program of the EPD’s Air Protection Branch, summarized GRP’s permitting as follows:
“In summary – they can burn clean cellulosic biomass as defined by federal regulation, and railroad ties, as recently permitted due to changes to the federal statutes governing fuel burning. They cannot burn chicken litter or pressure treated wood.”
LITTLE PUBLIC NOTICE OFFERED
Two permitting amendments were granted to GRP after federal regulators relaxed rules on burning railroad ties. The company received the go-ahead in July of 2018 to burn the ties. GRP then received an “expedited application” on March 1, 2019 to update the size of support equipment, to “add a new belt dryer to dry wood chips prior to combustion in the boiler” and to “add other-treated railroad ties” to the list of fuels that can be burned in the boiler.
According to EPD documents: “GRP Madison Renewable Energy was notified on March, 4, 2019, that they were accepted into the Expedited Permitting Program. GRP Madison Renewable Energy accepted the invitation into the program the same day. A check for the expedited permit fee cleared the lockbox on March 14, 2019. A public advisory was issued on March 6, 2019, and expired on April 5, 2019. No comments were received.”
There wasn’t much awareness that such changes were taking place. No public hearings were held in the county related to the allowance of railroad ties as a fuel source. State law didn’t require the company to advertise the permitting change in the county’s legal organ. And the law doesn’t mandate that those living in close proximity be notified of such a change.
Meanwhile, the EPD online permitting documents don’t show much guidance on what the company must do with the ties. The state stipulates that GRP must take the metal off the ties before burning them.
“Prior to burning creosote-treated railroad ties in the boiler, the railroad ties shall be processed by, at a minimum, metal removal and shedding or grinding,” according to EPD documents.
In addition to wood, the EPD also allows the burning of “distillate fuel oil” at the biomass facility, but the fuel cannot have more than .3 percent sulfur composition and the company cannot burn more than 4.38 million gallons in a year.
EPD REQUIRES EMISSIONS REPORTS
The EPD requires that emissions be reported by the company twice a year by Jan. 30 and July 30. GRP must also conduct initial emission performance tests within 180 days of the startup of the plant’s boiler and its belt dryer.
Chambers said there are no firm emissions numbers at this point.
“The facility is still working through its initial startup sequence, so we don’t have emissions tests or reports yet,” he said.
But EPD permitting documents include estimates on emissions, with a chart showing “potential emissions” and “actual emissions” in tons of pollutants per year. This is broken down in “before” and “after” modifications — the primary change being the addition of railroad ties as a fuel source. All but one of the anticipated emission categories remained the same “before” and “after” modifications. For instance, potential emissions of particulate matter (PM) are 93.6 tons before and after modifications. The same is true for carbon monoxide (CO), 249 tons; sulfur dioxide (SO2), 101.5 tons; and nitrogen oxide (NOX) at 249 tons.
However, the “before” and “after” for emissions after modifications (including the addition of railroad ties as a fuel source) are significantly different in one emission category — volatile organic compounds (VOC). The EPD’s “toxic impact assessment” showed which VOCs would be most prevalent in emissions over a year. Acrolein was estimated at 22 percent, chromium at just under 19 percent, benzene at 16 percent and formaldehyde at 13.5 percent.
EPD documents available:
Want to review documents referenced in this story?
To see online permitting documents related to GRP, visit https://permitsearch.gaepd.org, go to “facility name,” then type in GRP. The Madison County facility will appear in the scroll-down section.
WHAT DO LOCAL LEADERS SAY?
County commission chairman John Scarborough noted that the initial plans for the GRP facility didn’t include railroad ties, but he said he can’t fault the company for doing what federal law allows.
“I do not believe GRP is at fault for using these products as fuel as they are currently approved to do so,” wrote Scarborough in an emailed response to Journal questions. “I do not believe the amount of this type of product will comprise an appreciable portion of the total wood product used by GRP. While I understand EPD will monitor air quality along with many other standards, it is my hope GRP will use discretion in its inclusion of these products to produce electricity.”
Derek Doster, commissioner for District 5, where the GRP facility is located, said he has been approached by concerned citizens in his district. He said he’s had his own concerns, too. He submitted questions to the EPD regarding the railroad crossties and reviewed online permitting documents for GRP.
