Comments to state weight Titan concerns

by Brian Freskos
Monday, November 23, 2009

Comments recently submitted to a state agency by two leading environmental law groups lay aim on killing Titan America’s chances of obtaining an air permit.

Titan needs the permit to continue plans of building a plant and quarry in Castle Hayne.

The Southern Environmental Law Group joined the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic in submitting comments to the N.C. Division of Air Quality on Nov. 20, adding weight to arguments that will likely strengthen opponents’ voices.

Both law groups laid emphasis on perceived shortcomings in the state’s modeling processes and calculations, underscoring long-standing fears that the proposed Titan plant will be harmful to the environment and population of New Hanover County.

Within each of the groups’ comments are calls to trigger the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA)—which would halt all state permits until an environmental review is completed.

In its 46-page document, Southern Environmental argues that all the factors needed to trigger SEPA are apparent, namely that Titan has received public funds and it will build on public land.

It also cited a letter that came to light in October which, according to SEPA, is evidence that Titan’s existing quarry is not large enough to meet the company’s needs, and the company may have to expand its operation.

In the letter, a company representative confesses that the “mining reserves found on Titan’s currently owned property are not enough to justify the building of a cement plant.”

Without the boundaries of the quarry properly identified, no one knows the chemical makeup of the limestone from which Titan will mine. This prompted Southern Environmental to argue that because the state is lacking knowledge of the chemical makeup, it cannot accurately predict Titan’s air emissions.

Duke reiterated its position that Titan’s plans will impose a detrimental burden on those least likely to respond to the threat and those most susceptible to the harm, meaning minorities and children, respectively.

Both groups contended that the state’s calculations of pollutants were made in error, specifically in regard to mercury and particulate matter.

“These shortcomings are not only legally deficient; they also represent a political determination that it is more expedient to violate the public trust than to use the full power and discretion vested in the agency by law to protect them for the use of future generations,” says the 36-page document submitted by supervising attorney Michelle Nowlin on behalf of Duke.

Such charges are nothing new, but the fact that the anti-Titan movement has been given credence by experts in law and policy represents a strengthening of the opposition and may boost its chances of success.

The state had been accepting public comments on the issuance of Titan’s air permit through Friday, Nov 20. An air permit is one of several permits that Titan will need to obtain.

A final decision will be made by air quality director Keith Overcash, who resisted Monday to give a specific date but said the decision process will likely continue into 2010.

Tom Mather, the air quality public information officer, has reassured skeptics that if the permit is issued, it will be updated with the new EPA regulations when they are finalized.

“We’re somewhat constrained by the laws in that when we write permits we’ve got to include what’s on the books,” Mather said, “and since the EPA hasn’t finalized its rules it’s not a regulation or a law yet so it’s difficult for us to put that in a permit because a permit is a legal document.”

Air quality officials did include a statement that the permit will be updated with new EPA standards.

Titan’s air permit has been at the core of this issue since a public hearing was held Oct. 20 in the BB&T Auditorium on Cape Fear Community College’s north campus.

The hearing was moderated by two state officials. One of whom, regional environmental program supervisor Paul Muller, said Monday that a total of 160 people gave verbal comments during the 8-hour hearing.

Several neighbors of Titan’s plants in Troutville, Va. and Medley, Fl. arrived to speak in favor of the company, at times calling it a great and clean corporate neighbor that has infused growth into their economy.

“They have a right to continue the process of becoming a member of the business community,” Connie Majure-Rhett, CEO of the Greater Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, said during the hearing.

Local business leaders voiced support in droves for the jobs Titan may bring to the local community, as well as the potential economic development.

But opponents of Titan fired back with arguments of equal weight, often sticking to emphasizing their environmental and health concerns.

One man, who said he was a chemical engineer focused in air pollution control, expressed “serious concerns with the permit, both in the way it’s been structured and the way it’s been handled,” he said.

Air quality officials shied from offering a number on how many comments the division had received since the Oct. 20 hearings, saying that they were trying to accumulate them all in one location.

Mather did say that prior to Oct. 20, the division had received over 1,000 emails calling for a public hearing on the air permit.

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