Ashley Niquetta went to services last Sunday at Evergreen AME Zion Church in Delco — the church she attended as a child — and gave a talk about pollution. Not just any pollution, but the 140 tons of methyl bromide emissions that could be emitted into the air each year in and around Delco, a hamlet in Columbus County, 18 miles west of Wilmington.

“People knew some about logs,” Niquetta told Policy Watch. “But nobody knew anything about the fumigation.”

About a mile from the church, at the intersection of Cronly Drive and Fertilizer Road, Malec Brothers Transport plans to build a fumigation facility to kill pests in tens of thousands of logs each year.

If state environmental officials approve the company’s air permit, each year Malec Brothers Transport would emit 100 to 140 tons of highly toxic methyl bromide — a chemical so destructive to the environment and human health that it has been phased out for most uses, except for fumigating logs. 

The NC Department of Environmental Quality is holding a public hearing Thursday at 7 p.m. at Acme-Delco Middle School, 26133 Andrew Jackson Highway.

The emissions from the operation would add to the pollutant load on a predominantly Black community already burdened by a Superfund site, several chemical companies, plus paper and lumber mills that legally emit tons of hazardous and toxic pollutants.

Foreign companies that would profit from the operation, but Delco, particularly communities of color, would bear the risk. Malec Brothers is an Australian LLC that would gas southern yellow pine harvested from nearby forests by a Dutch company. Once cleansed of insects, the logs would be shipped to China.

“The community would take on all the responsibility,” Niquetta said. “If something happens, they can’t get up and move. They don’t have political power. They don’t have basic health care. They don’t have resources.”

A super pollutant that is super toxic

Since the 1930s, methyl bromide had been commonly used to fumigate soil and crops, such as asparagus and strawberries, to kill invasive pests in products for export. However, methyl bromide not only kills insects, it also depletes the earth’s protective ozone layer and is harmful  to human health.

In 1987, 24 countries, including the United States, signed the Montreal Protocol limiting methyl bromide and other ozone-depleting chemicals. By 2001, 150 counties had agreed to freeze production levels of methyl bromide. 

And in 2005, the EPA completed a near phase-out of the production and importation of the chemical. But there remained a short list of exempted uses, among them, the fumigation of logs for export. The USDA and many of its international counterparts require companies to kill pests that could be invasive in foreign countries.

“It’s a super-pollutant,” said Terry Lansdell, public policy manager at Clean Air Carolina. “It’s not a fun thing to deal with.”

Methyl bromide is highly toxic, according to the EPA. Even when it is legally used, methyl bromide can inflict an alarming toll on human health, including the respiratory and neurological systems.

Professor Ian Shaw of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand studies chemical residues in the environment, and has published several articles in peer-reviewed journals about the effects of methyl bromide. His research underscores the EPA’s findings. Depending on the level and duration of exposure, Shaw said, there can be “quite a severe toxicity.” 

Short-term, high-level exposure can cause respiratory problems, while longer-term, low-level exposure might lead to motor-neuron diseases, such as ALS. Shaw studied a small sample of people working in a port in New Zealand, where the hills trap the emissions. Those port workers experienced higher incidences of motor-neuron diseases than the general population. In fact, Shaw said, all the people who contracted motor neuron diseases in the port town within a five-year period worked in the port, although genetics could have also been a factor. 

James Harris, CEO of Malec Brothers’s US operations, told Policy Watch that the process has been used in Australia without incident. “There is a lot of fear, but we have a proven track record,” he said. 

The chemical disperses within 9 to 20 feet of the container, Harris said, and the procedure is “completely safe.”

“They can’t know that,” Shaw countered. “It depends on the dose people get, the wind direction, how often the company fumigates.”

Acme-Delco Middle School lies within a mile of the proposed facility. It enrolls about 170 students in grades 6 through 8, about half of them Black and 12 percent Latinx. “Kids will get a dose every day if the wind blows that direction,” Shaw said.

Sandbags and duct tape

Malec Brothers’s air permit application details the intensity of the proposed operation and the company’s reluctance to maximize the protection of human health.

