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EPD: Hyundai wells will drop water level 19 feet at most
But many area residents still oppose the wells; some object to having counties create mitigation fund
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Bulloch County resident Randy Proctor (left) walks to the stage to try and get some clarification from Georgia Environmental Protection Division geologist Christine Voudy about the map on the big screen as EPD presents their findings to and take questions and comments from Bulloch County residents concerning wells being drilled by Hyundai for their Metaplant in Bryan County at Southeast Bulloch High School on Monday, Feb 26. (Photo/Scott Bryant, Stateboro Herald)
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Bulloch County residents fill the seats at the Southeast Bulloch High School auditorium as Georgia Environmental Protection Division employees present their findings concerning wells being drilled by Hyundai for their metaplant in Bryan County on Monday, Feb 26. (Photo/Scott Bryant, Statesboro Herald)

Based on hydrologic modeling, four large wells proposed to supply the Hyundai Motor Group Metaplant would draw down the water level in the Floridan aquifer by a maximum of 19 feet very close to the wells, Georgia EPD scientists told residents of Bulloch and Bryan counties in a public meeting Monday night.

More than 200 people turned out for the 6 p.m. information and feedback session hosted by scientists and administrators from the state Environmental Protection Division in the Southeast Bulloch High School auditorium at Brooklet. The crowd had thinned somewhat by the time the meeting ended three hours later.

If the wells for which the Bulloch County and Bryan County governments have requested permits – totaling 6.625 million gallons per day pumping capacity on annual average – were operated at full blast, the highwater mark in the porous limestone aquifer would drop about 10 feet at a five-mile radius from the wells, in the EPD’s projections. The 19-foot drawdown would be the lowest point of the “cone of depression,” around the center of the wellsite area, said Christine Voudy, a geologist in the agency’s Groundwater Withdrawal Unit.

As one of its short-term conditions for granting the permits, the EPD has recommended that Bulloch and Bryan counties create a mitigation fund to compensate owners of agricultural and residential wells for inflicted expenses, such as for lowering the level of submersible pumps.

But the first conclusion an EPD scientist emphasized during the meeting was that the wells would not pull salt water into the Upper Floridan Aquifer this far inland.

“The bottom line: There will be no saltwater intrusion into any wells in Bryan and Bulloch counties,” Voudy said.

Using a simplified cutaway illustration of underground layers, she explained that any saltwater flows toward lower points of the aquifer, which slopes toward Georgia’s southeastern coast. In the illustration, the low point is beneath Brunswick, where the aquifer’s layers are deeper.

Most of the agricultural and major residential wells in the Bryan and Bulloch area are drilled into the Upper Floridan Aquifer, several hundred feet deep. Many small residential wells are shallow wells, less than 100 feet deep, but a barrier layer between the Floridan aquifer and the shallow-well, “surficial” aquifer should prevent any effects on shallow wells, the EPD scientists said.

Saltwater intrusion has only been known to occur in the deep freshwater aquifer at places much nearer the ocean, such as Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. It was saltwater ruining wells there, and concerns about it occurring on Georgia’s coast such as at Tybee Island, that prompted state regulators to create a three-zone system for coastal Georgia counties years ago.

Red, yellow, green

In the red zone, which includes Chatham and other coastal counties, new permits for major wells were prohibited and old ones reduced, and the water level in the Savannah area has partially recovered, according to the EPD. Bryan County is in the yellow zone, where new groundwater permits are prohibited so that total pumping does not increase. But Bulloch County is in the green zone, where monitoring occurs but state well-drilling permits are still issued.

This is why Bryan County’s two Hyundai supply wells, with a combined, requested capacity of 3.125 million gallons a day, would actually be drilled just across the county line in southern Bulloch County. Meanwhile, Bulloch County’s two wells, with a combined, requested capacity of 3.5 mgd, would also be geographically in Bulloch, not far from the Bryan County-owned wells.

EPD officials acknowledged that the permit applications are being considered only because they are in Bulloch County and the green zone.

“No,” was Voudy’s one-word answer when an area resident, pointing to a projected map, asked if the EPD would permit the wells if they were just across the line in Bryan County.

This still draws citizen comments like one from Randy Proctor, a Stilson-area mechanic, farmer and frequent speaker in opposition to the wells.

