Concerns about the US Nitrogen facility were voiced Thursday night during a virtual public hearing hosted by the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation.
Nearly 50 people participated, including 17 TDEC staff members and activists with questions about the plant on Pottertown Road in Midway.
US Nitrogen LLC, a subsidiary of Ohio-based Austin Powder Inc., produces liquid ammonium nitrate. It uses a pumping station and two 12-mile-long pipelines to draw water from the Nolichucky River for use in its manufacturing and cooling processes, then discharges water back into the river. The pumping station and pipelines are owned by the Industrial Development Board of Greeneville and Greene County but leased to US Nitrogen.
The WebEx hearing Thursday night focused on reissuance of a US Nitrogen permit giving US Nitrogen permission to discharge treated effluent water from plant operations into the Nolichucky River. A separate five-year permit allowing US Nitrogen to draw water from the river was issued by TDEC in 2019.
TDEC staff listened to comments from the public about the permit on Thursday night.
“There were 30 members of the public in attendance and four submitted official comments during the event,” state agency spokeswoman Kim Schofinski said Friday in an email response to questions.
Park Overall, a Greene County resident and environmental activist, was encouraged by the virtual turnout for the meeting.
“A lot of people commented,” Overall said Friday in an email. “It was a great group of activists.”
Overall was one of those who submitted comments for TDEC to review.
An existing National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit for US Nitrogen expired on Oct. 31. The NPDES permit allows individual discharges into the Nolichucky River. A new permit would allow the practice to continue through 2025.
Overall maintains that in 2017, discharges from US Nitrogen caused the death of wildlife on Pond Creek, a tributary of Lick Creek, which flows into the Nolichucky River.
US Nitrogen officials have maintained that all phases of the Midway operation are safe, including water quality and emissions.
US Nitrogen plant Manager Dylan Charles said in October that the wastewater permitting process is in accordance with TDEC and federal regulations.
“US Nitrogen remains committed to the health of the public and the environment. We operate under compliance to all permits issued to US Nitrogen by the governing agencies. The notification from TDEC is for a renewal of our existing NPDES permit which US Nitrogen has compliantly operated under for the last five years,” Charles said.
He said there are no changes to the conditions of the previous NPDES permit issued to US Nitrogen by TDEC five years ago.
“This is a standard process in the renewal cycle of the NPDES permit. There has never been, nor will there ever be, any public health hazards posed by the discharge of the waters back to the Nolichucky River,” Charles said.
US Nitrogen draws and then discharges millions of gallons of water into the Nolichucky River as part of its manufacturing process.
The company reported to TDEC that it pumped about 12 million gallons of water from the river for operational use. Malfunctioning equipment caused US Nitrogen to use an estimate rather than a specific figure for October, according to a report filed with TDEC.
Overall has been a persistent critic of US Nitrogen, which began production of ammonium nitrate in 2017. The plant was approved by Greene County commissioners in 2011 and construction on the facility, located on the 500-acre site, began in 2012.
The project was the subject of a number of lawsuits by landowners and others that have since been settled.
“By law, we are not allowed to issue a permit that would cause a condition of pollution in the receiving stream. Therefore, this discharge will have no impact on the Nolichucky River or the groundwater in the area,” Vojin Janjic, of the TDEC Division of Water Resources, wrote in an email to several members of the public prior to a previous reissuance of the permit four years ago.
In comments submitted to TDEC, Overall wrote that the project was “slammed in on a small impaired river with so much agriculture all the way down the river.”
“Serious USN violations persist” in Greene County, Overall wrote. Water usage from the river “is consistently wildly unstable,” she added.
“This company was brought in under the guise of economic development. The problem with that is these men gave our river water, for free, and no one asked us,” Overall wrote. “The purpose of TDEC is to protect our drinking water source, not aid (US Nitrogen). If TDEC is now the handmaiden of industry, they should have informed the public of their new Mission Statement.”
The last notice of violation issued by TDEC regarding US Nitrogen operations was in March 2019, for a discharge from the retention pond at the site in February 2019 relating to stormwater runoff.
Overall obtained a copy of the pilot agreement between US Nitrogen and the Greeneville-Greene County Industrial Development Board. It states that the citizens of Greene County “are responsible for any and all violations that (US Nitrogen) perpetrates,” Overall wrote in alleging continued “serious” regulatory violations.
“This document was never shared with the public,” she wrote.
Overall asked TDEC to disclose how much US Nitrogen has been fined for violations since 2013, and how much the company has paid.
She maintains there is “insufficient” water sampling analysis of cow ponds and other waterways near US Nitrogen.
TDEC “has blatantly violated (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) standards,” Overall charged.
“Who is going to clean up the drinking water up and down this river? So far, TDEC has shown no interest,” she wrote.
TDEC announced this month that it will do a “bioassessment” of the Nolichuckey River in the area of the plant’s discharge and intake pieplines.
“I am looking for redress. … I do not feel our concerns have been adequately addressed over the last decade,” Overall wrote.