County has plan to deal with dust, noise from biomass plant


Published: Tuesday, October 8, 2013 at 6:22 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, October 8, 2013 at 6:22 p.m.

After receiving numerous complaints about noise and dust coming from the biomass plant, the Alachua County Commission reached a consensus Tuesday on how to deal with the situation.

Local residents, particularly those who live in the Turkey Creek neighborhood, have complained about the noise. Meanwhile, the county's Public Works compound, which is situated close to the biomass plant, has had a particular problem with dust carrying over from the plant to Public Works.

The commission unanimously approved a multipart motion that delineated several actions it plans to take. It will send a letter to the Gainesville Renewable Energy Center and the Gainesville City Commission asking that the county's staff and consultants be allowed to participate in all discussions regarding mitigation options for addressing the noise and dust issues.

It will also notify GREC in a letter from the county attorney that the county, as an affected party, will take part in public nuisance litigation if there isn't acceptable progress in reducing dust and noise affecting the county's property and workers.

The county also plans to give notice to GREC, the city of Gainesville and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection that it will intervene in permitting proceedings with the intent to oppose the biomass plant's final operational permitting if satisfactory progress hasn't been made concerning controlling the noise and dust problems.

As for its noise ordinance, the commission asked staff to return with any recommended changes for its consideration, including whether any local municipalities would like the county ordinance to apply within their boundaries.

Several residents spoke up during public comment to thank the commission for doing something about the noise and dust problems and to offer their support for the motion.

Rick Wolf, assistant director for the Growth Management Department, told the commission Tuesday that the biomass plant doesn't appear to be violating either the county or the city noise ordinances. Since the plant is located within the city limits, the county noise ordinance doesn't apply.

Wolf said he got an average reading of 82 decibels at the plant during a recent site visit, but county readings from the Public Works compound near the eastern fence line averaged 52 decibels.

He estimated the noise level in Turkey Creek at night would probably be in the 48-to-52-decibel range.

Wolf said county staff recommended having an outside consultant do a peer review of the data that have already been collected, at least for now. A peer review would cost between $8,000 and $9,000, while a detailed study would likely cost almost triple that.

Commissioner Susan Baird pointed out this has the potential to be a 30-year issue given the city's long-term plan for the biomass plant. She said a full noise study could be a wise use of funds since it could confirm or refute the findings of GREC's consultant. Otherwise, it's "almost like the IRS doing an investigation on the IRS," she said, since GREC requested its consultant's assistance.

Commissioner Robert "Hutch" Hutchinson said he doesn't distrust the data people have already collected regarding the noise issue and suggested the county should focus on encouraging GREC's mitigation efforts instead.

"Clearly what GREC has to do is change some of the facilities at the plant to mitigate the sound," he said. "They're going to have to spend significant money to do that, and I think it's our job to make sure that we encourage and perhaps intervene and enforce their willingness to do that."

County Environmental Protection Director Chris Bird suggested the commission focus on wood dust as its biggest concern for now, which has become a problem for the Public Works compound.

GREC is operating under a state DEP air construction permit at the moment and is expected to apply for an air operating permit from the state next year, Bird said. But the state DEP doesn't allow fugitive dust emissions, meaning dust that leaves the property, under its air permit. As soon as dust leaves the property, it's violating the permit, Bird said.

"...Thou shalt not have fugitive dust — that's the permit," Bird said.

While dust from the biomass plant isn't a continuous problem because it depends on weather conditions such as wind, it is still an issue that needs to be addressed, Bird said. It's important that county employees have a safe place to work, he said.

Staff member Michael Fay showed the commission photos of a vehicle from the Public Works compound covered in dust and told the board some employees are wearing dust masks when they are outside the facility.

Bird, like Wolf regarding the noise issue, didn't recommend doing a dust study, explaining that ambient monitoring would cost around $30,000 and the visual evidence Fay had just shown is already a strong indicator of the situation.

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or morgan.watkins@gainesville.com.

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