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Are these neighbors environmental stewards or causing suffocation?
Newtown's neighbors are some of Gainesville's biggest polluters, and taxpayers
Cargill fill room operator Alejandro Paniagua mans a station Monday inside the food service oils plant. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Surrounded by steam and massive soybean storage bins, Matt Pearson is the affable guy at the helm of one of Gainesville’s most profitable and polluting industries.

The white-tanked welcome mat at the south end of Gainesville on U.S. 129, Cargill is the city’s second-largest taxpayer —paying nearly a half-million dollars in property taxes each year — along with the fifth-largest water and sewer customer. The company is also just as big a polluter, each year releasing approximately 84,700 pounds of pollutants into the community.

But when Pearson, a Minnesota native, discusses Cargill’s role in the community, he mentions environmental stewardship and a “focus on working side-by-side with the people that live next to you.”

Next to Cargill is the Newtown community, a historically black, low-income residential area that has, over the years, been encircled by industry.

And though residents suspect their proximity is dangerous, industries like Cargill that surround Newtown are the backbone to Gainesville’s quality of life, providing jobs and padding budgets for the city’s school systems, fire department and police protection, said Tim Evans, vice president of economic development for the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce.

“We as residents are not self-supporting,” said Evans. “We consume more services than we pay in property taxes as residents, so we have to have that base of industry and investment to help pay for it all.”

This backbone of industrial development began to form in Gainesville between the 1950s and 1970s, at a time when most industries made a point to move in next to their work force and near the railroad.

In Newtown, it started in 1954 with Purina’s grain processing facility, which located just south of the railroad tracks that border the Newtown neighborhood.

Five years later, a now-defunct production plant for starter motors moved in east of the neighborhood. In 1966, Cargill located farther to the southeast, on the corner of U.S. 129 and West Ridge Road. Originally, Cargill’s local facility only processed soybeans for chicken feed, but now the plant makes soybean oil and mayonnaise, Pearson said.

One year after Cargill moved to the community, a scrap metal yard opened on Athens Street, directly abutting residential properties on Mill, Norwood and McDonald streets.

Today, as many as 14 industrial sites are located within a 1-mile radius of Newtown.

‘Bound to have problems’
Advocates of the Newtown community, like Justine Thompson, say there is no way that, even on a good day, nearby industries do not pose a risk to residents’ health.

“If you site that many industries that close together within a residential community, you’re bound to have problems,” said Thompson, who is the executive director of a public interest law firm that represents the Newtown Florist Club. “All you have to do is visit the community, and you can see the playground that’s overshadowed by industry. You don’t see that in most communities.”

Purina would not consent to an interview, but instead released a statement that the company works “to be responsible stewards of the environment.” John Beech, chief operating officer for Blaze Recycling & Metals, the scrap metal yard on Athens Street, also declined to comment, other than to say the company was committed to being good corporate neighbors.

Pearson, too, believes in the environmental soundness of Cargill’s operations; otherwise, he said, neither he nor his pregnant wife would work there.

“Employee safety and being an environmental steward, I guess you would say, are our absolutely No. 1 priorities,” Pearson said. “You can be in business and you can make money, but if you’re not doing those things, it doesn’t matter.”

And while that may be true of Cargill’s philosophy today, both Cargill and Purina have checkered pasts as environmental stewards.

In the last six years, both have been cited by the state’s Environmental Protection Division. The previous owners of the Blaze scrap yard on Athens Street, which was then called Gainesville Scrap Iron and Metal, were also cited for environmental grievances in 2001.

Most recently, in 2007, EPD ordered Purina to pay an $11,000 fine for equipment problems that caused grain dust to blanket the Newtown community a number of times in 2006, according to enforcement records.

Cargill, too, has had problems with illegal emissions. In 2003, the state EPD fined the soybean facility $5,000 — the highest penalty for a procedural violation — for failing to keep records of emissions from one of its eight baghouses that filter dust from gases before they are released into the air.

A report Cargill submitted to the EPD in 2002 indicated that the company performed the daily emissions checks, but EPD later found that facility employees did not check, or keep records of, emissions coming from the baghouse for more than 16 percent of the facility’s operating time in 2002.

And twice in 1998, a “dark-colored” dust that inspectors said was “consistent with coal dust” covered the cars of nearby residents and the roofs of neighboring businesses. The EPD took no action either time, but Cargill cleaned the mess, according to EPD reports. A similar occurrence in 1997 resulted in a $5,000 fine.

But a May 1995 incident is probably the most memorable to residents on the south side of Gainesville. On May 19, a number of residents were evacuated after a mysterious chemical odor filled the air. More than 20 people, including a sheriff’s deputy who was helping residents evacuate, went to the hospital for nausea, headaches, stinging eyes and wheezing. Some children who were playing outside passed out on the playground, recalled Faye Bush, president of the Newtown Florist Club.

Though residents suspected Cargill had released hexane, a toxic chemical it uses to process soybean oil, the EPD never determined the cause or the source of the mysterious odor. Still, Cargill paid the medical bills of many of the residents who were sent to the hospital.

Pearson’s promise is that today, Cargill employees are constantly monitoring emissions from the plant; if anything goes wrong, plant employees take action immediately, he said.

“We’ve got a lot of checks and balances in place to make sure that doesn’t happen,” Pearson said. “We take it very, very seriously.”

‘Facts can’t hurt’
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry determined earlier this decade that Newtown’s industrial environment is not a threat to residents’ health, according to an assessment the agency performed in 2001 and 2002.

