Sulfur concerns aired

Published 1:01 am Thursday, November 3, 2011

Don Maneval with PotashCorp speaks to the Beaufort County Republican Club on Oct. 27 in Chocowinity. (WDN Photo/Jonathan Clayborne)

CHOCOWINITY — A handful of people concerned about the proposed construction of a sulfur-melting plant in Aurora attended a meeting of the Beaufort County Republican Club last week at a local restaurant.

These residents came seeking answers about the plant, which has been proposed by PotashCorp Aurora.

They got at least some of the answers they sought, even if they didn’t like all of the information they received.

Rick Mercer lives at Bayview, across the Pamlico River from the possible plant site.

He questioned guest speaker Don Maneval, superintendent of projects for engineering-maintenance for PotashCorp, about the potential for sulfurous odor from the new plant.

“I have been awoken in the middle of the night with odor so strong and so pungent from your plant that it has been enough to wake me up,” Mercer told Maneval and a crowd of at least 33 other attendees.

“Almost any time we have a wind from that direction there is an odor that comes from that plant,” Mercer said. “Now, you either have the technology to stop that and you’re not using it or you don’t.”

The sulfur odor is “very detrimental to the standard of living across the river,” Mercer said, adding, “We don’t want to see it get any worse.”

In response to Mercer and other audience members, Maneval said the sulfur-melting plant’s smokestack would be equipped with a scrubber that would help remove 98 percent of the gas “that has the odor that we don’t want released to the atmosphere.”

“It’s also not something that we want our employees exposed to in this dedicated facility,” he said, indicating the company wants to limit or eliminate that exposure.

Replying to a question from club member and Beaufort County Commissioner Al Klemm, Maneval said “a small component of hydrogen sulfide” would pass through the scrubber.

“Unfortunately, I don’t have the numbers (of that component), and, in fact, that somewhat depends on how big a facility we build,” he said, adding, “Our target is the (state of) California human threshold for smelling hydrogen sulfide.”

The plant also would emit “very fine ash” of less than five microns, he said.

“It’s essentially an airborne dust,” Maneval reported.

Maneval’s presentation follows a Sept. 27 news release from the Southern Environmental Law Center, an advocacy group with branches in six states.

Citing numbers that industries are required to report to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the release notes that in 2010 “polluters released over 1 million pounds of toxic pollution into the air breathed by residents” in 12 North Carolina counties, one of those being Beaufort County.

The EPA’s annual Toxics Release Inventory ranked the county sixth among the state’s 100 counties in toxic chemicals released by industries, as reported earlier by the Washington Daily News.

“In a meeting this week, the N.C. General Assembly’s Environmental Review Commission will continue consideration of an amendment to Senate Bill 308 that would repeal the only health-based protections for the air people breathe against actual concentrations of toxic and cancer-causing air pollutants from multiple large industrial sources, including coal-fired power plants,” the SELC’s Sept. 27 news release reads. “Five of the state’s largest polluters requested that state legislators repeal North Carolina’s Regulations for the Control of Toxic Air Pollutants — protections adopted under Republican Governor James Martin.”

Among the industries making that request was PotashCorp of Saskatchewan, Canada, SELC said.

SELC has not taken a position on the proposed sulfur-melting plant, according to Geoff Gisler, a staff attorney with the environmental entity’s Chapel Hill office. In brief comments, Gisler focused mainly on the subject of the earlier news release.

“(PotashCorp) is one of the major polluters who is pushing to have that program repealed, and now proposing a new source of air pollution,” he said.

In his remarks to the Republican club last week, Maneval indicated the sulfur-melting plant is necessary to keep PotashCorp competitive in the face of global competition.

The company makes a wide range of products, from fertilizers to chemicals that go into textile dyes and feed products, he said.

“As we compete on the world market for our sulfur that we need from our plant, we have to be in the solid-sulfur business,” he said, adding that solid-sulfur pellets, as opposed to liquid sulfur, will be “a larger and larger percentage of what we’re able to buy. It’s going to be a more economical sulfur to purchase.”

The company was still considering a range of options for the plant, outside the preferred Aurora site, and hadn’t picked a location for the facility, he said.

Beaufort County Commissioner Jay McRoy of Chocowinity attended the Republicans’ gathering.

McRoy was unequivocal in his support for PotashCorp, pointing out the fact that many Chocowinity-area residents work at the Aurora mine site, “and they’re for whatever (PotashCorp) needs.”

“If I didn’t support PCS, I wouldn’t be a county commissioner any longer,” he said.

Saying PotashCorp pays a large percentage of county property taxes, McRoy also discounted the company’s self-reported pollution numbers cited by SELC.

“When I saw who put out the report, I discounted what they said 99.9 percent because of their past history,” he said. “I have no use for them people. And when you show their name, and from Chapel Hill, North Carolina — liberal North Carolina — you know where it’s coming from.”