“As I researched GRP's permits, it became clear and EPD confirmed that GRP requested a change in the fuel source which was allowed after changes were made to the Federal Code of Regulations that dictate these parameters,” wrote Doster in an emailed response to this paper. “While it raises concerns, in my opinion, it was not done underhanded or outside the normal course of protocol as required by state EPD.”
However, Doster said he didn’t think the EPD’s assertion that “no comments” were received from the public could was accurate since the matter wasn’t advertised in the legal organ.
“I was in disagreement with EPD stating no comments were received since no advertisement was required in the local legal organ,” said Doster, who suggested everyone who wants to get updates on air permits visit the EPD website.
Doster added that he thinks “it’s important to note that the permit allowing the railroad ties as fuel stock limits the use of the railroad ties to approximately 20 percent by volume to maintain the permitted emissions limits.”
It's my understanding that the remaining portion of fuel must be clean biomass fuel that everyone expected to be part of the plant's fuel stock,” wrote Doster. “I would encourage everyone to review the permits on line to educate themselves as well. I'm sensitive to the use and am concerned on the creosote railroad ties, but I, like many others, need to expect staff members at EPD and EPA to be competent in their area of expertise.”
Frank Ginn, who serves as District 47 State Senator and Executive Director of the Madison County Industrial Development and Building Authority, said he sees many benefits to having GRP in the county.
“I’m proud to have GRP in our area and I think it’s a big win for us,” he said.
Ginn sees the GRP issue as a “matter of perspective.”
“There’s positives and negatives to anything that happens,” said Ginn. “To me, it’s a perspective issue.”
He cites the tax revenues, the jobs created, the potential for more business development and the boost to the county water system as major pluses for Madison County.
“The county really needed a large water customer to accelerate that growth of the water system,” said Ginn.
Ginn was asked if he would have concerns if he lived a half a mile from the plant.
“Health concerns?” he asked. “Not at all. I don’t have any concern at all on the health side of things. We’ve heard about the noise associated with the plant. I live close to the Transco pumping station. It’s a noise I’ve known and grown up with all my life. It’s one of those things. Transco is another large taxpayer in the county. Any business is going to have things you wish you could totally eliminate, whether it’s noise or truck traffic, or whatever is happening.”
Ginn asked: “What happens to the crossties if you don’t use them for that (a fuel source)?”
“What little I know about VOCs is a sitting crosstie would be emitting VOCs in itself, like a sitting can of charcoal starter or oil-based paint has certain VOCs it’s going to emit,” said Ginn. “My question is, have we changed anything from them sitting somewhere versus OK, now we’re going to use them as a fuel source and get rid of them? And we could clean that air in the process. What’s the difference? I don’t know. Those are things that to me, I’d love to know, because if I look at it and I see filling your car with gas, there is a certain amount of VOCs that are coming from doing that.”
Ginn said he feels confident in state oversight of the facility.
“On the regulatory side of things, whatever they do has to meet EPD’s requirements,” he said. “EPD is going to make sure they’re environmentally safe.”
WAIT-AND-SEE MODE FOR PLANT NEIGHBORS
Angela Muffley said her real estate brother in Atlanta has informed her that her property value has already decreased. She worries for her family. She’s a therapist. And she sees anxiety in her home.
“I am worried constantly about my children's health — cancer/asthma/safe drinking water,” she said. “The health implications have caused us to purchase water for drinking, being outside less, shutting windows. I work from home often typing evaluations etc., and have started commuting due to my anxiety in an effort to not hear the humming constantly. I worry about our future financial planning, as we were relying on our house selling and equity for part of our retirement plan. We might have to change our plans and have less retirement income and sell the home and take a loss.”
Muffley doesn’t know what’s coming, but she can identify some wants.
“I would like the noise to be reduced,” she said. “I would like information to come from a neutral but reliable source. I would like to have our water tested frequently by someone neutral. I would like to know the risk and what is actually being emitted in the air. Articles say ‘steam,’ but I am clearly having an Erin Brokovich moment and doubting all information as I have seen our water be brown with grit. I have seen stains on our tub and sink (as well as my neighbor. The neighbor's cat will not drink the water when it is brown). I have seen ‘dark’ steam. The noise causes a lot of distress and having it reduced/diminished would greatly reduce my anxiety. I moved to the country to have peace and quiet. When we moved into our home there was an active industrial plant, but there was no noise. We were not made aware there would be noise.”
