published Saturday, May 12th, 2012

Bottled water operation near old landfill ignites debate

  • photo
    Walker County Commissioner Bebe Heiskell
    Photo by Kelly Wegel

A new bottled water plant is making waves in Walker County.

Company officials want to open the bottling plant at the old Barwick-Archer carpet mill in a self-contained "building-within-a-building," where it will draw from the nearby municipal water supply.

Bebe Heiskell, Walker County Commissioner, said Realbright Sunrae Water would purify and bottle municipal water from the Walker County Water and Sewer Authority, which is heavily regulated and "very clean."

Though she called the site a brownfield in a 2006 interview with the Walker County Messenger, the water won't come from the property, Heiskell said.

The company instead will use wells already used for city residents' drinking water, which are miles away.

"He's not getting ready to drill a well into a brownfield," she said. "I'd stop him."

Georgia Environmental Protection officials say that while the municipal supply used by Sunrae Water is safe, a 20-year-old industrial waste site across the street from the carpet plant could prevent the company from drilling new wells onsite.

"If you would go and drill a well out there next to the landfill, there'd be some concerns," said Jeff Cown, who inspected the industrial waste site when it was shut down in 1993.

Dr. Richard Beeman, chief operations officer for Sunrae, said the existing municipal wells were capable of producing a brisk 920 gallons per minute, which should be plenty.

The water will be shipped and sold in 5-gallon containers for homes and offices.

"We're a green tech startup venture, but we're not some liberal, 'save-the-world do-gooder,'" Beeman said. "Our intention is to make money for our shareholder and give something back to the county."

Company founder Mike Schieck said he's been working behind the scenes for three years to get the plant set up, and now he's on the fast-track.

Schieck's goal is to get the plant up and running by July inside Barwick-Archer, starting next week when he moves the equipment into the 900,000-square-foot facility.

He plans to hire 20 workers to get started on the venture, which should cost between $1 million and $1.3 million, he said.

Waves

A few residents questioned whether the deal, announced earlier this week, was just a publicity stunt by Heiskell in an election year.

"There are far too many concerns about their experience and the speed with which they're planning to open their operation for me to feel as if this company will contribute much to the county's economic growth," said LaFayette resident Kathi Holden.

Of Schieck's six companies, only one -- Sunrae Environmental -- has an accessible website.

But none of his companies actually produce any products or own any space, Schieck said.

"They're startups, and they haven't started yet," he said.

He said the public debate is unwarranted, since Sunrae isn't asking for any government subsidies or assistance.

"I'm the captain of the boat, whether we're on a cruise line or the Titanic," Schieck said.

Beeman wrote a letter to the Catoosa County news in Ringgold, Ga. to take on Sunrae's detractors.

"All we want to do is bottle and sell drinking water, make a profit for our stockholders, pay for a college tuition here and there, maybe once in a while a new pick-up," Beeman wrote.

Beeman, who describes himself as a former nuclear engineer at the Three Mile Island nuclear station, is currently author and administrator at a website called TeethInYourLeg.org.

Schieck's own work experience includes time as a Canadian quality control inspector for General Motors and several years as a marketing executive.

Larry Brooks, economic development director for Walker County, said small startups like the proposed Sunrae bottled water plant are helping the county recover from the recession-spurred shutdown of the former Blue Bird bus plant and previous cutbacks by carpet mills and appliance makers in the area.

"In the Chickamauga and Kensington areas, we are blessed with a great wealth of water," Brooks said. "We're always eager to welcome businesses into the county like this and we obviously hope they are successful."

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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