Monday, June 27, 2022

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

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 — No one told 20-year county resident Eric Skipper Jr. about a state-permitted log fumigation operation — which in 2017 released nearly 10 tons of the neurotoxin methyl bromide 550 feet from his porch — until a reporter knocked on his front door.

But officials were well aware of the situation. In fact, last year his home was used in a Department of Environmental Quality PowerPoint slide that depicted the closest residential property to the River Road operation.

So why was Skipper in the dark? It has a lot to do with a lack of regulations.

Author’s note: This is part two of a two-part series. Catch up on part one.

Heavier than air

Methyl bromide is a transparent, odorless, tasteless, and toxic gas. It depletes the ozone and is banned in 197 countries through the Montreal Protocol. But the Environmental Protection Agency granted the export logging industry an exception in 2003, permitting its use for quarantine and pre-shipment of logs to foreign markets.

Roughly three times heavier than air, methyl bromide disperses outward, downward, and breaks down slowly, with a half-life of 11 months.

Often used to fumigate logs inside shipping containers, the general public — or even a neighbor next door — would have no way of knowing a toxic fumigant was being released into the air, pooling around the facility.

It’s known to cause both acute and chronic negative health effects in humans.

Chronically, a 2013 study found lower IQs in children living within five miles of a strawberry field in northern California associated with the increased use of the pesticide. Prenatal exposure was tied to restricted fetal growth, the study found. Acutely, in studies conducted on workers accidentally exposed, the toxicant has caused convulsions, paralysis, respiratory and cardiovascular failure, and death.

Nearly unregulated

Methyl bromide emissions are nearly unregulated in North Carolina. The only requirement to protect public health is a 10-ton cap on emissions over a 12-month rolling period.

The chemical is released when companies open up shipping containers or peel back tarps used to trap the fumigant to rid the logs of pests, releasing the ozone-depleting pollutant into the atmosphere. There are no existing rules in North Carolina that require a company to control or limit the release of these toxic fumes beyond the fenceline.

But the state is looking to change that. In 2018, the Division of Air Quality began reexamining its approach to methyl bromide after receiving a couple of high-profile requests to significantly increase permitted operations in the region, including Tima Capital off Sunnyvale Drive in New Hanover County and the Malec Brothers in Columbus County (both withdrew their applications after public outcry).

New regulations of the pesticide would create a fenceline concentration limit for methyl bromide at the facilities. Though there is no consensus from the state’s lead Science Advisory Board (SAB) on exactly where to set that limit for acute exposures, even the most liberal cap would fall far below what’s been released in recent years in southeastern, N.C.

Between 2011 and 2019, at least 130 tons of the fumigant was released from three New Hanover County sites all owned by the same company: Ecolab (formerly Royal Pest solutions).

Located within a 4-mile radius of one another, each site released at least 9 tons of the pollutant in 2017. Though Ecolab has since rescinded its permit at one site, activity at a second continues while a permit remains active for the third.

The proposed regulations do not take into account the cumulative exposure effects caused by multiple sites in close proximity. Asked by a SAB board member in April 2019 whether the state considers cumulative impacts, DAQ Director Mike Abraczinskas said it wouldn’t be necessary.

“I would say, based on the geographic footprint in the spacing of the existing facilities, that wouldn’t be necessary in this case.”

(Article continues below map)

New Hanover County

North Carolina exported $61 million in softwoods to China in 2018, 4.6 times more than South Carolina and 1.6 times as much as Virginia. Though southeastern North Carolina has fumigation sites, it also has debarking operations, which require no air quality permit and essentially accomplish the same feat.

Of the five permitted facilities in the state, two are located in New Hanover County (the county had three as of 2017, but one location has since rescinded its permit).

With the exception of the Wayne County facility, all permitted operations in New Hanover, Columbus, and Bladen County are owned by Ecolab.

Emissions at all sites began decreasing significantly heading into fall 2018, around the same time public opposition mounted against a since-pulled application to increase fumigation activities through Royal Pest Solutions’ permit. Still, emissions have continued at the Port of Wilmington site with 1.1 tons released last year, and the River Road permit still active.

