Advocates file civil rights complaint against Georgia EPD

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Filing comes as residents of Adel reach settlement with biomass facility

When issuing air quality permits for industrial facilities, Georgia environmental regulators must consider the race and ethnicity of surrounding communities, an advocacy group argues in a complaint filed this week with the federal government.

The Southern Environmental Law Center wants the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to instruct the Georgia Environmental Protection Division to evaluate the “potential for disproportionate adverse impacts” of its permits on protected groups, including racial minorities.The complaint is based the state’s decision to green light two large biomass facilities to manufacture wood pellets in the same neighborhood of Adel, a small town in South Georgia. Although Adel is about half white, half Black, both plants were approved for the western part of the city, where the community is predominantly Black and Hispanic.

Residents say they are exposed to multiple sources of industrial pollution, and some fear the wood pellet plants could make that worse.

“When a person works, lives, or plays near a polluter, they cannot choose to breathe one pollutant at a time,” the complaint reads. “Thus, EPD’s policy of refusing to consider actual, localized cumulative impacts from a particular polluter necessarily means that it is failing to address some harms.”

The EPD referred requests for comment to the state Attorney General’s office, which is handling the case. Kara Richardson, a spokesperson for the AG’s office, said they had not seen the complaint and were therefore unable to comment.

In legal filings, EPD has defended its permitting process as fair and legal. It’s now up to the EPA whether to pursue the SELC’s complaint.

Separately, a group of Adel residents has agreed to drop their opposition to the permit issued to one of the companies as part of a settlement that would enforce stricter monitoring than what the state requires. The state permit application filed by Spectrum Energy Georgia LLC says the plant will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week and emit particulates and hazardous pollutants.

According to the agreement between Concerned Citizens of Cook County and Spectrum, the company will hold regular public forums, maintain a public hotline and purchase air monitors and filters for the community. It has also agreed to test for additional hazardous air pollutants and to have an independent engineer evaluate its pollution control devices on a monthly basis.

The company agreed to pay $25,000 to a public health and safety fund for violations.

The settlement brings to an end the legal appeal that had been pending before a state administrative court.

Treva Gear, founder of Concerned Citizens of Cook County, was quoted in a joint statement with Spectrum praising the company for its willingness to listen, adding that her group intends to hold it accountable to its promises.

“Nothing about this agreement lessens our concerns about the legacy pollution and patterns of industrial development that have harmed Black and Hispanic communities in Adel, and we will continue fighting for change,” she added.

The statement also included comments from Spectrum’s president, Michael Ainsworth.

“Going above and beyond what the law requires is aligned with Spectrum’s core values,” he said. “We look forward to a lasting and positive relationship, and we also recognize that earning trust takes time and follow-through on our part.”

Jennifer Whitfield, a senior attorney in the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Georgia office, said she hopes regular monitoring will give the residents of Adel some peace of mind.

“I think, as a package, the settlement is very strong and offers a lot of protections,” she said. “If there’s pollution coming out of these stacks that seems dangerous, these reporting obligations will give the community an ability to respond and react and take measures to protect themselves.”

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