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Bulloch approves deal for Bryan wells

Al Hackle, Statesboro Herald.

STATESBORO — Bulloch County commissioners, by a pair of 4-2 votes June 27, approved two agreements with Bryan County on wells and water and wastewater service for Hyundai Motor Group’s Metaplant America and related development.

The motions and votes followed a presentation by Bulloch County Manager Tom Couch and then nearly two hours of public comments from about 20 residents. Most of those speakers, including some recent candidates for county office, one of whom is now the presumptive commission chairman-elect, expressed vehement opposition to the agreements, and many others in the crowd of about 100 that filled the meeting room at the County Annex applauded those speakers.

One message from Couch and some commissioners was that if Bulloch failed to act, the state government and Bryan County might force the issue and build the wells anyway, leading to Bulloch’s loss of $1.7 million to $3 million in annual revenue from Hyundai’s payments for water and possibly damaging the county’s credibility. But this drew demands from some opposition speakers that the commissioners should defy pressures from the state government and in particular any from Gov. Brian Kemp.

Thursday’s meeting had been announced 27 hours in advance, after a previous specially called meeting Tuesday, June 25, was cut short because of complaints, including from the Ogeechee Riverkeeper organization, that a little over 24 hours notice was not enough time for people to read and consider the specific proposals.

However, the general outlines had been known since a Feb. 26 public information and input meeting the Georgia Environmental Protection Division held at Southeast Bulloch High School. The EPD held that meeting to air concerns about the two counties’ applications for permits to drill four large wells to supply Hyundai’s electric vehicle and battery plant complex under construction in northern Bryan County. All four wells will be within the southeastern boundary of Bulloch County, but two will be owned by Bulloch and two by Bryan County. “Since the public meeting in Brooklet in February, the EPD has had to review approximately 22,000 comments, which is primarily causing the delay in re-issuing the draft permits,” Couch said to the commissioners and public Thursday. “The EPD now plans to release the draft permits in the next few days, which thus required the limited advanced notice for both counties in these meetings.”

Because of saltwater intrusion into the freshwater Floridan aquifer first seen in coastal areas decades ago, Bryan County is in the EPD’s yellow zone, where major new groundwater permits are prohibited. But Bulloch County is in the green zone, where state well-drilling permits are still issued, which is why Bryan County’s two Hyundai supply wells, with a combined capacity of 3.15 million gallons a day, would actually be in Bulloch. Bulloch County’s two wells would have a combined capacity of 3.5 mgd.

Main agreement

The intergovernmental agreement, or IGA, now approved by the Bulloch and Bryan County commissions sets the terms for both counties to operate water and sewer systems. The four wells in Bulloch could supply water for customers in both counties, while a new wastewater treatment plant in Bryan could also receive sewage from Bulloch County, if Bulloch’s government acts to create water and sewer systems to serve residential and commercial customers in certain areas as Couch and consultants have proposed at the commissioners’ direction.

The agreement also spells out how much Bulloch County would be paid for hosting the wells, and how much Bryan County would pay Bulloch for the water used out of fees charged to Bryan County’s customers, with Hyundai Motor Group being the largest.

Under the agreement, Bulloch can use up to 350,000 gallons per day for a public water system, if it builds one, and would be reimbursed almost $250,000 it spent to buy well sites. Bryan County will cover up to $21,000 per month for operations and maintenance for the first five years, with a possible five-year extension.

Payments to Bulloch County for the water would start at a wholesale rate of $1 per 1,000 gallons, rising to $1.25 after five years and with a 2.5% annual increase thereafter. The retail rates Bryan County could receive for the water carried through its distribution system would be markedly higher, Couch acknowledged.

At Hyundai’s buildout, Bulloch County will receive annual revenue of but $1.7 million, but this may increase to nearly $3 million annually by 2028 if Hyundai follows through on plans to expand production from 300,000 cars per year to 500,000, he said.

In March, Bulloch’s commissioners voted to reassign $7.5 million from a larger federal grant Bulloch County previously received under the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, to Bryan County to supply Bulloch’s 12% share of infrastructure costs for the four-county Mega Site where the Hyundai plant is being built.

