BRUNSWICK COUNTY — Military Ocean Terminal Sunny Point (MOTSU), the largest military terminal in the world, has obtained a Division of Air Quality permit to release the toxic fumigant methyl bromide into the atmosphere.
The terminal’s fumigation activities began and ended over a 10-day span in December. MOTSU’s spokesperson said the base does not plan on needing to fumigate again. Should it need to fumigate in the future, it now has pre-approved permission to release 10 lbs. of the pollutant a year.
“I would say I hope we never have to go through this again — because of what it took — and frankly I don’t think we will,” deputy to MOTSU commander Steve Kerr said Wednesday.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contracted with the fumigation firm to conduct work on behalf of MOTSU at the terminal, according to Kerr.
In North Carolina, all five other DAQ permits to release the ozone-depleting fumigant are used in logging operations to rid the product of pests to meet foreign import requirements.
But MOTSU isn’t in the logging business. The terminal supplied 85% of all wartime munitions in the Vietnam War and 90% of munitions in Operations Desert Shield, Storm, Iraqi Freedom, and Enduring Freedom.
As the only Department of Defense facility authorized and equipped to handle containerized ammunition, MOTSU receives, stores, and ships dangerous cargo and explosives from its riverfront base north of Southport. Containers are loaded with shell arms ammunition, artillery shells, fuses, propellants, ammunition for vehicle systems, aircraft bombs, and other types of munitions, according to the terminal’s DAQ application.
In November 2019, MOTSU had accumulated a stockpile of imported containers marked for quarantine after being inspected by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials. With 221 containers requiring immediate fumigation, MOTSU hired Ecolab (formerly Royal Pest Solutions) to file an application for a DAQ permit and later conduct work to fumigate and clear the containers.
Kerr clarified the need for the permit did not arise from any new federal or foreign rules. The requirement to fumigate was prompted by the containers’ country of origin.
“It’s always possible when we get something from oversees based on the inspections that the customs and border folks do,” Kerr said of the requirement to fumigate. “But to the extent that we’ve done it — we had to do it then — I don’t anticipate anything of that size [again].”
Fumigation is performed to prevent an invasive species from potentially spreading further with the exchange of international commodities. “It’s done for the same reason that logs are done. The fumigation is done because there’s a potential or an identified pest that is not necessarily native to us that they don’t want it to go any further,” Kerr said.
MOTSU is primarily operated by civilians, a unique feature for a military installation. Asked whether terminal officials were wary about private employees witnessing sensitive cargo material, Kerr said he was not particularly concerned.
From construction projects to plumbing, Kerr said private businesses frequently conduct work at the terminal. “Do we have private companies that come onto MOTSU to do work? Yes, all the time,” he said.
Ecolab’s fumigation activity was entirely mobile at the terminal. Between December 5 and 15, 2019, Ecolab personnel released a reported 1,518 lbs. of methyl bromide, about three-quarters of a ton.
In a fast-tracked application process, DEQ approved MOTSU’s permit in nine days, according to documents obtained through a records request.
The Nov. 26, 2019 permit approval came as the Department of Environmental Quality was in the process of studying ways to clamp down on the use of the toxic fumigant. In recent public hearings and information presented on existing permits, DEQ did not list MOTSU’s permit, perhaps because it does not qualify as a logging operation — the topic the department studied for introducing new rules. According to a DEQ spokesperson, the Environmental Management Commission has delayed taking action to adopt a new rule until September.
DAQ had held up renewing Ecolab’s permit at the Port of Wilmington facility — its most active operation in the area — in 2018 and early 2019, requiring a detailed monitoring plan and capture and control information from the company.
Known to cause a host of adverse health conditions after chronic and acute exposure, regulation to protect the public from the pollutant is limited in North Carolina. Fumigators are only required to cap operations at 10 lbs. a year, leaving open the possibility of releasing large amounts of the neurotoxic pollutant at one time. Control measures, including using stacks and blowers to divert the heavier-than-air substance away from ground-level, are considered voluntary.
As the most recent methyl bromide permit awarded since the rule change discussion, MOTSU’s permit includes limitations that other permits do not have. This includes: a minimum 4,000-foot distance from the property boundary where fumigations must occur, the use of emissions stacks at least 10-feet high, time-limited dispersions between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. with aeration staggered every hour, and no more than 90 lbs. of the pollutant can be aerated per hour.
Of the six DAQ methyl bromide permits statewide, two are active in New Hanover County, and three are held by Ecolab (MOTSU, River Road, the Port of Wilmington).
While studying the rule change in April 2019, the DEQ estimated that more than 125,000 people living in New Hanover County may have already been over-exposed to methyl bromide.
Because New Hanover County’s three Ecolab operations are located within a 4-mile radius (Sunnyvale Road rescinded its permit after public pressure; River Road’s permit is still active but Ecolab stopped fumigating at the site in 2018), overlapping segments of the population fall within the overexposure group. DEQ does not consider proximity to other existing permit sites or overlapping exposure groups when granting permit requests. MOTSU is located about 10 miles south and across the river from Wilmington’s cluster of permitted fumigation sites.
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