UPDATE — bill to be signed Tuesday: The following story is in the July 30 print edition of The Madison County Journal. The paper received word from Rep. Alan Powell that he was notified by the Governor’s office that Gov. Brian Kemp will sign HB857 at 2 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 4. Powell’s call came after The Journal was printed Wednesday.
The bill passed, then the waiting began for residents around the Georgia Renewable Power (GRP) plant in Colbert — and for power plant officials.
What’s the official word? Can GRP burn creosote? Legislators unanimously said, “No.” Both House and Senate passed HB857 to outlaw the creosote-treated wood at electricity-generating facilities, such as at GRP plants in Colbert in Madison County and Carnesville in Franklin County.
But that bill, which was sent to the Governor’s office June 29, has yet to be signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp. And on July 22, GRP President Steve Dailey and David Groves, the Veolia contractor serving as plant manager for GRP’s Madison and Franklin County facilities, met with Gov. Kemp regarding his pending decision on HB857. The General Assembly passed that legislation after an outpouring of opposition from local residents against the practice of burning creosote-treated railroad ties.
Kemp has yet to indicate what he will do with HB857. A request for an update from the Governor’s office on HB857 was submitted this week by The Journal, but no response had been received as of press time. (If there is an update, it will be posted at MadisonJournalTODAY.com.)
“I think the Governor understands our business profile and our challenges and the fact that we’ve borrowed $700 million and we have to maintain a minimum megawatt for Georgia Power,” said Dailey. “And we will work with the Governor whether he signs this bill or not. And we’re going to be a good citizen and we’ll work this out. But it’s a give and take.”
The company president said last week that GRP is here to stay. The biomass company has a 30-year contract to provide electricity to Georgia Power.
“Bottom line is, we’re not going anywhere,” he said. “We’re here 30 more years.”
Dailey said Kemp wanted to know what the company will do to establish a better relationship with its neighbors.
“We talked about our intention to work on our relationship with the locals, even though we are 100 percent in compliance,” said Dailey. “We haven’t had any fines of any magnitude. We’ve had our issues with water and things like that. He (Kemp) did not bring up what do you think about the bill or things along those lines. He talked about the impact of creosote. He asked the question, what are we going to do with disposal of these ties if you don’t burn them?”
Asked if GRP is 100-percent in compliance with EPD orders, EPD spokesperson Kevin Chambers submitted this emailed response: “Compliance for GRP requires the company to satisfy the conditions and timelines contained in the Consent Orders that were executed on June 1 and June 18, 2020. EPD has also alleged non-compliance with the Clean Water Act at the GRP Franklin facility and is currently finalizing enforcement actions to resolve those issues.”
Asked how the EPD will enforce HB857 if it is signed into law, Chambers wrote: “EPD is not commenting on HB 857 at this time.”
Rep. Alan Powell, who initiated and sponsored HB857, said he has been assured the bill will be signed.
“They told me it would be signed,” he said this week.
Dailey said HB857 was written in a way that doesn’t ban all businesses from burning creosote. There was a clause in the bill that allows an existing business in Georgia to burn creosote, but not GRP.
“He (Kemp) has a bill that’s written to allow certain companies in the state to continue burning,” said Dailey. “I told him (Kemp) we would work with him politically to make sure the neighbors are happy.”
THE MISTAKE GRP SAYS IT MADE
Dailey said the company has made mistakes, especially in bringing the processing of crossties on site.
“The handling of the crossties, bringing them here, exposing that noise, dust, irritation to the community was a mistake,” said Dailey. “So politically, we’re saying we’re going to get rid of that….The crossties coming on site, the logistics and the smell of them being out. Your greatest smell is when they’re in the rail cars, because they’re all piled in and they sit there. If we had processed these chips offsite, we would not have had the pushback.”
Groves said he feels the visuals of the crossties were upsetting to many.
“It was just something that I think when they brought them here and they started grinding out front and they stacked everything up, it caught people’s attention and I think there’s a lot of lessons learned there for all of us,” said Groves.