Mac Adams said he is angry.
“I feel betrayed by the county government and I’m angry with Frank Ginn,” he said.
Adams said GRP located in Madison County because the property was already zoned industrial and didn’t need to go before commissioners for a rezoning. No hearings were needed to put the power plant where it’s located. He said he is angry that there was no notification about the permitting change. And he said he intends to approach tax appraisers to revaluate his property, saying “there’s no way” it could sell for what its current listed value.
Gina Ward said her family moved from the Atlanta area and the country life was worth it.
“Instead of enhancing the interior of our home, we chose to spend our time outside, using what nature has provided to create a park-like setting for our family and friends to enjoy,” she said. “A bad day can quickly fade away by sitting next to the creek and listening to the sounds of nature. The song of the whippoorwill is my favorite. For the last 11 years, our home in the woods has been that sanctuary.”
But the power plant changed the family’s feelings about their home.
“When the power plant started up it was as if a monster had been dropped on our doorstep,” said Ward. “Our quality of life has been shattered. Fall is the time of year we open all the windows and take a break on the power bill. This year we opened our windows, thinking it wouldn’t be so bad, but the noise is just too intrusive. Last week at a family dinner we had the windows open, and just as the blessing was being said, that ‘monster’ started grinding. Needless to say, we probably weren’t as thankful as we should have been. Since that night, we have closed our windows and turned the air back on. Additionally, our sleep is disrupted on a regular basis because it gets louder at night and the noise levels seem to pulse.”
Ted Fowler said the noise gets to him. He and other residents around the plant use a decibel reader regularly. He said the noise “reached 80 decibels” at one point.
“The noise has awakened us at night when they are doing some sort of venting which produces particles in the air which you can see when shining a light,” he said. “We are also concerned about all the railroad crossties they are grinding up and burning with the wood chips.”
He said the plant smells terrible and his wife drove by it, feeling sick.
“What is going in our air from this?” asked Fowler. “Is our water being polluted also? We feel we are just in a wait-and-see mode right now.”
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS WITH THE GRP PLANT MANAGER
David Groves of Veolia Energy manages GRP plants in Colbert and Carnesville. He responded to the following questions from The Madison County Journal this week about the plant in Madison County. Here is that interview:
•Where is GRP in terms of its production flow right now? Is the Colbert plant operating at 100 percent? If not, when do you anticipate it being fully operational?
The Madison plant is currently off line but is expected to resume production Thursday. Start up and commissioning are in progress with various testing, repairs, improvements and equipment tuning being made. Our latest schedule has the plant executing a performance test in conjunction with the site general contractor and performing a required seven-day voltage test with Georgia Power next week. The Madison plant had its initial RATA (Relative Accuracy Test Audits) on the installed CEMS (Continuous Emissions Monitor System) for fluegas last week. This is the flue gas analyzer system that continuously (24/7) monitors the flue gases for to ensure compliance with the air permit. The GA EPD Air Branch witnessed this testing at the plant site last week. The testing appeared to go very well and all indications are that the plant CEMS equipment easily passed but the official report has not yet been received. The testing contractor utilized for the RATA was Air Hygiene Stack and Emissions Testing, Inc. Air Hygiene is accredited to ASTM D7036 (Standard Practice for Competence of Air Emission Testing bodies) standards.
•How many tons of railroad ties do you anticipate using annually?
At this time we do not know. We are not certain as to the amount of ties that will be available or that can be efficiently processed (chipped, metal removed, etc.)
•What percentage of your wood burnt annually will be railroad ties?
At this time we do not know (please see above)
•Could the plant operate efficiently off 100-percent untreated wood? Can you speak about the need to use this material and not exclusively untreated wood?
