In this crazy year of 2020, it’s almost hard to believe what I just saw — a genuinely good thing.
The Georgia General Assembly stood unanimously both in the House and Senate and in a truly bipartisan way and declared that HB857 would be approved. Legislators heard the pleas of those living next to biomass power plants in Colbert and Carnesville who don’t want a carcinogen in their air and water, and they voted with the citizens, not the big business. They voted for health over money.
That seems almost unheard of these days, doesn’t it? It seems like the voices of regular folks are powerless against big money. I’ve come to see this as the norm, not the exception. So, it’s nice for my cynicism to take a punch, not my hope, which has been sucker-punched quite enough. People being vocal and standing up for themselves actually does matter. Politicians sometimes will actually vote for the good of the people over the bottom line. Rep. Alan Powell heard the pleas of concerned citizens and he empathized with them, then acted. He was the primary author of a bill to stop the dirty practice of burning tons of creosote as a fuel source for electricity generation. Rep. Tom McCall co-authored the legislation, and State Senator Frank Ginn, who has pushed so hard for the power plants to succeed, also voted in line with all the other legislators in both chambers, who said creosote must go.
Now what? That’s hard to say. Could the bill be challenged in court? That’s possible, though it would be quite a public relations disaster for the company, given the unanimous vote by legislators. But the bill does carve out an exemption for an existing business elsewhere in Georgia that once burned creosote and may do so again. Any exemptions to restrictions open the door for potential legal wrangling over fairness.
If we pull back and look at the wide angle, America is looking for alternative, clean energy sources. And biomass plants promise to serve as such, but to claim the burning of creosote is somehow “clean” or “green” is farcical. And the Georgia General Assembly unanimously agreed that this is a joke — but not a funny one.
This legislation is a reminder that health is the first order of business — at least it should be. That’s what we want for ourselves, our own health. And we are better human beings when we extend that want to as many people as possible, not just ourselves.
Of course, the secondary concern is money. Let’s be clear, Madison County needs business. It needs commercial tax revenue and jobs. You can’t have roads, schools, public safety and other services without tax revenue, and putting that entirely on the backs of homeowners is too much.
That’s why local leaders gambled on Georgia Renewable Power (GRP) in a big way. And if GRP can’t make it, then the county government is going to be up a creek financially due to how it leveraged itself. That could have a big impact on taxpayers, too. That’s because the county industrial authority took out a nearly $5 million state loan to run a 12-mile, 12-inch water line from the Elbert County line to the facility. Grants offset some of that cost, but the debt is still substantial and will take years to pay off. The industrial authority is using that line as the aorta valve for the county water system, as the lifeblood for more infrastructure growth in the county.
But that water line won’t pay for itself without GRP purchasing considerable quantities of water for years to come. For all the necessity of HB857 — and it was indeed needed — the county’s investment in GRP is suddenly much more precarious financially. For instance, is there enough wood to support three biomass facilities within a 200-mile radius, especially without railroad ties as a fuel option? That remains to be seen. What will happen to the county if GRP folds? Well, the county spent months wrangling with GRP on this matter, with the “memorandum of understanding” between the IDA and GRP taking over 20 drafts before any “understanding” was reached. The IDA sought to limit its liability if GRP went out of business by requiring the company to cover the water line debt in such an event. GRP refused that, but in lieu of a guarantee, the company offered $1 million in “seed money” to get the project rolling. The county would get to keep that money if the company didn’t meet its “Certificate of Occupancy” deadline. That deadline wasn’t met and the IDA kept the money. Of course, there’s another issue of GRP construction costs owed to the IDA and the authority chose not to seek those payments from GRP.
All that aside, the IDA has a portion of that “seed money” now. Will it spend it on other projects or on the water line debt? There is the old adage of “you have to spend money to make money.” That’s sometimes true, but it seems even more risky at this point to put any of that money in new ventures, considering that GRP could be on really shaky footing financially with the loss of a major fuel source. In short, that water line debt doesn’t need to be ignored, because it looms even larger now. These are major considerations for county leaders moving forward.
No doubt, there are many troubling things we’re reading these days in the news. There are many political stories that are just so painful. It’s sometimes hard to look. So, even though the GRP saga is a complex, multi-faceted bear of a local issue, I am happy to get a needed reminder that representative government still has some power to it, at least locally. That’s a good thing, right?
It’s 2020. And in this strange year, I’m particularly grateful for anything that falls in the positive/hope column.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.