Hugo Neu: Trash Heap or Treasure?

Navassa, NC – Just a few miles west of Wilmington along the Brunswick River lies the town of Navassa. Named after a Caribbean island mined for its bird guano, Navassa began importing and processing it into fertilizer in the late 19th Century. By the 1950s, Navassa employed nearly 4000 workers in five fertilizer factories. But by the early 1980s, the factories and the jobs were gone. All that's left now are hundreds of acres of contaminated land. With high unemployment and a poorly-educated population, the town is struggling.

Eulis Willis has been Mayor of Navassa for five years. He finds it ironic to be part of Brunswick County, one of the wealthiest counties in North Carolina.

[Willis] Whatever our share of Brunswick County's wealth has been, for whatever reason, we haven't been able to share it. Right now, we can't even get water to half the residents in Navassa, and the County owns a water line that runs right down through the neighborhood.

But Mayor Willis hasn't let circumstances control Navassa's destiny. When an opportunity came to annex three nearby towns in 2000, Mayor Willis made it happen. When Rampage Yachts was looking for a place to build their boat factory, Mayor Willis brought them to Navassa. And when a Brunswick County Commissioner came calling last year to locate a new recycling facility nearby, Mayor Willis said yes.

Hugo Neu Corporation, the Country's largest exporter of scrap metals, hopes to build a $20 million automobile and appliance recycling facility near Navassa. The company may be best known for recycling the steel from the World Trade Center, but is also credited with reviving a failing household recycling program in New York City.

Mayor Willis welcomes the 50 jobs that Hugo Neu would bring to the Navassa area. He says the resulting tax base could also help him rescue a bunch of local kids who don't even know what the Internet is.
[Willis] If we can get us a community boys and girls club, we can provide a wholesome outlet for these kids, that would help Navassa get right on the track it needs to be where our kids in our neighborhood can compete with rest of America.

Not everyone thinks Hugo Neu is a good idea. One person's recycling facility is another person's waste dump. Just ask Teri Holden, who lives next to the proposed facility. She has a message for Hugo Neu.

[Holden] Don't stockpile your garbage for my great grandchildren to climb on.

More than 10 million vehicles are removed from service each year in the United States. Once left to rust in scrap yards, most cars are now recycled. The first part of the recycling process involves shredding the cars and recovering the steel. The remaining material, commonly called auto fluff, can then be shipped to secondary recycling facilities like the one proposed in Navassa.

Auto fluff includes items like seats, dashboards, and windshields. Because three-fourths of a typical vehicle by volume is fluff, there's a lot of it to process. Two to three million cubic yards of fluff would be imported to Navassa each year via rail, barge, and truck.

Hugo Neu says it will use state-of-the-art technology to recover other valuable metals like copper, brass, and aluminum from the fluff. What's left after all metals have been removed will be mostly plastics, foams, glass, and rubber. This material will be stored a landfill that could eventually reach 350 feet high. Teri Holden finds that hard to fathom.

[Holden] I'm looking at a pine tree that I'm kind of guestimating... I'll say that tree's 50 feet tall. So 300 feet above that tree will be the top of this landfill.

Living only one-third of a mile from the proposed landfill, Holden worries about her property and what will happen if she wants to sell it or hand it down to her kids.

Doug Clark is an environmental consultant for Hugo Neu. He calls the site a Residuals Management Unit instead of a landfill because the auto fluff can be recycled.

[Clark] Even though it appears that we're disposing of materials, we are not disposing of them. This facility is called a Residuals Management Unit because we have the ability to go back in and take out these very valuable commodities once these markets develop.

The commodities he's talking about are mostly plastics. Clark says plastics have a heating value similar to coal, and could eventually be used for energy generation. They could also be put back into new vehicles, much like the European Union has mandated.

Teri Holden is skeptical, and worries that the landfill will be around for generations.

[Holden] I don't see a market for auto fluff being there, not anywhere in my lifetime.

Holden is part of a grass roots organization called Brunswick Citizens for a Safe Environment that is fighting the landfill. Their concerns are not just property values and blight. They also worry about their health.

The US Environmental Protection Agency says auto fluff can contain high levels of toxic substances if vehicles are not processed correctly. For example, if certain switches or outdated radios are not removed from the cars before they're shredded, toxins like mercury or PCBs can contaminate the fluff.

Doug Clark admits the salvage industry did a poor job in the past removing harmful substances from cars before shredding them, but says things have improved.

[Clark] What has happened over the last decade and more is that companies like Hugo Neu have recognized that if we do not stop that material at our gate, it will haunt us forever in our future.

Clark says, not only are cars more carefully scrutinized before shredding, the fluff coming into the Navassa facility will be analyzed at least quarterly for toxic substances.

The opposition group says that's all well and good, but wonders if Hugo Neu can be trusted. They cite problems the company has had with one of its auto shredding facilities in Rhode Island. Last year, Metals Recycling in Johnston was fined $250,000 by the State of Rhode Island for hazardous waste violations. Doug Clark says these problems existed well-before Hugo Neu purchased Metals Recycling, and that new management has worked hard to correct them.

Dean Albro is the Chief of the Compliance Division of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. He agrees that Hugo Neu has improved environmental compliance at Metals Recycling since the takeover.

[Albro] You know, in our meetings with them, representatives from the parent company actually came in and said, 'This is not the way we want to do business. It's gonna take us a little bit of time, but we will fix the things that are out there.' And they seem to have done so.

Still, Teri Holden and other opponents say trust is an issue because of the way Hugo Neu sited the landfill in the first place.

[Holden] I think that they chose the Town of Navassa because of it being a low income, predominantly black area, just like they did in Allendale, South Carolina.

Doug Clark first went to Allendale to try and site the facility, but says he gave up when he was unable to negotiate favorable rates with the railroad. Clark says most people in Allendale, including the Mayor, supported the project and were sorry to see the company go. He says there has been no effort by Hugo Neu to exploit low-income, minority communities, either in Allendale or Navassa.

[Clark] Early on, when we were introduced to the Town of Navassa, we had a frank conversation about the fact that they were a minority community and that these accusations would be hurled at them and the Company. I understand them, they're absolutely bogus. The Company did not choose this site, this site was chosen and recommended by the State and by the County itself.

Because some Brunswick County commissioners were key in bringing Hugo Neu to Navassa, Clark wonders why they passed a resolution in May opposing the facility. In adjacent New Hanover County, the Wilmington City Council also passed an opposition resolution in August, partly because of concerns about the area's fragile and unique habitat. Doug Clark disagrees.

[Clark] If you were sitting on this tailgate, you would see a piece of land that has been clearcut at least three times, it has been drained of all wetlands, and is routinely used for off-road recreational vehicles. When we leave this site it will be in much better condition.

Regardless of the company's stated intentions, some of the issues will have to be worked out in Brunswick County Superior Court. In August, opponents of the facility sued Navassa officials, hoping to void a franchise agreement between the town and Hugo Neu.

As the lawsuit winds its way through court, Mayor Willis will keep hoping for his boys and girls club.

[Willis] If Hugo Neu was to come here, we'd have an opportunity to save at least one or two generations of Navassa kids from a life of hopelessness.

For WHQR Public Radio in Wilmington, I'm Steve Meador.