A Tennessee county commissioner is working to unite elected officials in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia to discuss concerns arising from the transportation of biosolid waste products by a company operating near Copperhill, Tennessee.
Polk County Commissioner Samantha Trantham issued a call in recent days for elected officials and residents from Polk and Bradley counties in Tennessee, Fannin County, Georgia, and Chattanooga to come to a town hall-style meeting Saturday at a local elementary school to discuss concerns surrounding the transportation of biosolid waste into Polk County for processing at Copperhill Industries LLC, a company about 2,000 or so feet outside the limits of the town of Copperhill.
"Recent issues surrounding the transportation of biosolids from Cobb County, Georgia, to Copperhill Industries have generated much concern among the residents in both states," Trantham said in a statement issued June 5. "Several reports determined that trucks carrying hazardous materials were found to be grossly overweight, without the proper permits and leaking biosolid waste on Georgia roads. Copperhill County Commissioners are looking into these latest complaints. However, they are asking their neighboring elected officials to join the conversation."
State officials said Friday they are aware of public complaints and concerns, but residents face no health danger from the operation. State officials said a representative of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation would not be able to attend Saturday's town hall, but information on biosolids had been forwarded to officials in Polk.
IF YOU GO
A town hall meeting for a discussion on biosolids is set for 1 p.m. Saturday at the Copper Basin Elementary School gymnasium on Cougar Drive off of state Highway 68 in Copperhill, Tenn.
The company answered an email sent early Friday seeking comment, saying information would be sent, but nothing was received by deadline. In a social media post Wednesday, Copperhill Industries owner Buddy Haynes said a meeting June 1 between regulatory officials and the company wasn't attended by any county commissioners.
"This was a great opportunity to discuss all the issues and/or concerns related to bio-solids at Copperhill Industries with the regulators to this site. After much discussion and a site visit, Copperhill Industries is continuing its reclamation of the site with EPA and TDEC approval," Haynes wrote in his post, adding the odor would likely be resolved after land application in which the biosolids are spread over or mixed with soil.
The meeting is likely to be the first of several as more stakeholders join the conversation, Trantham said Thursday in a series of social media messages, emails and a phone interview. State Sen. Adam Lowe, R-Cleveland, is expected to attend, she said, while Rep. Dan Howell, R-Cleveland, has offered to attend future meetings, and state Sen. Art Swann, R-Maryville, asked to be updated on Saturday's meeting conversation.
Trantham argues a resolution passed by the County Commission in September was intended to stop biosolid waste from entering Polk County until more study has been done on its effect on the community, and so Polk's citizens can weigh in on the matter through a voter referendum or public hearings. The resolution also called for the state to ban all land applications of biosolids. The resolution contends the use of biowaste is a problem affecting residents, environments and wildlife, and notes tourism is a primary source of revenue for the county, particularly during the summer.
The area's history of mining left behind a legacy of cracked earth that allows drainage to run off in "unmappable directions," the resolution states, suggesting biosolids could contain prescription drugs that haven't been studied for impact on the community.
The county resolution is being ignored, Trantham said, and the community should fight back.
"Nobody wants it," she said Thursday in a phone interview. "Healthwise -- I'm in the medical field -- and healthwise, this stuff is bad for people. It's bad for our health, it's in our air, it's ruining our community. A lot of people just don't like the smell. But if you do research, this stuff is bad."
Copperhill is a town that thrives on tourism and out-of-town visitors, and word of the smell could affect return and future visitors, Trantham said.
"We're booming," she said. "Why would we want a reputation that we smell like crap?"
Trantham said while many residents complain about the smell, she also worries about potential exposure to E coli., hepatitis, salmonella and others for communities downstream.
"If they ever have a wreck and it goes into the river -- because they're coming up the river road, they're coming up Highway 64 -- if it ever goes into the water, everybody around us is done," Trantham said of the dangers posed by a tractor-trailer rig hauling the smelly materials to Copperhill if it overturns near the river. "Bradley County, they get their drinking water from the Hiwassee River. Well, the Ocoee River flows right into the Hiwassee. The Hiwassee is going straight into the Tennessee River, Chickamauga Lake and on to the Mississippi."
Trantham is convinced the biosolids are already having a negative effect on communities downstream, pointing to taste and smell issues in Bradley and McMinn counties.
"They have no idea where it's coming from. But it's common sense; we know where it's coming from," she said.
State sees no problems
The state Department of Environment and Conservation disputes Tranthams' speculations.
The source of the drinking water taste and odor concerns is from a naturally occurring algae-compound found in the Hiwassee River, said Kim Schofinski, spokeswoman for the state agency.
"Daily water plant testing and ongoing TDEC testing do not indicate a health concern or any connection with biosolids processing or application," Schofinski said Friday in an email.
Likewise, the smell doesn't indicate a problem, Schofinski said.
"We are aware of the odor concerns and complaints from the community. The presence of biosolids odors does not mean that the biosolids pose harm to human health and the environment," Schofinski said. "While TDEC does not have the authority to regulate odor, we will continue to provide regulatory oversight at the site to ensure the work being done follows all applicable state laws and regulations under our authority."
Polk County's resolution carries no legal weight, Schofinski said.
"It is our understanding that Polk County has passed a nonbinding resolution -- not an ordinance," she said.
Records show Copperhill Industries filed an application for a composting permit to construct and operate a composting facility, according to a notice from the state dated June 16, 2022. But on Aug. 30, the company withdrew its application, documents show.
After the withdrawal, Copperhill Industries and biosolids partner Denali Water Solutions and the state engaged in a pilot project to remediate the mining site at Copperhill in operation from the 1800s to the 1980s, according to Schofinski.
The land includes sites where mining, processing, chemical manufacturing and waste disposal resulted in the erosion of tens of millions of cubic yards of soil, Schofinski said Friday in an email. While the EPA has not listed the site on the National Priorities List, the federal agency considers it a National Priorities List-caliber site and is addressing it through the "Superfund Alternative Approach."
The Superfund Alternative Approach -- which uses the same investigation and cleanup process used for sites listed on the National Priorities List -- includes the pilot project underway now at the site regarding biosolids, Schofinski said. The biosolids are a product of the wastewater treatment process. During wastewater treatment, liquids are separated from solids. Solids are then physically and chemically treated to produce a semisolid, nutrient-rich "Class A/Exceptional Quality" biosolid -- a federal designation for top-quality raw material. This product is then used as fertilizer or soil amendment for the purpose of restoring the remaining mine-scarred lands, Schofinski said.
Because of the nature of the project, the company does not have to seek a permit, she said.
"However, all the substantive requirements that a permit may contain still apply. For example, Denali is sharing all analytical data on the process with TDEC for our review," Schofinski said. "TDEC and EPA are aware of this project and have visited the site to observe the process."
Copperhill Industries was founded in 2011 with the goal of recycling byproducts in Copperhill in the areas where former mining operations existed, according to the Copperhill Industries website. The company serves customers in the aggregates, cement, fertilizer, insulation, copper manufacturing and steel-making industries.
According to the company's website, the terms "biosolids" and "sewage sludge" are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same. With further treatment, sewage sludge can yield biosolids, which are defined by federal environmental authorities as "nutrient-rich organic materials resulting from the treatment of domestic sewage in a treatment facility... that can be recycled and applied as fertilizer to improve and maintain productive soils and stimulate plant growth," the company states.
According to the state, Class A/Exceptional Quality biosolids are the highest quality and approved for use in food production. Class A Exceptional Quality biosolids meet the most stringent pollutant, pathogen and vector attraction reduction requirements.