‘Stop Titan’ supporters address county board, mark five years fighting proposed cement plant

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Five years after Titan America first proposed a cement plant in the Wilmington area, supporters of the grassroots group “Stop Titan” are continuing their fight against the project—and made that known to New Hanover County commissioners at their meeting earlier this week.

During the meeting’s public comments portion, four speakers acknowledged that five years have passed since the board—whose membership has changed completely since then—was presented with the proposal for a cement plant near Castle Hayne.

Doug Springer, co-owner of Wilmington Water Tours and a former Cape Fear Riverkeeper with Cape Fear River Watch, recalled those events to the board Monday, adding that he wanted the board’s current makeup to be familiar with the project and how it was proposed.

Doug Springer, a former Cape Fear Riverkeeper with Cape Fear River Watch, addresses county commissioners at their meeting Monday night. Image courtesy NHCTV.

“It is the five-year anniversary of the date that Wilmington Industrial Development (now Wilmington Business Development) brought forward Titan Cement to this board,” Springer said. “And I believe that organizational memory, institutional memory, is a very important thing, and I’m not sure if any of you were in this room that day. I don’t think that you were. But it was a learning experience.”

Springer said the company requested more than $4 million in tax incentives “that they said was required for them to come here.” He said two of the board’s members were uninformed of the project, “and after much discussion, the citizens in this room asked for just a two-week delay to make that decision.

“Titan Cement, their VP, stood up and said, ‘If you don’t want us here, we’re not coming.’” Springer said. “I stood up and said, ‘Gentlemen, you’ve been threatened. Is this what you want to deal with?’

“The reason I’m here today is the comment I’ve heard so many times from the board is, ‘We can’t do anything about it. Our hands are tied.’” he said. “After the $4 million in tax incentives was given, you were given legal counsel that you were going to be sued if you commented, if you got involved. I’m here to tell you that you can, if you look at the root cause of how we got here.”

Springer went on to say Titan “is not the disease” but a symptom of how the Wilmington area recruits economic development. “I would ask for you to really take a very serious look at that,” he said. “And I’ve seen some great comments from some of you that you are doing that, but that’s where we can start fixing this problem moving forward, so we don’t get into this again.”

Springer said he started his company four years ago “based on the belief that we can create an economic engine out of this river basin once again.

“It can be done in a clean way,” he said. “…It’s all about working outside of the dots and quit funding a single organization to do our recruitment for us. That’s what I’m asking you to do.”

Three other speakers addressed the board Monday, including Harry Burnett, a student at Noble Middle School. He said he suffers from asthma and that pollution from the plant would make his condition and others’ worse.

Twelve-year-old Harry Burnett addresses the board at Monday’s meeting. An asthma sufferer, he said the proposed cement plant would worsen his and others’ asthma conditions. Image courtesy NHCTV.

“I personally have a very tough time with asthma without Titan,” he said, “and if you bring Titan in here…it’s just going to make it so much harder for all of these people.”

Such comments are nothing new to Bob Odom, manager of Carolinas Cement Company, a subsidiary of Titan America that is proposing the project locally. Odom has responded to opposition before and said Thursday that the past five years shows Titan’s commitment to seeing the project through.

“It’s been five years and we’re still here,” he said. “We’re not going to go anywhere.”

Odom said the project will add jobs to the area and provide a product locally that is currently shipped from elsewhere, while also adhering to environmental standards. The company was awarded a required air quality permit, but the Southern Environmental Law Center sued the state in an effort to have that decision reviewed.

Odom said the company has joined with the state to fight that lawsuit. Once a revised environmental study is completed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Odom said the project could break ground as early as late 2015 and up and running by late 2017.

“It’s a product we need, we’re paying taxes; what else can you ask for from a company?” he said. “We feel very confident we’re going to succeed. We’re in this for the long haul.”

Others who addressed the county board Monday included Hollis Briggs Jr., who said the fight against Titan has brought the community together over the past five years.

“We are not divided but united in our efforts to protect our families, our property values and our community at-large,” Briggs told the board. “The city, the citizens, have been given the tools to evaluate the health and economic impacts of this project, and we’ve determined that Titan is just not a good fit for our community.”

Briggs encouraged the board to focus the county’s attention toward existing businesses, adding that he would like to see “heavy industry behind us.”

“We’re really trying to have positive comments,” he said, “but we all know that Wilmington and its river are in trouble with Titan coming to town.”

Added Ian Oeschger, an IT professional and co-founder of the Cape Fear Economic Development Council: “The real travesty is that when we talk about things that really matter—and Titan is one of those things that really, really matters here—very often the business community…is misperceived, it’s underrepresented, it’s unrepresented, and it may be in fact that it’s in need of some consolidation or some messaging.

“I just want to do my part in a sort of small way and stand up and represent what I know to be a vibrant and technological and diverse business community and say that we still don’t support the idea of Titan at all,” Oeschger said. “We still think that a cement plant is inimical to the prosperity of this region. And especially I want to say that this business community—technological, modern, savvy—is very, very excited about alternatives and wants to work with you on that.”

Jonathan Spiers is a reporter for Port City Daily. He can be reached at (910) 772-6313 or jonathan.s@portcitydaily.com. On Twitter: @jrspiers