CACHE'S DREAM FOR ELKIN
Anatomy of a Win
- How We Beat Fibrowatt
By Betty Tesh, Citizens' Alliance for a Clean, Healthy Economy (CACHE)
In June, 2008, Fibrowatt, LLC, announced that Surry County had edged out Wilkes as one of three NC counties selected by the company to host a bio-mass-fueled energy plant. The announcement came as a surprise to most of the county, but even more so to the citizens of Elkin, since the proposed site was less than a mile from the city limits and hardly a stone's throw from the Yadkin River. However, many Elkin-ites breathed a sigh of relief: Having recently lost a major industry, they were concerned about unemployment and a shrinking tax base. A power plant seemed, on the surface, to be an excellent neighbor.
Little did we know that the power plant would turn out to be a poultry litter incinerator! We also later learned that the element of surprise is a trademark of Fibrowatt, whose methodology includes making early contact with county officials, selling them on promises of jobs and other economic benefits while keeping under wraps the negative impacts of poultry incineration. In addition, the company convinces the elected officials that secrecy is necessary because other counties are vying for the deal.
Later that summer, Claudia Thiel, a resident of Elkin, asked a member of the Town Board if the plant were actually a good deal. He assured her that he and other invitees of the company had toured Fibrominn in Benson, MN, and he was convinced Fibrowatt would be a valuable addition to the county's dwindling industry base. She had nothing to worry about, he told her. All over town, other citizens were being similarly comforted by elected officials. The message from both town and county was - This is a great opportunity.
In August, 2008, at the urging of Barry Carlton, Claudia met with Barry and Sam and Betty Tesh to discuss their concerns about poultry litter incineration. From that group of four, CRED (Coalition for Responsible Economic Development) was formed. Letters to the editor of the local paper and word of mouth soon increased membership.
The first thing CRED did was work on an in-depth study of all available information on bio-mass burning, the use of poultry litter for fuel, and the background of Fibrowatt. Only when that material was fully researched and documented, CRED issued a call for a community meeting in March, 2009.
Over 100 curious Elkin and Surry County residents attended. Hank Thiel presented a power point presentation, and many people asked questions. When Dr. Hal Stuart, a much-respected, retired physician spoke passionately about his concern for the health of the community, many in the audience were convinced for the first time that Fibrowatt was not a good deal, and wanted to learn more.
Following the community meeting, CRED continued to work on the economic impact of such an industry. However, Sam Tesh, as Co-Chair of BREDL, was growing increasingly concerned about the environmental impact of Fibrowatt, as well as the possibility of a lawsuit resulting from opposition to the company. In the end, the group agreed to divide. CRED would continue to work on economic issues, and the new group would begin taking a more activist stand about the environmental impact.
With the assistance of the BREDL staff, Citizens' Alliance for a Clean, Healthy Economy (CACHE) was formed in June, 2009, for the purpose of defeating the proposed Fibrowatt facility. It was clear by this time that agreements between the county and the company had been made without clear notification to the public and without the commissioners doing due diligence on the health costs to those living near the incinerator.
However, when citizens tried to approach the commissioners with information, the commissioners turned a deaf ear, saying, in effect, that the plant's coming was a done deal. Indeed, the commissioners had already purchased the proposed site as part of their incentives plan for the company.
CACHE members began attending county meetings regularly. At each meeting, a CACHE member would speak against the incinerator during the Open Forum period. One of the best-attended meetings was for the re-zoning of the proposed site from Farming to Heavy Industry. Speakers were told they could not use the word Fibrowatt. No matter how compelling or well-researched our information, the commissioners either ignored our speakers or treated them rudely. The vote was unanimous to re-zone the land.
One of our strongest strategies after that was a letter-writing campaign. Hardly an issue of the local paper came out without a letter from some CACHE member. When non-CACHE begin writing letters in support of our position, we knew our campaign was being successful. We discovered that more and more people were aware of what Fibrowatt was and were questioning the judgment of the county in inviting this industry to the area.
In October, 2009, three of our members were threatened with arrest simply because they were wearing badges identifying them as members of CACHE at a downtown festival sponsored by the local Chamber of Commerce. They obediently removed the badges, but reported the incident to the local paper, which carried a front-page story on the event. Many people who had been indifferent to our message reacted strongly to this attack on our First Amendment rights and began listening to what we had to say. We received an apology from the town and the police department, but not from the Chamber of Commerce.
