By Adam Smith
Despite questions and concerns from the general public, a company’s request to bid an oil re-refinery in Athens has been granted conditional use approval by the city’s Planning Commission.
The special meeting held Thursday addressed issues posed by residents, the commission and City Planner Mac Martin. The board’s approval cleared another hurdle toward Alabama Green Lubricants LLC, breaking ground on the facility, which will be built on about 23 acres at Alabama 127 and Airport Road.
The operation would cost about $40 million to build and could hire up to 30 employees who would earn $18 to $22 per hour. Officials previously said they hoped the facility would be operational within 72 weeks.
John Redmond, president of AGL, told the Planning Commission Thursday that the project will be a “tremendous benefit” to the city and the general community at large. He said such facilities tend to locate in areas that have favorable transportation methods like interstate and rail access and a willing workforce.
“The Athens area has a tremendous amount of both,” he said.
The oil re-refinery will deal only with used motor oil. The used oil will then be distilled, a process that also creates byproducts.
If 100 gallons of oil comes in, Redmond said, 5 percent, or 5 gallons, will be discarded as a wastewater product. Ten to 15 percent will produce a liquid that is comparable to gasoline, which will be incinerated or sold as fuel to other companies. Seventy percent is turned into base oil, which is then sold to other companies for use in new motor oil or other lubricants. The remaining product is a heavy particulate matter that will be sold as asphalt.
“Used oil is collected in the city and county every day. Unfortunately, most of it is being put to a lower value use,” Redmond said. “(The oil refining industry is) trying to move away from burning the fuel and moving back into valuable products.”
The facility will be able to refine about 8,000 gallons of oil per hour and will run about 335 days of the year. Redmond estimated 20 to 25 trucks would come in each day between the hours of 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., or as many as two per hour. He said about 28 million gallons of finished product would leave the plant each week.
Martin gave the commission an overview of a similar site he visited in Chester County, S.C. The refinery there is about 6 miles to the east of the city of Chester. The proposed Athens facility would be about 500 feet from the nearest residence.
His observations included a slight burned oil smell, which he said he did not find to be “overly noxious.” He added that the smell was most noticeable when trucks were unloading oil at the facility and if there was a breeze blowing.
Martin said there was also a slight amount of noise related to processes at the facility, but no more than what someone might hear at an industrial park.
Residents who spoke at Thursday’s meeting were also concerned about the smell, noise and the proximity of the operation to residential areas. Athens resident Quentin Anderson said he was concerned about the amount of truck traffic in and out of the facility and the toll it would take on city streets.
“We’re talking about 500 to 5,000 trucks in a year’s time at 105 per week. That’s a lot of wear and tear on the roadways to get to and from the site,” he said.
One of the conditions placed on the refinery, however, is that AGL will be responsible for making improvements to Airport Road that would meet industrial and Alabama Department of Transportation standards.
Martin said trucks would likely take Exit 354 from Interstate 65 to access the site, and not travel through the heart of the city. He said he spoke to officials at ALDOT and provided them the traffic figures provided to the city by AGL regarding prospective traffic counts, and ALDOT had no issues.
Other conditions placed on the re-refinery included the installation of a landscape buffer with a berm that would be 6 feet tall and run the length of the northern property line. The width and length of the buffer can be adjusted to accommodate the adjacent railroad spur.
The second condition is the conservation of vegetation along the western and southern boundaries and the addition of perimeter landscaping. One medium-to-large tree should be present every 50 feet.
AGL will also be responsible for installing a chain-link fence 8 feet tall around the entire site. Lighting from the site must not exceed one foot-candle in intensity on adjoining properties. Also, the city asked that a structure be built at the oil off-loading site that would regulate smell suppression.
Brenda Thompson, a Mableton, Ga., resident who still owns a house next to radio station WKAC in north Athens, said her property would be within a quarter-mile of the proposed facility. She said she was unable to find information about AGL online and expressed concerns about carcinogens in the atmosphere.
“In other areas, homes that are close by these sites are called cancer alley,” she said. “There are so many people who have gotten sick. The numbers are increasing, and that’s a major concern.”
She was also concerned about the amount of truck traffic along Alabama 127, which she said could make it difficult for cars to enter the road. She said the jobs that the facility could bring are not worth the safety risks.
“Alabama has lots of land and (the refinery) doesn’t have to go there,” she said. “It’s a peaceful, family community. It’s low-density, but these people have owned these homes for 30 years. These are not wealthy people, but we love each other and we’re good neighbors.”
Despite health concerns about the re-refinery, the facility must operate within Environmental Protection Agency standards. Tom Hill, president of the Limestone County Economic Development Association, said the company will also have to apply to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management for permits to operate. He said now that the facility has been granted conditional use approval, AGL representative can now apply for those permits.
Hill said he was glad so many questions and concerns were voiced during Thursday’s meeting, but he said the prospect of having such a facility in Athens is a good thing.
“It reduces our dependence on foreign oil, and I’m pleased with that,” he said. “All in all, I think the information was weighed by the elected officials and the planning and zoning folks. We’re comfortable with their decision.”
AGL will still have other steps to complete before work can begin on the re-refinery. In addition to applying for ADEM permits, Hill said the company will likely purchase the property, which is currently owned by William Prince.
Hill said the price of the property is roughly $10,000 per acre.
AGL will also have to receive site plan approval before construction can begin. Planning officials have reviewed a conceptual site plan only that does not include all the conditions placed on the project.