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Ongoing state involvement at Savannah recycling center with mulch fire

Published: Mar. 24, 2022 at 4:29 PM EDT|Updated: Mar. 25, 2022 at 9:00 AM EDT
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - A construction recycling center in Savannah with a massive mulch pile that caught fire has a history of state environmental action.

WTOC Investigates reviewed public filings with Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division. The records show complaints and state action going back at least five years with the Green Acres Recycling Center on Louisville Road.

An ongoing enforcement issue: the size of the mulch pile.

As recently as December, EPD took the case to court after determining the business had violated a 2017 consent order.

WTOC Investigates has confirmed at the time the mulch pile caught fire on March 18, state environmental officials and Green Acres attorneys were in legal negotiations to get the property into compliance with state rules.

“This is something we have tried to avoid all along,” said an environmental official with EPD’s Coastal Division in Brunswick.

Green Acres Recycling has a permit to operate as a recovered materials facility. Under EPD rules, it means the facility must recycle 75 percent of the construction material brought onto the site and cannot stockpile debris.

But records show the company has struggled for years to comply with the state environmental rules.

Under EPD’s new rules for mulching facilities, mulch piles cannot exceed 25 feet in height. As recently as June, the mulch pile at Green Acres reached as high as 60 feet, said an EPD Coastal Division official, who spoke to WTOC Investigates after reviewing the company’s case file.

The mulch pile height back then stood more than twice as high as the state’s new rules adopted in October. EPD also requires mulching facilities to provide a fire plan to the state, but there is no state requirement for the company to share the plan with its local fire department.

“There are mulching facilities in the state and EPD recognizes these things do need regulation or limitations and part of that is to develop a fire plan and get the state fire marshal involved,” said the state environmental official in the EPD’s Coastal Division Brunswick office.

The EPD rules are in place to strike a balance, the official said, by offering companies a path to recycle construction materials to reduce the number of materials going into landfills. The rules, if followed, allow recovered materials facilities to avoid the state’s strict solid waste permitting regulations. The environmental official said EPD understands the market for recycled materials is cyclical and, at times, the market may not be conducive to running a recycling business.

Since at least 2017, state records showed Green Acres hasn’t been able to meet the state rules and has paid a fine.

In 2017, the company signed a consent order with EPD and agreed to pay a $10,000 settlement to the state. The company also agreed to bring the facility into compliance with the state rules by a certain deadline. The public records available didn’t list the agreed to deadline or compliance requirements.

But the records show Green Acres Recycling continued to be a nuisance, at least for one neighbor.

In 2020, a commercial neighbor to Green Acres contacted the state to say a portion of the mulch pile had encroached by about 70 feet, according to a copy of the complaint.

State environmental officials opened an investigation and noted Green Acres had been under enforcement action involving the wood pile since 2017.

In December of last year, EPD determined the company had failed to meet the consent order deadline for compliance and requested a contempt hearing in a Chatham County Superior Court.

The company was supposed to reduce the mulch pile, but then it caught fire on March 18.

It’s continued to smolder and reignite for about a week. At times, Savannah Fire has blocked traffic on Louisville Road so firefighters could connect to a fire hydrant across the street from the center.

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