But researchers at the University of Georgia who have taken interest say the agency’s assessment, using previous government-sponsored tests of air quality and surveys of residents’ health in Newtown, may not have been adequate.

First, they say, much of the data the agency relied on to make its determination was faulty, according to Jamie Baker Roskie, an attorney for the University of Georgia’s Land Use Clinic.

And others say the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry’s assessment of air quality in Newtown was also skewed. The agency measured pollution from a monitoring station at Fair Street Elementary School, more than half a mile away from Newtown. In addition to its distance from the community, researchers say the school sits on a ridge, and air quality there might not be the same as it would be in Newtown, which is at a lower elevation.

“I took a look at that (ATSDR assessment) and felt like if we really wanted to understand air quality and meteorological conditions in Newtown, we needed to have measurements in the community — the instruments needed to be in the community,” said Marshall Shepherd, an associate professor of geography and a research meteorologist at the University of Georgia.

Last summer, Shepherd and his colleagues installed equipment in Newtown that monitors air quality and weather in the neighborhood. He said the data from that equipment will help him accurately assess whether there is air pollution in Newtown and how wind and humidity affect the community’s air quality.

The equipment has only been recording data in Newtown for four months, and Shepherd said he has already seen some evidence of elevated particulate matter — pollution — in the community.

But no one is ready to draw any conclusions. Shepherd said he will need to gather years of data before he can determine anything about possible patterns of pollution in Newtown.

One of the criticisms of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry study was that the agency drew long-term conclusions with only a few months’ worth of information.

“Preliminarily, yes we certainly do find instances of elevated particulate matter in the community,” Shepherd said “What that means and why that’s the case, who knows right now? We can’t say with certainty.”

Whatever the data shows, residents can finally be confident that it is accurate, said Roskie.

“Ultimately, we strongly believe, based on what we’ve seen and found, that there are problems in this neighborhood, and I think the data will back that,” said Roskie. “And if the data doesn’t back that, you know, we’ve got facts, and certainly facts can’t hurt. Understanding the reality can’t hurt.”

‘Being a good neighbor’
Pearson came to Gainesville as the manager of the local Cargill facility less than two years ago, and since he was not in Gainesville when Cargill was cited by the EPD, Pearson would not comment on previous problems with the plant.

“I don’t even know if the process is the same that they did back in ’94 to ’98 to what we do now,” Pearson said. “I just know that it wouldn’t happen now ... I know that the way that we handle it, given our current procedures and practices, there’s no way that could happen.”

Pearson, who has worked for Cargill for 10 years in numerous locations, said many of Cargill’s processing plants are situated like the one in Gainesville.

A framed aerial photograph Pearson has from the facility he came from in Sioux City, Iowa, looks similar to an aerial photograph of the Gainesville facility. Pearson said another Cargill soybean facility in Raleigh, N.C., is located in the middle of downtown.

With so many facilities so close to residential communities, Cargill has had no choice but to be a good neighbor, Pearson said. He said the company has become “very focused on enriching communities.”

“You have similar issues at any facility that you’re at,” Pearson said. “And it’s really about being a good neighbor and making sure that you have constant communication.”

Through a corporate-sponsored community outreach program called Cargill Cares, Cargill partners with neighborhoods near its locations worldwide.

Locally, Cargill works with the Newtown Florist Club on community cleanups and the Martin Luther King Jr. Day march, said Kathryn Lindstrand, a Cargill accountant who serves on the local Cargill Cares committee.

Through the program, Cargill donated laptop computers to winners of a Newtown Florist Club-sponsored essay contest and provides “secret Santa” gifts to families in the community, Lindstrand said.

“We try to partner a lot with our local community because of lots of different reasons, but because they are next door,” Lindstrand said.

Evans said Purina and Cargill, who are members of the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, have made changes over the years to “fit in with the community that’s around them.” He did not speak on behalf of Blaze, because the company is not a member of the chamber.

“I think both those companies have really got a social consciousness about them,” Evans said. “I think they’ve made very good efforts on their part.”

‘Separate residential from industrial’
Today, Cargill builds new plants in rural areas that allow more room for plant expansion, Pearson said. And recruiters of Gainesville industry also seek less-concentrated areas to place industrial parks. Zoning officials say the situation in Newtown would never occur today.

“Today ... we’ve become a society that’s more dependent on the car, and we separate residential from industrial more than we used to,” said Evans, whose job revolves around the recruitment and retention of industry.

But the efforts to separate industry from residential areas and the goodwill efforts of those who are already next-door neighbors with residential areas may not reverse years of living side-by-side with industry.

Newtown residents say grain dust from Purina occasionally still makes its way across the tracks to their homes, and many believe it has made them chronically ill. And while residents can file complaints about Purina and Cargill with the EPD, they are more limited with complaints about rodents and noise coming from the nearby scrap metal yard. The EPD does not consider Blaze a significant source of air pollution and does not require the scrap metal yard to receive any sort of emissions permit.

Faye Bush, president of the Newtown Florist Club, said she hopes the local government will step up and ask Blaze to move, giving residents some buffer against industry.

“The houses was here first, the community was here first — I just don’t see them putting all this junk right up under somebody,” Bush said. “You can’t find another place in Gainesville that lives like we do over here.”

At the least, Bush said she hopes government officials will more aggressively regulate noise and dust coming from neighboring industries and consider the types of conditions they would want in their own backyards. She said the Newtown Florist Club will continue to make noise until members feel their neighborhood is a suitable place to live.

“It’s not really in our hands, to tell you the truth,” Bush said. “... I think the only thing that’s going to change this community is new policies, ordinances.”