Power plants in Georgia will no longer be allowed to burn creosote-treated railroad ties to produce electricity under legislation that passed out of the General Assembly Thursday.
The prohibition measure, House Bill 857, originated from complaints by residents in rural areas outside Athens who have been pestered over the past year by foul smells and water pollution emanating from two new biomass plants.
The plants, owned by the Alabama-based utility Georgia Renewable Power, were initially permitted to burn wood chips as an alternative fuel to coal for electricity production. But their permits were later changed to allow for burning wooden railroad ties coated in creosote, which has been linked to some forms of cancer and respiratory problems.
Residents in Madison and Franklin counties, where the plants are located, lobbied hard in recent months to ban the practice, citing health injuries to themselves and nuisance smells. Their cause was taken up by Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, who sponsored the measure prohibiting creosote-coated ties from being burned.
Sen. John Wilkinson, R-Toccoa, who worked with Powell on the bill, said the ban on creosote ties would address concerns from residents.
“This has become a problem and we feel for the safety of constituents in those counties that we need this bill,” Wilkinson said Thursday.
Sen. Frank Ginn, a former Franklin County manager, said the plants have been an economic boon in the area but never should have been allowed to burn creosote-coated ties. He urged passage of the bill to force the plants to clean up their act.
“I want to send a message,” said Ginn, R-Danielsville.
Representatives of the international utility conglomerate Veolia, which manages the two plants, have pinned blame for the smell and smoke on start-up issues that they assured residents would be quickly eliminated. And backers of the plants have highlighted the alternative-fuels nature of the operation as well as the tax revenues generated from the plants that benefit the counties.
But the show of support was not enough to save the railroad ties. Powell’s bill cleared the state Senate unanimously and now heads to Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk for his signature.
The bill does, however, contain a carve-out for a similar biomass plant located near Dublin that state regulators have given assurances does not burn creosote ties. That plant, run by WestRock, has also been around longer and was not experiencing the same start-up issues as the facilities in Franklin and Madison, according to regulators.