Right now in Shenzhen, which, with 12 million people is the fastest-growing city in China, a young couple perhaps is touring a prospective new home, admiring its varnished ochre floors made from Southern yellow pine.
They likely are unaware of the origin story of that pine. Threatened with deforestation, China banned or sharply limited logging in the early 2000s. While its forests recover, China is also experiencing a real estate boom. So it relies on US imports for its logs, some of which are grown and timbered by a Dutch company in Columbus County, NC.
The young couple is also likely unaware that for those floors to be manufactured in China, the logs first have to be poisoned with methyl bromide gas to kill unwanted pests that could alter that country’s ecosystem. They probably never have heard of Malec Brothers, the Australian company that wants to fumigate those logs on a plot of land bordering the tiny towns of Acme and Delco, 9,800 miles away.
They do not know that the residents on the other side of the world are angry and afraid. That they are ready to fight and even sue to keep the company from emitting 100 to 140 tons of the highly toxic gas each year, making it the largest emitter of methyl bromide in North Carolina.
Methyl bromide is allowed for limited uses, such as log fumigation, but has been largely banned in more than 130 countries because it depletes the ozone layer. In high doses, methyl bromide can kill people exposed to it. But the main worry is the chronic, daily exposure to a colorless, odorless gas thought to cause neurological and reproductive disorders in humans.
Like the first hearing hosted by the Department of Environmental Quality on May 3, which was temporarily halted by the fire marshal and had to be continued to May 15 because of immense crowds, residents demanded that state officials deny the permit.
Although this event was more organized than the first, environmental officials still faced a brutal onslaught of difficult questions: The lax, self-reported monitoring of methyl bromide levels at the property boundary. The sandbags-and-duct-tape solutions to sealing leaks in the shipping containers where the logs would be gassed. The inadequate pollution controls. The unknown truck route for the shipment of methyl bromide. The uncertainty about whether public sentiment ultimately matters.
Some the agency representatives could answer; others they could not. At time, the answers seemed inadequate.
“If this was your daughter, would you allow even a small risk to harm your child?” asked Sandy Hester, his arm around his young daughter, Mary, who live a half-mile from the site.
No one from the state answered the question. (They likely could not reply or risk legal action from the company should the permit be denied.)
“What is your answer?” Mary pleaded, her eyes wide. “What you’re doing is insane.”
“People don’t seem to be sensitive to the problem of the chronic, low-level health effects of methyl bromide,” Dr. Robert Parr, a Wilmington physician, told state environmental officials.
California, for example, has established detection and exposure levels of the chemical in parts per billion, far stricter than the parts per million proposed for the permit. “This is substandard monitoring and a substandard detection level,” Parr stated.
Several elected officials have publicly opposed the project, including Republican Sen. Danny Britt Jr., who represents Columbus and Robeson Counties, and Frank Williams, a Brunswick County Commissioner, whose district borders Columbus County. The facility would be near the county line as well as less than a mile from Acme-Delco Middle School.
Columbus County school board member Randy Coleman joined them in his opposition. “The board of education will fight to maintain the safety of our children,” Coleman said. “This is not a safe alternative. Take a long hard look. If these were your children and were going to school less than a mile way, how would you feel?”
Residents had previously asked if the gas would travel above and over fence line air monitors. Division of Air Quality Director Michael Abraczinskas said computer modeling showed it would not. The modeling data will be posted on the Department of Environmental Quality website, “as soon as possible,” he said. However, the public comment period ends tomorrow, May 18.
DEQ’s findings did little to reassure residents. Elizabeth Hester worked in the chemical industry as an environmental engineer. “This is ludicrous,” she said of the company’s plan to control the gas emissions by merely opening and closing doors on the shipping containers. If levels exceed zero parts per million at the property line, workers would close the doors. “Can you explain the science of the air flow?”
During fumigation, which would happen every day, year-round, company employees would observe a windsock, walk the property boundary, and monitor the air, essentially “following the wind,” said DAQ Deputy Director Michael Pjetraj.
