A call to the North Carolina Coastal Federation’s coastal advocate Mike Giles on Thursday afternoon found him in a jubilant mood.
“I’m having a great day!” he said.
That’s because Titan America, a company that manufactures building materials, announced earlier in the day that they were pulling out of a cement plant project in Castle Hayne.
“It’s the best news I’ve heard in eight years,” Giles said.
He’s not the only one excited about the news. Other environmental groups are calling it a win for the citizens of the area.
“It’s great news for New Hanover County for sure,” said Kemp Burdette, Cape Fear Riverkeeper and Executive Director of Cape Fear River Watch. “It would’ve been a pretty awful project for New Hanover County.”
The North Carolina Sierra Club agreed, releasing a statement that said, “Today’s announcement is a victory for the thousands of citizens who have fought tirelessly for years now to protect their community and our coast.”
Both groups are two of many involved in the Stop Titan Action Network, which formed in 2008 when Titan first presented a project proposal to the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners. Members of that board voted to give the company $4.2 million in tax incentives to build on a 1,868-acre tract of land that was previously home to the Ideal Cement plant. At the time it was first proposed, it would have been the fourth-largest cement manufacturing facility in the country.
There were many concerns, however, about how the large plant would affect air and water quality in the area.
“The proposed facility would have drastically and negatively impacted the region’s clean air and water,” the North Carolina Sierra Club said in their statement.
One of the biggest issues was mercury emissions from the plant’s smokestacks. Titan planned to burn coal and tires to fuel the plant, both of which contain pollutants that are harmful to humans. There were also concerns that runoff and other chemicals from the plant would filter into the nearby Castle Hayne aquifer, which provides fresh drinking water to the area.
“It would’ve been bad for public health in general,” Giles said. “Adding additional mercury to the environment doesn’t make any sense.”
Giles said his organization will now seek to get Titan’s air permit, which was controversially issued by the state in 2012 (a revised one was issued in 2013), rescinded. The awarding of the permit was challenged by the Stop Titan Action Network in a lawsuit filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center on their behalf, and several hundred people showed up at a public hearing on the revised permit that was held on UNCW’s campus.
“If they’re no longer building the plant, they no longer need the air permit,” said Giles, who said the permit expires in October but that the case is scheduled to be heard by a court of appeals this spring.
Both Burdette and Giles said the biggest lesson from the Titan cement plant saga is the power of the community. When Titan first approached the county board in 2008 to show their plan and ask for incentives, the public was given only three days’ notice, yet crowds of people showed up to the meeting in opposition. At the time, Burdette said, “We had no way for the community to have a voice in the future.”
“I think Titan was a pretty big wake-up call for the community,” said Burdette. “We’ve got to do a better job of how we attract the kind of industry that we want, and how to say ‘no, thank you’ to industries that we don’t want.”
Kayne Darrell, a Castle Hayne resident and founder of community activist group Citizens against Titan, agreed.
“I’ve been dreaming about this day for eight years,” said Darrell. “We’ve worked so long and hard for this.”
In 2011, Darrell and another New Hanover County resident, pediatrician David Hill, were sued for slander by Titan for comments they made during a county commissioners meeting. While it’s been a hard, unexpected road for Darrell, she said the benefits to the citizens of the area are incomparable.
“It’s about giving the community a voice, especially for us living here in Castle Hayne,” Darrell said. “The community has spoken.”
In 2011, the county began requiring special use permits for projects, which require that specific site plans be available for anyone to see and public hearings be held before any project gets voted on.
“This allows the public to have a say,” Giles said. “It gives us an opportunity to refocus, to focus on what type of jobs, what kind of industries we want in our community.”
“We want smart growth. Dirty industries like Titan are not what we want,” Darrell said. “Our community is galvanized, and we’re so much smarter than we were eight years ago.”
“Why would we want to incentivize the kinds of industries that would pollute or negatively affect coastal North Carolina?” said Giles. “If we market ourselves right, we can draw the best of the best industries, because we’re striving to maintain our high quality of life.”
Darrell and her neighbors, who have worked hard to maintain that quality of life in their area, will continue to do so, but first, some celebration is in order.
“We’ve been fantasizing about a victory party for eight years,” Darrell said. “We’re excited, we can’t wait.”