Groves said that so far during operations, creosote-treated ties have made up 11 percent of the fuel burned at the Colbert facility and two percent at the Franklin plant. Both Dailey and Groves said that creosote will no longer be burned at the Franklin plant and hasn’t been burned there since April. The company is still hopeful to be able to burn crossties in Colbert.
Dailey said crossties are the best fuel source during cold, wet months.
“There are weeks that you can’t get any wood here in Georgia,” said Dailey. “You’ve had some of the wettest winters in history. If it had not been for the crossties that were coming in, we would not have met our quota to Georgia Power. We’re mandated to supply so many megawatts. We would have been in jeopardy of not getting that without the crossties. Now we have mitigated that with this pending legislation and the pushback of the community. We have implemented bringing in material from out of state that has construction debris. And we are pushing to get more of that product in.”
National Salvage and Service Corporation has a contract to provide crossties to GRP. Dailey said that whatever happens with the bill, National Salvage will no longer be on site. If GRP remains able to burn crossties, National Salvage would have to process those ties elsewhere and deliver them ready to burn to GRP.
“National Salvage is the big loser in this,” said Dailey. “They’ve invested a lot of money. They know that they’re not going to be able to stay on site. Cause we’re not going to get into a big battle when and if he (Kemp) signs it (HB857).”
Dailey said GRP’s contract with National salvage is to receive the chipped crossties at the weigh scale.
“I made the mistake of letting them come on site,” said Dailey. “So I will maintain that if he (Kemp) vetoes or doesn’t sign it, we will maintain their right to deliver it at the scales. They’ll have to grind and operate somewhere else. It won’t be in Georgia.”
THE PRESSURE TO GET FUEL
There are three biomass plants within a 200-mile radius, and Dailey acknowledges that securing enough fuel is a concern. He said construction and debris (C&D) is the ideal fuel source, but he said getting enough C&D isn’t easy.
“We’re pressured,” said Dailey. “This far north of the wood basket and having the competition and not having the C&D. Atlanta doesn’t have picking stations. I just read an article where Franklin County has allowed Metro Green to open up that landfill up there. That will be the first location this far north that is actually separating the wood and not putting it in the ground. That’s what we need to burn. That’s what we’re set up to burn.”
Dailey said the company would like to burn 15 percent creosote, 50 percent construction and debris and 35 percent chips and residuals.
The facility burns about 40 tons of fuel an hour, or two truckloads. It needs about 70 trucks a day to keep up with demand. The Colbert facility has a contract with Georgia Power to provide 58 megawatts of electricity. Groves said the Colbert plant has been running at about 50 to 51 megawatts this year.
“If we can make 58 out the door, every hour of every day a week, you’d be at 100 percent capacity,” said Groves. “We’ve been running at the low 80s (capacity), so we’re getting close. And we’re getting closer all the time.”
Dailey said the company must “maintain grid presence,” adding that getting a good supply of wood is easier in hot, dry months.
“We’re getting that now because it’s dry and long days, but in the winter we have got to come up with an offset of the crossties,” he said.
The company president said under federal law, the plant could burn solely creosote.
“We could burn 100 percent,” he said. “Our plant can burn nothing but crossties. We’re only burning 10 percent of what we could burn. Nobody ever talks about that.”
The EPD said “GRP’s permits contain a more stringent limit on burning railroad tie-derived fuel than the federal regulation.”
“The federal regulation does not limit the amount of railroad tie-derived fuel that can be burned as fuel in a biomass boiler if certain conditions are met (40 CFR 240.4(a)),” wrote Chambers for the EPD. “The air quality permits issued to GRP Franklin and GRP Madison limit the amount of railroad tie-derived fuel to 20 percent of the total fuel. In this instance, the state permit limit takes precedence over federal regulations.”
Dailey said the amount of creosote burned at the facility is exaggerated.
“People exaggerate because it tells a good story,” he said. “But in the scheme of things the amount of creosote that we burn, we’re burning less than half of what we’re permitted. That means we’re not solely dependent on that, but we’re still trying to mitigate the potential loss. We’re getting ready for that.”
Groves said people who get upset about the burning of old crossties, which have lost much of their creosote over time, should look at the new crossties that sit along railways.
