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Plan for Metaplant water runs into critics
metaplant water
Wei Zeng, Ph.D., manager of the Water Supply Program at the state Environmental Protection Division, speaks to people attending the Coastal Georgia Regional Water Planning Council meeting. Photo by Al Hackle/Statesboro Herald

By Al Hackle, Statesboro Herald

STATESBORO - The Dec. 14 meeting of the Coastal Georgia Regional Water Planning Council wasn’t the state Environmental Protection Division’s meeting on Bulloch and Bryan counties’ permit applications for four large wells to supply the Hyundai Motor Group manufacturing complex.

But after engineers and consultants doing work for the two county governments gave an update on the plan that includes those proposed wells, residents gave them, the water council members and the several EPD personnel who were present an earful of concerns and, from some individuals, angry opposition. More than 100 people packed the River Room at Ogeechee Technical College for the meeting, and more than a dozen spoke, supposedly limited to two minutes each, during the public comment period.

EPD Water Supply Program Manager Wei Zeng, Ph.D., told reporters that concerns raised by the public will be considered, at least to help guide how his team does its assessment, before the agency issues any well permits.

“I’ve heard concerns over potential impacts,” Zeng said after the meeting. “I heard concerns over local impacts. I heard concerns over saltwater intrusion. I have heard calls for surface water. So I think these are all things that we ought to consider, so it does help with our assessment approach.”

He added that he had also heard other concerns “more in the public involvement or the political arena,” which the state agency cannot address.

EPD meeting ahead

Whenever the EPD Water Supply Program specialists – Zeng, for example, is a hydrologist – complete a draft of the groundwater withdrawal permits – a 30-day comment period will follow before the EPD director would be asked to sign the permits. The agency is required to hold a public meeting of its own on the permits, and Zeng said that given the number of concerns expressed, the meeting, or possibly a meeting in each county, might be held even before the draft documents are released.

But as of this week, the EPD had not set any timeline for its community information meeting or the release of the draft. The timing depends on how soon the technical review is completed.

“If we are done with our assessment and we say, hey, here are the conditions that should be proposed as part of this permit … at that point – when we’re done with the assessment and ready to make a recommendation to the director – we will involve the public in an outreach effort,” Zeng said. “We will have a meeting about what we did, how we assessed the situation, the impacts we see, how do we seek mitigation of the impacts.”

Other than Zeng speaking briefly to the crowd about the future meeting, the EPD representatives present did not take part in Thursday night’s presentation. They were available to answer individuals’ questions afterward.

But engineers from the Thomas & Hutton and Hofstadter & Associates firms, a consultant from TPR Consulting Services and Bryan County’s engineering director gave a presentation specific to Bulloch and Bryan counties’ plan to meet their projected growth needs and also deliver water to Hyundai Metaplant America, which is being built at the four-county Joint Development Authority- provided site in northern Bryan County. The electric vehicle and battery manufacturing complex, targeted to begin production in 2025, is projected to employ 8,500 people after a hire-up lasting several years.

Yellow and green zones 

But providing water to the factory complex and a growing population poses a challenge. The deep Floridan aquifer, source of ground water much of southern Georgia and coastal South Carolina, first showed signs of saltwater intrusion along the coast more than 50 years ago. For more than decade now, the state has assigned Bryan and Liberty counties to a “yellow zone” with restrictions on EPD permitting of new wells, and Chatham County and Effingham County to a “red zone” with active reductions in existing permits for groundwater use.

However, Bulloch and counties west and north of it are in a “green zone,” with no such restrictions. So, while county officials have proposed for Bryan County to own two wells and Bulloch County to own two wells to supply Hyundai, all four wells are to be drilled within Bulloch County, not far from the county line. Bulloch County’s application is for a permit for two wells that together could withdraw up to 3.15 million gallons per day. Simultaneously, Bryan County applied for a permit for two wells that together could withdraw up to 3.5 mgd.

So the four wells in total could withdraw up to 6.65 million gallons per day. Bulloch County officials plan to request later that Bulloch’s two wells’ combined 3.15 mgd limit be increased also to 3.5 mgd, said Trent Thompson, an engineer with Thomas & Hutton. That would make the total for the four wells 7 mgd.

Moore’s question

Charles Moore, an area resident, said that South Effingham and Chatham, in the red zone, are “begging for water,” having run out. Liberty and Bryan, in the yellow zone, “are about to run out of water because they mismanaged their water supply,” he asserted.

“What obligates people in the green zone to furnish water to the Hyundai plant, to Liberty County, to Chatham County, South Effingham and Bryan County?” Moore asked. “Who gave Bulloch County the authority to do this? Was it the people in this audience? No! It was our county commissioners. Is there a legal document that says Bulloch County has to furnish water to these areas? Is there a memorandum of understanding?”

As he noted, county officials did not provide any formal agreement when he asked for one previously, and none was revealed Thursday.

Not 10 mgd

Some of the critics of the four-well plan noted that the counties cited a figure of almost 10 million gallons per day in paperwork submitted to the EPD with the permit applications. However, this figure is a prediction of future demand, not an amount sought in the current application, Thompson said.

“So we’re just going to wait and see what the future brings and from there decide, you know, does that match with surface water planning or does that need additional wells,” he said after the meeting. “But right now, that’s just a projection of what we think should come based on the land use planning that has been done by Bulloch and Bryan. No permits have been applied for, for that amount of water.”

Surface water option?

Thompson also talked about the use of surface water, such as from the Savannah River basin, as part of a long-term strategy to meet the region’s growing water demand.

But developing a surface water system to reach the Hyundai plant and supply the water it needs could take 25 years, he said.

The city of Savannah’s I& D water treatment plant, which draws water from Abercorn Creek, a Savannah River tributary, has a reported capacity of 75 mgd.

When interviewed after the meeting, Thompson said the 25-year estimate is “not necessarily set in stone.” But the cost and funding would be part of the challenge.

“The surface water plant has got to expand, they’ve got to get additional capacities from Abercorn Creek and work that through with EPD,” Thompson said. “So 25 years is kind of our best guess right now of how long we think it’ll take for all that to transpire, for the funding to be in place to upgrade the water plant and fund all the water mains to bring it up to Bryan County.”

Another consultant said this surface water solution would be much more expensive than drilling the four wells and installing the nearly 12 miles of pipeline needed to connect the farthest well to the Hyundai plant.

Randy Proctor, a Stilson- area mechanic and farmer active in opposing the four-well plan, said the meeting seemed like “a dog and pony show.” But he was one of several speakers during the public comments who suggested they wouldn’t be opposed to a surface water solution.

“If you want water, get your water out of the Savannah River,” Proctor said.

Comments by other speakers ranged from Ogeechee Riverkeeper legal director Ben Kirsch’s request for better planning to protect the aquifer to one or two Bulloch residents calling for county officials to resign or be voted out and even one announcing as a candidate for county commission chair.

Members of the Coastal Georgia Regional Water Planning Council said little. The Coastal Georgia region encompasses nine counties, and the council has about 25 board members.

Shayne Wood, a water resources engineer with the CDM Smith firm, gave an overview of the council’s broader, regional planning work. Its 156-page, updated Coastal Georgia Regional Water Plan was completed in June.

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