Pollution Concerns Slow National Gypsum Incentives Discussion

By Cece Nunn and Christina Haley O'Neal, posted Feb 19, 2018
Proposed economic incentives that could lead to the revival of a former gypsum plant in Wilmington have run into a potential hurdle, with a state lawmaker, a state senate candidate and others expressing concerns about whether the facility might produce harmful pollution.

On Monday morning, the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners tabled a proposal that would offer incentives of up to $350,000 over five years in annual payments of $70,000 to reopen a National Gypsum Co. plant on Sunnyvale Drive. The measure means it will be at least 30 days before the board considers the proposal again.

Wilmington is one of the cities the Charlotte-based company is looking at to ramp up operations, officials said earlier this month. The company ceased production at the Wilmington plant in 2009.

The commissioners' decision Monday came after several speakers, including state Rep. Deb Butler, D-New Hanover, and former Wilmington mayor Harper Peterson, who is running for state senate against incumbent Sen. Michael Lee, R-New Hanover, mentioned fears that the reopened facility would produce pollution.

"We're 240-plus days since we learned of GenX ... we have all said to our citizens that we want to stop playing catch-up on these issues and that we want to prevent these chemicals from getting into our water and our air on the front end," Butler said, regarding the unregulated chemical GenX that has been found in the Cape Fear River and region's public water systems. The chemical is linked to activities at The Chemours Co. operations at the Fayetteville Works site upstream along the river. 

Referring to National Gypsum, Butler questioned the need for such incentives, "particularly for a smokestack industry, which I suggest may not be the best fit for this region any longer or moving forward," she said.

James Phipps, director of environmental services for National Gypsum, tried to address some of the concerns of the speakers and commissioners. He said the existing permit for National Gypsum was renewed by the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ) in 2016, and it expires in 2024.

With regard to formaldehyde, the main concern of speakers Monday, the company is permitted for and limited to 8.77 tons per year, "which makes us a minor source under the Clean Air Act," he said. Phipps also said the permit is in compliance with NCDEQ dispersion models.

"[NCDEQ] conducted air dispersion modeling and determined the risks and emissions would meet their qualifications," he said.

Should the project go forward, the company will also eliminate one of its firing units -- a fuel option -- and go to straight natural gas, which will bring down pollution, he said.

"That will reduce emissions of particulates ... SO2 (sulfur dioxide) and greenhouse gases," Phipps said. "In addition, we would be looking deeper to install equipment to increase our recycling capability."

Commissioners, who were raising questions about the dispersion models and health effects of the chemical, tabled the discussion for 30 days. The board is seeking to get a representative from NCDEQ in Raleigh to New Hanover County to discuss the permit and other issues.

Meanwhile, Wilmington City Council's agenda includes holding a public hearing Tuesday on the city’s portion of the potential incentives package, about $230,000. Possible environmental concerns also came up during a discussion about the public hearing at the city council's agenda briefing Monday morning.

Wilmington Mayor Pro Tem Margaret Haynes brought the subject up, and in response, City Manager Sterling Cheatham said he would provide city officials with information the city received from the firm about what mitigation efforts National Gypsum Co. would put in place.

Mayor Bill Saffo said the National Gypsum Co. deal is a good opportunity for the area to create jobs and grow export activity, and the incentive package also involves the N.C. Department of Transportation and railroad officials.

“I think that obviously, they [National Gypsum] were the victim of the downturn back in 2008, like a lot of housing suppliers were during that time. [The incentives deal] gives us an opportunity to bring manufacturing back into the city of Wilmington, it gives us the opportunity to reopen a mothballed facility that’s there, that is already in place, that was producing gypsum or sheet rock for a number of years,” Saffo said after Monday’s agenda briefing. “It will employ 50-some people at some pretty good salaries [the lowest identified as $50,000], which is a pretty good salary for the area. It’s located near the Port Of Wilmington, so a lot of that gypsum that will be manufactured here was going to be shipped around the world.”

On the potential for pollution, Saffo said, “There’s always a sensitivity as to what these kind of manufacturing facilities will do to the local environment based on what’s happened in the past, with the big discussion in this community with Titan [America LLC],” referring to Titan America’s plans in the past to open a cement plant in Castle Hayne.

Those plans were scrapped in 2016 by Titan, with company officials citing lower demand and higher construction costs, and local environmental groups hailing the news as a triumph.

“There’s a very active group of citizens that are concerned about the environment, environmental impacts, and we always have to be sensitive to those kinds of things,” Saffo said. He said he thinks National Gypsum Co. would be required to properly mitigate any potential impacts that would result from the reopened facility.

Correction: This version corrects the year that National Gypsum Co. ceased production at its Wilmington plant.
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