BALDWIN — Bodies still are being cremated some 25 feet from the home of Theron Ayers’ 91-year-old mother-in-law, and he doesn’t like it.
But despite Ayers’ continued protests at City Council meetings, the dogged campaigning of another property owner and a recent change in state law, there’s not a lot that can be done about the Whitfield Funeral Home’s crematorium on Wilbanks Street.
State and local officials say while the location of the crematorium on a residential street in this North Georgia town of 3,500 may be less than ideal, zoning allows for it and, most importantly, it’s not posing a health hazard.
Ayers, an 80-year-old retired sheriff’s deputy, isn’t so sure. He claims he saw dark smoke billowing from the building’s exhaust system in July, and complained of at least one instance in recent months in which the crematorium emitted a putrid smell.
"Nobody wants a crematorium next to their property," Ayers said. "I will never give up."
The crematorium’s owner, Larry Whitfield, said his business is clean and hasn’t put off any visible exhaust since a malfunctioning system was replaced earlier this year.
"There’s no smoke," an exasperated Whitfield said in a phone interview earlier this week. "We’ve been running and cremating no telling how many bodies, and you don’t even know it’s going on."
The crematorium, adjacent to a funeral home that was built 23 years ago, first began operating in 2006 and on occasion emitted dark, thick smoke that Whitfield said was due to malfunctioning machinery.
In 2007, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division sent Whitfield a letter warning him that failure to comply with state air quality control requirements could bring fines or other enforcement actions. The crematorium was shut down for more than a year until the problems could be addressed.
But Whitfield said that a state EPD inspection in March gave his business a clean bill and that the continued complaints from Ayers, property owner Phyllis Marshall and a select few others are without merit.
"They are the kind of people who love to stir up stuff," Whitfield said. "It’s just that plain. Every time the City Council meets, they’re there."
Indeed, some council members have tired of the near-monthly complaints from one or two citizens about a business that meets all rules and regulations, Baldwin Mayor Mike Kelley said.
"My council gets aggravated with it," Kelley said of the issue being brought up so often by so few. "But I fully expect it. I spent 31 years in the military as an officer so they can do that. They have a right to come and speak, and I encourage citizens to come and complain."
Kelley said city attorney David Syfan and Baldwin’s city marshal have assured him that the crematorium meets all local zoning regulations and code requirements.
The location, Ayers acknowledges, could have been better.
"It’s a delicate balance, the site of something like that versus homes and other businesses," he said. "There’s a certain stigma, but is it really harmful? I’ve got to hope and trust that it’s, in fact, safe. And I’m not hearing by inspections and regulations that it’s something that rises to a clear and present danger to the citizens."
If the crematorium was built today, it would not have been allowed so close to homes.
This year the Georgia legislature passed a law that prevented crematoriums from being within 1,000 feet of a residence, according David Roach, a member and past chairman of the Georgia State Board of Funeral Services.
Existing funeral homes with crematoriums were granted a grandfather clause exception, Roach said.
Roach said that most people should never realize a crematorium is in operation.
"I think you’ll find to some degree there are crematoriums affiliated with funeral homes across the state that blend in with the surrounding community," Roach said.
Karen Hays, the state EPD’s Air Toxics Unit Coordinator for the agency’s Air Compliance Division, said crematories are specifically exempted from Georgia air quality permitting rules because emissions are expected to be "minimal."
Crematoriums are not listed on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s list of toxic pollutant sources.
An "afterburner" burns all material at 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit and should prevent any dark smoke from being emitted, Hays said.
"Generally, there should be very little smoke coming from these crematoriums," she said.
Hays said she has received complaints from "two citizens" since the new system was installed in March, and the EPD has looked into them. The EPD has so far found no problems, she said.
"We’ll continue to monitor the situation as best we can," she said.
Hays noted that residents live "fairly close" to the crematorium, "which is quite frankly, not an ideal situation, but it is allowed by the zoning."
Whitfield, asked if the location could have been better, said "it’s not harmful to anyone to begin with."
Said Ayers, who lives a few doors down from his mother-in-law, in the shadow of the crematorium, "It’s still a big concern of mine. I don’t believe it should be within 1,000 feet of a residential area. And that’s the law now."