Biomass Power in Athens’ Backyard: Clean Energy or Public Health Crisis?

There’s a new biomass power plant in Colbert, which is 13 miles from downtown Athens, Georgia. This plant is burning creosote-treated railroad ties to produce electricity, something allowed under new EPA rules. But is it safe?

Correction: This video says that the Trump administration changed the rule allowing creosote burning, but it was actually the Obama administration who changed it originally. The Trump admin changed it in 2018 to allow burning ties treated with creosote-borate and mixtures of creosote, borate and copper naphthenate, but the 2016 change is by far the more relevant one. Our apologies!

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Welcome to Athens Politics Nerd. In this video, we’re going to talk about the new biomass plant in Colbert, Georgia and how it affects the people living there. Should we support biomass as a form of clean and renewable energy, or is it actually worse than the fossil fuels it’s replacing? Let’s take a look.

My thanks to the Dogwood Alliance for sponsoring this video. Stick around to the end to find out how you can stand for forests in Georgia.

We’ve only got about ten years left to limit the worst effects of climate change, so governments around the world are looking for a solution, any solution to help them meet their renewable energy and CO2 emissions targets on time. In part for these reasons, biomass energy has become increasingly popular as an alternative to coal and natural gas over the past decade. Biomass energy is any energy that comes from burning living things like plants. But we’re talking about producing electricity in this video, and while there are many examples, biomass normally means just one thing in this context – that is, burning wood. It’s the oldest form of energy that humans have made use of, and it’s making a comeback.

Proponents say that biomass is clean, it’s carbon-neutral and so it deserves the tax credits it’s been getting, both here in the US and in Europe. Politicians from across the political spectrum agree that biomass is an important industry in Georgia now, and for the foreseeable future. So, what’s the problem? Well, there’s another side to this issue that you should be aware of. Let me introduce you to the Madison Clean Power Coalition. They’re a community group founded to promote clean power in Madison County, Georgia. So, it sounds like they support the new biomass plant, right?

Gina Ward, Co-Chair of the Madison Clean Power Coalition: “Burning railroad ties for fuel is wrong. And we all know it.”

The group was formed to fight the biomass plant that opened in Colbert in July of 2019.

Those closest to the plant have had to deal with constant noise and light at all hours, and clouds of dust and foul-smelling smoke filling their yards.

Drago Tesanovich, Co-Chair of the Madison Clean Power Coalition: “The closer you are, the worse it is. I mean, it’s disrupted my life, but when I visit people who live closer, they do not have a life anymore.”

This plant is making use of a recent change in EPA rules which allow power plants like this to burn creosote-treated railroad ties. Railroad ties were formerly considered toxic waste, meaning they were illegal to burn like this. That’s because creosote, which is used as a preservative and for water-proofing, is an irritant and a carcinogen. In large doses, it can cause chemical burns, disorientation, liver damage and even death.

Cheryl Adams, Madison Clean Power Coalition: “I live about a half a mile from the plant. I can’t sleep. I cover my head up with a cover to try to get the smell away so that I can sleep. And I end up getting a wet wash rag and putting it over my face. The noise is loud and if I do get any sleep, I have a headache, I have a chemical taste in my mouth, I feel disoriented and I know I’m being poisoned.”

When the Trump administration changed this rule to allow creosote burning in 2018, they didn’t require that companies notify communities like Colbert. [This is an error — it was the Obama admin in 2016 who first change this rule! See the note above.]

Mack Adams, Madison Clean Power Coalition: “This plant when it was originally proposed in 2015, and continuously in newspaper articles after that, promised that all they would be burning is clean wood chips. That’s all they would be burning.”

This plant had difficulty attracting the start-up capital needed for the original plan. Why? Well, biomass just isn’t that profitable. Burning wood doesn’t produce as much energy per pound as do fossil fuels like coal and natural gas. Biomass plants also operate at a lower efficiency due to the moisture that’s present in the wood. All that water has to be burned off first, and that wastes energy. To top it off, just finding the wood to burn in the first place can be a challenge.

It’s much more convenient and profitable if you can get the fuel shipped to your doorstep in large quantities, which is where Trump’s rule change at the EPA comes in. Railroad companies have to find a way to get rid of railroad ties that break or are just too old to use anymore, and normally they even had to pay to dispose of them, since they used to be considered toxic waste. But not anymore. The Colbert Biomass Plant is right on a railroad line, and there’s a side track leading straight to the front door of the plant where piles and piles of old ties sit, waiting to incinerated. That’s a win for the railroad who gets a free dumping ground, and a win for the biomass plant which gets free fuel. So that’s great for business, but not so great for the people of Colbert.

Gina Ward: “They have contaminated my creek, they contaminated my air. 24 – 7 I listen to the sound of their equipment going. We don’t sleep at night when that’s going on, and I have nothing left to do but fight. I can’t sell my home. I can’t leave.”

The Environmental Protection Division has issued a number of violation notices to the plant already. The American Lung Association has gotten involved, too, saying that burning even untreated wood “is far from “clean” – burning biomass creates air pollution that causes a sweeping array of health harms, from asthma attacks to cancer to heart attacks.” And they’re right, some studies show that pollution from biomass plants is actually greater even than that of coal-fired plants. And that’s before we take into account the creosote. All this seems pretty terrible, but there’s a silver lining here. Remember, this is renewable energy and it will lower our CO2 emissions to help us get climate change under control. Won’t it?

Unfortunately, maybe not. Many scientists believe that burning wood for power actually increases CO2 emissions for decades or even centuries when compared to natural gas, or even coal. That’s because forests in the Amazon and elsewhere, act as critically important carbon sinks, soaking up CO2 from the atmosphere. We don’t want to burn them! In fact, 800 scientists wrote the European parliament last year, urging them to take woody biomass off their list of approved renewable energy sources:

“The solution to replacing coal is not to go back to burning forests, but instead to replace fossil fuels with low carbon sources, such as solar and wind. We urge European legislators to amend the present directive to restrict eligible forest biomass… because the fates of much of the world’s forests and the climate are literally at stake.”

To sum up, biomass is a dirty form of energy, maybe one of the dirtiest, and it’s opposed by the American Heart and Lung Associations. It may technically be renewable, but it won’t help stop climate change, according to many scientists. It’s not even very profitable, and definitely wouldn’t be without government subsidies. But why are we subsidizing it? It’s terrible for the people living nearby, it’s not clean, and it’s not green. It would be bad enough, but burning creosote? That’s an environmental disaster just 13 miles from downtown Athens!

Want to stop the biomass industry in Georgia? Right now, the Dogwood Alliance has #Stand4Forests resolutions in both the Georgia House and Senate. These resolutions commit Georgia to protecting, expanding, and diversifying our forests and oppose burning woody biomass – including railroad ties. Take a stand for forests. Visit now.

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The Madison Clean Power Coalition held a protest outside the biomass plant on January 25:

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