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Concerns over US Nitrogen raised at Appalachian Public Interest Environmental Law Conference

Brandon Paykamian • Oct 30, 2017 at 9:38 AM

Activists with Indivisible Greene County have been concerned about operations at the US Nitrogen plant in Mosheim for quite some time now.

Last month, group members distributed nearly 30 yard signs to residents living in Midway as part of an ongoing effort to educate them about the possible environmental risks of the plant that’s about four miles away.

Activists say residents near the plant have been concerned about leaks, particularly large releases of nitric acid as seen on Aug. 23, 2016, and April 19 of this year.

Indivisible Greene County Secretary Lena Dean said many residents near the plant were not properly notified of the leaks, and concerned citizens are still hoping to see an audible emergency alarm system put in place.

This is part of what brought them to the Appalachian Public Interest Environmental Law Conference on Oct. 22.

“We were approached by several people from national nonprofits and pro-bono environmental attorneys offering help,” Dean said. “There is a lot of interest in the work we’re doing.”

Dean said the group of concerned citizens and environmental activists have been reaching out to raise awareness on what they see as an “irresponsible” company unwilling to communicate with the surrounding community.

At the conference, Indivisible Greene County President Erin Schultz and Dean presented testimonies of residents and talked about the danger of nitric acid leaks.

The video testimonies of concerned residents, according to Dean, were some of the most compelling parts of the presentation. But in Greene County, Dean said it’s been difficult to get county officials and US Nitrogen officials to act on their concerns.

“The families we spoke to said they didn’t know who to call when they saw the orange clouds of gas or smelled weird odors coming from the plant,” Dean said. “We are hoping by raising awareness with APIEL, we can work with other activists and nonprofits to secure support for broader outreach.”

The US Nitrogen plant experienced at least two accidental gas releases in the last eight months, Dean said, but it is hard to know exactly what’s going on at the plant due to the fact that it is “self-regulating” and “self-reporting.”

Dean said residents have been becoming increasingly concerned.

“The people are scared out of their minds, and the kids are terrified,” she said. “The residents feel as though they are not being heard.”

After reaching out to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and city officials, organizers with the group weren’t sure what else to do, so they’ve continued to reach out to other environmental activists across the state.

“We came (to the conference) asking for help because we didn’t know which direction to go from here,” Dean said. “We’ve done everything in our power to do what we can about this.”

But Dean said the demands of her group of activists are simple. They want transparency and communication.

“I would ask (US Nitrogen) why they haven’t reached out to anybody in the community to explain any emergency procedure if something else were to happen again,” she said. “I would like to see someone from US Nitrogen go around to residents to explain what they’re supposed to do in an emergency and why their alarm is only audible to the surrounding industries and not the citizens.”

Johnson City Press could not reach US Nitrogen officials for comment Friday.

“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 in September.

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

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