Johnson County group hopes to put teeth in ridge law

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR STAFF

   Three Johnson County commissioners and a handful of concerned citizens met Monday night to form a committee which hopes to rejuvenate Johnson County's ridge law -- a law some hope will deter a windfarm and energy storage facility proposed by Tennessee Valley Authority.
   According to TVA, the Tennessee General Assembly, at the request of Johnson County, passed an act in 1996 governing development on mountaintops in Johnson County. The "Mountain Ridge Protection Act of Johnson County" required the county to file with the board of county commissioners and the register of deeds a map identifying the "crests of protected mountain ridges."
   According to TVA, a map identifying the crests has not been filed with the board or the register of deeds, and "more importantly, the restrictions in the act do not apply to 'equipment used for the transmission of electricity, communications, or other public utilities.' The act, therefore, would not apply to the construction on Stone Mountain of a facility such as a windfarm designed for use as a public utility generating wind power."
   Charles Cutlip, Johnson County commissioner, said the committee formed Monday night will be presented to the county court for approval at its meeting Thursday.
   "This is not an anti-windmill, per se, committee. It's just to get something worked out with this new ridge law we've got here," he said.
   According to Cutlip, Johnson County's ridge law was never completed.
   "It was passed in the Legislature and one of the stipulations was that mountain ranges that met this criteria had to be put on record in county court, and they were never defined. The paperwork was never followed through with, actually defining what mountains restrictions would be put on."
   If approved, the committee hopes to revitalize the ridge law by setting down some specifics.
   The committee is made up of Commissioners Cutlip, Freddie Phipps and Bob Graybeal, with Barbara Hayes, Patty Young, Mary Sturdevant and Scott Mast representing the public.
   Johnson County's ridge law was modeled after one adopted in North Carolina, which does not allow structures taller than 40 feet on protected mountain ridges but allows exceptions for items that include "antennas, poles, wires and windmills."
   North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper recently took TVA to task over the agency's environmental study, which apparently misinterpreted his state's ridge law. Cooper said the law did not intend to allow anything other than simple farm windmills on mountain ridges.
   TVA is expected to decide sometime this spring whether to locate the windfarm and Regenesys energy storage facility in either Anderson County or Johnson County.
   If located at Stone Mountain in Mountain City, 14 to 16 375-foot-high wind turbines would be visible from parts of Elizabethton, North Carolina and Virginia.
   Cutlip said commissioners have not been notified as to when TVA expects to make its decision.
   "We've never been told anything officially. TVA has never addressed our court or us personally," he said.
   Concerned citizens say they have submitted questions to TVA officials about the proposed windfarm and Regenesys facility but that TVA has yet to respond to their questions.
   Some citizens opposed to the windfarm say they have received threatening phone calls or other forms of intimidation, apparently from pro-windfarm citizens.
   While residents have expressed concerns about the 2-mile-long, 800-foot-wide swath that would be cut across Stone Mountain during construction, apparently only a few made it through TVA's environmental assessment to Appendix A, which addresses the proposed Regenesys facility.
   According to TVA, the energy storage facility uses a system which stores and releases energy by means of a reversible electrochemical reaction between salt solutions or electrolytes.
   The electrolytes would be made up of sodium bromide and sodium polysulfide. Sodium bromide has the potential to release bromine gas, an extremely hazardous substance, when exposed to the atmosphere.
   The two electrolytes would be stored in double-walled tanks, with the sodium bromide tank holding 475,000 gallons and the sodium polysulfide tank holding 570,000 gallons.
   During charging and discharging operations, each electrolyte would be pumped at a rate of 5,000 gallons per minute. During normal operation, no releases of either electrolyte is projected, although according to TVA's assessment, the process itself is estimated to emit around three pounds of bromine per year.
   If pressure in either tank were enough to open the pressure-relief valve, bromine released to the air would be directed by fans to two carbon-bed absorbers designed to reduce the bromine concentration. According to TVA, the sodium polysulfide solution is less concentrated than the sodium bromide solution and does not emit vapors that would pose an inhalation risk.
   The Regenesys facility basically would be operated remotely and would require personnel only for routine maintenance, removal of solid waste, replacement of spent absorbent, and replenishment of electrolyte solution and water treatment chemicals. Those activities would be done quarterly.
   DeNeece Butler of North Carolina, who spoke out against the windmill project during a January meeting conducted by TVA, expressed concern over the potential risk of bromine gas.
   "Anytime there are human performance, mechanical performance, and toxic materials combined in any pursuit, there exists the potential for failure of one or some combination of those elements," Butler said.
   " 'Normal operation' infers the possibility of 'abnormal operation.' Risk factors are expressed in terms of percentages, and is subjective. A neighbor to the Regenesys facility might assess the risk factor at a much higher percentage than someone living cross country from it.
   "Also, there is a time factor involved; the risk changes with time and normal wear and tear of mechanical parts. There are no guarantees in life; that includes the part of life that involves the generation of electrical power with hazardous materials. It's a crap shoot ... a numbers game, with the numbers being manipulated based on the 'spin' being espoused," she said.
   "If there weren't the possibility of 'emergency,' there wouldn't have been an 'emergency plan' established ...
   "The question for individuals neighboring the proposed Regenesys plant is whether or not they might choose to be included in the 'acceptable losses' for a TVA-assessed 'insignificant' risk of an emergency, for which they have a plan. The next question is, how will such an 'insignificant risk' affect their property values?" Butler said.
   According to Elgan Usury of Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, bromine is a sister to chlorine. "It's an irritant in your lungs. It would be released probably as a vapor and it does vaporize rapidly," he said.
   Once mixed with air, it would be dispersed fairly rapidly and because it is a little heavier than air, probably would tend to settle. However, he said, approximately three pounds of bromine over the course of a year would not be a large amount.
   In the event of an accidental release, according to Usury, residents probably would be advised to go inside, close all doors and windows, and allow the vapor to dissipate.
   "If it were a serious enough event, they would try to evacuate people out of the area," he said.
   Sodium polysulfide, on the other hand, is caustic, he said. "Sulfides usually are not real good to breathe."
   According to Grady Wray, director of the Division of Air Pollution Control at the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation in Johnson City, no applications for permits have been received by his office regarding the Regenesys facility. Likewise, the Division of Air Pollution Control in Nashville also has not received any applications. The division regulates 188 hazardous air pollutants.
   A spokesman at the Nashville office said applications for construction permits must be submitted at least 90 days before construction begins. Once completed, the company then must apply for an operating permit.