Proposed Fumigation Facility Raises Concerns

Aug 5, 2013

Methyl bromide gas is considered a hazardous air pollutant by the EPA.  A fumigation facility proposed for the Morehead City port wants to use the chemical to treat lumber before export.  We explore the issue in advance of a public meeting that has yet to be set. 

Some residents of Carteret County are up in arms about a proposed fumigation facility key to a lumber export business at the port in Morehead City.   Actual fumigation operations would be conducted by a private entity working under contract as a tenant at the port.  Spokesman Tom Mather says the Division of Air Quality decided to announce a public hearing due to overwhelming response from concerned citizens.

“The last count I got, we had received about 500 emails.”

The uproar is due to Delaware based company Royal Fumigations' application for a permit to begin fumigation operations in an existing facility. 

 “we do not hold public meetings on all air quality permits, we have close to 300 permitted facilities around the state. And so generally, we hold public hearings if we get a lot of request for one and we determine that there is public interest involved.”

So far, a public hearing has been planned, but no date, location, or time has been announced. At the center of the controversy is the use of methyl bromide, a chemical deemed hazardous by the Environmental Protection Agency.

“basically, what they want to do is treat logs before they are exported with methyl bromide which is a gas primarily used as a pesticide.  And they’re doing that because some countries will not accept materials, like plant material, unless it’s been treated because it might bring in insects and other diseases.”

Methyl bromide was once widely used in eastern North Carolina to fumigate tobacco and other crops.  It’s highly effective at eliminating pests.  But when the chemical was found to be a significant ozone depleting substance, organizations like the EPA began to warn of its potential danger.

The concentration that would be used at the Morehead City port is what has residents concerned most.  Royal Fumigation’s cover letter accompanying the permit application stated that the facility would emit up to 140 tons per year of methyl bromide.   That’s 14 times the amount currently permitted by the federal Clean Air Act.

“Right now, the permit request submitted by the consulting company called for the release of the toxic gas into the air after it’s done its job. There are other techniques.”

Chairman of the grassroots organization Clean County Coalition Dick Bierly says they’ve sent a letter to Gov. Pat McCrory, the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and other state officials urging them to consider other alternatives.

“If in fact we’re only a year away from the total ban of the use of the gas, there must be some alternatives that are being considered. Why doesn’t the port go after those?”

According to the EPA’s website, both chemical and non-chemical alternatives to methyl bromide exist and state law requires the Division of Air Quality to research other alternatives.  DAQ Spokesman Tom Mather.

“That’s going to be part of our evaluation when we look at this permit.”

The highest exposure of methyl bromide will be to workers at the facility, but Division of Air Quality officials will also look into the potential impact on residential areas and businesses surrounding the port. According to the EPA’s website, human exposure to high concentrations of methyl bromide can result in central nervous system and respiratory system failure, as well as specific and severe harmful actions on the lungs, eyes, and skin. 

In a written statement from the Senior Director of External Affairs for the North Carolina State Ports Authority Laura Blair, Royal Fumigation work will proceed at the Port of Morehead City if and only if the regulatory agencies are satisfied that fumigation activities can be carried out in an environmentally safe manner. The Authority has made no final decision on this potential business at the Port of Morehead City and won’t until the appropriate regulatory agencies have closely examined the operation and the potential environmental impacts. 

Royal Fumigation already performs fumigations at ports and other warehouse locations from New York down into Georgia, along the East Coast.  We reached out to the company earlier this week, but they declined our request for interview.  In a written statement  to Public Radio East, they said “operations at the Port would be conducted under the direct supervision of officials from the US Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Plant Protection and Quarantine Division.”  Even with the government oversight, Clean County Coalition Chairman Dick Bierly is opposed to the fumigation facility.

“The port is grasping at straws. They’re not consistently profitable.  They don’t look at the big picture when they consider options.  And year after year, they come up with ideas that are not compatible with the fact that we are a vacation, tourism, natural resource center now.  But they do it because they are up against it from a business and finance point of view.”

Some believe the benefits outweigh any perceived risks.  City manager for the Town of Morehead City David Whitlow sees economic potential from the fumigation facility.

“In this particular case, loggers would be affected by it, trucker operations would be bringing product in, the people would on the port itself handling the product, the people who have the tree farms that would be raising the timber that would be utilized for these logs, so it’s a pretty wide potential for economic impact.”

It’s too early in the process to estimate specifically what the economic impact could be.  Whitlow says the city has not yet decided if they are for or against the proposed fumigation facility.

“we’re still in the information collection phase wanting to know what’s involved, how often they plan to do this, getting more particulars about any release of this into the atmosphere, looking at how it gets dissipated in to the atmosphere, trying to get more information about the chemistry, and kind of letting the process run its course in order for us to get the information to take an official position.”

The Division of Air Quality plans to release a draft air quality permit before the public meeting is set and spokesman Tom Mather says that’s probably still several months away.  Meanwhile, he says they’ll be researching how other states implement fumigation facilities.  If an air quality permit is issued, Royal Fumigations will be subjected to unannounced periodic inspections and Division of Air Quality officials will respond to complaints.   Opposition to the fumigation facility is already making its presence known online.  A petition seeking to acquire more than 2,000 signatures is already past it’s half way mark.  Jared Brumbaugh, Public Radio East.