It’s not clear whether public opposition or international policy has impacted the reduction of activity at these sites. An August 2019 DAQ inspection report at the Port of Wilmington site notes that “business has slowed considerably for softwood due to tariffs imposed by China.” A representative of Ecolab did not respond to requests to comment.

All facilities depicted in this January 2020 DEQ graph owned by Ecolab (formerly Royal Pest Solutions) show New Hanover County methyl bromide emissions, with the exception of the Chadbourne facility in Columbus County, shown in blue. The company cut back its use of the toxic fumigant in fall 2018. (Port City Daily graph/Courtesy DEQ)

The Port of Wilmington site, located on Burnett Blvd, has released by far the lion’s share of emissions over the past decade. In 2014, the site released 36 tons of methyl bromide, according to state records, totaling 101 tons between 2011 and 2019. Royal Pest Solutions began operations at the site in 2011 under a different permit than the permit currently on file electronically. A DEQ spokesperson said records for the earlier permit are on paper and would have to be obtained in the office. This means total emissions at this location could be even higher.

In October 2017, the facility located on Sunnyvale Road sought to emit more than six times the amount of methyl bromide previously permitted in a year, from 10 tons to 62.4 tons, and change ownership from Royal Pest Solutions to Tima Capital, which held the permit.

Under Royal Pest Solutions, the site on Sunnyvale Road exceeded the only emissions requirement imposed on permitted methyl bromide operations in North Carolina by releasing more than 10 tons of the pesticide in a 12-month period through June 2017. It was also cited for “inaccurate recordkeeping and reporting” between January 2017 and January 2018, and submitting late reports for three months in 2015, according to state documents.

The Division of Air Quality granted the company a draft permit to expand in February 2018. After public and political pressure, the company withdrew its permit request in April 2018 at the request of the landowners and ceased operations.

After the public attention at its Sunnyvale Road site, Royal Pest Solutions continued to release methyl bromide at its Port of Wilmington facility, state records show.

Measurement

At first, the DAQ proposed setting the ambient air limit of methyl bromide at .005 milligrams per cubic meter (mg/m3). This figure would result in a 99% reduction of the estimated average fenceline concentration levels at the permitted facilities, the DAQ estimated.

That limit also represents the chronic human exposure concentration of methyl bromide determined by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1992; at levels up to this limit, no negative health risks are anticipated. Above this limit, negative health risks are anticipated — especially in vulnerable subpopulations like children and the elderly — for those chronically exposed to more than .005 mg/m3 of methyl bromide for more than 10% of their lives.

Using the maximum monthly usage data from permitted sites and corresponding meteorological data, the DAQ attempted to model what concentrations of methyl bromide would have measured at the fenceline.

The May 2019 Division of Air Quality (DAQ) analysis estimated the minimum and maximum fenceline dispersal levels of the fumigant at the River Road site (across from Skipper’s home) were respectively 1,414 times and 4,805 times higher than the federally-recommended chronic exposure level of .005 mg/m3. At the Port of Wilmington site, emissions were estimated at 122 and 885 times higher than the chronic exposure level. The analysis did not estimate emissions at the former Sunnyvale Road site because it had already ceased operations.

The estimated fenceline concentration of methyl bromide at two New Hanover County facilities for the site’s maximum monthly usage data between 2017 and 2018 compared to recommended chronic and 24-hour exposure limits. (Port City Daily graph/Johanna F. Still, Data courtesy DAQ)

Overexposed

More than 125,000 people in New Hanover County have already been overexposed either acutely or chronically to methyl bromide, the DAQ report estimates. Because the sites are all located with a 4-mile radius, overlapping segments of the population fall within this estimated overexposure group. Statewide, the remaining affected population resides in Columbus (7,200) and Wayne County (19,900).

What’s more, an estimated 60% to 70% of the human population has a genetic variation that metabolizes methyl bromide into a more toxic compound inside the body, according to the DAQ report. This means 75,100 to 87,600 people live close enough to the facilities to be overexposed to the pollutant and also have the genetic variation known to further toxify the compound.

