By Barbara Augsdorfer, Editor for the Effingham Herald
About 25 people attended the “Townhall #2” Jan. 30 at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Rincon. The townhall was organized by Nikki Carangelo of Rincon to discuss solutions to the odors allegedly coming from the DRT facility in Springfield.
Some possible actions, such as filing lawsuits and levying nuisance fines, were discussed with pros and cons tossed back and forth. But ultimately, the one thing the attendees could agree upon was, “It stinks,” and “Something must be done.”
Attendees were most concerned with odors that ranged from sulfur- and ammonia-like to a new “coffee/tar” smell along with other unpleasant odors. There was also some discussion of “forever chemicals” and “long-term effects” such as cancer.
Residents indicated they had been monitoring the smells that seem strongest at night and early morning; and waft down Ebenezer Road toward Ebenezer Middle and Ebenezer Elementary schools – where around 1,750 students attend school, in addition to staff.
County officials in attendance were Springfield Mayor Bart Alderman, Springfield City Manager Matt Morris, County Commissioner Phil Keiffer; and representatives from two environmental groups – Jenifer Hilburn, north coast advocate for 100 Miles; and Tonya Bonitatibus, executive director for Savannah Riverkeepers.
Members of the panel spoke first, then took questions from the audience.
Morris gave a brief history of how DRT and Springfield are connected and why Springfield is involved.
Springfield annexed the industrial park that includes DRT last August.
“That's five months ago. DRT has been here for roughly eight years,” Morris began. “Why are we just now having a discussion that we're having and pursuing what could be legal action? I can't answer that for anybody in the room tonight.
“I can answer for while we are here, which is there was a noticeable uptick in complaints about DRT post the Brunswick plant ceasing to operate,” Morris said.
According to its website, Pinova, another subsidiary of DRT, closed its Brunswick plant last June after a fire destroyed much of the facility in April 2023. The company reports the site is being decommissioned “according to its values” and the decommissioning should be complete by the end of 2024.
The Herald reached out to DRT for clarification. A spokesperson for DRT asserted that the closure of the Brunswick plant had no impact on the Springfield location.
“The DRT Springfield plant processes crude sulfate turpentine (CST), a renewable byproduct of the paper industry derived from traditional wood harvesting. The now-closed Brunswick plant operated a completely different process and its closing did not impact operations at DRT Springfield,” DRT said in a statement.
Regarding DRT in Springfield, something is being done, according to Morris, even if residents can’t readily see any action or results right now.
“We took notice. We have a nuisance ordinance in Springfield. We felt that was the first friendliest way to enact a result out of DRT. Our attorney sent their attorney a letter which stated that they're a nuisance to the industrial park,” Morris continued. “Now, they're also a nuisance to their neighbors. And that falls into the covenants; and I can't speak for the IDA and I don't think we're the only ones in the room that have some teeth that we could express.”
Morris added that the city of Springfield placed an air monitoring control station at the wastewater treatment plant Jan. 30.
“We have nothing to hide and we’re right next door (to DRT),” Morris said. “We want to be able to capsulate as much of that as we can as soon as it leaves the site. We are the closest neighbor that they (DRT) have.”
DRT is taking action in accordance with the letter the City of Springfield sent, namely that DRT is “attempting to enclose their wastewater treatment,” Morris said. “And it’s my understanding that the wastewater leaves that plant via truck,” to be treated in South Carolina or Florida.
Morris added that Springfield is in weekly communication with DRT via both parties’ attorneys.
“I know we’re all looking for a smoking gun, unfortunately, it’s very difficult to find one whe the only thing you have to look at is your nose,” Morris said. “We are in partnership with the EPD. We are in partnership with the EPA to try our best to find a solution.”
Concerns over chemical makeup of wastewater
The chemical makeup of the wastewater at DRT is concerning to Springfield Mayor Bart Alderman.
“The IDA guaranteed that the city of Springfield will handle the wastewater from DRT,” Alderman said. “One of our councilmembers (Justin Cribbs) who is now a current board member (of the Industrial Development Authority) is also a chemist,” Alderman began. “He looked at the list of materials that would be in their wastewater. He said, ‘This has some heavy metals – barium, chromium, and toluene. This is something we don’t want’.”