“Folks get upset with us, but the same folks who get upset with us, see CSX change out ties, I don’t know how many times, and you see the brand-new black creosote ties dripping with creosote just stacked along the railroad,” he said. “And they’ve been that way for 150 years.”
THE TEMPORARY SHUTDOWN
Dailey and Groves said the Colbert plant should be back in operation this week. GRP has temporarily stopped running as it handles some upgrades, including making its boilers more efficient. Groves explained that the upgrades are “like improving your miles per gallon in your car.”
“They’re changing the heating surface area in the boilers to make the burn more efficient,” he said. “It was getting plenty of steam generation, but it was getting too much and not enough for what they call superheating. You superheat the steam after it’s saturated, so they’re changing that around so you get a little less generation up front but more energy for superheat, because that’s where you really get your energy from the steam, which makes the overall heat rate better, which means for this pound of wood I get more power out of it than I would otherwise.”
Dailey said “the value of the company is based on the heat rate.”
Groves said mufflers have also been installed to mitigate noise from the plant.
Groves said he wants people to understand that GRP and Veolia didn’t legally have control of the facility until Dec. 14 of last year. Prior to that the plant was under the control of MasTec, the contractor that built the facility.
Groves said MasTec was concerned with getting operations smoothed out and not with how neighbors were affected. He said he had to sit and watch as the plant was repeatedly started and stopped. He said startups are when there is black smoke until a certain temperature is reached in the boiler. He doesn’t anticipate people seeing black smoke from the plant more than six-to-eight times a year.
“That put a bad taste in people’s mouth, and I don’t blame them,” he said. “You look down Hwy. 72 and you see, what kind of place is this? You should not see that for a length of time like that.”
Dailey said operations will be better after the recent upgrades.
“There were mistakes that were made,” he said. “We’re rectifying the mistakes. Coming out of this outage, we think we’re going to have less noise coming out of the stack. If that’s not the case, we have a way to mediate that. We told the Governor we worked on all these complaints. There aren’t any of them we haven’t addressed. And we’ve come a long way, but we made some big mistakes.”
Dailey and Groves said last week that a startup on a biomass facility is more difficult than at a traditional power plant, with “a lot more moving parts.” They said stress must be put on instruments to make sure they’re working.
“You’re balancing a lot of stuff with these plants; you really are,” said Groves.
Groves said the startup was difficult for MasTec.
“This is my fourth startup with a power plant,” he said. “And the contractor here, it was a learning process for them.”
WATCHING THE HAULERS
Groves said that Veolia has to make sure trucks hauling in fuel are actually bringing what they’re supposed to deliver to the fuel yard, which holds up to 10,000 tons of chipped wood. About three percent of that wood supply contains crosstie chips, according to Groves last week. On a tour of the fuel yard, Groves held up a handful of wood chips to show newer, bright wood chips. Some of the chips that were a couple of weeks older were darker. Groves held a separate handful in another section of the fuel yard and sniffed one of the darker pieces, which was a chip from a crosstie.
Groves said that while the plant needs a steady source of fuel, it won’t accept just anything.
“We have to train and educate our people to watch,” said Groves. “Haulers are who they are and you have good ones and you have bad ones. And I’m not going to say there won’t be somebody trying to slip something out, but our folks are very attuned to that. We want the product, but we only want it if it’s within our permit limits. And I know to Steve’s credit, they will reject a truck. It is what it is. We send it back and send it away. And once these folks learn that these folks are serious about what they do, they realize, ‘I can’t give them a truckload of garbage, literally, plastic or whatever, they’re going to send it somewhere else.’ There’s a lot of ethical people and you always assume the best, but there are some unethical people out there, too. And you gotta’ be on guard for that.”
DAILEY, GROVES TOUT ECONOMIC BENEFITS
Both Dailey and Groves tout the economic benefits the power plants in Colbert and Carnesville bring to Madison and Franklin counties.
“We’re roughly $4 million a year taxes (for two counties) and 100,000 homes get their electricity from us,” said Dailey.
Groves said the plants provide good jobs.
“These jobs are good jobs and we hire as many local as we can,” he said. “But a person can start out here on the fuel yard in the loader, and they can work their way up and in 10 years can be a shift supervisor or a control room operator and you’re looking at a $100,000-a-year career, benefits, retirement.”
