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UPDATE: Possible Emissions From Proposed Plants Have Residents Concerned

UPDATE: Since we first aired this story, TIMA Capital has pulled its permit application, which would have allowed the company to emit 90 tons of Methyl Bromide into the air each year.  Sunnyvale Drive in Wilmington, between River and Carolina Beach Roads, has become a sort of Ground Zero for air emissions. 

[UPDATE, March 29: In a letter to N.C. Department of Environmental Quality officials, Timurlan Aitaly, the president of TIMA Capital, wrote, “At the request of our landowner, TIMA Capital Inc. will not be fumigating on this property after Royal Pest Solutions Synthetic Minor Permit cessation of operations and rescission of their permit effective April 10.”

The letter to DEQ came a day after the TIMA president said in an email to WHQR that "TIMA has willingly complied with what the North Carolina and Federal Laws require for issuance of a permit.  TIMA's export operations also support local trucking, the State Port and other local businesses in the community."]   

Two companies, neighbors actually, are looking to open facilities that will release tons of formaldehyde and methyl bromide into the atmosphere. 

When Bob Stewart moved to Wilmington, becoming a community activist was far from his mind. He had been a union organizer but was now retired.

That changed in February, when he learned about National Gypsum and its plans to possibly re-open its shuttered facility on Sunnyvale Drive, a mile and a half from his home.

“I looked into it and, just couldn't, could not wrap my head around the idea that the County Commissioners and the City Council and Mayor, were, were poised on February 19 to approve, a total of $580,000 in public money to incentivize a very large national corporation.”

National Gypsum has plants across the country. The company is one of the largest gypsum board producers in the world. It’s headquartered in Charlotte. The Wilmington facility was closed down in 2009 due to the recession and less demand for their products. But all that has changed. The demand has skyrocketed.

It’s not just the incentives from the city and county that bothered Stewart. It’s also the formaldehyde.

“And you should not, county commissioner and city council and mayor, be making these kinds of decisions about the health and public safety of this entire city and community without hearing our voices first, not at the back end, not as an afterthought.”

The North Carolina Division of Air Quality says that National Gypsum's Wilmington site, is permitted to emit up to 8.77 tons of formaldehyde annually.

Sridhar Varadarajan is a chemistry and biochemistry professor at UNCW.

“Every chemical emission poses risks. Formaldehyde is a reactive molecule. It's something that is known to interact with DNA.”

“Formaldehyde is used to, put biological species in when you're saving organs in order to prevent growth of organisms on them. So anything that is toxic, and you increase the emissions is going to cause problems”

This week, representatives from National Gypsum are in Wilmington explaining the production process.

James Phipps is the Director of Environmental Affairs for the company.

“And just to give you an example, one of the numbers that seems to be prevalent is the 8.77 tons a year for our annual limit. Well, because we're a continuous operation. We're not a batch system. You take the 8.77 tons per year, times 2,000 pounds a ton divided by 365 days in 24 hours. You get two pounds an hour for an average rate. So because it's spread out over the year and it's a continuous operation, it is a low… When you're looking at on average, it's a low number when you break it up.

“And, because of the way from, based off our operations, again, grabbing two pounds an hour or what, you could fit that in my, in the mason jar.”

The company says that re-opening the Wilmington location will create more than 50 jobs, with an average salary of $57,000 a year plus benefits.

New Hanover County Commissioner Chairman Woody White says the issue will be addressed at Monday’s meeting.

“Since the item was tabled in about 30 days ago, we've had a lot of meetings with DEQ, the regulatory authorities and also with the scientists and environmental engineers at the company. And we feel much more at ease now with the emissions that they propose from what we're told by the regulators and the company and there's more formaldehyde in the ambient air in your house and in the environment as a natural substance in there is from this plant.”

He believes the incentives package will be approved next week.

“I'm sure leaning in favor of voting for it myself and I think the other commissioners and council members are too, we will see. But at the meeting there'll be an opportunity for the public to hear and be heard and also for the company and the environmental quality experts from the state regulators to answer questions that we have”

But even with the incentives, there is no guarantee the plant on Sunnyvale Drive will reopen.

Nancy Spurlock is Communications Director for National Gypsum.

“Our board of directors will make the final decision and it's between Wilmington and Tampa. The Wilmington plant needs to have rail service. The railroad is there, but we need a spur line that goes into our plant because many of our customers want rail. The Tampa plant that has been idled, it has rail, so is already equipped with rail. And it has two production lines. So it will be between Tampa and Wilmington. (And what's the timeframe for that decision, do you think?) We need to make it this year because the market is moving up.”

But that’s not the end of the story.

As concerned citizens like Bob Stewart were researching National Gypsum and formaldehyde, they learned about TIMA Capital. TIMA is right next door to the National Gypsum property, and is looking for a Title V permit for its log exporting company. That permit would allow TIMA to emit up to 90 tons of methyl bromide into the air per year.

Again, Sridhar Varadarajan of UNCW.

“The biggest problem with methyl bromide is it's odorless. You don't even know that you're breathing it. So, and it's known that all this halogenated hydrocarbons deplete the ozone layer. That's another problem with methyl bromide. So I do not understand why we would even consider increasing the release of this gas in our atmosphere, especially, uh, if there's no recapture technology.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that methyl bromide is a powerful fumigant. The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer required a phase-out of methyl bromide for applications other than quarantine and pre-shipment purposes by January 2005. The EPA reports that methyl bromide is highly toxic. Studies in humans indicate that the lungs may be severely injured by the acute, short-term inhalation of methyl bromide. Acute and chronic, long-term inhalation of methyl bromide can lead to neurological effects in humans.

“Chronic exposure is very difficult to track, you know, it's something that you are exposed to for a lifetime and after years when you get some of these diseases, it's hard to pinpoint and say this was the only one that caused it when you're being exposed to other things. But it, it is a safety hazard. And I wouldn't want to increase - and I wouldn't want to have my children exposed to higher levels of the same compound for years and years.”

As a result of recent complaints to the state’s Division of Air Quality, the public comment period has been extended beyond it’s March 25 end-date, into April. In addition, the DAQ will hold a public meeting in Wilmington regarding the TIMA permit request in the near future. In an email to WHQR, the President of TIMA Timurlan Aitaly says TIMA has willingly complied with what the North Carolina and federal laws require for issuance of a permit. He adds that Tima’s export operations will support local trucking, the state port and other local businesses in the community.