8News Investigates: Fugitive Dust - 8NEWS - WRIC | News Where You Live

8News Investigates: Fugitive Dust

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BUMPASS, VA—Forced from their homes and dealing with failing health, area neighbors, fearful of pollution from a nearby mill, turned to 8News for help.

"We're at our whit's ends; we just don't know what to do," said Dan Ferrell who lives next to the mill.

Exhaust stacks, giant smoking chimneys, tower into the sky at Biomass Energy's wood pellet manufacturing plant in Bumpass, Virginia.

"This is not what it should be like on a farm out in the country," said Ferrell's wife Michelle.

At the request of neighbors, 8News began investigating the plant in February, pouring over thousand of pages of reports from the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

Our investigation found a number of "notice of violations" issued by the DEQ. The department cites "fugitive dust emissions" and "wood particles" landing on neighbor's property. The reports say dust emissions were seen heading into the atmosphere and there was no plan in place to stop the pollution from happening.

In an email 8News obtained, a state inspector refers to the Biomas factory saying "Mount Bumpass erupts again."

Dan Ferrell, who has a compromised respiratory system, showed 8News letters from his doctor, documenting how the emissions from the plant are exacerbating his health issues.

"If the wind is blowing this way, my doctors have told me not to be here," said Ferrell. "If I had to be here to feed the animals [I need] to make sure I'm wearing a dust mask or a respirator."

According to documents from Biomass, there are potential acute health effects that can target the respiratory system, lungs, eyes and skin.

Company paperwork also shows its product can cause dryness of nose, dry cough, wheezing and sneezing and respiratory reactions in sensitized individuals.

"We don't know what to do. We've totally lost our farm; my daughter's lost her home; we just can't be over here," said Ferrell.

Hillary Pritchett, Ferrell's daughter, who has a home on her parent's farm, says her young son can't play outside.

"It's very frustrating and heartbreaking to know your child has to live in fear every time he walks out the front door," said Pritchett.

The fugitive dust, escaping into the air from the Biomass plant, coats the livestock, the troughs, the grass, the tractor, vehicles, homes and even children's toys.

"His breathing went down 60%," Pritchett said of her son's health. "All of his toys were always covered in dust; he couldn't go outside and play."

The young boy was dealing with constant Asthma flare ups.

In March 2012, the company was forced to pay a civil charge, basically a fine, of nearly $50,000 for repeated pollution violations, but neighbors say the problems didn't stop.

After more than a month of investigating, 8News contacted Scott Deakin, the vice president of Biomass.

The very day 8News contacted the company, plant management announced they were immediately shutting the plant down.

A written statement said the plant was closing because the business was "unsustainable financially."

Deakin told 8News the decision had nothing to do with any other issues, including the on-going DEQ investigation that could have resulted in another hefty fine.

For neighbors who no longer have fugitive dust falling from the heavens, it's an answer to prayer.

"It's just unbelievable, we can come back out and work, take care of our animals," said Ferrell. "It's, um, I just don't know how to describe it—it's like freedom."

But the plant's closing is bittersweet for many in Louisa County. Some 40 workers lost their jobs when the plant shutdown.

For economic reasons, county leaders are hoping someone will buy the plant and start it back up. Those who live in the area, tell us they hope it will remain closed.

8News will continue to monitor the plant's status.

Copyright 2013 by Young Broadcasting of Richmond

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