Saturday, October 1, 2022

Jobs, tax revenue and formaldehyde: an update on National Gypsum

City and County officials are weighing the potential job growth against environmental concerns before they vote on an incentive. However, there's very little they can do to stop the plant from re-opening if National Gypsum decides to do so.

National Gypsum is considering reopening its Wilmington plant. Both Wilmington and New Hanover County are considering incentive packages -- but are considering environmental issues as well. (Port City Daily photo \ BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)
National Gypsum is considering reopening its Wilmington plant. Both Wilmington and New Hanover County are considering incentive packages — but are considering environmental issues as well. (Port City Daily photo \ BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)

WILMINGTON – Both Wilmington City Council and the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners have postponed voting on proposed incentives to re-open the National Gypsum plant while members receive information on potential environmental impact.

Wilmington is considering offering $230,000 in incentives over five years to the company; New Hanover is considering offering $350,000 over several years

Several local environmental groups have protested the proposed incentives, citing National Gypsum plant’s potential to produce nearly nine tons of formaldehyde annually. Formaldehyde is listed as a known carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program, the registry of carcinogens maintained by the Department of Health and Human Services. As with many toxins, the dangers of formaldehyde depend on exposure levels — what those levels would be around the plant haven’t been publicly established yet.

What’s at stake

To be clear, the plant is fully licensed to operate through 2024 by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. As there are no zoning issues, the City of Wilmington is not in a position to stop National Gypsum from re-opening its own plant, which operated from 2005 to 2009 before it was idled. Nothing short of a civil injunction would do that – an option that is not being considered at this time.

Instead, both city and county are weighing the environmental concerns against National Gypsum’s promise of well-paying jobs, around 50 positions paying an average of $57,000. Wilmington is considering the added benefit of an increased tax base if National Gypsum follows through with proposed capital improvements to its property.

National Gypsum Spokeswoman Nancy Spurlock said the company would decide between re-opening one of two idled plants on the east coast, either the Wilmington plant or one in Tampa, Florida. Spurlock did not say what impact incentives would have on the Charlotte-based company’s decision.

Jobs

Spurlock confirmed the average annual salary would be $57,000, with the lowest salary at $50,000. Spurlock also said most of the workforce would be hired locally.

“Nearly all the associates hired will be from the Wilmington area. The plant manager, and perhaps some of the other managers, will be experienced current associates who will move to Wilmington,” Spurlock said.

City Councilman Neil Anderson said National Gypsum planned to hire from within a 30-minute drive time, meaning residents of New Hanover and parts of Brunswick and Pender counties would be eligible.

Anderson added that National Gypsum hoped to train employees locally. According to Anderson, National Gypsum has worked with Cape Fear Community College to “be sure they can set-up and run a machine training program (similar to Verizon) due to the industry/facility specific nature of the machinery.”

Capital improvements (i.e. increased tax base)

Spurlock said National Gypsum planned to spend around $25 million, although none of the improvements would be to surrounding roadways or utility infrastructure. According to Spurlock, the investment would in “new wet end equipment,” used to blend gypsum stucco and form wallboard, new and more efficient burners, and mobile equipment.

According to Malissa Talbert, spokeswoman for the City of Wilmington, the importance of National Gypsum’s plans was for capital improvements is tax related. Talbert said the equipment purchased by National Gypsum would be taxable as “real property,” and could generate several million dollars in tax revenue.

Formaldehyde

One topic of concern is the emission of formaldehyde by the National Gypsum plant, an issue compounded by inaccurate online records available on the NCDEQ. The NCDEQ’s online database lists the Wilmington plant as producing 59 pounds of formaldehyde annually. The real amount, according to quarterly reports from National Gypsum, was closer to two tons.

See more: National Gypsum produced 60 times more formaldehyde than DEQ records indicate

National Gypsum initially claimed it would not approach the maximum permitted amount of 8.7 tons annually, but has since retracted that statement.

After incorrectly claiming that National Gypsum produced on 59 pounds a year, Spurlock apologized, saying it was a personal mistake, not the company’s error. Spurlock said she had used the amount listed on the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality’s website.

“The company reported emissions of 3,895 pounds in 2008 based on required quarterly reporting to the state per our permit. The plant was idled one year later. Our reported numbers in 2008 (3,895 pounds) were not put into DEQ’s website database,” Spurlock said.

City Council is currently waiting on for more information on the environmental impact of National Gypsum’s formaldehyde emissions.

While the plant is in the city’s industrial area, it is only 2 miles north of the rapidly developing RiverLights development, which already has thousands of residents. Phone calls to Development Director Jim Henry were not returned.

According to Talbert, City Council and staff have not yet gathered an environmental data. Anderson said he expected to hear something during City Council’s upcoming meeting on March 20.

On the map: National Gypsum’s Wilmington plant is located in the city’s industrial region – but it isn’t from far from neighboring residential areas like RiverLights and Echo Farms.

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Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at ben@localvoicemedia.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.

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