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Proposed nitrogen plant brings division, discussion to Greene Co.

Tony Casey • May 4, 2014 at 8:34 PM

Supporters and opponents of the proposed U.S. Nitrogen LLC plant in Greene County both accuse their antagonists as wearing blinders when it comes to what matters.

Those behind U.S. Nitrogen, which produces ammonium nitrate used in explosives, say Greene County is in no position to be turning away a creator of 80 well-paying jobs. Those against the plan say no amount of jobs is more important than their health and safety, which could be in jeopardy with the new plant that has already had a ground-breaking ceremony in 2012.

One of the most debated issues involved with the plant is its need to extract and return water to the Nolichucky River about nine miles from the plant site for necessary cooling processes.

Recent estimates have shown the extraction amount to be nearly 1.5 million gallons per day with an estimated return of over 570,000 gallons going back into the river.

Greene County Mayor Alan Broyles is confident that because so many official entities will have oversight over the plant through the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, everything will be done safely. Some say the product put back into the water supply will be much more polluted than the water taken in, having the potential to harm every recipient of the water, from animals to humans.

“What we’ve been told is there’s not going to be any danger at all,” Broyles said.

What’s important to Broyles and others supporting the plant is the new jobs for area.

“Greene County needs jobs, but on other hand, Greene County doesn’t need jobs if it dangers our citizens,” he said.

Showing concern for the issues raised by local environmentalists, Broyles goes as far as saying they need to find common ground and that he’s comfortable with U.S. Nitrogen’s promise that it will be a safe company for those in the county.

The disagreement between the two sides can be solved with education, he said, and an April 17 meeting put on by TDEC about water quality achieved getting concerns on record and having the questions met with some answers.

Answers are there and concerns can be laid to rest, Broyles said, but the tunnel vision and personalities of some in opposition will be hard to crack. He said once a few of them get something in their minds, it will be hard to change their mind or find that common ground. As harsh as a charge as that might be, U.S. Nitrogen’s opposition feels just the same way about what they say is the county’s willingness to throw away water safety for 80 jobs.

Elizabeth Malone, a mother of a 2-year-old girl from Greene County, lives a few miles from where U.S. Nitrogen is to set up its plant at 471 Pottertown Road in Midway. Malone said she depends on safe well water to nourish her family and farm. Her small farmhouse operates with beef cattle and says she’s seen drought-like conditions before that have cut the water availability to concerning levels.

With U.S. Nitrogen’s need to pump almost 1.5 million gallons of water per day, Malone said things just won’t work out.

Malone said this fact coupled with pollution concerns means this clearly isn’t a good fit for the Greene County area.

“I don’t really think this is an area where U.S. Nitrogen belongs right now,” Malone said.

She said her research into the health concerns brought on by similar situations have been scary. Ammonium nitrate, she said, may cause headaches, dizziness, abdominal pain, vomiting, bloody diarrhea, weakness, coughing, sore throat, shortness of breath or even suffocation.

“Some studies have shown a link between birth defects (particularly neural tube defect) and nitrate-contaminated well water,” Malone told the Johnson City Press in a letter.

Park Overall, an environmental activist fighting against the plant, applauded Malone for standing up in front of everyone at the meeting and giving her passionate tale of why U.S. Nitrogen would be so bad for the area.

“Young mothers are not going to put up with it,” Overall said.

A petition recently went around to halt the efforts of U.S. Nitrogen and quickly hit 1,500 signatures, Overall said, when she thought 500 would have been a large number. This response is a clear reason to hit the brakes, she said. Couple that with the response the company has been getting at the meetings and there’s no reason to proceed, she said.

“They got an earful,” Overall said about the meeting, adding that the only people pushing back against her efforts were employees of U.S. Nitrogen or people with money in the decision, but she obviously can’t prove such a claim.

Save the Nolichucky, a Facebook page put together by April Bryant, has reached nearly 900 likes and is acting as a hub for those fighting against the plant. Bryant, who is on the Cocke County side of the line, says her mother’s well sits about 300 yards from the proposed position of the plant’s drain pipe. She contends a similar company might be a good fit for Greene County, but certainly not U.S. Nitrogen, which she says has such a poor reputation.

Because she’s out of the county, she says Cocke County won’t benefit from any of the proposed 80 jobs, but will be hit with the wastewater. All she asks as they move forward is for people to do research on the company, to familiarize themselves with the potential consequences, to ask questions and make up their own minds.

Most recently, TDEC has given a 30-day extension to those who want to comment on the situation for them to grant permits for U.S. Nitrogen’s water usage.

Hollie Brinkley, from U.S. Nitrogen, said the company can’t move forward until they get the permits, so it’s out of their hands. Recent meetings have been helpful in putting concerns and questions on record, Brinkley said.

Follow Tony Casey on Twitter @TonyCaseyJCP. Like him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tonycaseyjournalist.

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