After many requests for a public hearing, we were finally granted a public meeting at Surry Central High School. It was a farce. We were told not to disseminate printed material; our speakers were limited to 3 minutes and one question of the Fibrowatt representative while he was given almost unlimited time; the commissioners were rude and inattentive ( At one point a commissioner put his head on the table and pretended to sleep, and another commissioner told a person to sit down and shut up when he requested a follow-up question of the Fibrowatt representative.)
To refute claims by elected officials that our organization was anti-business and negative we entered a float in the 2009 Elkin Christmas Parade which carried a positive message. The theme was CACHE'S Christmas Dreams for Elkin and we had children sitting around a Christmas Tree, holding up dream clouds with things like Increased Tourism, More Vineyards, and Downtown Re-vitalization written on them. We even won a judges' prize!
In January, 2010, when former Elkin resident Hal Weatherman wrote on his blog and published a letter in the local paper outlining his vision for an improved town, we jumped on the idea of having him speak at a banquet. He agreed and in February, 2010, spoke to about 140 people presenting innovative ideas on how Elkin could improve the economic situation without inviting a polluting industry.
At about the same time, Dr. Wells Steward, a member of the local Chamber of Commerce, became concerned that the local chamber had gone on record in support of Fibrowatt. He decided to poll the membership. After the poll was completed, Dr. Steward discovered that 94% of the members were opposed to the incinerator. His poll forced the CEO and the local Board to withdraw their support.
Shortly thereafter, Susan Stewart and others decided to submit a request under the Freedom of Information Act for all commissioners' correspondence regarding Fibrowatt. This request would prove to have a major impact.
Feeling the pressure from CACHE and with the election for his seat coming up in November, 2010, one of the commissioners offered the motion that the county withdraw the incentive package previously offered to Fibrowatt. Although the motion was approved unanimously, the next morning the chairman sent an email to the company saying ...don‘t worry, there are a few hurdles to get over...
Surprisingly, the commissioners scheduled a meeting in Elkin. Knowing that an Open Forum was usually scheduled for each meeting, CACHE encouraged people to attend and speak. When the chairman announced that he had requested the Elkin police be present and that the board had decided not to have an Open Forum at this meeting, most of the crowd walked out (under the watchful eye of the police), while openly expressing their disdain.
During the spring of 2010, Susan Steward had been designing a petition for the residents of Elkin to indicate whether they supported the town's decision to provide water to the site, or opposed it and how they felt about the proposed incinerator. She and other town residents began to take the petition door-to-door.
Also, Dr. Bill Blackley continued to research the health effects of incineration and created a Power Point presentation based on his research. He had also worked to get the North Carolina Academy of Family Practice Leadership and the Council on Public Health to go on record as opposing incineration. His research, along with Jeanette Stingone's paper Waste to Energy Conversion in North Carolina: Potential for Environmental Injustice was invaluable that spring in convincing people that poultry litter incineration was harmful.
At the same time that Dr. Blackley was preparing his report and the Stewarts had been reading the documents provided by the county under the Freedom on Information Act, Elkin native Lucy Chatham had been collecting research on impact of incinerators on local communities.
All four were scheduled to speak at the May, 2010, meeting of the Surry County Commissioners. However, at the very beginning of the meeting, before those presentations could be made, the commissioner from the Elkin area moved that the county cease any further discussion with Fibrowatt. He said he was doing so because the company had not answered his questions, nor the concerns voiced by CACHE. The motion passed unanimously, effectively bringing an end to a two-year battle.
This was our success story. Some counties won quickly; some are still fighting. If your county faces danger from a proposed or existing industry, we have come up with a list of what worked for us.
1. Get BREDL staff to help you organize and strategize.
2. Start a letter-writing campaign to local papers.
3. Do your research and have a presentation that is factual and well-documented. Don't exaggerate the danger...the truth is frightening enough.
4. Plan a community meeting to present your message.
5. Attend county and/or town meetings. Speak when given the opportunity. Have a succinct, well-researched message.
6. Blanket the community with yard signs.
7. Keep the media informed. Have a sound bite ready for interviews.
8. Use the Freedom of Information Act to obtain correspondence from elected officials.
CACHE'S A Visions Banquet Program
CACHE Flyer: Did You Know?
CACHE Flyer: Eight Reasons