Ga. Senate panel OKs near statewide ban on burning railroad ties for energy

A senate bill to ban burning railroad ties for energy is on the move as Georgia Renewable Power's biomass plant in Franklin County and another in Madison draw fire from nearby farmers and other neighbors. file/Georgia Recorder

State senators have signed off on a near-ban on burning chemically treated railroad ties in the generation of biomass energy after a pair of north Georgia plants got on the wrong side of residents and environmental regulators.

The measure moves to halt the burning of creosote- or napthenate-treated wood at most power plants after residents of Madison and Franklin counties pressed their local lawmakers to intervene.

There is a biomass power plant in each of the counties. Locals say the company, Georgia Renewable Power, promised clean-energy producing job creators but broke its promise when it added chemical-laced rail ties to its fuel mix.

“This bill is not about shutting a plant down or making it impossible for the plant to operate,” said Sen. John Wilkinson, a Toccoa Republican who is sponsoring the bill.

“I really don’t think the people in the community would have a problem if they were just doing what they said they were going to do when they had the permit and built the plants,” he said.

The facilities first showed up in the communities in 2015 with a plan to use fresh forest material for its fuel. But a 2016 federal rule change opened the door for railroad ties to be thrown into the mix, and the state Environmental Protection Division allowed the company to use them for about 20% of its fuel.

Concerns about the emissions coming from the plants outraged residents who were already irate over the noise and reports of water runoff killing thousands of fish.

The company has been flagged for air and water violations. Emissions tests done at both plants are under review, but the Franklin County plant did fail on particulate emissions, said Karen Hays, chief of the Environmental Protection Division’s air protection branch.

Representatives from the power company acknowledge there have been setbacks and missteps along the way but say they are making improvements to remedy the state violations and reduce the impact on neighbors.

“There’s rumors around that certain people may or may not want to shut the plant down,” plant manager David Groves said to lawmakers. “These are clean plants and Veolia Energy is committed to being a good neighbor.

“And that’s easy to be said but I think we’ve made vast improvements and we’re going to make more in a relatively short period of time. I apologize it’s taken so long,” Groves said.

Groves said it’s possible that a ban on burning railroad ties could put the plants out of business.

The Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee passed the bill Thursday after adding an exception created for the WestRock Company in Dublin, which recycles paper and has a permit to incinerate railroad ties. That facility, though, has a larger buffer between it and its neighbors; it is not currently burning the crossties.

The bill moves on to the Rules Committee, where the chair represents the lone dissenting vote from Thursday. A House version of the bill is also likely to move out of committee soon.

Some senators, though, were clearly left a little uneasy by the measure, which Chairman Bill Cowsert said amounted to the Legislature “micromanaging” the EPD.

“We’re allowing the burning of creosote in south Georgia,” Cowsert said, referring to the Dublin plant. “We’re disallowing it in North Georgia if this passes as amended.”

Others saw the bill as potentially precedent setting. Don’t count Sen. Matt Brass among them, though.

“I’ll agree with you on setting a bad precedent, but we’re not setting that today,” the Newnan Republican said. “We do it all the time with landfills.”