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Asphalt plant causes concern for Unicoi residents

Trucks remain at the former Construction Asphalt Paving Services (CAPS) plant, which is now owned by Summers-Taylor, in Unicoi. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

Citizens of the Town of Unicoi remain concerned about a proposed asphalt plant being built in the town, despite a brief discussion during the Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting held on June 15.

Recently, Summers-Taylor purchased the land that was home to the Construction Asphalt Paving Services (CAPS) plant. Summers-Taylor President Grant Summers was on hand at that BMA meeting to discuss the future of the plant.

“There has been some confusion and misconceptions out there, but we will only operate as one plant. We will be tearing down the CAPS plant and rebuilding on the same spot with updated equipment,” Summers said during the June 15 meeting. “The plant that we are intending to build is newer and with better emissions and can produce more than the previous plant.”

According to concerned citizen Dr. Charlene Thomas, many of her neighbors are still worried about the proposed plant.

“There are many people concerned about the situation with the hot-mix asphalt plant,” Thomas told The Erwin Record. “The Tennessee Division of Air Pollution Control (TDAC) has received at least 17 letters, and we are sure many others have the same concerns but have not written letters because they did not know they could do so. We have asked for an open, in-person public hearing to get clarity on several issues. We have many questions that have not been answered to our satisfaction.”

Thomas acknowledged that citizens hope to discuss several items of concern.

“Summers-Taylor Materials Company has purchased the existing asphalt plant (CAPS), and they have applied for two air pollution permits to TDAC to make changes to the existing Unicoi site,” Thomas said. “The first required public notice for a new permit appeared in the Kingsport Times News, so no one in our local area saw the notice, thus we were unable to comment. That permit has been approved by TDAC. I wonder if the permit is even valid given the lack of a true public notice. The public notice said that ‘regulated air contaminants would be emitted by this source.’ The second separate new permit request did provide a Public Notice in The Erwin Record, so that some individuals saw this notice. This notice said that ‘regulated air contaminants emitted by this source would increase.”

Thomas explained, when asked about these notices, that representatives from Summers-Taylor advised that TDAC was responsible for the notices.

“Grant Summers from Summers-Taylor informed the BMA that TDAC was responsible for posting these notices,” Thomas said. “But he said that this information was confusing because they would not be increasing air contaminants as stated in the public notice. He implied that his company was doing something different than stated in the second public notice.”

Thomas expressed concern about the possibility of Summers-Taylor having permits for three separate plants.

“They have active permits for three separate plants, including the current CAPS plant in Unicoi,” Thomas said. “Mr. Summers said they have already brought in one of the additional plants (from Blountville) but would be removing it later.”

Air emissions are also a concern that has been voiced to Thomas from other citizens of Unicoi. “We are obviously concerned about an increase of hazardous gaseous emissions,” Thomas said. “Due to the physical location of this plant on a mountainside and many nearby homes spread across the adjacent valley on a hillside, our valley is narrow, and we often experience air temperature inversion, so pollution will concentrate and linger here. And from what we can determine, Summers-Taylor will be responsible for self-reporting its emissions.

“Grant Summers told us that the newly acquired double drum mixer plant would be more efficient than the existing CAPS batch plant, but we have learned that the ‘new’ plant and the portable plant are actually 30 years old, so we would like to know the efficiency of that equipment and whether it will be monitored accurately. The Town of Unicoi is small, with no actual building department and no one on staff with the necessary technical knowledge, so we must rely on Summers-Taylor and the state to monitor emissions and keep us safe.”

According to Thomas, increased air pollution is not the only issue.

“Summers-Taylor will be doubling the capacity of production with the new plants, thus increasing the noise, dust, and the heavy truck traffic in the area,” Thomas said. “This is a residential area. The Unicoi County Assessor of Property has calculated that within one mile of the plant there are 550 homes and within two miles, 630 homes. We expect that the dump trucks will be using secondary roads that pass many homes and, according to Grant Summers, they will be working at night, which would dictate lights as well as noise. Local citizens are concerned about their quality of life, their health, and loss of property values.”

Thomas references an ordinance that may be cause for prevention of a future asphalt plant. “An ordinance was passed by the Town of Unicoi on Aug. 21, 1995, prohibiting asphalt plants,” Thomas said. “It appears that the original asphalt plant was grandfathered in on its two-acre site, but we want to know how the plant can increase in production and size without expanding onto adjoining property for which such operations are not permitted. State law also does not permit nonconforming businesses to expand outside their permitted boundaries or to create a nuisance. Neighbors who border this property have had long-running issues with the plant, so we want to know exactly how they are going to address those who are near them without causing them harm or being a nuisance to them.”

According to Thomas, Summers-Taylor owns additional property around the plant site.

“This property is zoned agricultural,” Thomas said. “We are concerned about their future plans. We would like to see a detailed site plan and to know what they are considering for the future and how compliance will be monitored moving forward.”

Thomas explained that she and other concerned citizens would like to have a meeting in the near future.

“There are many questions left unanswered from Summers-Taylor,” Thomas said. “We are asking questions like: Is a new notice required? What exactly is Summers-Taylor doing on this property? What equipment are they bringing in, what is there now, what will be there later, and will it all fit on the two-acre site for which the asphalt plants are grandfathered in? Will we suffer from increased air pollution and noise? Will they use modern technology to monitor and report their emissions? What is the benefit to our town? Does the town receive Tennessee sales tax benefit, or do they get an exemption for the work they do for the state? Is Summers-Taylor going to provide a detailed site plan? How will they follow the town’s zoning requirements? The discussion at the BMA was a good first step, and the board did send a letter to TDAC requesting a public hearing. But the meeting actually resulted in more questions that need to be addressed to both Summers-Taylor and TDAC. Since it was a Zoom meeting, few people in the town knew about it and few participated.”

Summers recently spoke to The Erwin Record and hopes to clear up any misunderstanding or concerns from the citizens of Unicoi County.

“I’m a resident in this region and I understand the concern and hope to provide any answers we can,” Summers told The Erwin Record. “Hearing feedback, it was pretty clear to us that there were serious misconceptions, which was the basis for a lot of the concerns. We have hopefully cleared some of that up.

“Our plan is to go in and replace an older plant that is not efficient and has fallen away from updated emissions control. The previous plant is much behind the newer technology we are looking to put in there. We are permitted there and we can keep operating the old plant. We can keep providing repairs, but I don’t think that is something anyone wants. We went out and found a plant that has better technology for items such as emissions. Either way, we purchased CAPS and we are going to run whatever tons it makes sense to run out of that facility. We want to see everyone come together on this.”

According to Summers, a future meeting will be up to TDAC.

“We hope to have a meeting with the citizens but that is up to TDAC at this point,” Summers said. “We applied to the state, the state advertises it; we are just going through the process at this time. It’s my opinion that if everyone sees the data that I see, everyone should feel better about it. We are just trying to take a plant that has been there and make it a better neighbor.”

Town of Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch acknowledges that the future of the plant and the concerns of the citizens are now out of the town’s hands.

“Any future meetings would have to come from TDAC, is my understanding, so whatever gets decided, the town officials will have no say,” Lynch said.

As of The Erwin Record’s deadline, no meeting has been scheduled.