If you give the proposed trash incinerator near the Broad River much thought, it’s no stretch to picture big loads of metro Atlanta waste trucked through our county.
Of course, if Elbert County leaders want to put a traditional landfill in Elbert County, then that’s their business. We all make trash. It has to go somewhere. Each community must deal with this issue. How they deal with their own trash in their own county is really none of our business in Madison County.
But if our neighbors to the east want to step beyond county and municipal answers, serving more as a regional trash burning facility, then they need to step beyond their borders and approach our leaders about the issue — because the effects of their actions will extend beyond their borders into our lives.
Elbert County is considering a commercial proposal to burn up to 1,800 tons of trash a day. Some electricity would be generated from the facility, but pollutants would also be released into the air, and hundreds of trash trucks per week would wheel through Madison County and other neighboring communities.
This is no small enterprise under consideration. If approved, it’s going to have a much bigger impact on Madison County than many here realize. Remember that 10 years ago, our Northeast Georgia 10-county regional solid waste organization sought to establish a regional landfill, but the counties couldn’t agree on the locale. Well, we may finally have a spot. This incinerator proposal seems destined to draw trash from beyond that 10-county area. It could indeed be our regional trash answer. But will the costs be worth it? We have to put our debris somewhere — but in the air? Incinerating trash is not common practice in Georgia, and for very good reason.
The proposed Plant Granite facility off Hwy. 72 about three miles into Elbert County would burn an estimated 1,500 to 1,800 tons of trash a day, according to the Development of Regional Impact (DRI) report conducted by the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission (available online at www.negplanning.org/dri/search). That’s 547,500 to 657,000 tons of trash annually.
According to the state Department of Community Affairs, the 10-county Northeast Georgia district produces about 500,000 to 550,000 tons of trash annually. And roughly 40 percent of that is recyclable material.
Meanwhile, according to the regional commission website, Elbert County generated 12,945 tons of trash in a 12-month period between 2002-2003. More recent estimates have been around 15,000 tons a year.
We’re looking at approximates. We’re not talking hard numbers. But if the ballpark figures are anywhere remotely close to accurate, then you get a picture of the massive scale of the proposed operation. For instance, if Elbert County produces 15,000 tons of trash a year and has a facility that could take in roughly 650,000 tons annually (if it operates seven days a week), then only about 2.3 percent of the trash burned at the facility would be from Elbert County. By those rough figures, approximately 43 counties of Elbert’s size could potentially use the facility.
Consider that a municipal landfill has a real incentive to conserve space. The less trash taken in, the better off the facility, the longer it can last. So recycling is really important. Even a private landfill has to weigh profit versus available space. On the other hand, a private trash-burning facility isn’t very limited by space for ashes. So, it seeks to generate revenue in bulk. More trash equals more money. Recycling dies with such incentives in place. If you think about economies of scale, you’ll remember that the best deals come in bulk. So, it’s the counties with tremendous trash production — such as metro Atlanta counties — that may find the extra trucking costs worthwhile if the bulk rates are low enough at Plant Granite. So the incentive structure could draw heavy Atlanta trash traffic up I-85, down Hwy. 441, to Hwy. 98 to Hwy. 72. What about accidents and spills? Who would bear the cost of emergency response?
Getting precise traffic figures is hard to do, but according to the DRI report, if 12-ton trucks are used to transport trash, and 1,800 tons are received daily, then the facility will have 150 trucks driving in and out of the plant each day. Meanwhile, GreenFirst, the company proposing the project, said there are no plans initially to carry trash by rail to the facility. But it’s hard to believe the proposed facility’s close proximity to the Hwy. 72/CSX rail line is a mere coincidence.
Luckily for Madison County, the wind typically blows from the west, so pollutants will likely move predominately away from us. Still, thousands of tons of burning debris, including tires and plastics, will generate toxins that could affect us. Proving such negative health effects on communities around industries is extremely hard, given all the lifestyle and genetic considerations that can be added to the equation. And once a polluting facility is established, we typically see the massive weight of bureaucracy tilted heavily in favor of industry over citizenry. Pushing that weight back toward citizen welfare is very difficult when environmental regulatory agencies typically rely on industries to police themselves.
Just a thought, don’t houses that are used for firefighter practice have to be stripped of materials that are toxic if burned? It seems a strange juxtaposition to limit such activity, but allow a daily burn of countless tons of materials by a business.
The best bet is to stop something harmful before it starts.
As I drove into Elbert County Monday, I saw a “for sale” sign right next to a “no incinerator, no landfill” sign. I thought of the trouble selling such a property. Who would want to move into that house? What effect would such a project have on the long-term housing market there?
Of course, many folks stood outside of the Elbert County commissioners’ room Monday with similar questions, but there was not enough space for everyone. Many never heard a word at the meeting. Those locked out voiced their frustrations, and appropriately so.
Who wants to be kept in the dark about a potential dark cloud on the horizon, especially when it’s a literal dark cloud on the horizon?
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.