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Macon rallies to defense of river and wins

Macon County has won a partial victory in the fight over the permitting of an industrial wastewater treatment plant in Rabun County, just across the state line in North Georgia.

Earlier this month, Georgia environmental protection officials issued a discharge permit for effluent that will flow into the Little Tennessee River — but on the condition that it must treat its sewage by ultraviolet technology rather than via chlorination.

Concerned residents in Macon County had demanded that discharge be treated by the more environmentally-friendly UV technology to protect the biodiversity of the river, which flows north from Rabun County into Macon.

“Chlorine in its concentrated form is extremely toxic,” said Bill McLarney, project coordinator and aquatic biologist for the Little Tennessee Watershed Association. “If I wanted to kill everything in a stretch of river, one of my poisons of choice would be chlorine.”

Chlorine may kill pathogens, but it also preys on insects and microorganisms that live in the streambed and are “utterly critical” to the river. According to McLarney, the UV treatment works just as well as chlorination, without all of the associated risks.

“The only thing that’s kept UV from being the standard disinfectant is inertia. You have an established way of doing things,” said McLarney.

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Sam Greenwood, Franklin’s town manager, was pleased with the concession on UV light treatment.

“The thing that still concerns us is that the permit was granted without a user. It was sort of a blanket approval,” Greenwood said.

Rabun County’s plan calls for converting a former industrial wastewater treatment plant at the closed-down Fruit of the Loom textile mill into a sewage treatment plant.

The permit would also be useful to any new industry that sets up shop at the former factory site, since the old discharge permit used by Fruit of the Loom was no longer valid. But no one knows exactly what industry might eventually materialize at the site and therefore what kind of pollution would be discharged.

Franklin Alderman Bob Scott hopes the move toward UV over chlorine is a trend and was pleased the Georgia environmental agency listened to the public, even if not all their concerns were addressed.

“It could have been worse. They could have just not paid any attention to us at all,” Scott said.

Rabun County Manager Jim Bleckley said the UV method will add costs to the project.

“Everybody else thought it was better,” Bleckley said. “Even though it was more expensive, it was environmentally friendly.”

The county has only one taker on the industrial park space so far: a wood-fueled biomass plant that generates electricity. The company, Multitrade Rabun Gap, will burn local forest byproducts to create power, which will be sold over the grid. The company will go into operation in November and will employ about 40 people.

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