As GE-Hitachi considers whether to build a laser-based uranium enrichment plant on its campus in Castle Hayne, members of the surrounding community are generally in the dark when it comes to what – exactly -- the industrial giant might be creating in their backyards.
WHQR’s Rachel Lewis Hilburn reports on what the Environmental Protection Agency calls an Environmental Justice issue.
“I am familiar with it. I don’t profess to know a lot about the plant.”
Tom Radewicz is a member of the Castle Hayne Steering Committee – an unofficial group of community activists who gather in much the same way a town council might if Castle Hayne had incorporated. Radewicz says he’s attended a couple of meetings about GE-Hitachi’s proposed uranium enrichment plant over the last several years. But he admits he doesn’t know anything about potential risks – or what the implications might be for his community.
“It raises a couple of hairs because this is a little different than what we’re doing out there at the present time.”
Tom knows little more than the handful or so of Castle Hayne residents informally polled over the last several weeks. He doesn’t know about concerns the Environmental Protection Agency raised regarding the proposed facility.
In letters to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the EPA cites the need for waste minimization plans, commitments to groundwater monitoring, and meaningful engagement with the community that could be adversely impacted.
Of the three New Hanover County Commissioners called for comment regarding the uranium enrichment plant, only one returned the call. And all three of the EPA’s concerns are news to Rick Catlin. He recently toured GE’s existing plant, though, to learn more about what the company does. And, says Catlin, New Hanover County is fortunate to have them here.
“They are a good corporate citizen and they’re very conscientious in what they do and I have confidence that they’ll be able to resolve and answer any questions or issues that people have.”
One of those questions raised by the EPA is the absence of a community advisory group. That’s because parts of Castle Hayne are considered Environmental Justice communities by the EPA which the agency defines this way: the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. It will be achieved, states the EPA, when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.
In public comment letters, the EPA suggests GE-Hitachi engage nearby residents regarding the construction, operation and decommissioning of the plant – which could take place over 40 years or more. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission says GE doesn’t have such an advisory group, but they do have a presence on several local boards in and a public outreach working group.
GE-Hitachi spokesman Christopher White says beyond being a good corporate steward, GE-Hitachi is committed to being a good neighbor.
“Part of our public outreach working group is looking at ways to explain the process, explain everything that we possibly can about the project. And we’re looking at some dates later this year. Probably right around or right after the final regulatory hurdle.”
Dan Hirsch teaches nuclear policy at University of California-Santa Cruz and is President of the Committee to Bridge the Gap – a nuclear watchdog group. He says waiting until the final licensing hurdle is cleared is the antithesis of Environmental Justice.
“The whole point of Environmental Justice is to be able to consult a community before the decision is made to impact it. Engaging the community does not mean it’s a fait accompli. We have the license in hand. You guys are stuck with it. It means we’re considering bringing this into your community. What do you think about it?”
Again, GE’s Christopher White:
“What we don’t want to do is spend too much time or invite the public to talk about these things that have not had a final decision made yet. You know we simply have not made a decision whether we’re even going to commercialize this facility at this time or not.”
And that logic, says Dan Hirsch, is precisely the reason the EPA instituted a plan to promote Environmental Justice.
“The people who live there who can be hurt by it will have no say whatsoever. GE is saying, ‘We want the approvals in hand and we will decide based on our bottom line as to how profitable it is whether or not we’re going to impose this on that community. And to hell with what they think.’”
GE spokesman White says the company is committed to transparency and has a solid, 64-year legacy in the area.
“We’re in the Wilmington community. It’s where I live and where I love to call home and it’s where 1500 other people of GE-Hitachi live. We are not going to do anything that would jeopardize that relationship or our own health.”
Dan Hirsch isn’t buying it.
“If they really feel it’s safe, and if they really want to engage this community, they should engage the community when it matters - which is to have a say as to whether this is coming into their community. Not after the fact when they can do nothing about it.
Engagement is a two-way street. It’s not propaganda from the polluter to the entity being polluted to tell them how lucky they should feel about being polluted.”
White says GE is as much a stakeholder as anyone.
“We’re going to take care of our neighbors. It’s important to us.”