Malec Brothers started in Australia as a simple freight company and then expanded to log exports, including operations in the U.S. Under the terms of the company’s proposed air quality permit, Malec Brothers would receive thousands of southern yellow pine logs harvested from North Carolina forests by Red Mountain Timber a Dutch company. The logs would then be loaded into 40-foot, 2,700-cubic-foot shipping containers for fumigation. Methyl bromide would be infused into the containers for 16 to 24 hours; the containers would then ventilate into the air for four to six hours.

According to the application, Malec Brothers would fumigate an estimated 45 containers per day, totaling 300 a week or 20,000 containers a year. 

The facility would have several zones for monitoring emissions, including a “danger area” for the workers and another buffer 250 feet from the facility. If concentrations of methyl bromide within or beyond the danger zone near the shipping containers exceed 5 parts per million, then workers will use “sandbags, duct tape, etc.” to try to seal off the leaks.

Harris said that method, “an industry standard,” is effective and widely used in Australia.

North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) spokesperson Megan Thorpe said the agency has not verified the company’s environmental record in Australia “because our focus is how they will operate in North Carolina.”

The company also claimed in the application that fumigation would be conducted “under direct onsite supervision of officers of USDA’s APHIS — Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Harris later clarified that while APHIS would be onsite for an initial setup, they would not be there every day.

APHIS spokeswoman William Wepsala said the company would enter into a compliance agreement with the agency laying out its procedure, which allows it to operate without an APHIS inspector always onsite. “APHIS will monitor these activities as we see fit,” Wepsala said. “Typically this means periodic spot inspections.”

The company would use 1.4 tons to 2 tons of methyl bromide each week, but it’s unclear from the permit how much of the chemical would stay in the logs and how much would wind up in the air. The amount remaining in the logs is known as the retention rate. In one part of the application, the company estimates about half the methyl bromide would stay in the logs. But in another portion, the application says none of it would. In other words, all of the methyl bromide would enter the air.

Harris said the rate depends on humidity, temperature, the condition of the logs and the variability within each shipping container. 

When the permit writer for the state Division of Air Quality (DAQ) asked for clarification, Malec Brothers officials replied:  “Unfortunately, in our operations we have not been able to measure this and are reliant on our expert’s opinion.” That expert is entomologist Jim Sargeant, a veteran of the pesticide industry.  

Malec Brothers asked DAQ to reduce the buffer zone for monitoring from 250 feet to 30 feet, which meets  EPA and USDA requirements. “Please be aware that levels of methyl bromide that are safe for workers who are subject to limited exposure times and [protective gear] requirements are not necessarily protective of general public health,” DAQ replied.

The company also objected to DAQ’s directive that residents be explicitly notified when fumigation is occurring. “To re-notify residents when there have already been public notices and perimeter signing around the Delco property appears excessive and of little practical benefit,” the permit reads.

DAQ replied: “The practical benefit to notifying neighbors of ongoing fumigation operations is to avoid any unintentional intrusion onto the fumigation site and inform people of signs of exposure and appropriate medical treatment for any said exposure.”

However, if approved by the state, the permit contains several shortcomings. For example, initially, the company has to conduct frequent self-monitoring and reporting of methyl bromide air concentrations both near the site and at the property line. 

But if two consecutive semi-annual reports show no concentrations of methyl bromide at the property boundary, Malec Brothers can discontinue monitoring. 

Delco, a chemical alley

The unincorporated community of Delco and next door, the town of Riegelwood in Columbus County, lie within an alley of chemical plants and polluters. In north Delco, the Malec Brothers fumigation operation is just feet from the former Wright Chemical plant, now a federal Superfund site.

(Large swaths of this contaminated land are co-owned by Bill Oakley and James Barker, former Wright Chemical executives, according to county property records.)

Niquetta remembers visiting her great-grandmother in nearby Armour. “There was a chemical plant behind her house with white smoke coming out,” Niquetta said. “I thought it was normal.”

