The Southern Environmental Law Center presented a study in Wilmington last week by ICF International about the potential health risks of air emissions by Titan America’s proposed cement plant in Castle Hayne.
The study found that for a five-month simulation period, Titan’s proposed emissions of ozone pollution and particulate matter could result in millions of dollars in healthcare costs for the tri-county region. Respiratory symptoms like shortness of breath, coughing, and wheezing have been linked to the pollutants.
The data was paid for with Stop Titan funding and looks at projected adverse health effects from May to September, when ozone formation is already at its peak.
Geoff Gisler is the staff attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center.
“There would be 530 incidents of people having respiratory problems—asthma attacks, those sorts of things. There would be 160 kids that would have to stay home from school or have to miss camp in the summer.”
After last week’s presentation, Titan America released its response to the study, including a handful of objections. First, the company notes that the study uses the plant’s maximum potential to emit listed in Titan’s draft air permit with the Division of Air Quality or DAQ.
Carolinas Cement General Manager Bob Odom says that the maximum amount isn’t an accurate depiction of what the plant’s emission levels will actually be.
“We could be down a month, a couple of weeks here, a couple of weeks there, to pull maintenance on the plant. And also, if the economy is not as strong, like it’s not strong right now, the plant may not be running full time either.”
Gisler says if Titan did list higher levels than what the company expects to emit annually, then the draft air permit is illegal because it violates the Clean Air Act.
But DAQ Spokesperson Tom Mather says that’s simply not the case and having Titan list its maximum is standard practice for the agency.
“Typically, the levels that would be potentially allowed in a permit are much higher than actual emissions. And that’s true of any facility across the state.”
Mather also points out that the DAQ doesn’t evaluate permit applications based on projected healthcare costs; the agency uses federal guidelines from the EPA specifying emission limits.
Another area of contention involves whether or not the ICF International study was peer-reviewed. Odom, with Carolinas Cement, says outside experts should have been consulted, while Gisler, with the Southern Environmental Law Center, says the study uses peer-reviewed data models approved by the EPA.
“That there wasn’t an external peer review of the numbers is really a tangent because the models themselves have been extensively peer-reviewed. So, it’s a distraction.”
Odom and Gisler are also divided on whether the study should have considered possible upcoming changes at other polluting companies in the area since the EPA lowered its limits on sulfur dioxide emissions in 2010.
New Hanover County is still waiting to hear from the federal agency regarding its attainment status of those new limits. Bob Odom:
“The report did not account for reductions in emissions due to proposed changes in existing sources, also. Because the rules are tightening up, people who are here already are going to have to make changes to come into compliance with new rules coming down the pike.”
With the county’s attainment status under scrutiny, Gisler says that any additional emissions would be disconcerting.
So, what’s to come of all this? What’s next in this more than three-year community debate on whether or not Titan should set up shop?
Geoff Gisler: “What we’re hoping to do is help policymakers make decisions—there are still decisions that have to be made at the local and state level. You know, we hope it will inform the public and spark a real discussion about whether or not those health effects are acceptable.”
And Bob Odom: “The goal is to hire as many people from this area as possible, and we’ll be paying taxes. But, we will meet all the rules and regulations and once we’re here, people are going to say, ‘We don’t even know you’re here.’”
As company officials and Stop Titan organizers continue to hash out their opposing views, both sides are waiting to hear a final verdict on the company’s state air permit application. If that green light comes through, work will begin on another batch of permits with the Army Corps of Engineers.
Word from the state DAQ could come any day now.
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