Neighbors say plant that’s supposed to be renewable energy source is making them sick

Channel 2's Tom Regan reports

MADISON COUNTY, Ga. — The Madison Biomass Plant, which towers high above the pasture land of the rural county, is billed as a renewable energy source. But residents who live nearby say the wood-burning plant is making them sick.

The plant, owned by Georgia Renewable Power and managed by Veolia North America, fired up its furnaces in May 2019.

Cheryl Adams, who lives less than a mile from the plant, said she has had respiratory problems ever since.

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“It’s affected my breathing. I’ve never had problems with my breathing or sinuses before. It burns my eyes; it burns my nose,” said Adams.

Adams and other Madison County residents told Channel 2 Action News they didn’t find out until it was too late that the plant would burn retired railroad ties. The crossties are treated with creosote, a preservative distilled from coal tar.

“It’s a long-term toxic mess that’s been put in our backyard,” Madison County resident Rhyse Potts said.

Before 2016, it was illegal for biomass plants to burn creosote-treated railroad ties. The Environmental Protection Agency rolled back regulations in 2016, designating them non-hazardous secondary materials.

The American Lung Association has called on Georgia Renewable Power, and other plants like it to stop burning crossties.

“Coal tar is a human carcinogen, and when burned can cause highly toxic gas,” said June Deen, the senior director of advocacy for the ALA. “That can cause a number of health harms such as asthma attacks, cancer, heart attacks.”

Steve Dailey, the president and chief operating officer of Georgia Renewable Power, pushed back, arguing that biomass is a cleaner alternative to coal when it comes to producing electricity.

“We know for sure that the crossties burn cleaner than a normal wood chip. That’s scientific proof,” said Dailey.

Dailey told Channel 2 Action News that railroad ties make up just 20 percent of what the Madison plant and its twin in Franklin County burn. He said that the old ties contain only a small percentage of the original creosote and that what remains is destroyed in the combustion process.

“We are well within the constraints of our permit [from the EPD],” he said. "We're not emitting anything into the atmosphere that harms anyone.”

But in a December 2019 Notice of Violation, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division cited the plant for failure to minimize fugitive emissions.

"The causes of the reported emissions complaints have been determined to be the result of either operational procedures, inoperable control devices, or the use of improper equipment," the notice said.

Dailey said the plant is working to prevent any future violations.

"You have to walk before you run," he said.

Madison County residents told Channel 2 Action News they’re not just concerned over what’s in the air, but also what could be winding up in the creeks and streams near the homes.

“They have polluted my environment in every form possible,” said resident Gina Ward.

Ward said she sometimes finds the ordinarily clear water in the creek behind her home dark and oily. She said she catches a foul smell, too.

“I wake up in the middle of the night and think my house is on fire because I can smell it my home,” said Ward.

Residents also complained of dust from the woodchip pile blowing past the boundaries of the plant.

"There are cattle are eating this grass that's covered thick with this dust. Then they slaughter the cattle, people eat that and get various toxins," said Wendy Meehan, who holds a Master of Public Health.

Other residents complained of noise and decreased property values.

“It’s like I’m living next to an airstrip. If I wanted to live next to an airport, I would have bought land at an airport,” said James Highsmith. “None of this is healthy.”

Dailey told Channel 2 Action News that the plant recently installed noise reduction equipment and that it will soon build walls around the woodchip pile to keep the dust contained.

"Personally, I could look any neighbor in the face and say there's nothing we are going to do to harm you," he said.

According to the EPD, the plant turned in an emissions testing report on Jan. 23. The agency is reviewing the results and plans to make them public in the next few weeks.