So at the $1.7 million revenue level, the water income would repay Bulloch for that share in four and a half years.

The agreement also contains terms for Bulloch to pay Bryan County for wastewater treatment, if the Bulloch commissioners follow through on building a county sewer system.

“Not approving the intergovernmental agreement may please those who object, but the county may lose control then over $30 million in infrastructure assets and millions of dollars in future revenue,” Couch said, standing to speak to the commissioners from the public microphone.

He called it “naive to think that the wells will not be constructed with or without Bulloch County’s influence.”

Mitigation MOU

The other agreement is a so far less-binding memorandum of understanding, or MOU, whereby Bulloch and Bryan counties “are pledging in good faith to create a well-mitigation program,” as Couch summarized it.

Not approving either agreement might “please those who object, but may risk harming credibility with regional partners, the state and federal government, impacting future cooperation, grants and perhaps other assistance,” he told the board.

As of February, EPD scientists predicted that the four wells, with 6.65 mgd combined capacity, could lower the water level in the aquifer at most 19 feet nearest the wells, to about 10 feet at five miles from the wells.

As a special condition of granting the permits, the EPD advised the two counties to create a fund to compensate current well owners, such as farmers and residents, in a five-mile radius for any required changes such as lowering submersible pumps or redrilling wells.

The MOU “merely forms the relationship” with a more detailed agreement to come later, Couch said.

Bennett’s concerns David Bennett, who won the Republican primary race for Board of Commissioners chair in May with more than twothirds of the votes countywide over current Chairman Roy Thompson, read from an email he sent to current commissioners.

“While I am against the proposed drilling of the wells … and have concerns that it will have devastating environmental implications for decades to come, I realize that these wells will be drilled regardless of the will of the people or the environmental impact,” he said. “My concern tonight is ensuring that the people of Bulloch County are protected by a clearly articulated well mitigation plan.”

But the memo of understanding did not take into consideration any of the public comments from the February EPD meeting, carried “a lot of vague, ambiguous language,” and did not receive further EPD feedback, he asserted.

“I, like many others in the community, have heard rumors that the Governor’s Office (or other high ranking state officials) have placed an ultimatum before you to ‘make the wells happen’ or the state will ‘make it happen’ and the county will miss out on potential revenues from the wells,” Bennett had written. “I view threats like these to be inappropriate at the very least, and could have legal ramifications for the parties making these statements.”

He urged the commissioners to vote “no” on the water mitigation agreement and to allow the state’s “well permitting process to continue as prescribed by law before making any kind of legally binding agreements regarding the wells.”

Bennett wasn’t the only speaker to call on the commissioners to resist alleged pressure from Kemp. Some demanded that they table the actions, some said until January, which is when Bennett, who has no Democratic opposition, and at least two new district commissioners will take office.

But Lawton Sack, who chairs the Bulloch County Republican Party, urged the commissioners simply to vote “no” on both agreements.

“I know what Governor Kemp’s doing … and I can tell you, what he is doing to this county is not right,” Sack said. “And I can tell you, if he had the guts to come to this county and stand up in front of these people, there would be protests, there would be people booing him, and what he is doing in putting this 10-day deadline on y’all to get this passed is just wrong.”

But Couch and Thompson said they knew of no 10-day deadline, and at the end of the public comments, Thompson brought a large Bible to the front of the room, put his hand on it, and declared he had received no calls from the governor.

“I’ve never talked to the governor about this, never been approached by the governor about it, never have spoken to him over the telephone, never have talked to him privately,” Thompson said.

Commissioner Anthony Simmons made the motion to approve the intergovernmental agreement, Commissioner Curt Deal seconded it, and Commissioners Ray Mosley and Timmy Rushing also voted “yes.” Commissioners Jappy Stringer and Toby Conner voted “no.” The same commissioners voted “yes and “no” on the mitigation MOU motion made by Simmons and seconded by Mosley.

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