Monday, June 27, 2022

Deep Dive (Part I): Wilmington residents never told about toxic substance used next door

Editor’s note: This series was the runner-up for the Mark Binker Public Notice Award in the North Carolina Press Association’s 2020 editorial contest.

Frequently treated inside shipping containers, logs fumigated with the toxic pesticide methyl bromide at the Port of Wilmington facility are later exported to other countries. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Wilmington residents living near log fumigation operations that emit a toxic pollutant — including one man whose property was identified on a state PowerPoint presentation — say they were never notified of the facilities’ existence.

Over a nine-year period, the three operations on and around the Port of Wilmington released at least 130 tons of the fumigant methyl bromide, considered to be “highly toxic” by the EPA and known to cause central nervous system and respiratory failures in humans.

Find Part II here: Deep Dive (Part II): With little regulation, over half of New Hanover County may be overexposed to a toxic chemical

Methyl bromide, also called bromomethane, is used to rid logs of pests indigenous to North Carolina to meet foreign export requirements. Logging companies statewide subcontract fumigation activities with the locally-operated company, Ecolab Inc. (formally Royal Pest Solutions), before exporting their product at the Port of Wilmington. Logging companies that subcontract fumigation activities have the option to instead debark the logs themselves to accomplish the same goal without an air quality permit.

In 1987, the Montreal Protocol banned the use of methyl bromide in 197 countries, although this wasn’t based on health risks but because the chemical depletes the ozone layer. In 2003, the EPA exempted its use for quarantine and pre-shipment for the logging industry.

Never notified

It is unclear what steps the Department of Environmental Quality has taken in recent years to notify residents living just a few hundred feet from the fumigation sites of the release of the transparent, odorless fumes. The DEQ is required by law to host public hearings with public notices in newspapers to grant air permits like the ones granted to the Wilmington-area operations.

Despite meeting these requirements, often it’s difficult for both residents and the press to stay appraised of these permits if they don’t vigilantly check the classified section or stay up-to-date on online notices.

For at least a sample of one dozen residents living near the facilities reached at their doorsteps in early March, most were completely unaware of the toxic fumigant releases nearby (Author’s note: Interviews were conducted before the coronavirus was known to arrive in the region).

It may be too costly, too cumbersome, or too time-consuming of a task for the department (its budget gutted by a third over the last decade) to individually inform these residents of the toxic chemicals next door. A DEQ spokesperson has not responded to multiple requests to clarify and explain what public notification efforts the department utilized regarding the methyl bromide operations in Wilmington. The department did, however, provide requested data totaling emissions at the sites on record.

A line on a slide

Wilmington resident Eric Skipper Jr. has lived in a one-story brick ranch off Melton Road for at least two decades as a renter. The 1945 home was built in a quiet, mostly wooded residential area near the Cape Fear River. Zoned by the county in 1971 to heavy industrial, the home’s residential use was grandfathered in.

In the late 90s, Skipper Jr. remembers protesting the City’s plans to turn property it bought across the street into its operations complex along with several neighbors, “but the city just laughed us out,” he said. Reached at his doorstep, Skipper Jr. said he had never heard of methyl bromide and had no knowledge that a facility had previously released the toxic fumigant just 550 feet from his front door.

The DEQ PowerPoint slide depicting Skipper Jr.’s home. Click to enlarge.

He was also unaware that an aerial image showing his home was used in a July 2019 DEQ PowerPoint presentation, depicted with a green line showing the distance from his property to the permitted facility. Between July and December 2017, the business released nearly 10 tons of the pollutant after fumigating shipping containers loaded with pine logs. Ecolab has informed the state no emissions have occurred since then but still holds an active permit.

“No poster, no notification, nothing,” Skipper said when asked if he was ever informed about the operations.

A few houses down the same road, Skipper Jr.’s father, Eric “Skip” Skipper, said he also had no knowledge of the fumigant. Shown a map of the location permitted to release the chemical across from his son’s home, Skipper could not recall ever seeing a log fumigation operation.

“I’ve seen a trucking company, gas company. Never seen logs,” he said.

Neighbors

Frustrated after learning about the release of the toxic pollutant in an August 2019 news article, Sharon Valentine rounded up her new neighbors for an information session early last month. More than 120 residents of Del Webb, a new development off River Road that attracts retirees, showed up to the meeting.

Asked how many of the attendees were also unfamiliar with the pollutant, Valentine said, “All of them.” After learning about the facilities, Valentine said many were concerned the activity was never disclosed to them before closing on their new homes. “It is just outrageous that they allow log fumigation where it can drift into residential and commercial areas,” Valentine said in a phone call Wednesday.

“You don’t have to gas them for heaven’s sakes,” she said, referencing the ability for logging companies to debark their product.

Reached at their front doors in early March, the Melton family living on Melton Road had never heard about the log fumigation facility down the street from their neighbor, Skipper Jr.

“Shouldn’t they have reached out to us to let us know?” Shelly Melton asked.

Michael Melton, 53, has lived on Melton Road his entire life. He was never informed that a log fumigation company released a toxic pollutant less than a quarter-mile down the street. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

Melton’s mother-in-law, Brenda Melton, has lived on the family road since she was six. Now in her 70s, she remembers when the land was zoned to heavy industrial. A county spokesperson said most unincorporated land in the county had no zoning designation prior to 1969 to 1976, when most land was zoned. If land was vacant, it was likely zoned residential; if it was developed, it was likely zoned to be consistent with its existing use, the spokesperson said.

“Years ago, they didn’t even give us — We didn’t know nothing about them rezoning it,” she said. “They put the sign way up close to the state port dock.”

Brenda Melton didn’t know about log fumigation, but said the City’s old Southside Wastewater Treatment Plant stinks. The plant was built in 1972 — one year after the county zoned the land heavy industrial. “The odor will knock you out,” she said.

Other than the plant’s smell, Shelly Melton enjoys the quiet road and ability to check the mail in her pajamas. “This is pretty much family land,” she said. “I love it. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”

Further toward the Port of Wilmington, down Central Blvd. a quarter-mile north from the Burnette Blvd. site, Gary Plocki had never heard of methyl bromide. Plocki has lived in his home for 35 years, he said, with two children grown and raised. “We love it here,” he said.

Editor’s note: Stay tuned for Part II tomorrow, taking an in-depth look at the regulations (or lack of) for methyl bromide and the latest on new proposed rules for the use of the chemical.


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

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