The two spoke of a recent article in this paper that gave the account of former Veolia shift supervisor Eric Keen, who detailed a number of problems at the Franklin County facility. Keen said the plant was poorly constructed and not operated professionally.
“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 in June. “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.”
Groves said the plants in Colbert and Carnesville are well run and that a number of employees took offense to Keen’s assessment of the operations.
“I think in his case, he came from a gas background,” said Groves. “Gas burns great and it’s clean burning. There’s a lot of sitting back. That’s fine. That’s our backbone. But there’s a difference between that kind of plant and this kind, especially in the start up.”
Groves said he holds people accountable.
“Your name and your character matters, and we’re running this plant in a process and manner with proper protocols in place,” he said. “We also hold people to high standards.”
Dailey said GRP may eventually expand at its Colbert site.
“There has always been expansions on the books for this site that supports this power plant operation, and there are other businesses that we can grow into,” he said.
Dailey said one possibility is “activated carbon for water filtration.”
“Activated carbon is a very highly sought after product….It’s green,” he said. “So we naturally have that. There are two or three other potentials. But quite frankly we’re not going to invest another nickel into Madison or Franklin County until we get this stabilized and we get a better reception for our efforts, because it’s not been a two-way street.”
CITIZENS TROUBLED BY DELAY
Since HB857 passed, residents around the Colbert facility have been wondering why Kemp is taking so long to sign the bill. They have been outspoken for many months on the potential health effects of burning creosote. They say that profit margins for a power plant company shouldn’t come at the expense of the health and well being of neighboring residents. And reassurances from company officials or regulators have not been a comfort.
But HB857 was seen as a real victory for GRP neighbors, with a number of residents rejoicing after the Senate unanimously passed the bill in June. But a steady unease has crept in as the bill has sat on the Governor’s desk with no action. Will creosote actually be eliminated as a fuel source?
Members of the Madison County Clean Power Coalition were not pleased this week to learn that GRP met recently with Kemp to discuss the bill on his desk.
MCCPC co-chair Drago Tesanovich said he didn’t assume GRP was just sitting and waiting for the law to be signed by Kemp.
“That's not how a profit-above-everything-minded industry operates,” he said. “Backdoor meetings and quiet, behind-the-scene deals are the norm not the exception. GRP is concerned with their own success and the rest of us are a non-issue. The people of Georgia through their representatives have spoken loudly, “Stop burning rail road ties!" The Governor and GRP need to respect the will of the people!”
His wife, Ruth Ann, agreed.
“HB 857 received unanimous, bipartisan support by the Georgia General Assembly,” said the secretary and treasurer of MCCPC. “Senate and House committees heard a variety of testimony from both sides. Our legislators chose people’s health and welfare over big business. I hope Governor Kemp will do the same and sign this bill into law.”
Colbert’s Leigh Ann Jones said she sees the signing of the bill as a moral issue.
“I strongly encourage Governor Kemp's signature of HB 857, which passed unanimously in the House and Senate. Given the most recent EPA rollbacks from the Trump administration, Governor Kemp has an even more pressing moral obligation to protect his constituents from these sorts of dangerous practices, and this bill deserves continued non-partisan support,” said Jones. “We residents are not only concerned about the burning of creosote materials, but further are concerned about the chipping and grinding of creosote materials, and we appreciate demonstrated support of this bill as the first obvious and much-needed step in the continued journey of protecting constituents' health.”
Gina Ward, co-chair of MCCPC, wrote a letter to the editor addressing GRP and its affect on neighboring residents. She has been outspoken in calling for the county to monitor pollution from the plant and has also written environmental officials seeking a health study for neighbors of the plant.
“A fire has been burning in the heart of Colbert, literally and figuratively,” she said. “One year ago, residents in Colbert were robbed of their quality of life when GRP’s biomass power plant began operations. First we were subjected to noise, constant and intrusive, then pollution on every level imaginable. We felt like we were being attacked on all fronts, for their presence is with us on our land, inside our homes, and in our nightmares while we sleep.”