OPINION: Biomass bullies strike again in rural Georgia town

At an Adel City Council meeting in 2021, Treva Gear held up a bottle of ethyl mercaptan and asked City Council members if she could remove the cap.

The hazardous liquid (or gas) has a pungent odor and is added to odorless gasses such as butane and propane as a warning. Ethyl mercaptan can irritate the nose and throat, and long-term exposure can cause a host of health issues ranging from kidney damage to blood disorders, according to public health agencies.

Since 2012, Adel residents have complained about the smell of ethyl mercaptan coming from the propane tank business near their homes. The area is zoned as suburban residential rather than industrial, but no one has enforced the zoning ordinance, said Gear.

Council members declined Gear’s request and the room erupted in outcries from residents.

When two industrial facilities filed applications for air permits that year, it felt like just another insult in a long history of insults aimed at residents of Cook County in south central Georgia.

The new industrial plants would produce wood pellets, biomass comprised of wood residue or fresh timber that is compressed into pellets and burned as an energy source. Along with the propane operation and a recently installed bitcoin mining operation that runs industrial fans 24/7, residents feel the west side of their community has become an dumping ground for any industry under the sun.

“How much pollution or poison is okay for one community?” questioned Gear in a recent phone conversation. “The hope is that the cumulative impact on our community will be considered.”

In August, Concerned Citizens of Cook County and the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) filed a petition with the Georgia Office of State Administrative Hearings to appeal the most recent air quality permit filed by Spectrum Energy.

“The application process should be better,” said Chandra Taylor-Sawyer, senior attorney and environmental justice initiative lead for SELC, “where regulators take a really close look at what the emissions will be from the facility before granting a permit.”

Across the state, there are at least 11 biomass plants that make pellet fuels, including the two proposed in Adel.

Small rural towns are playing host to these facilities, but larger facilities have tended to appear in densely populated areas like the west side of Adel where residents are predominately people of color. Biomass facilities in rural areas that are predominantly white have generally impacted less than 100 people, said Libbie Weimer, geospatial analyst for SELC.

Credit: Libbie Weimer

Credit: Libbie Weimer

“They are strategically placed in environmental justice communities that don’t have political power or the ability to leave. People can’t just move. They live where they can afford to live,” Gear said.

But things like air and water pollution have a way of spreading, she said. “It can’t be isolated to one location. It effects all of us.”

I have interviewed residents of different races and incomes in these towns over the past year and their stories are eerily similar. Many residents had no idea industrial operations were coming to town.

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When residents complain, if they have the chance to complain, regulatory agencies charged with protecting people and the environment may hear those complaints. Sometimes action is taken, sometimes not, but then it seems as if the permits are granted without much weight given to resident concerns.

When the plants are up and running, residents soon realize the problems outweigh any alleged benefits.

Local officials and industry owners stick to talking points about job creation and tax dollars while residents fight the impact or the potential impact of noise, air and water pollution on their communities.

“If the regulatory agencies don’t protect us, who will they protect?” said Gear in a documentary by Georgia Conservation Voters Education Fund that features the fight against Spectrum.

Georgia ranks second in the nation behind North Carolina in its capacity to manufacture biomass, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and the state has become a leading wood pellet exporter.

The Spectrum plant in Adel would be the world’s largest wood pellet plant producing 1.3 million tons of wood pellets annually, most of which would be shipped overseas to generate electricity.

In some ways, Adel has an advantage. The facilities have not yet been built and the petition means that progress on the Spectrum facility will be halted until the Office of State Administrative Hearings determines the next steps in the case.

There is still a chance to right a potential wrong and set a better process for understanding the environmental impact a wood pellet facility, or any industrial facility, may have on the surrounding community.

“We are hoping the judge will rule in our favor and deem this unfit,” Gear said. “If it is permitted, we will have to answer to future generations about why we have allowed this in our community.”

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