Doing the public’s business in the open

By Avram Friedman

Receiving public input is not a discretionary part of the decision-making process for elected public officials in North Carolina. It is mandated by law that local elected officials provide the opportunity for public input before making decisions that potentially have a major impact on the lives of people in an affected community (general statute160A-364, “Procedures for adopting amending, or repealing ordinances”).

There was a collective shrug of the shoulders by Sylva Town Council members at their May 21 meeting when presented with clear documentation exhibiting how there was no meaningful notification for the April 16 public hearing on modifying the zoning ordinance to accommodate the expansion of Jackson Paper. The Town Council voted to amend the ordinance at that same meeting, immediately following the “hearing” at which no one attended or spoke. Although several of the elected officials acknowledged the reality that the circumstances resulted in poor — if any — public notification, they all fell back on the claim that the letter of the law had been met and not one would introduce a motion to re-visit the zoning ordinance modification to include a real opportunity for public input.

As a result, this week the Canary Coalition and four local residents of Sylva are filing an appeal to the Superior Court, requesting the April 16 zoning ordinance modification be repealed pending due process, including a real public hearing with adequately informative and timely public notification. The plaintiffs have retained attorney Mark Melrose of Sylva law firm Melrose, Seago and Lay to file the appeal.

We all want the jobs this proposed expansion of Jackson Paper would bring. Sixty-one more people employed in moderately high-wage jobs will have a significant positive impact on our local economy. Jackson Paper has been a fairly good steward of the environment over the years. I can hear some people asking, “Why would the Canary Coalition interfere with this positive development?”

We don’t necessarily want to interfere with it. We want the chance to learn exactly what is planned and how it’s going to impact public health and the environment. It’s as simple as that. But apparently, many of our local elected officials on both the town and county level don’t know, never asked these questions, and didn’t think it was important for the public to be able to ask or offer insight either, before making crucial decisions to accommodate the expanded industry.

The paper plant expansion was first announced in the Sylva Herald on April 9. By April 16 the Town of Sylva modified its zoning ordinance. By May 22, the County voted to supply $500,000 from its revolving loan fund, at percent interest, to Jackson Paper to help with the expansion. Some of us have noticed how uncharacteristically fast the wheels of government are suddenly turning, unfortunately at the expense of due process.If the spirit of due process had been followed, the Town Council members would have learned from public input, prior to voting their decision, that Jackson Paper’s Air Quality Permit allows the burning of coal and rubber “pellets” (shredded tires) as well as wood chips.

Right now Jackson Paper only burns wood chips, which is a relatively clean combustion process. If all systems are working properly, almost all of the visible smokestack emissions consist of steam.

Coal, however is another story. Wherever coal is burned there are emissions of nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium, barium, dioxins, hydrogen chloride, hydrogen fluoride and a long list of other toxic and hazardous air pollutants. Burning coal also results in a toxic ash pile that would, in this case, accumulate adjacent to Scott’s Creek, a major tributary to the Tuckaseegee River.

Nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide — combined emissions from burning coal — are acknowledged by industry, government agencies and the scientific community to account for more than 30,000 deaths annually on a national basis. These emissions are responsible for heightened rates of asthma, emphysema, heart disease, stroke and other pulmonary diseases.

Mercury toxicity from coal-burning emissions results in neurological damage to human beings, especially to fetuses and young children. Autism and learning disabilities have been directly linked by extensive scientific research to high levels of mercury in the blood. The Center For Disease Control warns that one in eight pregnant women in the Southeast have unsafe levels of mercury in their blood.

Burning rubber pellets has its own set of health and environmental impacts. Rubber from tires contains a cocktail of petroleum-based hydrocarbons that are potentially hazardous to human health and the environment if emitted into the air. Jackson Paper burned rubber pellets, along with wood chips, for several years ending in 2003 as part of a statewide program to reduce the accumulation of automobile tires at dump sites where they were becoming a problem for sheer volume. Jackson Paper stopped burning rubber in 2003 because its price rose in response to competing market demand. But, markets shift and if the price goes down again, one of Jackson Paper’s owners assured me they would again consider burning rubber at their Sylva plant.

Although right now Jackson Paper is only burning wood chips as fuel for their operation, the permit leaves open the possibility that some time in the future coal or rubber pellets will be burned should there be a shortage of wood chips. This is a concern since T&S Hardwood is at least temporarily ceasing operations, removing one of the major sources of wood chips available to Jackson Paper. Industries are being stressed everywhere in the current economy, so the reliability of the wood chip stream is uncertain.

Because the spirit of due process was not respected, our local government officials were deprived of all this and probably much more information from the knowledgeable members of our community prior to making the decisions to accommodate the expanding industry with zoning ordinance amendment and access to public money.

Here’s what we hope to accomplish by appealing the Town’s April 16 zoning decision, pending due process. Members of the community will have the opportunity to advise the Town Council to grant the zoning ordinance amendment to accommodate the Jackson Paper expansion with the stipulation that coal and rubber pellets are removed from the list of allowable fuels in their air quality permit. Jackson Paper can continue to burn wood chips while using natural gas as a backup. With this stipulation, we’ll have the 61 jobs AND the reassurance that the health of thousands of residents in the community will not be negatively impacted now or in the near future.

It isn’t a choice between jobs and a clean, healthy environment. It’s practical to have both. We can also have open, responsible government. It’s a shame you have to go to court sometimes to achieve it.

Avram Friedman

Executive Director, Canary Coalition

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