Wilbros Suit Hearing Recessed; Consent Order Now Court Order

The final consent order for the Wilbros facility on Rose Lane signed by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division on Monday will now be an official court order.

Tuesday afternoon, Judge Robert Adamson issued a verbal order that the EPD consent order would now be a court order subject to enforcement as with any other court order. Adamson says that his order that the EPD consent order become an order of the Superior Court only stands if his order is not appealed by the plantiffs.

The judge’s order in Stephens County Superior Court Tuesday during a hearing related to the civil suit filed by Stephens County, the city of Toccoa, the Stephens County School District, and the Concerned Citizens of Toccoa-Stephens County against Wilbros in relation to odor coming from the facility.

The point of the hearing was to hear the request of the plaintiffs for a preliminary injunction against Wilbros.

The attorney for the county, city, school district, and concerned citizens’ group, who are the plaintiffs in the case, Don Stack, said they are fine with the court order.

“The verbal order basically says that the things negotiated with the EPD are the minimum that have to be accomplished immediately,” said Stack. “Most importantly, it gives the citizens the right to enforce that rather than waiting on the EPD again in the future to decide that they are going to take enforcement action.”

Stack said they do not plan to appeal the court order.

Meanwhile, Wilbros’ attorney, Steven Gilliam, said Wilbros does not have an issue with following the order.

“It is a consent order and we agreed to it, so we are bound by it and we are going to move forward with it,” said Gilliam.

That EPD consent order requires Wilbros to take a number of steps that the agency says will reduce and control the odor problem, including not taking certain types of waste, making a number of upgrades to the facility, and making changes to the operation of the facility.

The judge’s order came at the conclusion of a full day of testimony and opening statements in connection to the plaintiffs’ preliminary injunction request.

For the plaintiffs, Stack said that Wilbros should have to fix its problems before being able to operate further. Citing over 300 complaints that have been filed since February 2011, he argues that Wilbros cannot control the smell and has broken numerous promises to the community that it would remedy the odor, adding that the citizens have no reason to trust the EPD or Wilbros on the matter.

Meanwhile, on behalf of Wilbros, Gilliam said that shutting down Wilbros would be devastating, adding that if Wilbros is shut down, there is no way it can comply with the EPD consent order and contending that there would be negative economic consequences for other businesses as well that are affiliated with Wilbros. In addition, while acknowledging that there have been instances of strong odors due to specific reasons, Gilliam argued that Wilbros has taken steps to remedy the odor and continues to work with the EPD on the matter.

Numerous witnesses then testified on behalf of the plaintiffs.

They included officials with the EPD who detailed numerous site visits over the last two years, up to and including recent weeks, to the Wilbros facility during which odors were documented.

Also testifying were Lanier Clothes Director of Distribution Burt Holmes and Standard Register Facility Manager Bill Cochran. Both of their businesses are located close to the Wilbros facility. They testified as to the effect of the odor on their workers and business operations.

Holmes said the Lanier Clothes facility does not have air conditioning and because of the odor, the facility must keep all doors closed during the summer, instead of opening them for air in the summer. Meanwhile, Cochran says his employees have had bouts of nausea when the odor is bad.

Other witnesses included Stephens County Marshal Tom Bennett, Stephens County Development Authority Executive Director Tim Martin, and local realtor Michelle Grafton, who is also the Vice-Chair of the Concerned Citizens group.

The hearing did not finish on Tuesday and was recessed until January 3, where more witnesses for the plaintiffs are expected to testify, followed by defense witnesses.

At the end of the day, Judge Adamson told both parties while issuing his order that he believes in solving problems and he said he wanted to know if the consent order would do anything to abate the odor. The judge also said that he can see the frustration of the community over the issue, noting the length of time that has gone by without a resolution.