Lithonia residents had a unified message during a Dec. 18 public hearing: They do not want a biomass facility in their community.
Nearly 100 Lithonia residents and their supporters attended a question-and-answer session followed by a public comment hearing about a draft permit for Green Energy Resource Center to operate a biomass fuel generating facility. The meeting was held by representatives from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division’s (EPD) Air Protection Branch.
According to EPD records, the Green Energy facility, which would be located on 21 acres at 1770 Rogers Lake Road, would generate electricity by processing approximately 165,000 tons per year of wood biomass—clean, untreated wood and yard waste.
The facility would be constructed on property in a heavy industrial zone.
Wood biomass, purchased from DeKalb County and delivered by truck, would be stored uncovered in an initial receiving area capable of storing a minimum of a seven day supply. The biomass would then be transferred to a covered area. Following screening, the biomass would be fed to two Hurst biomass units.
“It’s going to be taking biomass…and burning that in a steam-generating motor like you have in in any school, hospital…and using that to generate electricity,” said Eric Cornwell, EPD’s stationary source permitting program manager. That electricity would then be sold to Georgia Power.
Cornwell said the facility’s power output is 11.5 megawatts—enough to power approximately 8,000 homes.
In Georgia, there are seven other recently permitted biomass-fired power plants of a similar size, Cornwell said.
Despite concerns by Lithonia residents, Neville Anderson, chief executive officer of Green Energy Partners, has maintained that similar facilities around the country have had no negative health impact.
After the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners approved the facility in June 2011, an environmental group, Citizens for a Healthy and Safe Environment, filed a lawsuit against DeKalb County to prevent the construction of the facility.
The lawsuit claims the county engaged in “contract rezoning” when it granted a special land use permit for the facility after the county already had signed a contract with Green Energy Partners to sell wood waste for an estimated $200,000 per year.
In July 2011, Green Energy Partners pulled its permit application after failing to complete the environmental permit application in time. The withdrawal was in response to an EPD request for additional information on the planned gasification process to be used in the plant.
On Feb. 14, the Development Authority of DeKalb approved a resolution declaring its intent to issue $53 million in bonds to help Green Energy Partners get started. The authority later approved a 10-year tax abatement for facility.
Anderson has said that during construction the project would bring 500 temporary construction jobs and add $60 million to the county’s tax base. Up to 100 permanent jobs could be created to run the facility.
During the question-and-answer session, Cornwell said the EPD issues permits based upon “the determination that the facility reasonably can be expected to comply with federal and state regulations.”
“In a case like this where are a lot of folks have a lot of concerns and there’s a lot of opposition to it, we issue permits not on a popularity basis, not on a ‘let’s vote on it’ basis,” Cornwell said. “The director of EPD issues permits based…solely based on air quality standards.”
Many residents—several of them doctors and researchers—voiced their opposition to the facility.
Lithonia resident Faye Coffield said, “This is a heavy, heavy residential area and I don’t think you are taking into consideration what could happen if there is a problem at the facility. In a worst case scenario…what is the health risk to the public around it and how far out does that health risk extend? How far out would we be affected?”
Cornwell said the EPD’s “review doesn’t look at what may be a worse case operation.”
“This is a community,” Coffield responded. “There are children there. There are schools there, and you’re telling me you have not looked at what could happen.”
Dr. Darren Harper asked, “If you are the Environmental Protection Division what the heck are you protecting? Who are you protecting the environment for? These are the people for whom you are protecting the environment.
“Are you taking into consideration the emissions from the trucks that will pass through Lithonia?” Harper asked. “If indeed you haven’t, you need to recalculate to see if you meet the standards, given those emissions.
“This is not public opinion,” he said. “These are public facts. Particulate matter, when entered into the lungs will, in some cases, fall into the circulation, cause epithelial damage, cause heart attacks, stroke, etc. These are facts.”
Tracy Ann Williams, a Lithonia City councilwoman, said the biomass facility would “emit as much particulate matter as a coal plant of the same size.
“Particulate matter penetrates into the lungs and worsens asthma and other respiratory problems,” Williams said. “GEP will emit tons of hazardous air pollutants that are known to cause cancer and birth defects.
“Biomass energy is not clean,” she said.
Lithonia Mayor Deborah Jackson said she had “serious concerns” about the biomass facility.
“This is basically a case of environmental racism and injustice,” Jackson said. “When one examines the nature of the facilities that are already in the community—a landfill, a county waste transfer station, automobile junkyard and trucking companies—then we find that additional residential homes have been allowed to be built within one-quarter mile of the landfill without any consideration of the health effect. No attention is being given to the cumulative effect of the existing polluting facilities.
“The real issue before you is whether Green Energy Partners should be allowed or permitted to pollute in a community that is already struggling for the right to breathe clean air and enjoy good health,” Jackson said.
“This is a horrible idea and potentially one of the worst things that could happen to Lithonia,” said Dr. Shereitte Stokes IV.
“If you draw a 3.1 mile radius around the proposed facility…you will find that there are 24 facilities that are either preschools or day care center,” Stokes said. “Children intake oxygen at a much faster rate than adults. So here we are talking about whether we should give a permit to a facility that emits pollutants that are associated with asthma, respiratory diseases and other adverse health conditions like cancer.”
John Evans, president of the DeKalb NAACP, said his organization is “prepared for a fight.”
“The community does not want it, does not accept it, will not accept it and we will do whatever is necessary if EPD decides to approve that permit.”