Potash looks to Aurora

Published 1:00 am Thursday, September 8, 2011

Langley vows transparency with sulfur-plant project

Following a presentation by PotashCorp representatives concerning a plan to bring a sulfur-melting plant to eastern Beaufort County, the chairman of the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners promised to keep the public informed about it and give local residents a chance to voice their opinions.

“This is just the beginning of the process,” said Chairman Jerry Langley at a meeting of the board Tuesday night. “Even if it were to come to pass, trust me, we would want to hear from the general public.”

After abandoning plans to build a sulfur-melting plant at a state port in Morehead City, PotashCorp has chosen its plant site near Aurora as its preferred location for the plant, according to information presented to the commissioners.

Currently, PotashCorp receives and stores molten sulfur at its facilities at the port in Morehead City and ships the molten sulfur by barge to its Aurora plant site.

“Sulfur is a key raw material in the phosphate industry,” said Steve Beckel, general manager of the Aurora plant.

Building the sulfur-melting plant in Aurora would give PotashCorp “a lot more flexibility of supply of a key raw material,” he told the commissioners.

Under the plan, titled “Beaufort County Sulfur Project,” sulfur pellets will be shipped by barges from the port in Morehead City via the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway to Aurora, where, using steam and contact with liquid sulfur, the sulfur will be melted and transferred to storage tanks.

The major equipment associated with the project includes two steam-heated sulfur melters, two smokestack scrubbing systems and associated piping used to transfer the molten sulfur throughout the Aurora plant site.

The scrubber systems are designed to minimize emissions and keep objectionable odors within the facility boundaries.

Earlier this year, PCS Phosphate, a subsidiary of PotashCorp, had proposed to build the plant and a sulfur pellet storage facility — a $95 million project that would have had 18 full-time employees — at the port.

The Morehead City site was the preferred one of five alternatives for the sulfur-melting project listed in an environmental assessment filed with the N.C. Department of Administration in December 2010.

Public outcry over the plant’s effects on the environment and the effects of two 125-foot-tall smokestacks on the appearance of the Morehead City waterfront led to the eventual opposition of Gov. Beverly Perdue and prompted the company to halt the plan.

Opponents of the plan said they feared foul odors and pollution associated with the project would hurt tourism.

Other alternatives considered by the company in the environmental assessment included a plan to expand the company’s ability to transport and store molten surfer at its Aurora plant, build facilities in Aurora to receive and remelt sulfur pellets, build facilities to receive and remelt sulfur pellets at a port outside the state or build facilities to receive, store and remelt sulfur pellets at Radio Island.

Several eastern Beaufort County residents expressed concerns over odors and pollution from sulfur dust from the project during a public-comment period of the meeting.

“There are times that I have to have all my windows closed and stay inside because of the heavy sulfur smell from the small facility they have there now,” said Pamlico Beach resident John Chrystal. “If this plant comes to Beaufort County … it will be as devastating to the long-term health of the county as the (outlying landing field) was.”

Chrystal was one of several county residents who said they attended the meeting to hear the presentation by PotashCorp.

“I know that many residents of Beaufort County, as well as environmental and social-justice organizations, will be following this issue in the weeks to come,” said Mary Alsentzer, a resident of the Schrams Beach community in eastern Beaufort County.