Opponents of a waste-to-energy plant in Penrose met Tuesday night to plan strategy in advance of a public presentation on the biomass facility Thursday. They adopted the slogan, Think BIG, for Beyond Incinerating Garbage.
A Bronxville, N.Y., company, Renewable Developers Penrose 1 LLC, has filed documents with the North Carolina Utilities Commission seeking permission for the plant. It has set a meeting to present plans for the plant Thursday at 7 p.m. in the Rogow Room of the Transylvania County Public Library.
The plant would use wood chips and municipal solid waste to generate up to 4 megawatts per hour of electricity that it would sell to Duke Energy. An attorney for the plant developer says the gasification process is safe and non-polluting, and in fact because it would reduce the landfilling of garbage would reduce overall emissions and carbon-dioxide.
Neighbors who are within site of the Transylvania County Airport, which is next to the proposed site of the plant, began organizing over the weekend. At a meeting Tuesday night, they adopted the name People for Clean Mountains and the theme of Think BIG, for Beyond Incinerating Garbage. They also agreed to set up committees on research and regulatory issues, publicity, legal issues and outreach.
The group's members and neighboring property owners say they oppose the plant on a variety of grounds: possible air, noise, light and water pollution. The plant threatens the quiet rural nature of the area, they said, and hurts the area's reputation for clean air, outdoor recreation.
"I have several different reasons why I oppose it," said Hope Janowitz, the owner of New Leaf Garden Market on Lyday Loop in Pisgah Forest and one of the members of the new group. "I live about a half mile from where it would be and I also run a business about a half mile from it.
"I have two young kids and I'm very worried about the pollutants that are going to be a byproduct of that plant. I also am worried about what affect the plant will have on future economic development or the area because a lot of the development were getting now is tired to outdoor recreation. And I'm worried about the environment as well."
Opponents of the plant or those who wanted to learn more about it gathered Saturday night.
"There were about 30 people there and I'd say 28 agreed to say we were going to stand to oppose that," she said.
The North Carolina Utilities Commission file on the facility developer's application showed 17 emailed complaints or objections to the biomass generator. Many said they feared the facility would emit toxins or other pollutants.
"The activities and processes associated with the proposed plant would not only severely diminish the natural splendor of our area but would also introduce economic hazards that we do not wish to incur," wrote Aaron Wesley Means and Kristine Callan Means, of Pisgah Forest.
County board secrecy criticized
Ruth Harris, a retired manufacturing engineer who lives in a subdivision on a ridge overlooking the airport, said the idea sounded good at first.
"My initial reaction was, like everybody else, I hear biomass, and I think, oh, clean, well that's great: jobs," she said. "But then I went on line and found out these plants are being fought by people all over the country, so I started researching the things that are coming out of the plants, and I found that there was this whole wide range between air pollution, water pollution, light pollution and noise pollution" that the plant could cause.
Like other opponents, she said she's been disturbed that the Transylvania County Board of Commissioners has met behind closed doors about the plant.
"I was a little also concerned with how secret this has all been," she said. "I wouldn't think the law that allows them to go behind closed doors would have them do something that they know is going to cause upset in the community and they want to keep it as quiet as they can as long as they can."
Many residents say they're concerned too about heavy trucks carrying the feedstock to the gasification plant.
"When you're standing at the top of a hill in these mountains in a rural area, it is pin-drop quiet," she said. "Any trucks that drive by in the valley, you hear."
She's concerned too, that, the studies the county has shown residents focus on things like capital costs, not the environment.
"I have yet to hear from anybody that there was any outside experts brought in other than the P.R. job from the company that wants to make money off of it. You have to have alternate viewpoint before you can really assess what the environmental impact is going to be," she said. "I'm a big believer in follow the money. If you're getting the story from the person who is making money off of it, get another study from someone that doesn't have a vested interest."
She said the research she's seen couldn't measure the possible emissions from a plant burning wood chips, agricultural waste and city garbage because no one knows what's in the fuel.
"I've already made up my mind. I don't want Penrose to become the garbage dump for Western North Carolina — you can call that 'not in my backyard' if you want. But even if that's not something you care about, people should look at it from scientific point of view," she said. "There's a lot of unintended consequences people aren't thinking about."
Ecusta Trail supporters tune in
Opponents point out, too, that Henderson and Transylvania counties base part of their appeal on clean outdoor recreation, and that recent manufacturers providing jobs in both counties — Oskar Blues, Sierra Nevada and Legacy Paddlesports — all have ties to outdoor recreation.
"The camps provide a lot of economic development," Harris said. "If I drove into a town that had heavy trucks driving back and forth, it certainly would take away from that 'sending my kids to the country' feel."
Supporters of a rail-to-trail along the tracks are watching the proposal with interest but they say they don't want to appear to stand in the way of economic development in Transylvania County is the community decides this is the right project.
Matthew Ross, the attorney for the developer, told the Hendersonville Lightning last week that the company wants to keep open the option of rail transportation, which could haul in feedstock — the wood chips and other waste the plant would use as fuel — if the plant capacity increased.
The Friends of the Ecusta Trail says that the 18-mile greenway connecting Hendersonville and Brevard would potentially create a greater economic impact and more jobs than a gasification plant. An independent study of the proposal in 2012 said a trail could trigger $2 million a year in visitor spending and 27 jobs; construction would cost about $20 million and create 180 jobs, the consultant's report said.
Dr. Ken Shelton, a radiologist and Ecusta Trail supporter, said he would not dismiss the plant's potential to help Transylvania County but wants to know more.
"Honestly, my first impression is I need to hear the facts," he said. "The other thing is I have my doubt that it's going to be pollution free."
Transylvania County Commissioner Jason Chappell said he is watching and waiting to hear more.
Charlie Messer, the chairman of the Henderson County Board of Commissioners, said on Sunday that the plant's investors had arranged a meeting with him for Wednesday. He said he had heard discussions about the developer's interest in possibly using Henderson County garbage as fuel but was concerned that the enterprise might not be the sure long-term contract the county needs. The county's current contract, with Republic, expires in mid 2015. Even so, he said, the county generally likes to have an idea 18 months to two years in advance that it will renew the contract for a longer term.