How to Stop a Biomass Incinerator
On July 22, 2013 the Transylvania County, North Carolina Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 to enact a one year moratorium on the development and permitting of any biomass facility producing any output. This was the culmination of four months of effort by the citizens and officials of our community.
What was originally viewed as a NIMBY response to a proposal to bring “cutting edge” technology into our county, evolved past the notion of “Not In Anyone’s Back Yard” to a viewpoint of NOPE, Not on Planet Earth. Biomass incineration is a global issue, spewing tons of toxic chemicals and particulates into the atmosphere, destroying our environment through both pollution and choices of feedstock, from the introduction of invasive species of grass to feed the burners, to GMO trees and the decimation of our precious forests, up to and including the lunacy of burning garbage.
On March 25, 2013 the Transylvania Times ran a front page story on a proposed biomass to electricity pyrolysis gasification facility to be placed in a pristine river valley at the eastern edge of our county. 100 tons of municipal solid waste, woody biomass, and agricultural waste per day would be transformed into 4 MW of electricity, and sold to Duke Power.
Transylvania County, NC has a population of 32,000. We are located in the Blue Ridge Mountains in the southwestern part of the state. We are known as the land of waterfalls, with 250 waterfalls located within our borders. There are over 2,000 miles of bicycle trails in our forests. Approximately 75% of our land area is currently under some form of land use regulation, mostly state and National Forests.
At one time approximately 8,000 residents were employed by major industry in paper and other manufacturing. Over the last decade those industries have left, leaving us economically devastated, and with an unemployment rate hovering around 10%. We have been designated a Tier 2 distressed area, 20 miles from major interstate access, and with a rail line that has been out of service since the mills left. The promise of both jobs and a new electric generating industry that was billed as green and sustainable seemed like a win-win for this area. How soon that perception changed.
A simple Facebook post asking if anyone knew anything about the proposal set off a flurry of activity. Facebook became the preferred means of communication. The Transylvania County Biomass Info Exchange page was started and within 8 hours had 100 members. Within a week the membership on the page had grown to 500. It was apparent that outreach through social media was the most efficient way for the community to share.
With information coming fast and furiously, it was becoming apparent to many that this proposal was not good for our county. We felt that the citizens and county officials had been taken by a smooth industry sales pitch. Today over 800 people regularly access the page and contribute to the conversation, as well as keeping track of events, meetings, and research.
On April 4th a small group of citizens met informally to start planning how to deal with this issue. Out of that meeting came our core group, with an immediate goal of stopping this proposal. The original group consisted of 12 people, all local residents, including a doctor, a web site designer, the director of a national environmental group, a career environmental activist, event planner, and radio host, investigative reporters, local business owners with backgrounds in natural building, music promotion, marketing, graphic design, government contracting, and public relations, retired professionals, and a returning college student focusing on the non-profit sector. It was the perfect cross section of talent for the job. In the ensuing weeks we were offered help from lawyers, engineers, and media professionals.
It was apparent immediately that any success we would be able to achieve would in part be based on offering alternatives to biomass. Our mission statement was obvious. We chose the name People for Clean Mountains, with a mission of “Clean Mountains, Clean Jobs, Clean Economy.” No formal structure was decided upon, we were going to approach the decision making process as a team, interacting through Facebook, emails, and regularly scheduled meetings.
The opportunity to work under the umbrella of an existing regional environmental group was offered to us, and by April 8 we were up and running, with formal acceptance as a chapter of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League on April 16 with all the benefits that this entailed.
Part of the beauty of the Facebook page was that it gave us a way to find, and share research documents. In the first hour the page was up a research article was posted. Within 90 days 500 articles were posted and available for anyone to read. Questions about the original newspaper article led to the discovery of many discrepancies in the claims of the project developers. The claim that enough electricity would be generated for 400-600 homes turned out to be less than 300. Claims of electricity generation were undocumented anywhere. Assertions of clean, renewable energy were met with bewilderment on the part of the community.
The group proposing the facility, Renewable Developers, LLC (RD), consisted of an investment banker from NY, a lawyer from the Washington DC firm, Polsinelli, and a local businessman looking to sell a 26 acre tract of land that currently houses our community airport. The proposed site is adjacent to an out of service rail spur and the headwaters of the French Broad River, a major source of drinking water for Western North Carolina, and beyond. It was obvious to many that this firm had no industry background, a limited web presence, and little knowledge of their subject matter.
As a result of public concern, the project developers invited themselves to the county for a day of meetings with surrounding landowners of the proposed site, and county officials, culminating in what can best be described as a surreal public presentation. 300 citizens filled the room wearing Carolina Blue, our color of choice. We did not feel that the presenters were prepared for the knowledgeable, engaged crowd that they were about to face. The presentation seemed amateurish, not befitting the level of professionalism and integrity that we were led to believe we were dealing with.
