Tuesday, September 27, 2022

DEQ classifies Wilmington-area company’s cat-urine scent as ‘objectionable,’ requires control measures

DAQ's director weighs in: Now, the department has room to regulate Fortron Industries, the source of Wilmington's wavering cat urine-like scent, under the state's objectionable odor law.

Fortron Industries' plan on Highway 421, shared with Invista, produces a chemical that causes a cat urine-like smell in the Wilmington-area. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)
Fortron Industries’ plan on Highway 421, shared with Invista, produces a chemical that causes a cat urine-like smell in the Wilmington-area. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — It’s official: cat pee doesn’t smell great.

That is, at least, according to the North Carolina Division of Air Quality, which officially classified Fortron Industries’ odorous emissions from its facility north of Wilmington as “objectionable” earlier this month.

Related: Wilmington’s ‘cat urine’ smell still lingers, DEQ says company responsible is not in violation

Fortron Industries, a thermoplastic manufacturer, has operated off Highway 421 since 1993. And, though there have been complaints in the past, this is the first time the Division of Air Quality (DAQ), part of the state’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), classified the scent Fortron produces as an “objectionable odor.”

The new classification gives the DAQ more leverage in regulating the company’s emissions.

‘Catty’

In a March 8 letter to Fortron’s site manager, DAQ’s director, Michael Abraczinskas, determined the company’s emissions qualified as “objectionable.”

Less than six miles north of downtown Wilmington, the 23 complaints logged about the odor at just three months into 2019 nearly equals all complaints the DAQ received last year.

Described as “catty” by DEQ’s inspectors, Fortron’s odorous emissions are caused by the chemical compound 4-mercapto-4-methyl-2-pentanone, referred to as MMP or – aptly – Feline P. This compound is formed by impurities collected during Fortron’s washing processes, while producing a polyphenylene sulfide polymer that’s used in cell phones, electronics aerospace parts, and other products, according to the company’s spokesperson.

MMP is not regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency or DEQ. And according to Fortron, MMP is not harmful to humans. It does, however, have an “extremely low” odor threshold, according to its spokesperson, detectable in levels as low as one part per trillion.

Although MMP isn’t regulated, DEQ is now able to manage Fortron’s emissions under the state’s control and prohibition of odorous emissions law. Before ruling Fortron as emitting an “objectionable odor,” it could not, and did not, find the company in violation of its air quality permit.

In July 2018, after the department received nearly 20 odor complaints that tied back to the company, DAQ said Fortron hadn’t violated any state odor regulations.

But in Abraczinskas’ letter this month, the DAQ linked Fortron to 12 different odor events so far this year. Abraczinskas cited a pattern of staff reports, observations, and field inspections that warranted naming the company’s odor objectionable.

Fortron is the only known significant source of MMP in the area, Abraczinskas wrote.

Fortron responds

With the new classification, the DAQ is permitted to regulate the requirements outlined in 15A NCAC 02D .1806. Fortron has 180 days to implement “maximum feasible controls” along with a compliance schedule.

Operation of these controls must begin within 18 months of the classification change.

According to Chris Sinclair, a spokesperson for Fortron and founder of Sinclair Public Affairs, a group that specializes in crisis management, nothing about the company’s manufacturing has recently changed.

Fortron’s onsite Odor Reduction Team works constantly to mitigate MMP’s odor, Sinclair said. Voluntary efforts, including the use of pollution control equipment not required by regulators, have long been in place, he said.

“It’s worth noting the area’s growth has led to new housing developments closer to our plant, generating concerns among our new neighbors who have recently decided to live nearby,” Sinclair wrote in an email.

The company, which employs about 100 people according to Sinclair, aims to reduce its emissions every year. “They’re there for the long haul,” Sinclair said. “They want to make sure they remain good neighbors to the community.” 

Prior to receiving the letter, Sinclair said the company had received no notice its odor was worsening during routine inspections by DAQ officials. Fortron disagrees, Sinclair said, that its odor qualifies as “objectionable.”

“The compound is produced commercially and used in fragrances and as a flavor enhancer in baked goods, an odorant in wine, beverages, cereals, ice cream, chewing gum and candy,” Sinclair wrote in an email. “The concentrations in these products are safe, and greater than those at the Fortron plant.” 

Sinclair said from a manufacturing side, Fortron is operating as usual. No in-house changes to his knowledge are attributable to the increased complaints or DAQ’s finding.

Sharon Martin, a DAQ spokesperson, said the smell’s pervasiveness influenced the department’s recent ruling. Pervasiveness includes both time and distance, according to Martin.

“So the increased number of complaints or observed odors over a shorter period of time and at longer distances from the plant contributed to that finding,” she wrote in an email.

Detections of MMP are not made mechanically. No devices are able to detect MMP, Martin told Port City Daily last July, which leaves odor determinations up to DAQ’s trained inspectors.

“A number of factors or combination of factors could be contributing to the apparent increase in odors, including weather patterns,” Martin said Monday.

The DEQ asks that all odor complaints be called into the department’s regional office in Wilmington at 910-796-7215.


Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee at johanna@localvoicemedia.com

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