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Newtown residents battle air and noise pollution
City seeks to balance needs of both parties
A pile of recycled material is stacked on the property of Blaze Recycling Recycling and Metals on Athens Street. In the background is the Bethel AME Methodist Church on Mill Street in Newtown. - photo by Tom Reed

Although she never sets it, Christine Young’s alarm usually goes off at 5 in the morning — not beeping, but banging metal against metal.

Such is life for Young who, for 35 years, has lived with a recycling yard as her next-door neighbor.

"Way over in the night it starts — the machines — and if you’re asleep, they wake you up so you can’t go back to sleep," Young said. "I just get up and sit on the side of my bed and say ‘Lord, have mercy.’"

Environmental engineers say the noise outside Young’s Norwood Street home on a late October day was as loud as 93 decibels, 32 times the noise in a normal residential area. They also say that the noise and the dust emanating from the heavy industrial sites that surround Gainesville’s Newtown neighborhood is enough to cause health problems in the community.

"The ground actually shook when we were out there," said toxicologist Kathryn Wurzel, who recorded the noise outside Young’s neighboring business, Blaze Recycling and Metals.

Representatives for Blaze — the safety operations manager, an owner and a contracted environmental consultant — either declined to comment on the record about the noise levels or failed to return phone messages from The Times seeking comment Friday.

Young’s home, zoned Residential II, directly abuts a 12-acre heavy industrial site with no buffer, unheard of in modern-day zoning.

Her situation is not uncommon in the community. The Newtown Florist Club, the neighborhood’s environmental justice group, has teamed up with attorneys from the University of Georgia’s Land Use Clinic and Greenlaw to try and mitigate the effects of heavy industrial sites on their neighbors.

The group says that for Newtown’s industries and residents to live together in peace, the city will have to regulate the former more strictly.

"Let’s create a situation where it’s livable for the residents — they’re not having to wear ear protection in their yards — but where industry can still operate," Jamie Baker Roskie, managing attorney of the University of Georgia’s Land Use Clinic, told city officials at a meeting Thursday.

The ideal will take some careful maneuvering on the behalf of Gainesville city officials who have to balance the interest of industry with the welfare of residents.

Gainesville’s City Manager Kip Padgett commissioned department heads to meet with the engineers at the Newtown Florist Club on Thursday. There, the city’s directors of zoning, code enforcement and public works, were faced with the difficult prospect of tightening the reins on city industries that help create the city’s broad tax base.

In a Jan. 6 memo to city department heads, Baker Roskie proposed changes to the air pollution ordinance that would place stronger regulations on dust emissions. The memo calls for changes that would create more specific noise restrictions and require industries that give off a certain amount of dust to create a plan for managing emissions.

The dust could pose the largest threat to Newtown residents’ health. According to Wurzel, Newtown residents already have a higher incidence of lupus and certain cancers than other Americans in their demographic group.

Two days after more than four inches of rain washed over her home, Young already could point out the layer of dust that had reclaimed its place on the walls.

For Young and her Newtown neighbors, the dust is like kudzu that grows year round. The only immediate solution is to tolerate it.

"It’s just a whole lot of dust," Young said. "The dust — the dust is bad, and I have allergies."

Young’s neighbor, William T. Hayley, also says the dust is perhaps an even bigger problem than the noise outside their homes.

"You’re breathing it and you can’t get out and cook barbecue or do anything outside, really," Hayley said.

Hayley, a Mill Street resident, tells stories of a neighbor who washed his roof on a Tuesday and "that Friday, you couldn’t even tell he washed it" and others who hang wet clothes out to dry only to find they will have to be washed again.

Wurzel and Henderson documented some of the neighborhood dust rising from the Blaze Recycling yard in an Oct. 28 video. The short video clip shows a brown cloud rise above the fence that borders Young’s property and follow a dump truck across the screen like a character from a Charlie Brown cartoon.

The billow of dust Henderson and Wurzel caught on video in late October was nothing compared to what Hayley said the Newtown residents experience in the height of summer.

"That was nothing," Hayley said. "In June or July, (Henderson and Wurzel) would have been miserable ... You look up and you think it’s a storm coming."

No matter if Oct. 28 had been a good day for the dust on Norwood Street, there was enough of it for Henderson, Wurzel and the attorneys that have teamed up with the Newtown Florist Club to meet with city officials and ask them to consider rewriting the city’s air pollution ordinance.

Following a meeting with the group Thursday, city officials asked for time to digest the information they were presented with, and asked the group how the city might enforce the proposed ordinances.

"How could you begin to address the noise level ... without significantly changing his business?" Gainesville Principal Planner Matt Tate asked.

Engineer Jamie Henderson says there are a number of ways that noise can be controlled at Newtown’s industrial sites. There is noise-dampening equipment, plus the city could require the businesses to move their loudest operations away from residential property boundaries.

"Even requiring noise-baffling along residential portions would be a huge help," Henderson said.

Gainesville’s Planning Director Rusty Ligon told the group he wanted to try to meet with the owners of the recycling yard before working on any legislation.

"I think we owe it to them to go to them and tell them what we’re doing," Ligon said.

Yet Newtown residents say that Blaze brass has been unresponsive to their pleas thus far.

Ela Orenstein, a Greenlaw attorney representing Newtown residents, said that at a Town Hall meeting in February 2008, representatives from Blaze claimed they had done environmental testing and offered to share it.

"That offer was in vain, unfortunately," Orenstein said.

When contacted about the environmental testing Friday, Frank Trevino, an environmental consultant for The McCart Group, said he could not disclose information about the results of environmental tests performed at the Blaze site.

Trevino referred all comments to George Balbona, the recycling yard’s safety manager, who referred comments to Craig Blase, one of the company’s owners.

Blase did not return a message seeking comment.

Young says she has since given up on fighting the noise.

"All you can try to do is try to talk to him, because that’s his property," Young said. "I just say I’m going to leave it in the hands of the Lord, let the Lord take care of it."

"... A man got money, you can’t move him. You hear me? You can’t move him. You can talk all you want, but you can’t move him so I’ve decided I’m just going to back out — stop."

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