The Q&A period afterwards revealed a total lack of preparation and knowledge of the technology and logistics of the proposal on their part, and complete disdain and arrogance towards the concerns of our community. In a typical response to questioning, the presenters offered that community relations were of medium importance to the business model, and that the staff that were proposed to man the Materials Recovery Facility would with their “eyes and hands” have the ability to separate heavy metals from the waste stream before it entered the facility.
Many relevant questions were asked that were not answered. RD presented no business plan, no site plan, no engineering data (it turns out there had been little, if any engineering done), and no comparable facility data (as there are no comparable facility of this technology anywhere in the Western Hemisphere).
The video of this presentation is available for viewing at our web page, www.peopleforcleanmountains.org and various websites under an internet search for Renewable Developers, LLC.
It was clear that the goal of the developers was to take full advantage of state and federal tax credits for renewable energy, and job creation incentives for employment levels in economically distressed geographical areas, with no idea if the project as proposed would even work. The business model was not viable without heavy government tax subsidies.
The facility would have to be initially permitted and substantial construction begun by 12/31/2013, when most of the tax advantages would expire. Expedited approval at every level would be required for the developers to meet this unrealistic target. Their application with the North Carolina Utilities Commission (NCUC) had been filed eleven days prior to the public presentation for a permit to produce electricity. June 30th was the earliest that they could expect a decision. If the firm had been able to achieve these goals, an additional target of full permitting had to be completed by July 11, 2014. This is the date that the EPA was tasked with establishing GHG emission standards, that biomass plants are currently exempt from. The recent ruling of the DC court vacating the exemption effectively killed this advantage for now.
We mobilized research teams to scour the internet, searching for documents as we attempted get up to speed on biomass technology. Veteran activists from around the world offered us their knowledge and inspiration through our FB page. What we found was a conflicting mass of information from industry, government, and citizen activists. Sifting thru this data truly was a massive undertaking. However, information on this particular technology, and this particular development firm was eerily lacking.
In late April, a binder consisting of 100 pages of research about the technology, the alternatives, the tax credits, and failed and jailed biomass operators was gathered and delivered to each of the county commissioners, the county manager, economic development director, and the county attorney. To that point, they had seen only industry documents and the developer's presentation. To our knowledge little or no research had been done for the two years that the county had been in discussions with the developer.
Petitions and Letter Writing
An online and a paper petition drive were started to air our concerns to the county. A letter writing campaign began to the NCUC requesting that the commission reject the developer's application for a variety of reasons. Additionally, and in advance of any formal application, we began a letter writing campaign to six different offices within the NC Department of Natural Resources (DENR).
For a plethora of reasons the original application to NCUC was inadequate. It was full of inaccuracies, and key technical information was missing. The state had also made mistakes in the paperwork. It was ripe for challenge. Almost 550 letters of complaint about the proposal were registered during the public comment period.
During the last week of June PCM notified the NCUC of an error in their paperwork that could possibly have significant impact on the permitting process. The result of that notification was an order to resubmit part of the application internally within the agency, extending the process 30 days Due to the overwhelming number of complaints registered, the NCUC would be forced to schedule a public hearing 3-6 weeks after the comment period ended, effectively pushing the anticipated response date to the end of September. Waste water, air, erosion control, and solid waste permits still had to be applied for and approved, and substantial construction would have to begin before the end of the year.
A website, www.peopleforcleanmountains.org was established as a repository for the research effort, and actions that were taken and planned, as a much more organized tool than social media was able to offer.
We have done four, one hour radio shows devoted to the subject, broadcast regionally on public and independent radio and available in the archives at www.oursoutherncommunity.org. The first was streamed on April 16. We have interviewed on local AM radio, network television, in several daily newspapers, and regularly kept the media notified of our actions.
We scheduled and held a series of informational sessions for public input. A list of questions about the facility was compiled regarding the technology, and the environmental and health impacts. The list was narrowed to 125 questions, grouped by subject. This list was published in the local newspaper as a two page advertisement, asking the developers and county government to respond to each of our concerns. It was a turning point in the campaign. To date the developer has truthfully and completely answered only one of the questions.
Political participation and Ordinances
On April 22nd a silent vigil was held at the County Commission meeting that was dealing with the fallout from the April 11 presentation. Hundreds dressed in light blue arrived in single file from a gathering point several blocks away.