According to the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (www.osha.gov), toluene is a clear, colorless liquid that vaporizes at room temperature. It is often found in many industries and products such as paints, nail polish, gasoline, glues, and printing inks. However, without proper ventilation, long-term exposure effects include numbness in feet and hands, tiredness, slow reactions, among others. It can also cause liver and kidney damage if ingested.
Alderman added that the agreement between the IDA and DRT was finalized before he became mayor; and before Morris was hired as the city manager.
“They started their plans for the plant and our city manager (before Matt) sent a message to the director of the IDA and said, ‘I think this is premature.’ Our attorney said the same thing,” Alderman recalled.
Mayor Alderman went on to explain that Springfield didn’t want to handle DRT’s wastewater because if there was a leak, the general consensus would be that the pollutants would be coming from Springfield and not DRT.
“We didn’t want any part of that because we’ve got a big interest in Ebenezer Creek,” Alderman continued. “I’ve been on City Council or mayor since 2001 and we’ve been working to keep the creek clean.”
Alderman pointed out that according to the IDA covenants, “They can’t put out toxic, noxious, offensive odors. They’re in violation right there.”
The source of the odors has not been definitively proven at this point, but if the source is DRT, the IDA has some authority to enact a solution.
Alderman summarized the covenants saying the IDA can correct the problem, bill the company for it, and if they don’t pay, the IDA can place a lien on the property.
No one from the IDA was present at the meeting to answer Alderman’s comments. The Herald contacted the IDA for a statement on Feb. 2, but has not heard back.
Fifth District County Commissioner Phil Keiffer, after saying he and the new county engineer, Jonathan Hulme, toured DRTs wastewater treatment said he was “99% sure that’s the culprit of the odor. It’s horrible.” But then he added, “They’re saying it’s a closed system. It’s not allowing enough out to produce the odors we’ve been smelling.
“I’m really anxious in the next six to eight weeks to see what they’re (DRT) is going to do,” Keiffer said.
In response to the odor issue, DRT submitted a response via email: “We take this matter very seriously and are committed to being good neighbors. After all, our employees live and work in the area as well and we are part of the community. That’s why we are taking a meticulous approach to the odor issue. We have engaged a nationally known engineering firm to sample and analyze odors in and around the facility and brought in a dedicated team of local, national, and international DRT employees and contract experts to address our neighbors’ concerns,” the statement began. “The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) consistently monitor our operations and have not identified any health concerns.”
The EPA is in Effingham County
Jenifer Hilburn, North Coast Advocate from 100 Miles, summarized for the audience how the Department of Public Health survey got the Georgia EPD involved; then when residents made multiple calls to the National Response Center, that got the Environmental Protection Agency’s attention.
Last week the EPA set up a mobile command center on Ebenezer Road.
“(The EPA) is doing a much broader testing program. They’re looking for a whole slew of air constituents as well as testing water and soil,” Hilburn said.
Hilburn added the EPA is following the several Facebook pages where people are complaining and are triangulating that information. The EPA has installed several air quality monitors in the area.
“Your public comments on Facebook and other social media are really helping,” Hilburn added.
Tonya Bonitatibus, executive director for Savannah Riverkeeper, encouraged members of the audience to submit soil samples to the UGA Extension Office to at least get a snapshot of what might or might not be in the soil of their yards.
“You might find out you can grow great tomatoes; you might find out you have lead. But this is an easy sample that you can take out of your yard, send it in and get some answers,” Bonitatibus said. “I think that might be an easy way for each one of us to get a little bit of knowledge because right now it's terrifying.”
Bonitatibus then asked the audience to consider what they want moving forward once the odor issue is solved and how they can approach county officials.
“The bigger question is, ‘What do you want out of your community? What do you want to bring in? What kind of industry? What kind of things do you want?’,” Bonitatibus asked.
“If there's still an energy in the room to have that conversation, that's the time to do it. But you need to be able to say that before they sign the papers,” Bonitatibus concluded. “They can sign all kinds of bonds, and they can make all kinds of decisions that hold our local community accountable; but then then they're not at a table. I think there's an opportunity moving forward to kind of figure out if not this, then what?”
Another townhall meeting will be held at Jerusalem Lutheran Church, but a date has not been finalized.