Pjetraj said the state would inspect the facility at least once a year, and possibly semi-annually. However, the US Department of Agriculture is in charge of regulating the fumigation. A USDA spokesperson told Policy Watch last month that it would not have an inspector regularly onsite but provides companies with fumigation guidance and operations manuals.
As is common, not just in North Carolina but nationwide, companies self-monitor and self-report much of their environmental data. Malec Brothers, according to the draft air permit, would be allowed to do the same. It’s unclear from the permit application the type and sensitivity of the monitoring equipment the company would use.
Yet self-monitoring can be untrustworthy. (Chemours, in Bladen County, has repeatedly misstated to DEQ the amount of GenX and related compounds it has emitted into the air and discharged into the water.)
Elizabeth Hester’s husband Sandy, who also worked in the chemical industry, told state officials a story to illustrate how companies can game the system. One night at work, Hester said, he accidentally spilled DowTherm, a chemical manufactured by Dow Chemical, on the floor.
“My supervisor asked me, ‘How much did you spill?'”
Hester responded, “What is the reportable limit to the EPA?”
“Five gallons,” the supervisor said.
“Then I spilled four and a half.”
Hester told officials that this scenario is typical, and that Malec Brothers is not immune from obscuring the data. “You say there’s going to be someone running around [the property line] with a monitor?” Hester said. “His co-workers are going to say, ‘Hey dude, run the other way.’ That’s real life. Malec Brothers doesn’t have a dog in this fight.”
For several years, Virginia and South Carolina were primary exporters of logs to China. Then in 2011, the Chinese government suspended the shipments because of pest infestations. In 2012, the US Department of Agriculture convinced China to restart the program contingent on strict quarantine procedures, including debarking and/or fumigation.
(Until recently, some hardwood exporters have circumvented the restrictions by shipping through Hong Kong and getting a “sanitary stamp” there. The Chinese government began cracking down on this workaround last month.)
But fumigation doesn’t need to be conducted in the US; it can also be done at sea, although that poses hazards to ship workers. For example, Canada has struck a deal with China in which logs can be fumigated in shipping containers at certain Chinese ports. If the gassing could be conducted elsewhere, even at greater expense for Malec Brothers, the proposed facility could still receive and ship logs to the Port of Wilmington.
Technology exists to recapture the methyl bromide instead of emitting it into the air. DAQ isn’t requiring recapture in the Malec Brothers permit, although based on public comment, the agency said it will evaluate that option.
If alternatives exist, residents asked, why did Malec Brothers choose Delco? State officials said they did not direct Malec Brothers to locate here, only that a previous location — so far undisclosed — was deemed too close to residences at 200 feet.
But these unincorporated communities, including Delco, Acme and Northwood feel singled out. Burdened by other major polluters and two Superfund sites — Wright Chemical and Holtrachem — Columbus County “is tired of being an environmental justice cesspool for companies,” said Deborah Dicks Maxwell, district director for the NAACP.
(Residents have also expressed resentment at a Malec Brothers executive’s recent comment to the Columbus County newspaper that “outside agitators” were stirring up opposition, ironic considering the company is based in Australia.)
“This permit would not be considered for 10 seconds in Wake County,” added Reginald Webb. “There are intelligent sensible people in this county. We are not country bumpkins. Aside from what I smell from International Paper, now I have to wonder about what I don’t smell. I’m incensed you would consider it.”
There is no timetable for the permit decision, state officials said. While public comment is a “valuable part of the process,” said Division of Air Quality Director Abraczinskas, he would not go so far as to say overwhelming opposition would kill the permit, but it could prompt the agency to modify it.
It was well after 9 o’clock when the hearing wound down. At that hour, it was morning the next day in China. In Shenzhen or Shanghai or Beijing, where thousands of people arrive every day, a prospective buyer could be touring a new home, whose selling point is its beautiful pine floors.