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A smelly debate over Mincey Marble's expansion
Rezoning foes object to styrene odors; company says its in compliance
Retired environmental health and safety expert John Kandler is one of the lead opponents to Mincey Marble’s expansion plans at their location on Browns Bridge Road. Kandler worries about the amounts of styrene released into the air and the general public’s prolonged exposure to it. “There are chemicals that don’t smell good, but they’re relatively harmless,” he said. “And there are chemicals that smell good that can be very bad for you. Styrene is one of those that smells bad and it can be bad for you.”

Mincey Marble vote

What: Hall County Board of Commissioners considers rezoning to allow Mincey Marble to build a 100,750-square-foot plant on Browns Bridge Road.

When: 6 p.m. Thursday

Where: 2875 Browns Bridge Road, Gainesville

Pungent or pleasant, it’s a smell in automobile exhaust, copier machines and yes, even brand new cars.

The chemical styrene can be found in many places, including naturally in foods.

It’s also front and center of a debate over a West Hall manufacturer’s proposal to build a 100,750-square-foot plant on busy and heavily residential Browns Bridge Road — an uproar that surprises Mincey Marble officials.

“We weren’t expecting any opposition,” president Donna Mincey said during an interview last week. “We thought people would be happy we were shutting down an old plant and building a nice, new one.”

Quite the opposite has happened, with an online petition gathering hundreds of names and large crowds at government meetings.

Another large audience is expected Thursday as the Hall County Board of Commissioners votes on Mincey’s rezoning request allowing the company to build the plant on 11 acres across from current operations at 4321 Browns Bridge Road.

Many issues have fanned foes’ flames, predominantly that the plant doesn’t fit the residential character of the area.

But styrene has become the hot topic, particularly as it relates to the health and safety of residents, who say they can smell a stench from their homes.

One of the staunchest opponents is Cumberland on Lanier resident John Kandler, a retired environmental health safety manager.

“There are chemicals that don’t smell good, but they’re relatively harmless,” he said. “And there are chemicals that smell good that can be very bad for you. Styrene is one of those that smells bad and it can be bad for you.”

He cited the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Toxicology Program, which listed styrene as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” in its Report on Carcinogens, 12th Edition, released on June 10, 2011.

He said the department’s standards “are below the threshold of odor, so if you can smell it, you’re already above the minimal risk level,” he said.

The California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment also cited the report in adding styrene to its list of chemicals known to cause cancer in April.

Critics of that list, including Mincey, have said it is exhaustive, containing common things such as wood dust and alcoholic beverages.

In other corners, the jury is still out on styrene.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “several epidemiologic studies suggest there may be an association between styrene exposure and an increased risk of leukemia and lymphoma.

“However, the evidence is inconclusive due to confounding factors. EPA has not given a formal carcinogen classification to styrene.”

And the Styrene Information & Research Center in Washington, D.C., cites a Harvard Center for Risk Analysis report in saying “there are no concerns for the general public, either from environmental or consumer exposures to styrene.”

The group also cites the National Toxicology Program report and the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s issuing styrene classifications related to cancer.

However, “based on the overall results of many scientific studies, the evidence collectively indicates that styrene is not associated with cancer in humans,” the group states.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which addresses workplace issues, doesn’t speak to cancer concerns but says health effects to workers “may involve the central nervous system and include complaints of headache, fatigue, dizziness, confusion, drowsiness, malaise, difficulty in concentrating and a feeling of intoxication.”

A worker may be exposed to a concentration of styrene above 200 parts per million only for a maximum period of 5 minutes in any 3 hours.

Mincey hasn’t been cited for styrene exposures, but it has been cited for “safety hazards related to the use and storage of flammable chemical products containing styrene,” OSHA spokesman Michael D’Aquino said.

So if conditions are OK for workers who are much more exposed to styrene, why shouldn’t they be OK for residents around the plant?

OSHA standards “were set for the ‘healthy adult worker,’ and those numbers were set back in the ’70s,” Kandler said, adding adult workers then were defined mostly as men.

Today’s working population is much broader and may include pregnant women and those who may be 17 or 70. But also, the Department of Health and Human Services is regarding exposure “to very young children, whose systems are far more sensitive to these types of chemicals,” Kandler said.

Karen Hays, chief of the Georgia Environmental Protection’s Air Protection Branch, said that “some people find (styrene odors) very objectionable, but one thing about styrene is it smells at very low concentrations, like 1 part per million.

“That’s one of the challenges with styrene.”

She said Mincey was inspected July 28 “and based on the information that the inspector observed and received, they were operating in compliance with all the requirements of the (air quality) permit.”

“Because the odor threshold for styrene is so low, they could be in compliance with all state and federal air requirements and the citizens near them may still be smelling styrene,” Hays said. “And we have received multiple complaints this year concerning (Mincey) odors.”

Just last week, Lewis Miller, one of the leading opponents to the rezoning, sent an email to EPD saying, “Once again, the styrene odor is horrible this morning. We slept last night with our windows open to be wake up to the smell of styrene in our home.

“We now cannot open our windows or even go outdoors.”

Miller went on to say that “560 names on a petition complaining bitterly about their quality of life and potentially their health being negatively impacted should be enough” for EPA to set up a monitoring station.

Meanwhile, Mincey officials said they’re scratching their heads over the whole issue. Readings they’re getting outside the plant are well below permitted levels.

“We don’t even understand why (styrene) is on the federal ‘reasonably anticipated’ list,” Mincey said. “They’ve been researching it for years and can’t find a (cancer) connection, so at what point do they give up and say there’s not one?”

As for the California list, “you’d think they have to have some evidence first,” she said. “It’s just frustrating from a manufacturer’s standpoint.”

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