As is common, most of the people living near these contaminated areas are people of color. Census and EPA data show that of the 1,340 residents living within a two miles of the proposed fumigation facility, half are people of color: Black, Latinx and American Indian.

These residents are subjected to hundreds of tons of air pollutants, some of them linked to cancer, each year, according to the state’s air emission inventory.

An analysis of that inventory shows that the residents of Delco and, depending on the wind direction, their neighbors, can be exposed to emissions from any or all of the 14 plants in Columbus County. 

In total, these facilities emit more than 11,000 tons of pollution:

  • 3,275 tons of hazardous and/or toxic pollutants, including arsenic, benzene, formaldehyde and ammonia;
  • 906 tons of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide; and
  • 7,400 tons of criteria pollutants, including sulfur dioxides, particulate matter and carbon monoxide, which can cause or worsen respiratory illnesses.

The county’s three largest emitters — International Paper, West Frasier and Hexion, which is within a quarter-mile of the fumigation site — are responsible for much of the air pollution emanating from Delco each year.

It’s unclear how this chemical burden could affect the public’s health. A person’s genetic profile, lifestyle factors and personal history factor into their personal health. Professor Shaw of the University of Canterbury said it’s unknown how or if methyl bromide reacts with other environmental chemicals. On a cellular level, an antioxidant called glutathione mops up the damage, which is in the form of free radicals. 

But when a person’s cells are repeatedly insulted with chemicals, the level of glutathione is depleted. “It takes a while to replenish,” Shaw said, “and then you’re hit with another chemical soon after. This means there are more free radicals in the cells not getting mopped up.”

Columbus County residents are already disadvantaged in terms of health. It ranks 96th of the state’s 100 counties in terms of health outcomes, according to the 2018 county health rankings published by the University of Wisconsin and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The same analysis showed Columbus County ranks 97th in length of life.

DEQ spokeswoman Megan Thorpe said the agency is conducting an environmental justice review not only for Columbus County but also the entire region. “Though not required, it is analysis we think will be valuable as we build the permit,” Thorpe said.

Delco wasn’t Malec Brothers’ first choice for a location. CEO James Harris told Policy Watch that the company originally considered Wilmington as the site for its permanent facility. (The company had a pilot project there.) Harris said the company decided to relocate to Delco to take advantage of the nearby timber stands, among the 15,000 acres in Columbus County owned by Red Mountain.

But in Wilmington, Malec Brothers would have had a tougher sell. Around the time the company incorporated in North Carolina last November, Tima Capital, another fumigation facility, had planned to expand its operation near the Port of Wilmington.

Tima would have emitted 90 tons of methyl bromide annually, less than the amount projected for Malec Brothers. However, earlier this year, public outcry forced Tima to cancel its expansion, and the company has since stopped fumigating altogether. Malec Brothers would have likely encountered similar resistance.

Unlike Wilmington, Delco and Riegelwood are tiny communities with less social and political capital and fewer economic opportunities. Town leaders welcome the promise of jobs, with little consideration of the environmental or public health costs.

Malec Brothers is estimating the fumigation operation will create 40 jobs — equivalent to more than 10 percent of Delco’s population — with a starting pay of $14 an hour, about $29,000 a year. That is $8,000 more than the median per capita income for the county.

Although Malec Brothers told state environmental officials in its permit application that it had “proactively addressed all resident or committee concerns through two public hearings,” that statement is misleading. Harris said the company has not conducted any community outreach independent of the government meetings.

And minutes from the Columbus County Planning Commission show that no one commented at a January meeting where the panel approved the zoning. The Board of Adjustment likewise held a hearing; the minutes are not available online.

DEQ received no feedback during the first public comment period. However, the agency voluntarily extended the comment period until May 8 because of previous interest in the Tima plant.

The community will likely turn out on Thursday, in large part of Niquetta’s Facebook post. “We know that this facility is not necessary for progress or economic viability,” she said. “This is being done without the community’s consent. Delco is a hard-working, humble, decent community that deserves to have its voices heard.”