“Why are you telling us that you have a moratorium in Bryan County and won’t let them drill down there, but you’re going to drill in Bulloch County and you can go right across the highway?” he said Monday. “Does that water … know where 119 and Highway 80 (are)?”

Voudy said “part of the rationale” for putting Bulloch County in the green zone was the position of the Gulf Trough, an underground geologic feature. Later in the meeting, Bill Frechette, permitting manager with the EPD’s Groundwater Unit, gave a simpler answer, that regulators needed to draw the line somewhere and the existing county boundaries were available.

‘Worst-case scenario’

For their predictions of the cone of depression to be created by the four wells and effects on existing wells, the EPD had scientists in its Hydrology Section and Groundwater Section, independently of each other, run simulations based on the same 6.625 mgd scenario. They used a predictive model also accepted by the U.S. Geologic Survey and other agencies.

“We do a worst-case scenario,” Voudy said. “When somebody submits an application for a quantity of water, we run it as if they were going to pump 6.625 million gallons per day from four wells and not take a break. But most permits, all of our permits typically, are not near their permit limits because they’re afraid that if they violate those limits, they’re violating our rules and law.”

Mitigation fund

In January, the EPD released a draft of special conditions for possibly issuing the groundwater withdrawal permits.

First among those conditions, the agency proposed that the Bulloch County and Bryan County governments create a joint “municipal managed fund” to address “short-term impacts” of the wells. The draft calls for a 10-year fund to compensate owners and users of residential and agricultural wells in a five-mile radius of the I-16 and Georgia Highway 119 interchange, near where the four big wells are proposed to be drilled.

Remedies that could be funded “may include methods proposed using best management practices of a Georgia licensed well driller, such as resetting the water pump deeper or by other proposed solutions,” the draft conditions document states.

Citizens who spoke during the several question-and-answer breaks and final comment time Monday criticized the limitation to a five-mile radius, questioned the apparent 10-year limit and asserted that Hyundai, not the counties, should fund it.

“Again this is draft special-condition language,” Frechette told the crowd. “We hope this addresses some of your concerns. We are willing to modify, we are willing to listen, we are willing to change things as necessary.”

The five-mile radius was a projection of “reasonable impacts” out to the 10-foot draw-down, and the counties or consultants could modify this in applying it, he said. The 10-year period is based on the fact that groundwater permits are issued for 10 years, and it would probably be continued when permits are renewed, according to Frechette.

“The expectation is that the fund keeps out there until such time as an alternate source comes along,” he said.

Frechette also pointed out that a 12- to 15-foot drop in water level, which might be typical within the five-mile radius, probably wouldn’t mean that all the pumps would have to be set lower.

“The general Floridan well is drilled deep. The water level comes up. They’re not right at the feather edge of the water,” he said.

Alternative sources

The EPD has also proposed several conditions to address “long-term impacts.”

First among these is that the agency “strongly encourages Bryan County and Bulloch County to work together to expeditiously plan for the timely provision of treated surface water (or other alternatives) and the construction of all infrastructure necessary to deliver sufficient quantities of treated water to northern Bryan County and southern Bulloch County.”

In other words, the EPD asserts that when possible, other sources such as water from the Savannah River should be used to replace the groundwater from these wells.

“This provision of treated surface water (or other alternatives) and the construction of all infrastructure necessary should not exceed 25 years,” the proposed document states.

Bill Emley of Statesboro was one of several area residents who expressed opposition to the mitigation fund, or at least to the counties being left to fund it.

“Why should Bulloch County taxpayers be paying for the burden that was placed upon them by an external source?” he asked.

The state staffers “hope that others have substantial donations to make to the fund,” Frechette said. “It would be in their best interest to do so.”

Several county officials attended Monday’s meeting but did not speak during it.

Bryan County commissioners Chairman Carter Infinger and County Administrator Ben Taylor, Bulloch County commissioners Chairman Roy Thompson and County Manager Tom Couch have met informally to discuss the mitigation fund and other conditions.

They are calling on Georgia Southern University’s recently created Institute for Water and Health for help in planning “and maybe even the outreach and management of the program,” Couch said Tuesday.

“Then the other leg of it is going to be fundraising. …,” he said. “I know that conversations are being had with private industry and others. Since I don’t see any written commitments, I don’t think it would be prudent of me to suggest anybody in particular, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Hyundai or some of their suppliers might get an ask, obviously.”

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