Rural Georgia fury over power plants burning railroad ties spurs legislation

Exhaust from Georgia Renewable Power's biomass plant in Madison County prompted state lawmakers to propose a law against burning railroad ties to generate electricity. File/Georgia Recorder

Folks in a pair of northeast Georgia counties knew two new wood-burning power plants might mean nuisances or pollution — but they also knew the plant owners could be valuable taxpayers.

But the noise, the chemical-laced logs and state environmental citations angered people enough in a rural area north of Athens that now some influential Georgia legislators are ready to change state law.

Anything that stops the power plants burning railroad ties treated with creosote should solve some of the problems, said David Ramsey, one of the members of the Madison County Clean Power Coalition. His group is fighting a new biomass-fired power plant outside Comer, owned by Alabama-based Georgia Renewable Power. 

Next door in Franklin County, a sister plant spawned a sister group of opponents in the Franklin County GRP Renewable Energy Plant Fallout Group.

People in the community are used to holding their nose to  avoid the odor that the breeze carries from poultry farms dotting the countryside in Madison and Franklin counties, Ramsey said.

“But it’s not the same as having a toxic pesticide being pumped out of that smokestack every day,” he said.

State Rep. Alan Powell

Georgia state Rep. Alan Powell, a Hartwell Republican, says that GRP sold local officials a bill of goods and things changed after the sale. Powell represents all of Franklin and part of Madison and he said that when company officials first showed up in 2015, they promised to burn forest products, like remnants from clear-cutting property.  

But a 2016 federal rule change endorsed by energy, treated wood and other industry groups cleared the way for old creosote-treated railroad ties to be used as fuel in some power plants. In 2019, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division issued permits to both plants to burn crossties. The plants can use crossties for up to 20% of their fuel.

Neighbors realized what was happening when truckloads of railroad ties started arriving at the plants.

“You got a carcinogenic material. They might (be able to) burn it slap up if it’s done the right way,” Powell said, speaking in his state Capitol office. But “these companies up there, you just can’t make up the kind of history they’ve got.”

Heavy rainfall on a pile of shredded wood at the Franklin plant caused a fish kill last year, documented by state inspectors. The Madison plant then got a notice of violation for unpermitted runoff and another for air pollution.

The EPD’s online complaint queue is a familiar web address to Madison and Franklin residents. 

And Powell also heard the complaints from constituents about residue that’s “basically coal ash” blanketing their properties.

“So that’s what prompted this,” said Powell, of his House Bill 857. It directs the EPD not to write any permits to allow power plants to burn creosote- or naphthenate-treated wood. He intends that it cover crossties and power poles and that it applies to the existing plants.

Georgia Renewable Power Executive Vice President Carey Davis said via email that the company has no comment on the proposed bill.

Georgia Power began purchasing electricity from the plants in mid-December 2019 for distribution to its customers, as part of a 30-year agreement with the Alabama company.

“As a ‘Qualifying Facility’ under federal law, federal regulation and Georgia PSC (Public Service Commission) order, Georgia Power is obligated to purchase the output from this facility,” Georgia Power spokesman John Kraft said by email.

A “qualifying facility” is a designation given by the federal government to some small renewables plants under a 1978 law. 

Kraft referred a question about the neighbors’ environmental complaints to GRP, writing, “As these plants are not built, owned or operated by Georgia Power, we are not involved with their construction or operation.”

The plants do enjoy some political support. State Sen. Frank Ginn, a Danielsville Republican, has long advocated for the wood-burning plants in the community and has no regrets.

Ginn, who represents all of Madison County, said he didn’t foresee as all the problems neighbors are experiencing. But he also said GRP and plant operating company Veolia are working to address concerns raised by the public, and he’s proud of them.

“I want to make sure that we safeguard our community and our citizens from any unnecessary issues,” Ginn said. 

And the plants are contributing to the local treasury. The Madison Journal reported that the county’s share of the plant’s $1.66 million property tax bill has allowed the county to set aside cash reserves for the first time in years. 

But there are signs that both county governments have had enough. Last month, the Madison Journal reported that the audience at a packed county commission meeting erupted in applause when elected officials vowed to do something about the plant and directed staffers to come up with ideas. The next county commission meeting is Feb. 24. 

The Franklin County Commission has banned burning crossties for electricity, though they can’t apply the ban retroactively to Georgia Renewables. County Commissioner Jason Macomson wrote in the Franklin County Citizen Leader in January that, “In retrospect, I don’t believe there is a single board member who, if given the opportunity, wouldn’t go back and try to reverse the decisions made over the last decade to allow GRP into our community to begin with.”

And even a retroactive, statewide creosote-burning ban wouldn’t spell the end the nuisance for the distressed neighbors of the plants in Franklin and Madison.

“The noise pollution is continuing,” Ramsey said. “We know that there are other problems associated just with biomass plants, whether or not they have railroad ties being burned.”