Leaders ranging from President Barack Obama to DeKalb County’s chief executive in recent years have touted “green” jobs as good for both the Earth and the economy.
But once communities learn the size, smell and mess of environmentally conscious businesses, an old-fashioned community uproar can chase the efforts away.
Just ask the hundreds of south DeKalb residents who recently claimed victory over a proposed compost facility to be built in a quarry pit about a mile from their homes near Lithonia. Even though other county residents wanted the project, those whose homes would be closest to the facility put up a fight.
“I’m not against composting or being green, but why bring all these landfills and composting sites into DeKalb County?” said Enna Hall, who led an online petition drive against Greenco Environmental’s composting proposal. “Try Fulton County. Try Gwinnett.”
The challenges of locating sites for “green” businesses are not unique to metro Atlanta or even Georgia, said Robert Brecha, a professor of physics and renewable and clean energy at the University of Dayton.
For instance, skyscraper-size wind turbines have generated legal battles along the Atlantic coast and in Ohio farmlands.
The fights can be especially fierce when both sides claim to be “green,” such as the battle over Southern Co.’s Plant Vogtle nuclear expansion in east Georgia.
Georgia Power considers the project green because it will reduce dependence on coal for making electricity. But, a cluster of environmental groups has sued to stop the two reactors from being built, citing public safety and environmental concerns.
“In the last 100 years, we just put up a power plant far away from us and turned on the switch at our house without thinking about it,” said Brecha, who is also the coordinator of the university’s Sustainability, Energy and the Environment Initiative.
“Somehow, we have to face our own energy and our own waste problems closer to home now,” he said. “Either we figure out ways we can make it acceptable to our own community to take care of its own problems, or we are effectively saying we want it to be someone else’s [problem].”
South DeKalb has long handled “someone else’s” problems. The area is home to a handful of industrial parks that house trucking firms, concrete plants and the like.
The Seminole Road landfill also sits there. Crews bury trash in an area daily, but over the past few decades, a number of middle-class and upper-middle-class neighborhoods have developed in the once rural area.
That was what Hall wanted to avoid when she opposed the composting plant. Her neighborhood is nearly four miles from the proposed site. The area is lush, filled with tall hardwoods and bursting with the Georgia spring colors of azaleas, dogwoods and wisterias.
After a friend told her a backyard compost pile can smell Hall worried that odors from the large-scale compost operation would overpower her neighborhood and nearby Rock Chapel Park, a popular 20-acre green space with ball fields and plenty of kids.
“That would affect our ability to be outside, to enjoy our own homes,” Hall said. “You didn’t see them wanting to take this to Buckhead.”
Nor, for that matter, was it proposed for the Decatur area, a wealthier community known for embracing all things green.
Officially, DeKalb does, too. CEO Burrell Ellis and other officials routinely boast of having the first public landfill in Georgia to have a methane gas-to-electricity program that sold energy to Georgia Power.
The county also acquired more than 3,000 acres of parkland in the past eight years, much of it in south DeKalb.
Beth Bond, who lives just south of Decatur, supported the composting operation because she felt it would add to the county’s green credentials.
South DeKalb was the most logical spot, she said, because of the amount of open room in industrial areas. Greenco would have been surrounded by 1,400 acres of industrial land. So even if the smell that Bond likened to wet hay was problematic, it would dissipate long before it got to homes, parks and schools, she said.
“The truth is, if there were enough acres of land in Decatur or Dunwoody, I know people who would welcome this with open arms,” Bond said. “I’m not saying there wouldn’t be any opposition, but there are plenty of us who appreciate the opportunity.”
Opponents, though, have outnumbered supporters by more than 2-to-1 in public meetings and in online petitions.
Facing that, Greenco withdrew its proposal to turn up to 36,000 tons of food scraps and yard trimmings into compost every year in an empty, 100-foot pit on 22 acres of the LaFarge Quarry. The business is now reviewing its next step.
But Greenco’s co-founder said the site — within 30 minutes of the Midtown Atlanta hotels and several colleges where it collects most of the food scraps — still best fits the firm’s business goals.
“We have heard from other communities who want it, but DeKalb County was the ideal situation,” Greenco Vice President Melia Lesko said.
“We were ready to be a part of the community and ready to grow,” Lesko said, noting the current operation in Barnesville processes just half the food waste it could handle at the quarry. “It was very frustrating.”
If Greenco tries again, it might want to focus on the growth aspect. The firm would have created 10 jobs from its first day.
Government leaders may bear a role in getting that message out, especially given lingering unemployment woes in the region, said Gary Cornell, DeKalb’s interim director of planning and sustainability.
“I lived near [Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport] growing up, and I remember complaining to my dad about the noise,” Cornell said. “My dad worked for the airlines and said, ‘No, that’s your bread and butter, son.’ ”
“It changed my attitude,” he said, “if not the end result.”
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