We need electricity to live. You wouldn’t be reading this right now if we didn’t have it. I couldn’t transmit this in print or on a screen without it.
Of course, electricity must be produced somewhere. We don’t yet have the means to generate electricity at a large enough scale without some drawbacks, like pollution and carbon emissions. So eliminating those down sides is one of the great challenges of humankind in the 21st century. It shouldn’t be an issue of liberal vs. conservative — it’s simply necessary.
This bigger picture is the backdrop of any discussion we have about the new Georgia Renewable Power (GRP) biomass plant in Colbert, which is burning wood to generate electricity to sell to Georgia Power. We need electricity. It must be manufactured. But how much downside is acceptable?
That’s fiercely debatable, right? It’s the stuff of true political gamesmanship globally. It includes winners and losers. It is about big, big money. Energy production and ownership, it’s the stuff of wars. How you view this really depends on who you are, where you live and whether you have a financial or personal stake in how power is produced.
I wrote a long article this week on the introduction of creosote-treated railroad ties as a burn source at the new GRP plant. I wanted to present this in a way that provided an honest overview of all sides. In reporting, I can sum up my attitude this way: I can't worry too much about if I'm liked or disliked, but I do worry about people feeling like their voice or viewpoint was accurately reflected in the reporting. This is more important than my own personal beliefs on any subject. My job is this: Have I made a good effort at presenting information in a way that brings an opportunity for more knowledge, more perspective?
With this in mind, I asked for comments from those living near the GRP facility. I reviewed EPD documents and submitted open records requests to the agency. I reached out to GRP plant manager David Groves, and I spoke with local leaders.
I’ve had plenty of experience with people who are non-responsive when asked difficult questions. Groves wasn’t that way. He recognized that there are serious concerns from neighbors of the plant and he responded within 24 hours to my questions. I’ve printed the interview in its entirety.
I hope you can read this week’s report on the facility without any worry that I’ve tried to insert personal views into the reporting. No opinion of mine is warranted outside of this column space. I feel that with a type of religious conviction. There is a huge separation in my mind between news pages and opinion pages. I mourn the loss of this elsewhere. It seems too blurred now.
But I am also an editorial writer, not just a reporter. At a small paper like this, we carry multiple roles. And one of mine is to fill this space in the opinion section with my own musings on matters near and far.
It’s long been understood that the Hwy. 72 area is the county’s industrial-growth corridor. If you live there near those railroad tracks, you know this. You live with the knowledge that something could come. County leaders have long aimed to boost industrial growth there, and they’re not wrong to do that. Predominantly rural land by a major railway — you know something will come. And the county needs business. It’s a fact.
The power plant is a significant development in this growth plan. A big business came. A water line was put there. Electricity is needed. GRP is an alternative source for power. Tax revenues for this county are way up. It may feel unpleasant, but there’s some logic in all that.
But I sat in a meeting in 2017 and heard that the plant wouldn’t produce emissions. I heard that only untreated wood was going to be burned. I believed there would be no air toxicity problem near the plant, because this is supposed to be a clean energy facility. But the federal government has now given the green light to biomass facilities to burn something that citizens can’t burn, creosote-treated wood. And GRP accepted this relaxation of rules and went through the proper channels to get the permit to burn that wood.
Meanwhile, the public didn’t get any heads up on the permitting change. The state didn’t do much to notify the public about a big change of plans. We run many mandatory public notices in this paper on a variety of matters. The state requires local government agencies to run many ads to notify citizens of potential changes locally. Why not this? The state required no public hearing at the county government complex or public notice in the legal organ or mailed notices to residences within a certain radius of the plant regarding a major emissions change. That doesn’t seem like an act of good faith by the state. It feels like an institutional lack of transparency. I think the state ought to reevaluate its method of public notification on important matters.
But I don’t think any of that would have mattered, since this was a decision at the federal level. Honestly, I’m just perplexed that the federal government would allow creosote ties to be a fuel source. It seems wise to avoid such a thing, at least in an abundance of caution for the public’s health.
I would feel much better about the whole deal if treated wood was off the table as a burn source. I say this because ultimately I do think health needs to win over dollars. And if there’s a way to mitigate potential health concerns while still making the dollars, then I think that’s always the better route. I think GRP could live off untreated wood without introducing dirtier emissions than initially projected.
I absolutely agree with Frank Ginn that there’s a downside to most anything we need, like electricity. I just happen to think the creosote matter is an avoidable anxiety for this county. It was once banned, now it’s not. But let’s face it, creosote burning will likely be outlawed again. This burn source is on the fringe of acceptable. I’d be willing to wager that the feds will reverse course on this within a decade. I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t flip back to the banned side in time. For now, biomass plants have a green light on the creosote ties. And nearby residents are worried about what this means.
I consider the first rule of political understanding to be, “How would I feel in their shoes?” I think about that when calling the GRP plant manager. I think about that talking to the EPD or the residents around the plant. I pretty much think of that with every interaction I have in this job. It actually becomes kind of fun at times mentally. And when I think of those residents near GRP, I think of my wife, who has asthma and severe reactions to wood-smoke. I know I would be extremely anxious about her health if we were closer to this facility. I just would be, and no assurances from regulators who live far away or from anyone with financial interest in the matter could pull those concerns out of my head. I feel for those who are in that position and feeling those anxieties as they seek solid information. I hope this week’s article provides something useful for them. I believe continued monitoring of this plant is needed from the company’s leadership, the state, the federal government and this community. We all need electricity. We all need our health. Both are a must. So we must balance both needs. This requires transparency and attention. I hope I can hold up my end of the bargain on that, too.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.