Cement plants such as Titan’s proposed Carolinas Cement plant burn coal and petroleum coke to heat raw materials such as limestone and clay in huge rotating furnaces called kilns. Much like coal-burning power plants, cement plants generate significant amounts of air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide that form smog, particulate pollution, and greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. According to the American Lung Association, nearly half (46 percent) of New Hanover County’s population suffer from health conditions such as asthma, emphysema and heart disease that would be aggravated by Titan’s air pollution.
Portland cement manufacturing is the third largest source of mercury emissions in the United States, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Mercury released from cement plants can create localized hotspots of pollution. Federal environmental regulators in August 2010 issued new rules to slash emissions of mercury, particle pollution and other harmful pollutants from existing cement plants and new cement plants by requiring them to install state-of-the art pollution control technology by 2013. The rules would apply to Titan’s proposed plant, and Titan has repeatedly said they would comply with the new standards.
But the Portland Cement Association, an industry group, in November 2010 is challenging the new rules and has asked EPA to reconsider a number of issues in the rules, complaining that they posed a threat to the viability of many cement companies. Titan’s chief executive is the new chairman of the board of the Portland Cement Association.
Mercury spewed from power plants and cement plant smokestacks eventually falls back to earth and washes into streams and rivers where it changes to methylmercury, a toxic form that builds up in the tissue of fish. Titan proposes to build the new plant on the location of the former Ideal Cement plant near Castle Hayne. Titan currently uses the site as a cement distribution terminal for Titan products manufactured in Virginia. The Northeast Cape Fear, which flows besides the proposed industrial site, is already on North Carolina’s list of polluted waters because of mercury contamination, according to the N.C. Department of Division of Water Quality.
Some species of fish caught in the Northeast Cape Fear River have high concentrations of mercury. Because of the high mercury levels, state health officials have issued a health warning about eating the fish from the Northeast Cape Fear River. Eating contaminated fish is the primary way humans are exposed to mercury. Mercury can damage children’s developing brains. Pregnant women and nursing mothers who eat fish containing mercury can harm their babies, causing mental disabilities.
The proposed Titan plant would add additional mercury to an area that already is under health advisories for unacceptably high levels of mercury. The N.C. Division of Water of Water Quarter has said that any increase in mercury in the Northeast Cape Fear River is unacceptable. Nearly 200 local physicians signed a petition opposing a cement plant, which would become the 5th largest emitter of mercury in North Carolina.
Titan proposes to strip mine limestone for the manufacturing of Portland cement. Its plans entail the destruction of approximately 500 acres of wetlands, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ documents. Wetlands serve valuable and essential functions in the natural ecosystem. They filter pollutants in run-off and protect water quality. They provide vital nursery areas for fish and wildlife. They act as a sponge, absorbing floodwaters and slowly releasing them to recharge water systems. North Carolina has lost half of its estimated 11.1 million acres of wetlands and the loss is concentrated in eastern North Carolina.
Recognizing the value of wetlands, federal law now requires companies to minimize impacts to wetlands and to restore wetlands to offset destructive activities so that there is, in effect, no net loss of wetlands. To obtain federal and state permits to disturb wetlands, Titan will have to do an environmental impact statement to identify the least destructive alternative.
As part of the environmental permitting process, Titan will have to develop a plan to mitigate wetland damage that is deemed unavoidable. This review process is expected to take 18 months to two years. There is uncertainty about whether the Division of Air Quality can issue an air permit while Titan is undergoing an environmental impact study.
Public money and air permits
In 2009, the N.C. Division of Air Quality issued a draft air permit to Carolinas Cement LLC despite the lack of a full environmental study. State air regulators and Titan representatives contended no state environmental review was necessary, although North Carolina state law requires complete environmental reviews for projects that receive public money. The New Hanover County commissioners gave Titan $4.2 million in tax incentives to locate in New Hanover County and the North Carolina Department of Commerce provided $300,000.
Grassroots groups and environmental groups successfully challenged the Titan’s draft air quality permit. A Wake County judge in May 2010 agreed that Titan’s acceptance of public funds triggered the requirement for a full environmental review in compliance with North Carolina’s State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA). Wake County Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens ordered the state to cease work on the air permit until the environmental review is completed. Titan has appealed that ruling.
In November 2010, Titan officials informed the state that they were returning $4.5 million of economic incentive funds in another ploy to bypass the state environmental review. A full environmental review would provide fuller disclosure of the environmental harm, involve public input, and delay construction of the plant until completion. Titan argues that a full environmental review would involve an unacceptable delay. Currently, no revised air permit application for the Titan plant has been submitted.
One of the air pollutants that cement plants emit is sulfur dioxide, a reactive gas that can aggravate asthma and cause respiratory problems and premature deaths. New Hanover County has high levels of sulfur dioxide. It is poised to be the only county in North Carolina that fails to meet new federal air quality standards for sulfur dioxide (SO2). Titan’s Carolinas Cement plant is projected to produce 1,400 tons of sulfur dioxide per year. The additional emissions from the Titan cement plant would make it impossible for New Hanover County to meet the new air quality standards.