State EPD walks out on Biemiller’s Senate testimony

Tue, 11/20/2007 - 5:14pm
By: Letters to the ...

As Margaret Mead once said, “Never underestimate the power of a few committed people to change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

After fighting an uphill battle at the beginning of the week to make sure that the citizens’ voice was heard, I can say we finally made it to the Georgia Capitol and our voice was heard. I am including my written speech below and would welcome any comments or questions regarding our petition to the state.

The most welcome sign is that the Senate Oversight Committee really got what has happened to our community. Each member thoroughly questioned the Environmental Protection Division and clearly found that they did not do their job to protect our community.

In fact, I was up to speak right after the testimony of the EPD. When I sat down — I said, “Now I am going to tell you the real story” — the EPD got up and walked out.

After I concluded my testimony, the Senate Committee moved to make it public record that the EPD walked out before the citizens spoke. Their overt behavior totally exemplifies what the citizens have had to deal with through this whole tragic event — a government agency that does not care.

I hope that there will be firm action taken in this matter and that the Senate Committee will see to it that appropriate measures are taken within the EPD. Due to the solid evidence of failure both within the EPD and the State Division of Health, as well as, lack of environmental legislation, these hearings will be continued beginning in January 2008.

[Editor’s note: Constance Biemiller’s testimony before the Senate panel is reproduced in its entirety below.]

South Fulton and Fayette Community Task Force Testimony Regarding Toxic Release in the Summer of 2006

Chairman Chance and Committee Members — thank you for inviting the Citizens to sit at this table.

It was June 6, 2006 and our family had just returned from a trip to celebrate our daughter’s high school graduation. My brother and his family house sat for us while we were away surprising us with a newly built deck extension. Our lives were full of energy and promise for the future.

However, there was an odor in the air – this odor was not just a smell but also a silent demon that was yet to be revealed. The odor was so bad there was no use of the new back deck, no use of the in-ground pool or use of the out door grill. Our black lab that never wanted to go inside now never wanted to go outside.

We started looking around and there were no birds or insects in the trees – something was wrong – something was terribly wrong. The smell was that of wild onions but there were none growing – the smell lingered heavily in our garage and one day I backed the car out for work heading to the city of Fayetteville and put my window down to see how long it took me to get away from the smell, but I never did.

I knew in my spirit that something did not add up and when I walked into my office I began making calls to investigate the odor. this was June 29, 2006.

Before that day, I never knew of the Environmental Protection Division, but now I am all too well acquainted. The EPD had rudimentary testing equipment that showed that we were being exposed to propyl mercaptan but did not have the equipment necessary to show with any immediacy that we were being exposed to a highly toxic pesticide known as Ethoprop that gives off the scent of propyl mercaptan in its breakdown and release. This would take another two months to begin finding out this information.

In the meantime, it was found that this chemical was being released from Philip Services Corporation – a non-hazardous wastewater and solid waste treatment facility permitted by Fulton County and the State of Georgia.

I felt my neighbors must be alerted to the fact that we were being exposed to a chemical, so I called the local church and ask to set up signs at the church corner and readied petitions to request that the EPD test our soil and water along with ongoing air quality to ensure the safety of our community.

It was not until this day July 10, 2006 that I began to realize that my neighbors were very, very sick – many of whom could not be with us today because their illness still persists.

Hundreds of my neighbors would begin to sign the petition that day. In fact neighbors living just behind the plant were gathering outside in their neighborhood to meet with attorneys to see what could be done about the smell.

I went over to their neighborhood and when I saw all of these young families standing their with babies in their arms and toddlers by their side having to hold their shirts over their nose and mouth to breathe somewhat filtered air, I knew I would never stop until I could rest assured that our community was safe once again.

Our community came together through numerous town hall meetings where we pleaded with the EPD to protect us but there were no laws in place to truly protect us.

The EPD does not have the enforcement power to stop a community from being poisoned in the State of Georgia – they only have the power to stop the company’s operation until the company can get a lawyer, and in this case it was 24 hours followed by a fine and the EPD asking the company in writing not to do it again.

It didn’t matter that the EPD had no records of this company’s operations for the past 16 years, which was required of this facility. It did not matter that residents remained ill and the odor was still in the air. It did not matter that every city in the immediate area along with both the Fulton and Fayette County commissions passed resolutions to shut this plant down. Nothing mattered.

