County seeks hearing over biomass dust concerns


Published: Tuesday, October 22, 2013 at 5:59 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, October 23, 2013 at 9:28 a.m.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection plans to issue an air permit to the Gainesville Renewable Energy Center so it can modify an existing one, but the Alachua County Commission unanimously voted Tuesday to petition for an administrative hearing.

County staff recommended petitioning the FDEP because it provides an opportunity to address concerns about dust carrying over from the biomass plant into surrounding areas, including the county's Public Works compound, as well as odor complaints.

The noise problems many Turkey Creek residents have complained about, however, probably won't factor into this petition process.

“My gut is that we need to try to focus more on the dust,” County Environmental Protection Director Chris Bird said. “I'm trying to be cautious with this because if we try to do too much in this petition, it blows up really quick.”

The FDEP published a legal notice in The Sun on Oct. 14 announcing its intent to issue an air permit meant to modify GREC's existing air construction permit, according to county records. GREC is operating under a state-issued construction permit that is effective until the end of 2014. Proposed modifications include removing a requirement for GREC to hand in a final Best Management Plan, or BMP, for minimizing fugitive dust, fire prevention and pile management within 180 days prior to the plant becoming operational and instead changing the preliminary BMP to the final BMP.

Earlier this month, the County Commission decided to submit a notice of its intent to challenge the state DEP's air permit if dust and noise problems with the plant weren't resolved.

The Public Works staff has been trying to document its dust concerns on a daily basis, Bird said. Dust has been problematic enough in recent weeks that some employees have worn dust masks because they've had trouble breathing, he said, although the past two weeks have been much better for Public Works.

The state DEP has been out at least twice to review the situation and has reported that its staff didn't notice any problems with dust, but that could have been on a day when the dust wasn't a problem, he said. Dust from the plant isn't a constant problem but rather a recurring one that is variable and dependent on weather conditions.

The petition process is rigorous and will require significant preparation, and Bird said the county will need to hire consultants with technical expertise to assist with the process.

County Attorney Dave Wagner agreed with Bird that the county should focus on the dust problem during the petition process and said the staff is unsure how much the litigation will cost, although EPD estimated a consultant could cost around $80,000.

Commissioner Lee Pinkoson asked if the county would lose the ability to focus on the noise issue in the future if it didn't address it with this petition, but Wagner told him it still would be able to deal with those complaints later through other, more effective means.

Commissioner Charles “Chuck” Chestnut IV questioned why the Gainesville City Commission hasn't also intervened in terms of trying to solve some of these issues with the biomass plant. But he said he could understand why city commissioners haven't if they're planning on buying the plant.

Now that the city is considering purchasing the biomass plant, the situation is different, he said.

“I'm really concerned about this whole process because the dynamics have changed now,” Chestnut said.

In addition to unanimously authorizing the county to petition the state DEP for an administrative hearing, the commission also directed staff to focus primarily on the fugitive dust issue and to send letters to the cities of Alachua and Gainesville inviting them to participate in the process.

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

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