Impact of Expansion of Athens, Ga., Fiberglass Manufacturing Plant is Weighed
Dec. 14A proposed expansion of Athens' CertainTeed fiberglass manufacturing plant could mean 119 new jobs at an average wage of $37,000 per year. It would add $1.4 million annually in local taxes, and mean a $140 million expansion project, much of that money going to local contractors.
But would an accompanying increase of potentially hundreds of tons of pollutants pose a health threat to children in a nearby day care center or residents who live nearby?
That answer was not clear following a public question-and-answer session with CertainTeed managers and state environmental regulators Monday evening. About 150 people came to the session in the auditorium of the Athens-Clarke County Library.
According to applications for modifications to the company's air quality permits CertainTeed has filed with the state Environmental Protection Division, the expansion could mean a likely increase in the plant's emissions by amounts that seemed staggering to some in the audience.
Current emissions of formaldehyde, a probable carcinogen, are 18.9 tons a year, for example, while the company is asking permission to increase that amount by up to 29 tons a year. The company has asked for permission to increase its particle matter pollution, now 155 tons per year, by 257 tons per year, and its emissions of volatile organic compounds, now 57 tons per year, by an additional 74 tons per year.
But "these numbers are not as scary as they seem," argued CertainTeed's plant manager, Marilyn DeLong, citing statistics from an environmental organization called Scorecard showing that the great majority of pollutants in the Athens area come from "mobile sources" cars and trucks and only a small part from industries.
The company is in compliance with state and federal air quality rules, DeLong said, and one of the EPD officials at the meeting, Lou Musgrove of the EPD's stationary source compliance program, confirmed that he knew of no past violations by CertainTeed.
And CertainTeed is a "piker" compared to many plants in Georgia, such as big electric power plants, Musgrove said.
DeLong said the company has not made a final decision to expand the Athens plant, even if the air quality permit request is granted.
But neither the company officials nor EPD officials could assure those in the audience that there would be no increased health risk from the increased emissions, nor even say how much formaldehyde or any other pollutant is in the air near the plant.
The EPD does not take direct measurements of what's in the air near plants but does computer modeling, based on monitoring equipment at the plant, to estimate pollutant concentrations at varying distances from the plant, said EPD toxicologist Randall Manning.
And it's very difficult to say what the effect of pollution is, Manning said.
"I can't say there's a certain amount of health effect in Athens or East Athens," he said.
Manning said he has only within the past couple of weeks begun evaluating the potential health effects of the possible increased emissions. Early models have predicted pollution concentrations "that are really not that high for urban areas," he said. "We are looking at ways to measure what is or isn't out there, but it's not a simple thing," he said.
Manning said he would share the results with the public when he completes his analysis, however. There could be an additional public meeting to answer questions, he said.
That meeting would be in addition to a mandatory public hearing that would be scheduled when EPD officials issue a proposed new permit for CertainTeed. That has not been scheduled, said Heather Abrams, program manager of EPD's stationary source permitting program.
Abrams said the evaluation of the company's application could change depending on whether the U.S. EPA designates Athens in "non-attainment" for failing to meet federal minimum standards for a kind of pollution called "fine particle pollution," she said.
The EPA's decision is expected this week, she said, and that could mean an evaluation of how much CertainTeed's pollution contributes to the area's fine particle levels, she said.
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© 2004, Athens Banner-Herald, Ga. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.