The commissioners’ current stance was that nothing could be done by the county government to stop the biomass facility. There was no countywide zoning, it was a private landowner selling his property to a private business, and that their collective hands were tied. They maintained that the best option for stopping it was in the permitting process of the North Carolina Utilities Commission and the Department of Environmental and Natural Resources (DENR). The commissioners were beginning to realize that we were on to something. The lack of communication and information from the development firm, when requested by the commissioners was having its own effect on their mindset. Our task was to help them realize that the will of the community was to find a way to do something to stop this.
A concentrated effort to engage the commissioners civilly, individually and in the spirit of cooperation was undertaken. A united front against this assault on our home was required. Not a small part of this was a concurrent effort to establish a vision for our community, shared by all. We were able to develop a working relationship with our county government based on honesty, and the quest for knowledge. It has engaged the community in a way not seen here before.
A common goal of stopping a bad idea has united us in a quest for a better Transylvania County. Across political, social, and economic lines, there was something about this proposal that was bad for everyone, from land use to taxpayer subsidies, from health effects on people to health effects on the environment. We had found common ground to build upon.
On April 25th we first voiced the idea of asking the County Commissioners to consider a moratorium on development and permitting of the biomass facility. Based on NC case law we requested that they enact an ordinance to prevent the issuance of any county permits necessary for the development of a biomass facility for a period of 18 months. This would be to allow time for due diligence on the merits of the proposal, and also to develop of a high impact polluting industry ordinance in response.
A moratorium would delay this proposal, and give us breathing room as a community to determine our own fate. A draft moratorium was ready for submission to the Board of Commissioners on April 27. Ten counties in NC have polluting industry ordinances of some sort covering areas within their borders without any land use regulations.
Not one of those ordinances has been successfully challenged in the courts. Our goal was to convince the County Commissioners to understand that this tool was at their disposal to use as necessary. June 6 saw the culmination of our efforts to date.
In an open letter to the commissioners, we laid out our argument for the implementation of a moratorium, and for submitting our draft version. A public hearing was called to discuss the proposed permitting moratorium, the result being an agenda item to be addressed at the July 8 Board of Commissioners meeting.
At that meeting, 3,000 signed petitions were presented to the commissioners in support of an 18 month moratorium. These petitions were non-binding, but the message to our elected leaders was unmistakably clear. The moratorium language as submitted by PCM had been modified by county staff in a version that was put together to an extent as to be virtually unworkable in addressing this proposal, or in protecting the county from litigation by the developer. PCM implored the commissioners to reconsider their decision to modify the language of our version.
At the July 22 BOC meeting, both versions were presented to the commissioners for a vote. The County Commission voted 3-2 in favor of the version offered substantively by PCM. The only modification of note was the reduction in the length of the moratorium from 18 to 12 months. More than 200 supporters were in attendance to witness the moment.
We continue to work with the county on developing the high impact polluting industries ordinance and are hopeful of its passage. The relationship we have developed with them has enabled us to have input in the debate. Time will tell if this ordinance will be enacted by we continue to use all methods at our disposal to be an instrumental part of the conversation.
We continue to maintain a presence at not only the Commission meetings, but other county board meetings that may impact the future of our community.
A series of public fundraisers were held, generating the funds we needed for purchasing tee shirts, bumper stickers, advertising, etc. Music and the arts were the methods chosen, as we are blessed with an abundance of talent here. Booth space at several community festivals was acquired, and manned by volunteers dispensing literature, selling fundraising items, gathering petition signatures, and encouraging our letter writing campaign to our elected officials, locally and statewide. Other informational events were organized, presented, and filmed.
A May 22 public meeting was held at a local community center. A standing room only crowd listened as a panel discussion was held between two members of PCM, a county commissioner, and the local partner in the development firm about the merits of the proposal.. A question and answer period followed that opened the eyes of many to the fallacy of the proposal.
A “jobs forum” on June 27 – Think “B.I.G” Beyond Incinerating Garbage was held. Exhibitors shared their business experiences, new economic development initiatives and new, clean industry ideas were explored. After an open community hour, formal presentations were given on sound economic development being practiced by firms in the county, recycling material markets and their possibilities, waste diversion and reduction, philosophical approach to conservation of resources, and a possible different vision as Transylvania County moved forward. This was followed by an informal question and answer period with all of our speakers seated at a podium.
As a follow-up to this event, Dr. Neil Seldman of the Institute for Local Self Reliance came to Transylvania County to share his vision. He offered us a wealth of experience and knowledge on how we as a community could take our fate into our own hands, indefinitely extend the life of our landfill, create jobs, product, and hope to many. Out of our present malaise, he offered a glimmer of light, and showed a way to restoring community pride and posterity. The future is ours.
As an organization, and as responsible citizens, by gathering together we have learned to implement change. By working together with government, we were able to voice a resounding no to the predatory practices of those seeking to make a profit off of our misfortune. And by working together, we will ensure a bright future for our children.