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Notes from Planning Commission Meeting, Oct. 4, 2001

These notes only cover the 2 major issues dealt with at this month's PC meeting: the proposal to rezone a neighborhood between Baxter and Broad Streets and the proposal to grant Enron a special use permit to build a power plant in Athens on the North Oconee:

Baxter/Broad Rezoning

Background: When the entire county was rezoned in December, certain of the tracts in this area were rezoned “Park” because the county was considering a plan to buy these tracts and convert them to parks in order to mitigate regular flooding problems there (they are adjacent to Brooklyn Creek.) At the same time, the surrounding neighborhood, which was formerly zoned RG 6, a limited multi-family zone (allowing duplexes but not apartments) was rezoned to RM 2. The thinking was that this would be an area that could be “revitalized” by this upzoning. In August, when it became clear that the conversion of the “Park” zoned properties to an actual Park was not imminent, the county decided to rezone those tracts back to something that reflected their actual use. Staff was directed to also look at the entire neighborhood, and to meet with the residents to get their input. Three neighborhood meetings were held and various options were discussed. The two options presented to the Planning Commission were:

  1. To rezone all the property West of the Creek to RS5, and all property East of the Creek to RM1. This was Staff’s recommendation, because they felt it best approximated the zoning prior to the December rezone. 2
  2. To rezone all the property West of the Creek to RS8, and all property East of the Creek to RS5. This was the option preferred by 75% of the residents who attended the neighborhood meetings, because they felt it best approximated the actual land use of the neighborhood.

Eight people spoke in favor of the second option (with one person requesting that the parcel owned by the landowner he represented, which was previously zoned RM1*, retain its RM2 zoning while the rest of the neighborhood went to RS.) Discussion by the Planning Commission focused on the fact that there is not now a zone that allows for the limited multi-family use that RG zones did. RM 1 would allow much more density than the RG zone did; but RS5 would mean that the existing duplexes were out of compliance with single family zone restrictions (such as number of unrelated people living together.) Staff pointed out that these duplexes could be grandfathered in if the Commission directed them to do that.

Vote: To accept Option 4 (basically the same as 2, above, but using previous zoning rather than the Creek as the boundary between RS8 and RS5; and to recommend that issues of infill and affordable housing need to be studied further.

Enron

Background: Enron (an energy company based in Houston, TX) applied for a Special Use Permit to build a combined cycle natural gas-fired power plant off Newton Bridge Rd. The area is zoned industrial, but there are numerous neighborhoods not far away. The plant would pipe 5 million gallons per day of wastewater from ACC Water Treatment Plant #2 to use in its power-generating process. Between 4 – 4.5 mgd would be lost as steam; the remainder would be piped back to the treatment facility.

Six people spoke against granting the permit. I raised the issues that concerned us when Commissioner Chasteen asked for comments on the proposal back in April:

  • the impact of the significant reduction of water on the flow of the Oconee system – in summer we already take almost the entire 20 – 27 mgd flow;
  • the impact on the Altamaha Shiner, an endangered fish found in the Oconee system;
  • the effect on TMDLs for the Oconee
  • emissions of pollutants such as NOx, lead, PM10, and hazardous pollutants such as formaldehyde, acetylene and benzene – would they commit to using SCONOx control technology?
  • deciding on this consumptive use of water may preclude other choices in the future and limit our growth.

Dick Field of the Greenway Commission pointed out that the Oconee River Greenway was funded in large part by a Rivercare 2000 grant. In accepting those funds, we agreed to:

  1. protect the floodplain
  2. make sure that adjacent land uses enhance the greenway
  3. make sure that BMPs are used.

Siting this plant on the North Oconee may jeopardize our use of these funds. He further asked that the Planning Commission consider whether this plant will provide a net increase in the quality of life for all ACC residents.

Scottie Atkinson wanted to know what kind of effects the release of 4 – 4.5 mgd of steam would have on our climate and atmosphere.

Paul Quick pointed out that he lives about ˝ mile from the site of the proposed plant, and that many others live nearby too. What would be the effects on them of the emissions from the plant? And how much will all this new infrastructure cost? Who would be doing the monitoring – Enron themselves?

Carl Jordan explained that noise levels were complex, and depended on humidity, frequency, and terrain. He pointed out that decibels are measured on a logarithmic scale, so 80 dB is much louder than 50 dB.

Erica Prater, a registered nurse at ARMC, pointed out that our air quality is already poor in Athens; childhood asthma cases are on the rise. And won’ t concentrating the pollutants from 5 mgd into .5 or 1 mgd raise water treatment costs?

Discussion: The Planning commissioners asked Public Utilities director Gary Duck and the two Enron representatives to answer the questions raised by citizen input.

