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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Fumigator of neurotoxin seeks to modify permit at Port of Wilmington facility

Ecolab treats logs with methyl bromide inside sealed shipping containers at the Port of Wilmington facility. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

WILMINGTON –– A company that specializes in the use of the neurotoxin methyl bromide is seeking to add a new emission unit to fumigate fruit and produce at the Port of Wilmington. 

Ecolab is aiming to modify its existing N.C. Division of Air Quality (DAQ) permit to meet recently tightened state regulations of the ozone-depleting substance and add a new emissions source at its leased Port of Wilmington site.

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

Known for ridding logs of pests to meet foreign export requirements, the company needs authorization to construct a second emissions site to fumigate produce under a tarp, in addition to its current shipping container-based log operation. Though the company is asking to add a new station, its annual emissions limitations are not proposed to increase. 

The highly toxic, heavier-than-air substance is known to cause central nervous and respiratory failures in humans from both acute and chronic exposure. It was widely applied to commodities as a pesticide prior to being included in the Montreal Protocol in 1992; its use was phased out in the U.S. with two standing exemptions: critical use and quarantine and pre-shipment.

Ecolab

Royal Pest Solutions (acquired by Ecolab in 2017) has maintained a grip on the state’s methyl bromide operations, holding four out of five permits statewide to emit the compound as of 2017. 

The company had as many as three such permits at a time active in Wilmington. Over a 10-year period, Ecolab released at least 130 pounds of the toxic substance into the atmosphere between the three Wilmington operations. 

Each located within a 4-mile radius, the emissions locations around the port had overlapping areas of potential impact. A 2019 DAQ report estimated more than 125,000 people living in New Hanover County had likely been overexposed to the toxic substance. 

Within a 1-mile radius of Ecolab’s port operation, nearly 5,000 residents also live near 18 other air quality permitted sites, a DEQ environmental justice report determined this year. Two of three census tracts within this radius include a higher proportion of people living below the poverty line compared to the rest of the county and state, the report found. 

Aside from the port, Ecolab has allowed its other permits in Wilmington –– off River Road and Sunnyvale Road –– to lapse in recent years. The port facility is the company’s last remaining active permit statewide; it will perform fumigation services at the only other active permit in N.C. listed on the state’s website in Wayne County, but a separate company is the permit holder. 

The DAQ initiated a re-examination of its methyl bromide permitting rules after public outcry spurred by two notable permit requests in 2018: Tima Capital off Sunnyvale Drive in New Hanover County and the Malec Brothers in Columbus County both withdrew their applications in an atmosphere of heightened scrutiny. ​

At the time, the state had next-to-no specific methyl bromide restrictions, aside from capping emissions at 10 tons per year. This left open the possibility of operators fumigating in condensed batches over a shortened period of time, creating unsafe concentrations of the neurotoxin reaching the fenceline of the property. 

In November 2020, the state adopted new regulations for methyl bromide following a drawn-out rulemaking process. It added the compound to its toxic air pollutants roll –– the first new addition to the list in nearly 30 years –– and introduced both annual and 24-hour ambient air level (AAL) limits, at .005 milligrams per cubic meter (mg/m3) and 1 mg/m3. In addition to the tightened limits, rules crafted around “log fumigation” introduce new monitoring, recordkeeping, and reporting requirements. It also added a public-notice requirement, mandating these facilities incorporate permanent signs at the perimeter of operations “visible and legible” to the public. 

Operators were given until the end of 2020 to comply. “Ecolab has always operated at the Port of Wilmington with the required signage per the existing regulations at the time of operation,” Ecolab representative Roman Blahoski wrote in a statement. The company “will be placing” signs along the perimeter of the port facility, as required, according to Blahoski. 

Previously, the state required no such public notice to nearby residents of the fumigators. In fact, longtime neighbors of Wilmington’s Ecolab facility were completely unaware of the company’s operations. A 20-year renter on River Road was clueless to the company’s activities when reached at his doorstep last year; his property was depicted on a state presentation as being 550 feet from the River Road operation, which released nearly 10 tons of the pollutant to treat logs over a six-month period in 2017. 

A second unit

A draft permit, issued by the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality includes 23 pages of provisions for the company’s modified operations incorporating new rules (its current permit, issued early November 2020, is just five pages long).

In addition to methyl bromide, the port facility is permitted to release phosphine, a pesticide that also falls on the state’s toxic air pollutants list. Like methyl bromide, its use is currently capped at 10 tons per year. Acute, one-hour exposure to phosphine is limited to 0.13 mg/m3, or 2.5 pounds per hour, in the draft permit. 

Ecolab’s proposed modifications “will not present any unacceptable risk to human health,” the company claimed in its permit application, submitted November 2020. 

Fumigation is a USDA, Department of Homeland Security, and ​​Customs and Border Patrol requirement for the import and export of an array of products to combat invasive species, Blahoski explained via email. 

Ecolab fumigates multiple commodities, including logs, tobacco, peanuts, and produce within shipping containers at the port, according to its application. 

The company first applied for a permit at the port in 2011, but fumigations had occurred at the site for “many years” according to a DAQ inspection report. Blahoski stated the company has provided fumigation services at N.C. ports and log facilities since 2002, with a strong federal and state compliance history. 

In 2018, DAQ cited Ecolab for indicating it wasn’t aerating containers for three months when in fact it did. The error resulted in an exceedance of its 12-month 10-ton limit. It paid the state a $4,904 fine for the violation. 

Between January 2018 and 2019, the company released about 9.3 tons of methyl bromide at the port. By December 2019, the company’s 12-month rolling total had dipped to 1.1 tons, a nearly 90% decline, according to DAQ’s latest inspection report. The drop-off was attributed to trade changes with China, the report notes.

Logs are fumigated within sealed shipping containers at the facility. New rules mean more attention is paid to the release of the fumigant, utilizing a 40-foot stack with a blower to exhaust fumes. Operations at the first emission site occur between 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. 

A proposed second emitting unit will fumigate fruit or other produce from inside a cold storage warehouse nearby. Bulk fumigation will take place under a tarp, utilizing a 40-foot exhaust stack, operating only between 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. The company indicated it would follow USDA and EPA guidelines in its handling of the pesticides. Fumigation of certain commodities is required as “a condition of entry” to the U.S., the Ecolab representative explained. 

“The decision to include both produce and logs in the fumigation application was to allow for flexibility and growth opportunities for the Port of Wilmington should there be an opportunity to import fruits and vegetables at the port,” Blahoski said.

Produce calls for significantly more methyl bromide per batch compared to logs: Yellow pines require 13.5 pounds per container, oaks 40.5 pounds, non-oaks 20.2 pounds, whereas produce uses 150 pounds a batch, according to Ecolab’s application materials. 

DAQ is hosting a public hearing on Ecolab’s permit modification request on Aug. 31 at 6 p.m. Those wishing to speak at the hearing must sign up before 4 p.m.

Public comments will be accepted via email to DAQ.publiccomments@ncdenr.gov with the subject line “Ecolab, NCSPA” or by voicemail at (919) 707-8714. Comments are welcome through Sept. 2 at 5 p.m.

Details on the public hearing are below:

When: Aug. 31 at 6 p.m.

WebEx link: https://bit.ly/3eYlkDy

WebEx password: NCDAQ

Phone: +1-415-655-0003Access code: 161 134 8802


Send tips and comments to Johanna F. Still at johanna@localdailymedia.com

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