Issues flare up at Jackson Green Energy Park
By Jennifer Garlesky • Staff Writer
Jackson County officials say its high-profile tenant at the Green Energy Park is in violation of its lease, and now the county is requiring the biodiesel producer to comply or move elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Al Begley, co-owner of Smoky Mountain Biofuels, says the park is operating at unsafe conditions, but park Manager Timm Muth is denying his claims and says it’s running smoothly.
Muth is refuting all accusations that Begley is firing out about the nationally recognized park, and it appears that at least part of the problem may lie in disagreements between the two men.
“There’s been some bad blood between Smoky Mountain Biofuels and the person we hired to run the green energy park,” County Commissioner Tom Massie said.
A piping problem
The pipe that pumps methane from the Dillsboro landfill to blacksmithing forges and a boiler that produces biodiesel is a potential safety hazard and needs to be corrected, Begley says.
However, the county claims the pipe meets state code.
“We are in compliance,” County Manager Ken Westmoreland said.
“It’s rated for gas service,” he said. “This is the standard pipe used in landfills.”
The pipe — DriscoPlex 4100 — is made by Performance Pipe and carries the methane from the landfill. According to Begley, the pipe is the wrong type.
“I think any layman can look at this pipe and know it’s not right,” he said.
Methane is pumped from the landfill into a pipe that’s buried underneath the ground and runs below a road frequently used by residents to drop off their trash at a county staffed recycling center. The pipe comes to the surface and runs along the biodiesel and blacksmithing building. The methane is then used to operate blacksmithing forges and a boiler to make biodiesel.
The idea to use landfill gas to operate machinery has put the green energy park on the map. Since opening in October 2006, the park has received national attention for its efforts — including its tenant Smoky Mountain Biofuels — by the North Carolina State Energy Office, the Environmental Protection Agency, and various state agencies.
According to Begley, the pipe should be buried underground. He says the pipe carrying the methane is typically used for water and sewer lines. Begley is backing his claims through emails with Performance Pipe Technical Service Specialists Larry Petroff.
Begley started questioning the pipe’s installation after a letter to the editor appeared in the Smoky Mountain News criticizing the park for the amount of toxic pollution it produces and contacted the manufacturing company. After corresponding with Petroff through several emails, Begley believes the pipe is unsafe.
“Performance Pipe does not recommend the use of polyethylene pipe for above grade gas service,” Petroff wrote in an email. He later writes, “Polyethylene gas pipelines should be buried. Transition risers are available that allow one to connect a buried polyethylene pipe with an above-grade steel line.”
Petroff also wrote, “You might also note that DriscoPlex 4100 is manufactured for use as water and sewer pipe and not for gas service. Normally landfill gas gathering pipe is DriscoPlex 6400.”
“We’ve been sitting on a time bomb and we’ve never been told about it,” Begley said.
Once hearing this news, Begley stopped operating his business at the park and began working out of his home.
“After I found out what I did, I immediately laid everyone off and vacated the site,” he said.
It’s been about a month now since Begley closed down his business at the energy park.
Begley emailed his concerns to Muth and the board of commissioners. He says he has not received an answer from the county regarding his concerns.
“There has been no correspondence and no answers to my questions,” he said.
However, the county says they have taken his concerns seriously.
“Any concern anyone has about safety I take very seriously,” Muth said. “I will investigate and if something needs to be changed I will make those changes.”
Massie says if the park is in violation of any codes the county will fix it immediately.
“If it is found that it’s not correct, then we’ll fix those things,” he said.
Muth added if there are any problems with the piping system the county would have already been notified. Each month McGee Environmental of Asheville inspects the pipe. During the inspections, the firm checks for leaks, Muth said.
The company also installed the pipe and officials say this specific type of pipe used to carry the methane is used extensively at landfills.
“This is a type of pipe we use at all landfills,” said Eric McGee, owner of McGee Environmental. “The pipe is well within its operating ranges.”
“I installed the pipe where the client wanted it,” he said.
Muth says the county did not take any shortcuts when installing the piping.
“We are very conscientious,” he said. “We made sure that the materials we use are top-notch.”
However, Begley argues that the pipe may meet inspection guidelines but it does not meet federal law regarding the distribution of the gas.
“Once the gas leaves the flare, it’s considered to be distribution and meets other classifications,” Begley said. “I’ve been trying to explain that to them but they have yet to understand.”
Again Begley is backing his statements up through comments Petroff made in an email. Petroff claims the way the pipe is installed is in violation of federal law.
Petroff wrote, “Gas distribution piping in the U.S. is regulated by the Federal Code 49 CFR 192. The Federal Code applies to all jurisdictional applications. The code states, ‘plastic pipe must be installed below the ground level.’”
Muth contests Begley’s claims and says the pipe does not have to be buried because it’s made of a material that can withstand the sun’s ultraviolent rays. According to Muth, the pipe would have to be buried if it was not this specific model of piping.
Following the rules
The Green Energy Park has been subjected to numerous inspections since opening 14 months ago. When the park was built the county building inspections department and fire marshal inspected the facility. The park is also inspected quarterly by Altimont Environmental, who checks its gas wells. The North Carolina Department of Natural Resources in Asheville also inspects the county landfill on a regular basis.
The lease agreement
In July, Smoky Mountain Biofuels signed a new lease with the county. In the new lease the company was required to make several modifications to its business. Since signing the lease, the company has failed to make these modifications, so the county is forcing its tenant to comply.
“They need to make those corrections to honor that contract,” Massie said.
Begley says his business has needed some time to recoup because there was a lapse in time in drafting a new lease. He says negotiations for a new lease started in April but it was not until July when an agreement was reached. Begley says during that time his business suffered substantial losses. Begley was planning to expand the business to produce three million gallons a year and was in the process of ordering new equipment, but because it took so long for an agreement to be reached, Begley says he had to cancel the orders. He says he lost about $6,000 in deposits.
He claims this is why it’s been over eight months since he has produced any biodiesel at the park. Begley says he’s had to revamp his business plans because of the delay, and he’s now making all of his money by selling ethanol.
“We’ve been able to make it in the black,” he said.
Begley has put his business plans on hold because of the park’s safety concerns.
“I am in a state of limbo,” he said.
Until Begley hears from the county, he says that his business plans continue to be up in the air. He has an agreement with Mountain Energy to sell biodiesel at its 21 stations located in five counties.
Begley says this situation has him considering alternatives. “We’ve been looking for a new location,” Begley said. “But that’s not really in the original business plan.”
Begley says he can make all of the changes that the county is requesting, but since he has not received any formal notice about its plans to correct the piping problem he has yet to fix his problems.
“We are at an impasse, and were waiting for them to comply,” Begley said.
However, county officials have a different story when it comes to the park’s future. Muth says the greenhouses will be operational within the next few weeks. Also, construction of the park’s pottery studio building is slated to begin this summer.
If Begley does leave the Green Energy Park, the county will not be losing that much money. Smoky Mountain Biofuels pays $875 a month to rent space at the park. The county has receives a little more than $10,000 a year from the company, which is a small part of the park’s $210,000 operating budget.