The science of supporting public health above titanic profits

North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue was recently asked to comment on where she stood regarding Titan America’s ongoing efforts to secure an air permit for what would be the nation’s 4th largest cement plant in Castle Hayne, a small community just outside of Wilmington, NC. She reportedly said, “I am going to wait for the science to determine what will happen.”

Precisely what piece of science the Governor is waiting on is anyone’s guess. If she’s waiting to see how Titan’s emissions (fine particulate matter like PM2.5, sulfur dioxide and mercury) are going to affect sensitive populations in our county, she’ll have to wait decades because that sort of science isn’t included in North Carolina’s air permit review.

What We Know Now
There is certainly plenty of available research and data at her fingertips now. And all of it paints a bleak picture of how Titan will impact our area for the next fifty years. Just last month, the American Medical Association came out with a strong warning on mercury emissions from cement plants. According to AMA Board member Edward Lanston, M.D., “(e)xposure to mercury can have adverse affects on human neurological development and is associated with reproductive toxicity and cardiovascular morbidity."

Titan would give New Hanover County the second highest mercury emissions in the state. Not good for our coastal area that scientists say is extremely sensitive to bioaccumulation of the highly toxic form of mercury known as methylmercury. In fact, about 123 miles of rivers and streams as well as 82 miles of coastline in New Hanover, Pender and Brunswick counties are mercury impaired because of high levels of mercury in certain fish. And let’s not forget that Titan wants to build their plant on the banks of the Northeast Cape Fear River—a river so impaired, state agencies say it can have no new sources of mercury. How Titan’s kiln emissions of mercury will avoid falling into the river a few hundred yards away, is a mystery to many (apparently Castle Hayne is the only place in the world where what goes up, does not come down).

And science was the basis for North Carolina’s Clean Smokestack Act — legislation enacted in 2002 that forces coal-burning power plants in our state to drastically reduce NOx (nitrogen oxides) and SO2 (sulfur dioxide) because, in part, they trigger asthma and other respiratory problems. Titan will burn more than 260,000 tons of coal every year—akin to a coal-burning power plant—but cement plants are exempt from the Clean Smokestack Act.

Our community’s concerns about impacts from Titan are well-founded. Air pollution kills. In fact, world health experts say as many as two million people die each year from air pollution. New Hanover County is the second most densely populated county in the state and we have some of the highest emissions of pollutants that directly contribute to ozone, acid rain, respiratory illness and cancer as well as neurological impairment in children. Our county’s emissions of sulfur dioxide already violate federal standards for what’s considered protective of public health. This violation will soon make us the only county in the state in non-attainment for SO2. New federal ozone standards are expected sometime this month as well, and unlucky for us, we may be a non-attainment area for ozone as well.

What We Don’t Know Now: How Many People Will Titan Harm?
Now add Titan to this mix. When they crank up their kiln, our air will see an increase in particulate matter of more than 30%. Mercury will increase by at least 27 %, pollutants that contribute to smog and ozone will go up by 20% and cancer-causing pollutants like polycyclic organic matter, known as POMs, will more than triple.

Just how many more asthma attacks will area children have because Titan wants to make cement in our community? How many more cardiac or respiratory-related hospitalizations or emergency room visits will this cause for our elderly?

Nobody knows, because this sort of science isn’t addressed in the current air permit review or any review conducted during the Titan permit process. Try explaining that to the 48% of our county’s residents who, according to the American Lung Association, are at high risk from increased air pollution. Ask them if they want to take a stab at guessing who will get sick or might even die because one of the nation’s biggest cement plants wants to be their neighbor.

If state regulators at the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) issue Titan’s air permit, Titan can build their cement plant, without ever addressing the questions of more than 200 area doctors who want to know how Titan’s toxic emissions will impact the most vulnerable residents in our community.

Which is why waiting to intervene, as Governor Perdue suggests, is simply not an option for our community. It’s like waiting to apply sunscreen until after you’ve been severely burned. And trust us, we’ve been singed too many times by Titan and their lobbyist already.

This post was written by Kelly Stryker. Stryker was one of the original contributors to www.stoptitan.org and continues to research and fact-check for the Stop Titan Action Network. She lives with her husband and three children in Wilmington, NC. Go to www.stoptitan.org to learn more about this community issue.