Fayette County devised a chemical exposure form for residents to complete but that didn’t matter either because the State Division of Health never came to check on a single resident – not during the exposure, not now, not ever.

Our dogs and cats were dying but not one was ever tested by the Health Division. Workers from the plant began coming forward to tell of their illnesses as well as tell stories of the use of illegal immigrants to work at this plant so that toxic materials could be brought in — because an illegal immigrant would never make a claim against the company — and none of this mattered.

As the months pressed on, the odor dissipated but by that time we felt lucky there was an odor at least we knew we were being exposed – it is what we didn’t smell that truly frightened us now.

We remained fearful of what was in our soil and water because the EPD did not then nor have they now performed any testing of our home wells or soil to see if we were truly safe.

We began to take this task on ourselves because our children were still not well — they had various symptoms such as blood in their urine and strange rashes.

Our Community Task Force began to approach testing laboratories throughout our state but none would agree to do the testing due to fear of backlash by the EPD for doing so – it could cut out any of their government business income in the future.

Finally, we were truly blessed on Dec. 22, 2006 when the Fulton County Commission saw to it not to renew the Fulton County Permit with PSC, which has given us at least partial protection.

However, the state continues their permit to this day and continues to validate the poisoning of their residents. In fact, there is no known record of any corporation being permanently shut down by the state due to the poisoning of a Georgia community.

The state of Georgia doesn’t even recognize pesticides as a toxic waste and therefore all other states that do recognize this fact are happy to send their toxic pesticides to be dumped in Georgia in mass quantities — such in this incident where these shipments came from Alabama by the tanker car loads.

The truth plainly is that if we as a community really mattered to our state this corporation would no longer be operational and our safety would be assured.

But what appears to matter more is the bureaucracy of government that was so well illustrated in Hurricane Katrina. It appears that our government has grown very comfortable in waiting for someone else to do something rather than being one that is willing to take the risk of quick and decisive action to protect the citizens they have been charged to serve.

Our prayer is that today that this committee would be so bold as to take quick and decisive action to protect our community – shut this plant totally down and begin to use the 8.8 million increase in the state budget for hazardous clean-up and bring our community back to one of wholeness.

We further request the appropriate funding and staffing of the EPD along with laws that truly give them the authority to protect Georgia – their status as of now is as a permitting and fining agency.

We must have laws that no longer allow Georgia to be a toxic dumping ground for this nation and laws that truly allow the EPD to carry out enforcement.

We also request that the State Division of Health be given the appropriate training and the financial capability to handle chemical exposure of its citizens. We understand that there is a Syndromic Surveillance System in place in the state of Georgia but there was no triggering method for its use in our community.

We as citizens are very concerned that chemical warfare could easily be used in a terrorist attack in the State of Georgia – in fact this very organophosphate that we were exposed to was developed as a chemical warfare agent in World War II and we are lucky to be sitting here today.

That being said, if you look around this room today, you will see a lady in a wheelchair who can no longer talk and has limited lung capacity due to her exposure but she felt it vital to be here today.

Our community has truly suffered and continues to suffer; we need your leadership and activism to put a stop to this because we know we must matter somewhere.

Thank you for you willingness to hear our story – we know you can help us truly make a difference. In the packets before you, you will find our Community Task Force Rebuttal to the Ga. Division of Health Report. You will also find a CD with three Power Point presentations. One educates you on the chemical which our community was exposed to.

The second Power Point is an independent study done by Dr. Glickman and Perdue University and their surveillance that was conducted of pet hospitals in our area showing significant increase in pet illness and death during the months of our exposure.

And finally we have included a power point that was given by the Ga. Division of Health in 2007 on their Syndromic Surveillance System that is totally lacking the key trigger of pet exposure as the first sign of bioterrorism and the lack of protocol for community investigation.

And, finally one beautiful note to this whole event is that we have truly witnessed a Georgia community come together that has exemplified the biblical scripture “love your neighbor as yourself.”

I would ask this community to please stand – among this community are people who have dedicated their energy to research all there is to know about this incident as well as find loopholes in government practices and I would ask you to not reinvent the wheel as you proceed in making the necessary changes in policy.

Use this community of experts who have come together to form a panel that could assist you as you move forward.

Thank you again for allowing your citizens to take part in this critical discussion and I am honored to have been given this opportunity to represent such an exemplary community.

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