Down in Castle Hayne, North Carolina, on the Cape Fear River, there’s a dark cloud looming. The air here is crisp and salty, just a few miles from stunning beaches. The folks who live in the area depend largely on tourism for their livelihoods, whether they run fishing boats, hair salons or auto repair shops. A company called Titan America wants to move into an old industrial site in the community, building what would be one of the largest cement factories in the country. Titan recently received an initial air toxics permit from the state of North Carolina – a first step towards starting construction at the site.
Cement factories make a whole lot of pollution. This one will burn coal for energy, mine limestone for the cement, and rely on huge trucks to bring raw materials in and waste materials and finished product out. That means a whole lot of new toxic pollution in and around the Cape Fear River when the Titan plant becomes operational, including mercury, chromium VI, cement kiln dust, fly ash, and ground level ozone.
This won’t be the first source of toxic pollution in the northeast Cape Fear. Because of high mercury levels in its fish, the Cape Fear has been listed under the Clean Water Act as “unsuitable” for its designated uses – that means boating, swimming, and perhaps most importantly, fishing. Fish taken from the Cape Fear are so high in mercury that they are considered by EPA and the state to be unsafe for people to eat. Additional research conducted there in 2003-4 has found fish and clams contaminated with concentrations of arsenic, cadmium, mercury, selenium, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and dieldrin (a pesticide) that exceeded the levels considered safe by the EPA and the state.
When local folks can’t eat the fish they catch in their own river, something is very wrong. Hunting and fishing are an important part of the diets of many people, for all kinds of reasons. Recreation, time with family, connection to community and culture are all reasons that people fish their rivers. But perhaps most important is that people need to eat. For low-income folks especially, fishing and hunting can bridge the gap between the paycheck and the grocery bill. It’s a critical way for people to rely on the work of their own hands for what they need, rather than on charity or government assistance. Despoiling local rivers and contaminating the fish chips away at people’s ability to fend for themselves, and pushes them into government programs or already-overstretched local charities. And the food that you get through such assistance programs is nowhere near as fresh, nutritious – or tasty – as fish you caught yourself that morning.
Several years ago when Titan first applied for its air pollution permit from the state, the company hired some consultants to produce a study on how much mercury the new facility might emit. Other scientists have questioned the data and the methodology that went into that study, but even so the authors admit that the Titan plant will be adding to the mercury load in the overloaded Cape Fear river. The study’s authors go on to suggest that instead of doing something to reduce the mercury levels in fish caught in the Cape Fear River, the state should allow the Titan plant to go forward, and then educate local fishers on “shifting their diets” to fish containing lower levels of mercury. Fish caught someplace else.
Why would the state give the green light to a gigantic new industrial facility that will add even more toxic mercury and other contamination to the fish and the river? The enticement, of course, is jobs. While it’s likely that Titan would import its higher-level engineering and management positions from sites elsewhere, the state is banking on the plant creating jobs for local folks too. But locals are asking what good new jobs in a factory will really bring if they kill existing jobs in tourism and other industries?
What good is a new factory if it takes your river away? What will folks eat, Titan?