Wilkes Commissioners: Thumbs Down to Controversial Waste Project

Published on 9 October 2023 at 15:13



            Facing overwhelming public opposition, a proposed organic waste processing plant at a Wilkes County dairy farm was denied a zoning variance by the Wilkes County Board of Commissioners at their October meeting.

            Vanguard Renewables had proposed installing an anaerobic co-digester facility at the Smith Dairy Farm on Centerville Road near Rayle.

            The issue came before the County Planning Commission in July; the board heard a proposal from company representatives and Watkinsville attorney Jeffrey DeLoach. The Board voted to table the issue for a month for further study.

            At a subsequent meeting in August, the Planning Commission recommended denial by a 4-0 vote, but some members seemed to lean toward hearing a modified proposal at a later time. That brought public criticism from some opponents.                                               According to Wilkes resident Danny Agan, writing in a recently published op-ed column, “Some members of the Planning Commission were intrigued by the idea offering encouragement to Vanguard, telling them this is a good thing for the future and saying they would like to see Vanguard come back with a better plan so this facility could become an operational reality…that if it wasn’t approved then the repercussion would be a future of more sludge.”

            Agan was among the nearly two-dozen who attended the October 5 Board of Commissioners session. There were no representatives from Vanguard.

            Following a limited public discussion period, which was cut short, the vote was held. Without discussion, the variance was unanimously rejected.

            One commissioner, in a conversation with the Informer days earlier, had predicted there would be no support for the variance among others on the board. Another person familiar with the issue felt the intense public opposition to this proposal grew out of the belief that many parts of rural Georgia had become a dumping ground for what’s commonly referred to as “bio-sludge”. Opponents also claim the owner and operator of the Centerville Road Dairy farm, Jeff Smith, “cannot be trusted to do the right thing”.

            Smith Farms, the proposed site for the co-digester, is currently one of numerous defendants in a lawsuit filed by a group of Wilkes and Oglethorpe residents in 2020. The suit, being litigated in Madison County, claims Smith, the dairy’s owner, along with his co-defendants, “are benefitting financially by giving businesses a place to dump waste at a cheaper rate than they can at a landfill, while spreading materials that ‘contained ingredients that would shock the conscience of local neighbors, including…toilet paper, and poultry carcasses and body parts.’”

            The catalyzing event that stoked the current opposition seems to have been the 2022 Little River fish kill, caused by at least a million gallons of industrial waste draining from a “lagoon” at MarLeta farms, south of Washington into the river. That river empties into the Clarks Hill reservoir a short distance from the City of Washington water system intake. The state EPD eventually levied an $85,000 fine against the property owners.

            The Vanguard/Smith Farms plant would have been used to process organic industrial food waste transported from outside the county, as well as manure from the dairy operation. Methane would have been one byproduct, as well as solid waste materials.

            An estimated 20-25 trucks per day, six days a week, might have been needed to service the facility. Commissioners were concerned the county would suffer a financial hardship trying to repair and maintain the secondary road to Smith Farms.

            Currently, there’s no indication that Vanguard will submit an alternate proposal for the co-digester project to the Board.


Reported by Richard Crabbe




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