Rural NE Georgia wood-fired plants leave nearby residents with bad taste

Cheryl Adams shown in her Madison County backyard says smoke from the new wood-burning power plant over the treeline permeates her house, causes her eyes, throat and lungs to burn, and gives her disorienting headaches. Beau Evans/Georgia Recorder

CARNESVILLE – A pair of wood-fired power plants made a smelly and messy introduction in two rural counties northeast of Athens in recent months.

The smokestacks in chicken farm country promise a new source of electricity made from renewable biomass fuels instead of coal and an economic boon for the surrounding rural communities.

The plants aren’t even fully operational yet and already their presence delivered massive fish kills, state environmental investigations and lawsuits by nearby cattle ranchers.

Many people living near the plants in Franklin and Madison counties complain smoke from the plants caused health problems, including burning eyes and skin, difficulty breathing and dizziness. They also worry that water runoff from the plants is tainting drinking wells and nearby streams.

Stephen Sweatman raises chickens and cattle with his parents in Franklin’s county seat of Carnesville and said this week the stench wafting down from the plant next door burns his eyes and “turns my stomach.” That’s tough to do, he said, since the second-generation poultry farmer spends much of his time inside acrid chicken houses.

“If it’s going to make somebody sick to smell it, it can’t be healthy,” Sweatman said inside one of his family’s four chicken houses.

Stephen Sweatman in one of his family’s chicken houses in Carnesville on Monday says stench from the wood-burning power plant next door burns his eyes and turns his stomach. Beau Evans/Georgia Recorder

Executives for the two plants’ Birmingham-based owner Georgia Renewable Power say their facilities are still in a temporary start-up phase and getting up to speed should help iron out any health or environmental issues. They also stress that despite resident concerns about wooden railroad ties treated with creosote that the plants often burn to generate electricity, the resulting exhaust nearby is safe to breathe.

“We are proud of these facilities as we work to de-carbonize the grid with the guidance of the (Georgia Public Service Commission) and Georgia Power,” the company’s executive vice president, Carey Davis, said in an email this week.

The plants sell electricity to Georgia Power, which is reducing its reliance on coal-fired plants in favor of alternatives like biomass and solar.

Unlike many biomass plants that generate electricity with wood pellets, the plants in Franklin and Madison counties burn a combination of discarded industrial wood and the creosote-coated railroad ties. Burning railroad ties in authorized steam boilers was approved in 2016 when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency revised its rules.

‘We’re not happy at all’

Many residents who live near the plant were surprised railroad ties will be routinely fed into the plant, since Georgia Renewable Power’s permits initially allowed only construction-and-demolition wood burning. Rail ties were added when the company amended its state permits in 2018, according to state Environmental Protection Division records.

Neighbors say they just learned about the addition of railroad ties to the fuel permit over summer, when they also began smelling strong odors from the plant and seeing ash fall from where smoke blew into the sky from cooling towers.

In Colbert, retired AT&T worker Cheryl Adams said her white socks turned dark gray recently as she walked in her ash-covered front yard near the Madison plant. The smell and smoke seep into her house, cause her eyes, throat and lungs to burn, and give her disorienting headaches, she said.

“We’re not happy at all,” Adams said outside her home Monday. “If the smokestack’s running and the wind’s blowing this way, you can’t sit outside because it’ll smoke you out.”

Georgia Renewable Power’s biomass plant in Colbert, Madison County blows smoke on Monday. Beau Evans/Georgia Recorder

Sweatman and Adams both say they’re worried about potentially toxic compounds from the creosote-treated railroad ties. Heavy exposure to creosote is linked to some forms of cancer and respiratory problems. But that should not be a problem if the boilers burn up the creosote at the high temperatures that federal rules require, said Rodney Weber, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.

“If you’re burning it in your backyard, that would be extremely toxic,” Weber said Monday. “But if you’re burning it in a power plant, it should be burned efficiently.”

Creosote can also pose health risks in dust form if the wooden ties are tossed in a grinder that creates dust that people inhale, Weber said. The plants do have outdoor grinders that chip the ties into smaller pieces, according to an email the company’s operations manager, Ciaran McManus, sent last week to an engineer with the state EPD. Moving the grinder into a warehouse to prevent airborne emissions from the chipping could pose a fire hazard, McManus said.

The state EPD is still waiting for results from the plants’ first air-quality tests conducted late last month, said agency spokesman Kevin Chambers.

Ironing out the problems

Neighbors of the plants also blame the biomass plant operator for nearby water contamination. Two Madison cattle ranchers sued Georgia Renewable Power in February over muddy water runoff flowing from the plant into streams and ponds on their properties. The lawsuit was settled earlier this month after the company agreed to install diversion channels, sediment-catching materials and other features.

And last month workers at the Franklin plant killed more than 2,000 fish when they doused a flaming pile of wood with water and the runoff flowed into a nearby creek until it turned black, according to a state EPD report.

The Sweatman family wonders if the black water from the creek tainted their three drinking wells, which they use themselves and to water their cattle.

“I don’t know what it could do to them,” James Morris Sweatman, the family patriarch, said of his cows.

State EPD spokesman Kevin Chambers declined to answer questions this week on steps the plant owners are taking to reduce runoff issues, citing an ongoing investigation into the Franklin plant’s operations.

Meanwhile, Georgia Renewable Power’s vice president, Carey, says he’s upgraded retention ponds at the Madison plant and that the Franklin plant has no outstanding violations on its stormwater permit.

“The facilities are in compliance with all outstanding permits and local ordinances,” Carey said Monday. “And we look to be a positive impact to the community by producing long-term jobs and tax revenue for the counties.”

County officials are anxious for the plants to start routine operations. They’re expecting the plant to deliver jobs, but don’t want the quality of life for the neighbors to suffer in the process.

“I think it brings great revenue, but all the revenue in the world is not going to address the problems for people living around there,” said Thomas Bridges, chairman of the Franklin County Board of Commissioners. “Hopefully, we can get all of those problems ironed out.”

Beau Evans
Beau Evans has covered local and state government and breaking news in New Orleans and California. He’s reported on immigration issues, the threat of rising seas to coastal areas, public safety and hurricanes. At The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Evans detailed the critical role government plays to ensure that people in a community have access to clean water and other public needs. In 2018, his investigative reporting revealed top officials at New Orleans’ cash-poor water utility dealt themselves huge raises, prompting several to resign. Evans’ prior reporting was in West Marin north of San Francisco for The Point Reyes Light. Evans is an Atlanta native who graduated with honors from The Lovett School and is an honors graduate of North Carolina’s Davidson College.