Loudon County Air Quality Task Force members conceded Wednesday that Ceramica Del Conca, a new tile manufacturer coming to Loudon, appears to be a welcome asset for the community — both economically and environmentally.
But that does not diminish the fact that members want more environmental information gathered and shared earlier in the industrial recruitment process.
Two LCAQTF members who are also county commissioners, Don Miller and David Meers, plan to take the group's requests to Loudon County Commission.
The group's position was solidified after Pat Phillips, Loudon County Economic Development Agency president, met with the task force for 90 minutes to discuss industrial recruitment procedures. Task force members also got an opportunity to read and study the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation environmental impact statement.
"It looks like they are doing everything right," Gerald Schleuter, Tate & Lyle plant manager and a task force member, said. "They've done a great job, using some of the best technology out there. Everything they are doing is what TDEC requires, the MACT (maximum achievable control technology) equipment. I am impressed."
Phillips' appearance was in response to issues raised recently with Loudon City Council and county commissioners by longtime task force member Bud Guider. Guider had addressed both groups concerning what he felt was a "flawed process" that he said failed to require information on environmental impact from prospective industries at the beginning of negotiations.
The meeting with Loudon City Council was on Guider's personal initiative as a resident. At the county meeting, he represented the viewpoint of the task force.
Guider said Wednesday that the lack of information officials received about emissions was his concern.
Lewis "Charlie Brown" Garner, task force chairman, said the group would like to explore ways to have a cooperative relationship with EDA.
"We are not trying to get leverage to hurt anybody. We are trying to help our community," he said. "At what point in the site plan does the environment become relevant?"
Miller assured Phillips that the task force is not against economic development.
"We are not talking about Ceramica Del Conca. This issue is: Should we have more information, especially if it involves writing a check," Miller said. "They are a super company from every perspective."
Phillips said industrial recruitment has become increasingly competitive in recent years and companies are more secretive when they begin looking at building new plants. The process is more one of elimination than inclusion, he said, so EDA does not even respond to requests for information that do not seem to be a good fit for the community.
Consultants generally perform initial contacts and gather information about potential sites in a community. "In the early stages, the information we get is minimal," Phillips said. "They all use code names."
If the type of industry can be determined, EDA works to learn as much as possible about potential impact, Phillips said.
"Everybody is interested in what is good, and what matters to (the) community, but you have to have balance in all issues," Phillips said. "A lot of people would love for Loudon County to go back to an agricultural society like it was in the '50s, but it is not going to happen.
"With industries, it is a process of elimination," he said. "They are not here to include us but to eliminate us. So it is the last one standing. You wait to get cut, and you can get cut over insignificant or practical issues. There are hundreds of sites across the country and the world."
Guider said he felt prospective industries should be prepared to answer questions about environmental impact.
"If somebody in a community asks a question about environmental impact and that scares them off, that should be a red flag," Guider said. "I believe elected officials need to be in the loop pertaining to environmental issues with industries prior to their approval ... I expect elected officials to require information and know what is going to happen before they spend money on a project. This needs to be fixed."
Mike Crosby, task force member, said the group could provide help in vetting industries. "We have a lot of talent here to help advise governmental bodies, but it sounds as if the EDA doesn't think it's a good thing," he said.
Crosby asked if the EDA would consider consulting the task force about environmental issues.
Phillips countered. "You've got to have a standard. It can't be arbitrary and capricious. There are standards for regulating industries," he said. "All communities are the same — they go to TDEC for permitting. We don't know about specific emissions until we make several cuts, and that might take months or years. So we just don't respond if the projects don't fit Loudon County."
Crosby asked if it would be detrimental for the task force to sit down with a prospective industry and ask a few questions.
"I think if you sit down early on they would view it as a negative," Phillips said. "Any question that would make them think they would spend more or require more than other companies would be a negative."
"Would you support the task force being involved on the front end or not?" Guider asked Phillips.
Phillips said he would not necessarily be opposed to the prospect. "If we started getting multiple visits, it seems reasonable, but we can't do it every time we get a (request for information)," he said.
Moments later, after Phillips departed, Guider said he still did not have a feeling for whether EDA would support more stringent environmental fact finding. He said he thought the issues should be put to a vote by the task force.
"This (discussion) has to be continued. We haven't resolved it, but it has been a good discussion," Guider said. "Is the task force on board with the concept? Do you support asking our governmental officials to get information up front from an environmental standpoint?"
Miller agreed in principle.
"I would say yes on governmental bodies getting the info up front," he said. "Should the task force be the vehicle? Maybe. I don't know how to make that happen. There's got to be a way of doing this without ruffling feathers."
Garner pointed out that the EDA works for the cities and the county, with Miller adding that the county pays 70 percent of the EDA's salaries. He also noted that between himself and Meers, two county votes were represented.
"I would prefer we collaborate than give a mandate," Miller said, emphasizing that more discussions are needed about how to amend the process.
Guider said the group should push for more consideration of environmental issues if the task force is to continue. "We shouldn't be afraid to ask questions," he said. "It is legitimate to question the environmental impact."