Wilmington area still a major source of industrial pollution in state

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’ plant on Highway 421, shared with Invista, produces a chemical that causes a cat urine-like smell in the Wilmington-area. Invista is the top discharger of toxic chemicals into the water in New Hanover County. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Still)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Economic development officials promote the area as a fast-growing region with miles of beaches, year-round golf and a growing number of “clean-sector” businesses, like fin tech and pharmaceutical research. A recent report, however, is a reminder that New Hanover County is one of the state’s top generators of industrial pollution.

Released in December, the Environmental Protection Agency’s annual Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) tracks how industrial facilities manage the toxic waste they produce. Most importantly, it reports on toxins ultimately released into the air and water. 

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


Not all toxic-waste disposal is created equally. For example, Fortron Industries, which produces a plastic polymer at its plant on U.S. 421 North (and perhaps is best known for producing a scent that resembles cat urine), is New Hanover County’s top producer of toxic waste. Instead of being released into the local environment, the vast majority of it gets recycled and is reused in the production process.

Some businesses, however, release chemicals into the air and water, or dispose of them in the ground. With 14 such facilities, New Hanover has the most of any county east of Interstate 95. There are eight in Brunswick County, four of which are directly adjacent to New Hanover. Pender County has no EPA-tracked facilities.

New Hanover’s biggest discharger of chemicals into the air is Corning. The emissions it releases at its fiber-optics plant on North College Road contain chlorine and hydrochloric acid. 

The county’s biggest discharger of toxic chemicals into the water is Invista. It pumps treated wastewater into both the Cape Fear and Northeast Cape Fear rivers from its plant on U.S. 421 North.

In Brunswick County, the biggest air polluter is CPI USA, which burns wood, coal and tire-derived fuel to generate electricity. (After being fined for not complying with state air-quality regulations, the small power plant near Southport announced late last year that it is closing.) 

The biggest water polluter in Brunswick is ADM Southport.

Companies can’t simply emit pollution as they wish. EPA permits are required to discharge chemicals into the environment. The permits, which are issued by the state, set limits and requirements. Because of backlogs and other constraints, state regulators have often failed to enforce the regulations in a timely manner.

In 2019, the 14 plants in New Hanover County that are required to report to the EPA generated 192 million pounds of toxic chemical waste, meaning it could harm humans and the environment. 

While the vast majority of that waste was recycled, a portion was released into the environment: 172,000 pounds into the air; 31,000 pounds into waterways, and 1.5 million pounds into the ground.

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

Across North Carolina, industries released 39 million pounds of pollution into the environment in 2019. That was the 17th highest amount nationwide when based on pollution per square mile.

The state’s toxic emissions into the air and land continued to trend downward in 2019, but discharges into waterways were up, according to an analysis of the report’s data by N.C. Policy Watch. (The group has created an online guide to help people navigate the extensive, complex report.)

Some of the biggest water polluters in North Carolina are poultry and livestock “factory” farms, but they are not as tightly regulated as traditional industries.

The handling of PFAS — the class of chemicals that contains GenX — will be included in the TRI report for the first time next year. 


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