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ON CLOUDS AND CAUTION: Local legislators delay decision to reopen National Gypsum Plant

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NHC commission voted to postpone their decision on National Gypsum Plant for 30 days, while Wilmington City Council voted to wait for April 3 to make a decision so more answers could surface.

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Late last night I lost the world in swirling alabaster mist.

I was delivering a 38-foot-long sailboat from Southport to Wrightsville Beach. During the trip, we encountered and overcame fouled propellers, overheating engines, light winds, and tides that ran strong against us. We had fought for every inch of forward progress we made up the river. After 10 hours underway, we tied up in Carolina Beach to address a diesel leak from the high-pressure fuel pump. Our engineer diagnosed we didn’t have the parts we needed onboard to fix it and safely keep going. It was after midnight—so too late to run to the store.

Thankfully, the owner of the boat had a TowBoatUS membership. So it was with much gratitude we side-tied to Capt. Tom (thanks again, Tom!) and set out north up the Intracoastal Waterway. Masonboro Island lay low to the east and the stars overhead glittered like a field of sapphires. But less than 15 minutes after departing, our world began to close in around us.

The unseasonably warm air above the chilly water formed a briny sea fog, dense and silent in the midnight calm. The water beneath us was as smooth as glass, but before long, even lights from the docks onshore had been dulled by the low cloud, and formed weird halos in the whiteness. Soon we were entirely enshrouded; it felt like we had entered the unknown void of deep space. Standing, shivering on the bow, I couldn’t see 20 feet ahead of us. Not good. Time seemed to slow down as we pressed on blindly. We had to keep going, had to make it home, and more importantly, we had to make it without running into one of the many navigational hazards out there—docks, pilings, unlit markers, crab pot buoys, sandbars, other vessels who might be feeling along like we were.

Tom’s boat had GPS and radar, but still, we couldn’t risk running over a crab pot or a rogue log—something too small to be seen by our sweeping radar beam or not marked on our navigational charts. In this situation a prudent mariner should reduce speed to bare steerageway (the minimum forward momentum required to keep control), which is exactly what we did. Our vessel slowed to a crawl, and our exhausted eyes could now see danger ahead with enough time to avoid it. Finally, at a little after 3 a.m., we dropped anchor in Banks Channel. I have never been so happy to stop moving.

Why am I telling you my story? Because when it comes to making policy decisions that have the potential to adversely affect our environment, our legislators should exercise just as much caution—especially when a fog of scientific ignorance rolls in. If the GenX debacle of the our port city over the last nine months has taught us anything, it’s that an abundance of caution with what legislators allow on the front end is much better than any amount of cleanup after a harmful substance has been released into the world. Thankfully, our local leaders seem to get this.

At last Monday’s meeting of the New Hanover County Commissioners, the main topic of discussion was over whether or not to provide an incentive for the National Gypsum Company to reopen their plant on Sunnyvale Drive, near the port. National Gypsum first opened the facility in 1979, but the plant went dormant following the economic crisis of 2008. The company would manufacture three types of sheetrock and water-resistant wallboard at the site. Scott Satterfield of Wilmington Business Development spoke to express his organization’s support for providing a performance-based economic incentive grant to the company of $350,000 over five years. He claimed the company would spend an estimated $25 million in capital expenditures in NHC to modernize their facility, and provide 51 new jobs, with an average pay of $57,000/year.

Yet, as with any industry, there are drawbacks to accompany the benefits. A significant increase in the emission of formaldehyde would come with the plant’s reopening. National Gypsum’s old permit allowed them 57 pounds of emissions, but the permit they were granted in 2016 increases their limit by several orders of magnitude. Now, they are legally permitted to release up to 8.77 tons, or 16,500 pounds, into our local atmosphere. According to the Environmental Protection Agency website, formaldehyde is a naturally occurring gas, found in building materials, household products—like glues and paints—preservatives, pesticides and cigarette smoke. It can “cause irritation of the skin, eyes, nose and throat.” High levels of exposure to formaldehyde “may cause some types of cancers.”

During the public comment period of the meeting, several citizens expressed concern about the increase. Former Wilmington Mayor Harper Peterson (who is now running for State Senate) recognized a need for the industry, but wondered if the board of commissioners had considered all the environmental impacts before they voted to reach a decision. State Representative Deb Butler spoke as well, and stated, “We need to stop playing catch-up.” The time for answers is now, not later, she argued. Two citizens, Bob Stewart and Johnny Hannigan, voiced concerns about the close proximity of the plant to their neighborhoods of River Lights and Sunset Park.

James Phipps, director of environmental affairs for National Gypsum, spoke as well, and answered questions about the company’s manufacturing processes from commissioners Watkins and Zapple. Additionally, he claimed that the emissions of 8.77 tons still classified them as a “minor source” of pollution, according to the Clean Air Act (but just barely, as a “major source” is anything over 10 tons).

Chairman Woody White remarked how, typically, the commission would focus on financial aspects of a decision. But the community, he said, still has PTSD from the Titan Cement debate, which has been compounded by the GenX disaster of last year. Wilmington, said White, has “been traumatized by its education over the last eight months… [and] these experiences inform the future.”

Ultimately, the commission voted to postpone their decision for 30 days, until scientists from the DEQ could be present to answer more questions about the dispersion from the plant and health effects of formaldehyde. At the Wilmington City Council meeting the next evening, the council reached a similar verdict, and voted to wait for April 3 to make a decision so more answers could surface.

I commend our local leaders. This is how decisions should be made: slowly, with all facts in front of them, their focus on the public health rather than on pleasing impatient demands of industry.

Clean air and water are necessary and irreplaceable goods, which benefit everyone in the community, and there’s no reset button for them. Like navigating in fog, we only get one chance to make the correct decision and prevent disaster from happening. Once the boat is stove in from impact, with an unmarked piling, once the critical amount of carbon is emitted in the warming atmosphere, once the chemicals have slipped down the pipe and into our drinking water, it’s too late.

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