Despite the objections of concerned citizens in attendance, last Thursday Richmond County officials decided to go ahead with the sale of a 10-acre parcel in the industrial park to Helena Chemical, one of the nation’s largest fertilizer distributors.
On March 14, supervisors heard from representatives of Helena, which plans to build a chemical storage and distribution facility off the Route 3 bypass inside Warsaw’s town limits, and concerned citizens who fear that having hazardous material so close to a park and local water supply could be a recipe for disaster.
Although county resident Jan Dockins said that he had no problems with the company, the project or new jobs coming to town, he did take issue with its close proximity to local public schools, the YMCA, the newly minted little league field and the town’s water supply.
“My concerns are involved around the responsibilities for environmental issues regarding your company, which has had some issues in the past and some of those issues are still being dealt with today,” Dockins said, adding that Helena was cited in enforcement action from the Environmental Protection Association (EPA) in at least four states, including Florida, Texas, South Carolina and Missouri.
He noted that chemical companies such as Helena are famous for pollution, spills, dumping and toxic stormwater run-off.
“If there are problems, cleanup activities take years, they take decades,” Dockins said, pointing out that the facility would house such dangerous chemicals like RoundUp and Atrazine, the latter of which has been tied to birth defects and serious health conditions in those exposed to the chemical, according to the National Centers for Disease Control.
“In my opinion from everything I have read, and granted your company may have changed its modus operandi, but your last history is not good to me and so I am bringing it to the attention [of the board],” Dockins said.
In response, Helena representative Don Cline assured Dockins that all chemicals would be securely contained, noting that none of his company’s distribution sites had a single event under his watch in the past four years.
Cline added that the locations that were under EPA scrutiny were all problems Helena inherited after buying property that had been polluted by their previous occupants. He noted that Helena had chosen to clean-up the locations from their own funds, costing the company tens of millions of dollars.
“I can’t say that something can’t happen, I can’t predict the future to that point,” Cline said. “But what I will tell you is that…this company will make sure that we have everything in place to avoid anything that could possibly happen.”
Richmond County resident Harry Smith, Jr. echoed Dockins’ fears, adding that he was concerned not just about spillage, but about possible toxic dust blowing over to where many children play little league and soccer games.
He urged the board to take more time to consider the sale.
“If you jump the gun now you might regret it later and I would hate to see that,” Smith said. “If other people coming want to buy land, they may not want to be close to a chemical plant. Housing units were supposed to go right across the road and they might not want to do that and you may be taking out potential growth because of the location of this plant, not the plant itself, just the location.”
Cline reassured Smith that the location would not be a “smokestack” type facility, but instead a distribution center that would be convenient for local farmers to purchase necessary farm chemicals.
“Most of the stuff that we deal with is in containers and is shipped to us in containers.
We really like this location,” Cline said. “We think it is ideal for the growers. The feedback that we have been getting from our customers has been outstanding.”
Prominent businessman and former county supervisor Randy Phelps also expressed concern about the location of the facility, adding that his initial excitement over the deal was dampened when he learned about the nature of Helena’s dealings.
He said that the initial projection of adding just five local jobs might not be worth the risk inherent to such a venture.
“I’m not saying anything bad about [Helena], but we have 10 acres of beautiful land and we finally have some excitement going into the community park,” Phelps said. “The community is rallying. There are beautiful ball diamonds going up, a beautiful concession stand, a brand new roadway with a bike trail. We’ve got a fair that’s been put in and had a great first year. I just don’t think this is the right business for this particular venture.”
He added that the facility could affect local property values and questioned whether local emergency services and first responders would be capable of handling a possible toxic disaster.
“This is something a little more serious, a little bit scarier and five jobs for that risk, I don’t see it,” Phelps said.
Addressing Phelps’ concerns, Cline said that his company would “work with local fire departments and supply everything that they need” in the event of an unforeseeable incident.
“We have to have a hazmat plan in place. It is a printed plan that is in each one of my locations and we keep it updated on a regular basis,” Cline said, adding that his company has internal audits and a regulatory group that trains employees in safety and new regulations each year
“I think you will find us to be a very good neighbor,” he said. “I cannot say anymore than we are very excited about this location and the opportunity to be a part of it.”
He was backed by a statement read earlier by fellow Helena representative Spencer Moody, who said that Helena would “abide by all required safety and containment regulations, keeping ever mindful of our neighbors within the town of Warsaw…implement a series of best management practices,” while operating in a “safe and clean” environment.
“Our services will be based on sound agronomic knowledge, providing our customers with products enabling them to operate in a profitable manner with a minimal environmental impact,” Moody said.
Cline added that Helena would “do everything we can to mitigate risk. We have to. If we don’t it is going to cost us millions of dollars.”
After agreeing to a request first brought up by Supervisor Richard Thomas and backed by fellow member John Haynes to fence in the distribution yard so as to preclude curious children and passerby from coming into contact with the chemicals, the board unanimously voted to proceed with the sale.