Because the state does not have precise concentration measurements of methyl bromide at these facilities (since they’re nearly unregulated), the report recognizes there is a high degree of uncertainty in these estimates.

For regulators and scientists, the discussion around setting a limit has most recently centered around setting acute, 24-hour averaging time, in addition to a chronic, annual averaging time. The DAQ’s first idea to apply the EPA’s chronic exposure recommendation of .005 mg/m3 to a 24-hour averaging time has since been addressed but remains on the table as an option.

Methyl bromide emissions are episodic. The greatest risk of exposure is within the first hour of aeration after containers are opened.

In meetings over the past few months, scientists pointed to loopholes in applying the .005 mg/m3 standard on an annual basis. For example, at that standard, operations could release the gas at a level seven times higher just once a week, or 30 times higher once a month, still equaling .005 mg/m3 annually.

So, stakeholders are now figuring out where to set an acute standard to level out the potential for periodic exceedances. Though there’s general agreement that .005 mg/m3 is a viable annual chronic standard, the SAB has established support among board members — but not yet consensus — on setting the acute limit at .078 mg per cubic meter, according to the SAB’s most recent discussion on the topic in December 2019.

SAB Chair Dr. Tom Augspurger wrote in an email Friday the issue is complex, falling “at the intersection of environmental science and management.”

The .078 mg/m3 figure was introduced by the Environmental Management Commission based on a 2018 Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry draft report determining the intermediate risk exposure of methyl bromide, or exposures lasting less than one year.

SAB board member Dr. Thomas Starr disagrees with the way the state has arrived at the 24-hour recommendation. He said the state is applying chronic standards to acute exposures, resulting in a 24-hour recommendation he describes as putative. “It would be severely constraining because of the way it’s designed,” he said in a phone call Thursday.

Starr is sympathetic to the business angle, with an interested party informing the board they would be unable to continue business in the state if the limit is set at the level being recommended. According to the DAQ’s financial analysis, the new limits would result in 12 lost jobs.

However, environmental advocacy groups don’t want to see the limit raised any higher. Any ambient air level higher than .005 mg/m3 is “not supported by the science to protect the public,” the Southern Environmental Law Center asserted in its August 2019 comments.

There’s local support for the new limits, too. In March 2019, the Brunswick County NAACP reviewed the proposed rule changes with a fine-toothed comb, asking for much stronger oversight and review of existing facilities. In August 2019, the City of Wilmington sent a letter to the DAQ, supporting its recommended limit of .005 mg/m3 over a 24-hour averaging period.

Last month, New Hanover County passed a resolution embracing the more recent recommendation, including the higher .078 mg/m3 24-hour limit and annual .005 mg/m3 limit.

And the EPA? The federal agency recommends not regulating the compound.

Public hearing

After canceling a public hearing planned in March due to the coronavirus, the DEQ has rescheduled the hearing online regarding the proposed regulations to Monday, May 4, at 6:00 p.m.

  • Cisco WebEx Link
  • Meeting Number (Access Code): 614 804 792
  • Meeting Password: NCDAQ

Those who wish to speak during the public hearing must register before noon Monday. The following combination of limit options for methyl bromide are being considered:

  1. 0.005 mg/m3 24-hr averaging time
  2. 0.078 mg/m3 24-hr averaging time
  3. 0.005 mg/m3 annual averaging time, paired with 0.078 mg/m3 24-hr
    averaging time

The DEQ will accept public comments on the proposed rule change through May 8. Public comments can be emailed or mailed to the following addresses:

  • Email: daq.publiccomments@ncdenr.gov (Type “Revised Log Fumigation Rule” in the subject line)
  • Mail: Rule Development Branch Supervisor, NC Division of Air Quality, 1641 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC 27699-1641
  • Fax:  (919) 715-0717 (Address it to “Rule Development Branch Supervisor”)
  • Voicemail: (919) 707-8430 (State your name and any affiliation before commenting)

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

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