Three years ago, as residents of Richmond County, North Carolina were fighting to stop a dirty Enviva wood pellet facility from building in their community. Meanwhile, residents in Colbert, GA were learning about a new polluting industry that had been proposed in their community – the Georgia Renewable Power Biomass Plant, promising to burn only “clean, untreated wood” but instead burned carcinogenic creosote treated railroad ties as well.
Both Debra David of Concerned Citizens of Richmond County and Ruth Ann Tesanovich of Madison County Clean Power Coalition became leaders in their local fights to stop these polluting industries. They went up against big corporations, their elected officials, and a system that limited their involvement at every turn.
Despite community opposition, both these facilities were built, but Ruth Ann and Debra have not stopped fighting. They have continued to share their first-hand experiences, telling their stories to local and international media and to other communities facing similar threats.
Now Richmond County, NC faces another polluting industry. The proposed building site is just 1 mile from the Enviva wood pellet plant. International Tie Disposal plans to burn creosote treated railroad ties to create biochar.
When Ruth Ann Tesanovich heard about this proposed facility in the town of Hamlet in Richmond County, NC, it was all too familiar.
She immediately began sharing her story with Richmond County residents and has worked to get her story out to local media outlets. In late October, she wrote the following letter to the Richmond County local newspaper:
Having closely followed news articles related to the proposed biochar plant near Hamlet, NC, I write to warn the citizens of Richmond County of the threat to your health, quality of life, and property rights. I speak from my experience after the Georgia Renewable Power (GRP) Biomass Plant moved in 1.5 miles from my peaceful country home near Colbert, GA.
In 2017, GRP met with local leaders of rural Franklin and Madison Counties proposing to build “twin biomass plants” and to bring jobs and tax revenue to our rural NE Georgia counties. They said they would only burn clean, untreated wood. Instead, when the plants fired up in May 2019, carcinogenic creosote railroad ties were hauled in by CSX rail, stacked in the yard by the thousands, then chipped and burned for fuel. The railroad tie chipping dust and debris (“fugitive emissions”) littered the chipping yard, blew through our air, settled on nearby farmers’ pastures, and washed into our watershed. People’s health began to suffer from burning eyes, nosebleeds, and respiratory problems. We became prisoners in our own homes with windows closed to block out the noise and noxious fumes.
Citizen groups formed in protest. We pleaded for help from our leaders. Our state representative heard our cries for help and introduced legislation to ban burning creosote for power generation statewide. Citizens testified before House and Senate committees. We came up against the power of CSX Railroad, the American Tie Association, and GRP executives. Thankfully, legislators chose the health and quality of people’s lives over big business and passed the legislation unanimously. Our governor signed House Bill 857 into law in August 2020. Creosote railroad ties can no longer be burned for power generation in Georgia. Although the GRP plant goes on producing air, land, water, noise, and light pollution, we are at least thankful that the giant piles of creosote railroad ties, the chipping operation, and related fugitive emissions are gone.
BUT it seems they want to send them to YOU [Richmond County] instead! International Tie Disposal, CSX Railroad, and others are just looking for profitable ways to dispose of toxic creosote railroad ties. The health and quality of people’s lives should not be put at risk for any amount of money and profit. Don’t let Richmond County become a toxic waste disposal site for creosote railroad ties.
Ruth Ann Tesanovich
Medical Laboratory Scientist
Madison County Clean Power Coalition
Across the South, biomass facilities continue to expand, mostly in rural areas with a need for economic development. But many residents aren’t so sure the short-term economic gain is worth the long-term cost.
And as the opposition grows, so do creative strategies to push back on the harms caused by the biomass industry.
In Richmond County, NC even after the plant was built, local residents didn’t stop fighting for their community. In 2019, local residents won a lawsuit requiring Enviva to reduce Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) by 95%. And in Colbert, GA the local group celebrated as the Georgia legislature banned the burning of creosote treated railroad ties for power generation in August of 2020.
Armed with this information and support, the residents of Richmond County continue to pursue all avenues. Just this week the local city council passed a resolution calling for the state Department of Environmental Quality (NC DEQ) to hold a public hearing on the permit application.
When we join together, we are stronger, better informed, and better equipped to stand up for our communities, our health, and environmental justice.