We believe that the recycling of rail ties into energy is a very good and environmentally friendly use of a material that otherwise would be going into landfills. Rail cross ties were added to the NHSM (Non-Hazardous Secondary Materials) under a final federal EPA rule in February, 2016. In this rule the EPA determined that creosote-borate and certain other railroad ties when combusted in a biomass unit (such as the Madison facility) are defined as non-waste fuels that can be safely burned. This is listed in 40 CFR section 241.4(a). Combusting used railroad crossties in a controlled environment with a state of the art emissions program is proven to be better for the environment than stacking the ties on the side of tracks or in landfills.
•Where do you get the ties and how often are they received?
Georgia Renewable Power has signed an agreement with a long-time fuel provider throughout the southeast that has had history of providing used railroad ties to over 14 boilers and power plants across the southeast. They will be received several times per week by rail and stored on the rail or in the facility.
•Where are railroad ties being stored on site? What steps does GRP take to make sure water from the ties doesn’t find its way into area groundwater?
A relatively small amount of preprocessed ties will be stored on site prior to processing. Filtering material is being installed to prevent any material from entering any site drainage. Once processed the chipped material will be stored with the wood fuel will it will be processed into energy within days of being processed. GRP’s crosstie provider has received a storm water permit from the EPD with measures taken to ensure processed ties are stored correctly. It is very unlikely that processed ties will be on the ground, as they are chipped and placed directly into the back of trucks.
•How are railroad ties processed before they are burned? Is the creosote removed prior to being used? If so, who does this and what is done with the creosote?
The ties that are received are 25 years old. They are being replaced by the railroads. Some of the ties are sold to retailers for residential uses such as landscape timbers. The remaining ties have their metal removed and are ground/chipped into fuel. The majority of the creosote has dissipated. For example, in the state of North Carolina each tie is considered 94 percent renewable with only six percent of the original creosote remaining. What little creosote remains is destroyed in the combustion process under the extreme heat that is generated.
•Can you explain how toxins are controlled in your burn process? What is done to limit harmful emissions and how are emissions tested? The EPD lists VOCs as increasing roughly four-fold after the modifications in the permit (which include the creosote railroad ties). Do you see this as accurate?
The fuel in the furnace is combusted under extreme heat which destroy most if not all contaminants. The plant has been permitted under the most recent EPA regulations, etc. and the facility by permit must follow section 112 of the Clean Air Act. This is commonly called HAPs or hazardous air pollutants. This is a list of toxic air pollutants that are known to cause cancer and have other serious health impacts and the plant is tightly regulated in regards to these within the GA EPD issued air permit.
•Residents in the area have said they smell smoke and they voice serious concerns over the effect on their health? What would you like to say to those who are concerned about how the plant might affect their health?
During start up and commissioning many systems etc. are being tuned and tested. We are not certain if this caused the smell that you describe but once commercial steady state operation is underway there should be no smells or other health-related concerns from the facility. The EPD regulates this per the CEMS system mentioned earlier.
•Can you address the noise from the plant? Residents around the facility say it’s a nuisance. Are there any plans for noise mitigation? Can you explain why sometimes it’s louder than other times?
During start up and commissioning the plant has been louder at times than it normally will be. This was particularly the case when the plant was performing steam blows and when placing the turbine online. We apologize for the inconvenience of this. A far field sound survey is going to be performed on the plant perimeter and if readings are unacceptable then noise remediation efforts will be made. Early indications show that the plant is compliant with all local, state and federal regulations. However, GRP understands the importance to the community and will address any single point of excessive noise if it is being created within the facility.
•Do you have anything else you would like Madison County residents to know about the GRP facility?
Georgia Renewable Power and Veolia Energy are proud of these facilities. Both the Madison and Franklin plants will be a source of clean, renewable energy for years to come while providing stable employment and very good jobs and careers to local residents. While we fully support other forms of renewable energy such as wind and solar, it is important to note that both of these plants will produce much-needed clean electric power continuously — even when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining. At the same time as we proceed with taking over these plants from start up we plan on being good neighbors who care about and contribute to the communities that have placed their trust in us. We plan on being a part of community events and being a valued partner with our neighbors and various community agencies etc. To help keep our neighbors informed once the plants are out of start up and commissioning we plan on holding community open houses at both facilities. In the meantime, we would like to thank our neighbors and surrounding communities for their patience as we bring these two highly efficient, environmentally compliant and world-class facilities online.