Commissioner Lucy Rowland asked about the effects of the loss of 4 – 4.5 mgd on the Oconee system. Gary Duck said that it’s only an issue in the summer. According to EPD it won’t cause any problems; in fact, they said it would be beneficial because it means we will be returning less pollutants to the river. ACC will be putting in a new treatment plant which will treat the wastewater to a higher standard than it’s currently treated to. As for whether we pull almost the entire flow from the system in late summer, he first disputed the 20 – 27 mgd figure (which was provided by Dr. Rhett Jackson, hydrologist from the Warnell School of Forest Resources) but then admitted that it was actually pretty close – he said 17 – 24 mgd. (24 was highest ever.) We are allowed to pull ALL the water from the river that we want, because our withdrawal permits include a grandfather clause to that effect. ACC is concerned about that though, and now that Bear Creek Reservoir is almost online (early November) they are proposing to remove that grandfather clause from the permit. That would mean that we couldn’t pull any water once the river gets below a certain level.

A Planning Commissioner asked if there were any other downstream communities that pulled their drinking water from the Oconee. Mr. Duck said no, except for Greensboro, but that they pull their water from Lake Oconee, not the river.

Commissioner Karen Middendorf asked how much wastewater we currently put into the river. Mr. Duck said about 13 mgd. Commissioner Middendorf pointed out that with the loss of about 5mgd, we would only be putting 8 mgd into the river. Planning Director Brad Griffin said that this didn’t mean that we would be withdrawing more water from the River.

Commissioner Steve Landers pointed out that nevertheless what we’re discharging will be less than what we discharge now.

Lucy Rowland asked about the effect of having 4 – 4.5 mgd of steam added to the atmosphere. Gary Duck’s reply was that he had talked to the people in New York (at a similar plant that he and the Planning Staff visited last month) and “they didn’t see it like that.” He said he was pleasantly surprised that you could barely see a mist coming from the plant. (Brad Griffin had, however, earlier noted that it was 60 degrees and dry when they were there.)

Commission chair Herb Gilmore asked whether there would be added expense in treating the water sent back to the treatment plant. Gary Duck said no. It will cost about $20 million to build the reclaimed water system, the cost to build and operate it will be “largely borne” by Enron.

Acting Commissioner Buddy Broadnax asked whether there was technology to collect the steam and convert it back to water. The Enron reps said yes, but it had never been done on this scale.

Commissioner Ken Daniel asked what was the total investment; the Enron reps said about $250 million.

Commissioner Paul Dellaria asked why couldn’t they just keep recirculating the water rather than keep drawing in new water. The Enron reps said that they will be reusing the water 10 times, which is why so much evaporates. They could send back more to the plant but would then have to draw out more.

Steve Landers asked what the market was for the product. The Enron reps said that they would be tied in to the GA Power grid. They’ve put in 6 bids to supply power in GA. Once GA Power buys it, it can be sold anywhere in the country. They chose this location because it is a “load center” which is developing fast and therefore has demand.

Paul Dellaria asked about emissions and safety. The Enron reps said that the air permitting process with GA EPD is “extraordinarily rigorous.” Emissions compared to coal fired plants are significantly less. They have to fall within the NAAQS thresholds, and they have to use BACT, which for them consists of using natural gas, the best equipment, SCR, and meeting the thresholds.

Paul Dellaria asked whether SCONOx wasn’t better than SCR. Enron reps said that SCONOx is not available for this type of technology because of its size – so at this point, it’s not better. They will have a continuous emissions monitoring system installed. NOx and CO will go through EPD and EPA. Enron will provide quarterly reports to EPD or EPA with any “excursions”. They said that they don’t take it lightly.

Ken Daniels asked what are the dangers; what could go wrong? Enron reps said that there are no acutely hazardous chemicals stored here, and all chemicals stored are below reportable quantities. There might be a fire, but their insurance agents and ACC Fire Dept. have stringent control systems. The cooling tower is just water, and the water treatment process is non-hazardous.

Herb Gilmore asked about hazardous pollutant emissions. Enron reps said that

  • NOx will reduced to EPA levels;
  • lead is only a minute amount, and it’s addressed in the permit application;
  • PM10 is mostly a problem with coal-fired plants, the BACT is to use natural gas;
  • formaldehyde is addressed in the air permit; acetylene is “only” a volatile organic compound and is probably addressed in the air permit; and
  • they didn’t know about benzene.

Herb Gilmore asked about sound barriers. Enron reps said they’ve built in sound barriers, but if it turns out they’re not effective enough they will address it.

Vote: Approve with conditions. Passed 4 – 3. Voting for: Paul Dellaria, Ken Daniel, Buddy Broadnax, and Herb Gilmore (tie-breaker). Voting against: Lucy Rowland, Steve Landers, and Karen Middendorf. Chris Carlson recused himself due to conflict of interest. Commissioners Hank Joiner and Jim Norton were not present.