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Indivisible Greene County rallies community members concerned about pollution

Brandon Paykamian • Sep 24, 2017 at 5:33 PM

Concern about possible environmental risks caused by a nitrogen plant has led a Greene County group to encourage citizens to express their concerns to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

On Sept. 18, members of Indivisible Greene County distributed nearly 30 yard signs to residents living in Midway as part of an ongoing effort to educate residents about the possible environmental risks of the US Nitrogen plant in Mosheim, about four miles away.

Residents were urged to contact TDEC about any concerns they might have with the plant.

“Orange smoke or odd odors?” the signs read. “Report all concerns to Mark (Braswell) at TDEC 423-854-5400. Keep a log of your calls and call 911.”

Since then, TDEC officials said they’ve received two complaints from residents in Midway. 

In response to the recent campaign, US nitrogen released a statement to Johnson City Press.

“US Nitrogen supports the rights of local citizens in contacting any appropriate authority regarding their concerns. We would like our neighbors to have confidence that we work very closely with TDEC to ensure our facility operates within the state's regulations and permit requirements,” Robbie Helton, a company spokesman, said.

According to Trudy Wallack, chair of IGC’s Environmental Issues Committee, concern among residents about the plant’s operations have been growing in recent months. Wallack said she hopes to see the recent information campaign lead to tougher regulations and independently gathered data.

“US Nitrogen is self-regulating. It’s a real problem when the regulators rely on the regulated to do the regulating themselves,” she said.

Wallack said residents have been concerned about leaks, particularly large releases of nitric acid that occurred on Aug. 23, 2016, and April 19 of this year.

Among environmental concerns, she said residents want to see an efficient emergency response and notification system put in place. According to Wallack, the leak that happened in April caused panic among many nearby residents, many of whom were not properly notified about the incident.

At the very least, Wallack said she would like to see a system of loud sirens or alarms put in place to notify nearby residents of another dangerous leak.

“When that release (in April) happened, some emergency responders did go door to door to advise them of the nitric acid release, but many neighbors said they weren’t notified at all,” Wallack said. “If they had a major release today, some folks wouldn’t know it.

“In our community outreach program, it was apparent that (even) if every sheriff deputy would have shown up, it seems highly unlikely that adequate door to door (notification) was or is feasible due to the landscape of scattered homes throughout.”

Helton said in an email that this lack of communication is soon to change.

“Greene County local emergency services is in the process of rolling out a countywide notification system. US Nitrogen is supporting these efforts and is looking forward to the benefit it will provide to all Greene County citizens,” he wrote.

In the meantime, fears over the plant’s operations have stemmed from uncertainty. Wallack recalled a recent incident when neighbors heard a loud boom coming from the plant. Though they weren’t sure what it was, some left the area with towels on their faces, according to Wallack.

“Due to poor public relations with their neighbors, their only experience has been the leak in April,” Wallack said.

Because of concerns about recent nitric acid releases and the lack of communication regarding the operations of the plant, Wallack said her group of environmental activists have not experienced any opposition to the placement of the signs by residents.

“Not one person said they didn’t want a sign in their yard,” Wallack said. “There is no trust of the company in this area.”

Wallack said this is due to a string of environmental violations since activists first began battling against US Nitrogen, which built the $225 million ammonia nitrate plant and pipeline along the Nolichucky River more than two years ago. The project faced fierce resistance among concerned community members and environmental organizers who cited possible damage to the river’s ecosystem.

Other community members were opposed to the location of the pipelines themselves, causing the company to face a series of lawsuits, including one in which several Greene County residents challenged the placement of the pipelines through multiple properties. After the lawsuit was dismissed, the Tennessee Court of Appeals overturned the decision in July.

Email Brandon Paykamian at bpaykamian@johnsoncitypress.com. Follow Brandon Paykamian on Twitter at @PaykamianJCP. Like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/PaykamianJCP.  

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