City still receiving noise - and now dust - complaints over biomass plant


The woodyard of the Gainesville Renewable Energy Center is shown on Wednesday, August 21.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Thursday, September 26, 2013 at 5:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, September 26, 2013 at 5:00 p.m.

Alachua County Public Works employees say they have heard the noise from the biomass plant that Turkey Creek residents are complaining about, but the dust is what worries them the most.

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The woodyard of the Gainesville Renewable Energy Center is shown on Wednesday, August 21.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun

County Environmental Protection Director Chris Bird said dust blowing into the Public Works compound from the wood fuel delivery, storage and conveyance areas of the nearby Gainesville Renewable Energy Center is the local government's primary concern.

Employees have submitted affidavits complaining about respiratory problems because of the dust, he said.

Depending on weather conditions, wood dust has been carrying over to the compound and falling onto vehicles parked there. The wood dust is similar to what you might see at a sawmill.

The county hasn't been able to substantiate residents' claims regarding problems with ash from the biomass plant, Bird said.

Staff from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection visited the GREC site earlier this week and had the same conversation the county had with GREC, Bird said. With both the county and state DEP, GREC identified areas it is working on to further reduce the potential for dust.

The county next week will meet with an environmental service contractor to go over a dust monitoring plan for the Public Works compound. It may also hire a noise specialist to review the research GREC and its consultants are doing.

"Whether it's the dust or the noise, our goal would be to try to get GREC to work the bugs out of this," he said.

Noise and dust from the biomass plant can't be completely eliminated but could be brought down to an acceptable level, Bird said.

"They've acknowledged they've got some issues. They've shown us what they're trying to do to correct them," he said of GREC. "They've clearly made some improvements."

Public Works employees have noticed noise from the biomass plant, but as long as they're working inside it isn't causing much of a problem for them, he said. The county and city of Gainesville's noise ordinances are based on decibel levels. So far, noise measurements haven't detected any violations, and they aren't expected to do so.

"But that doesn't mean that the noises aren't bothering people," he said.

Residents of the Turkey Creek Golf and Country Club have taken complaints about noise from the plant to the cities of Gainesville and Alachua and the County Commission.

Resident Greg Williamson said the "obnoxious, loud" din subsided the morning of Sept. 19 and that the noise was, for most of the past week, far more bearable. Williamson said a sound "like a jet engine going up and down" returned midafternoon Thursday.

Starting Sept. 19, the plant was down for repairs for a few days. GREC Chief Financial Officer said Thursday that it has been running for days at full capacity. On Tuesday, GREC sent Turkey Creek residents a letter detailing some steps the company took in response to complaints of "perceived noise" from the plant.

Those steps include no longer starting up the plant between 8 p.m. and 6.a.m. until the plant reaches commercial operation and the city assumes the authority to decide when to fire it up. Additionally, trucks may deliver wood only between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.

Crews also reduced the operating pressure and made valve adjustments to the plant's deaerator vent, and that, according to GREC, "appears to have significantly lowered its sound emissions."

In the letter, GREC officials said the noise complaints are most prevalent when the plant is firing up. They noted that, because the plant is within the city limits of Gainesville, it is subject to that municipality's noise ordinance.

That ordinance limits "continuous" sound measured from a distance of 200 feet off the property line to 60 decibels during the hours of 10 p.m. to 8 a.m. and 66 decibels between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. The biomass plant owners said tests conducted by a firm they hired showed all sound levels below 60 decibels, including when the plant was running at full capacity.

Turkey Creek resident Russ Pisano said some residents question those results and want to have a representative present when GREC consultants are conducting tests.

"Trust, but verify," he said.

Meanwhile, the Gainesville City Commission voted on Sept. 19 for its staff to conduct noise tests. Those tests have not yet started. The Gainesville Police Department, which handles noise complaints, wants to present the option of requesting that an outside agency oversee the tests, spokesman Officer Ben Tobias said.

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