If David were to take on Goliath today, he’d want more than just a good slingshot; he’d want a good attorney.
The community around Wilmington, North Carolina, certainly thought so eight years ago, when they began to tangle with the cement giant, Titan America.
Local development officials had rolled out the red carpet for Titan, beginning negotiations with the company three years before inviting public comment or review. What residents eventually learned was that the foreign-owned corporation had been promised a $4.5 million incentive package—funded with taxpayer dollars—to bring its cement kiln to New Hanover County.
“We got to the meeting and we couldn’t believe what we were actually hearing.”
By the time the agreement was presented at the New Hanover County Commissioners meeting, it was an up-or-down vote away from becoming a done deal. The commissioners were clear a vote needed to happen that very day, or else they faced losing the contract. There would be no open, public review of the company’s plans.
“We got to the meeting and we couldn’t believe what we were actually hearing,” recalls Dr. Robert Parr, an urgent care physician who lives in Wilmington. The fast-tracked process was one of many warning signs for Parr and his neighbors that something was amiss.
New Hanover County Commissioners approved the deal that night. Shocked by what had just occurred, several of those in attendance left the meeting and started trying to understand how the landscape was shifting around them.
As they dug in and learned more about Titan and its industry, red flags continued to fly. From the backdoor negotiations to cement kilns’ notorious pollution, there were plenty of concerns, including draining and digging up wetlands to expand the facility's limestone quarry. It wasn’t long before the coalition realized they’d need good legal advice, so Mike Giles, coastal advocate at the North Carolina Coastal Federation, reached out to Southern Environmental Law Center, the Federation's longtime partner.
Geoff Gisler, who led the case for SELC, and members of the newly-formed Stop Titan coalition began wrapping their heads around the various permits and approvals involved. Groups like the League of Women Voters scheduled several public information meetings in hopes of addressing locals’ worries. Despite invitations, Titan repeatedly failed to show up.
The Dirty Truth
An expert analysis, facilitated by SELC, showed the proposed cement plant’s air pollution would have resulted in hundreds of cases of acute respiratory symptoms, one premature death each year, and associated health costs of millions of dollars.
Distrust for Titan grew, alongside unease with the pollution associated with making cement. Cement production, which involves heating limestone up thousands of degrees to break it down into “clinker,” is a dirty industry. The composition of the limestone around Castle Hayne, which is high in sulfur, adds concern. Not only does it produce high concentrations of smog-producing sulfur dioxide when burned, Titan also claimed that, due to the nature of the limestone, it had to be heated to a higher temperature. This meant burning more coal and creating more ozone-forming nitrogen oxides. Castle Hayne limestone also is high in mercury and occurs in an area well suited, when disturbed, to turn that once inert mercury into methyl mercury. Methyl mercury is the toxic form, most easily absorbed by humans and fish.
An expert analysis, facilitated by SELC, showed the proposed cement plant’s air pollution would have resulted in hundreds of cases of acute respiratory symptoms, one premature death each year, and associated health costs of millions of dollars in the three-county area adjacent to the plant.
“At first, air pollution and wetlands, people didn’t talk about that, it was too abstract, but if I got around to the trust issue—that they would never have a public meeting to answer questions, about the issues at their other plants—then people realized they weren’t the kind of company you want for a neighbor,” said Kayne Darrell, an radiographer who lives in Castle Hayne and became involved early in the Stop Titan movement.
One of the first groups to really comprehend the wide-ranging impacts the kiln could have, and question the company’s approach, was the North Carolina Coastal Federation. Early on, Titan took staff from the Federation to tour the area near the Northeast Cape Fear River planned for the facility. Titan hoped the tour would help get the Coastal Federation on board with the company’s plans.
“We went out on a boat with them, listened to what they had to say and, when we got back and talked about it, we knew the project could ring the death knell for that river system,” said the Federation’s Giles.
Legal Power to the People
From a legal perspective, the first order of business was ensuring the project went through a formal environmental review process. “Cement kilns are basically their own coal-fired power plants, dedicated to burning limestone,” explained Gisler.
Concerns about the production process didn’t even begin to address the 1,200-acre limestone quarry adjacent to the proposed kiln. Expanding the quarry would require building quarry roads, increasing truck traffic, creating dust, and digging up wetlands.
Rather than disclose the full scope of its environmental impact as public scrutiny on the project escalated, Titan turned its focus to securing an air permit. In 2009 the North Carolina Division of Air Quality issued a draft permit—ignoring pending federal rules to tighten pollution limits for cement kilns.
The public hearings required for the draft air permit resulted in a Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation, or SLAPP, suit against two vocal community members. SLAPP suits are notorious as a dirty tactic for silencing opposition and confirmed Titan was willing to use any means necessary to stop the growing onslaught of bad publicity.
Darrell, an x-ray technician who lives in Castle Hayne, was one of the two sued.
“The SLAPP suits were intended to silence and intimidate the community but, instead, only served to galvanize it,” she said.
SELC eventually stopped that permit in its tracks by securing a decision from a state court requiring a comprehensive environmental review—before the state could issue a final air permit. Titan soon realized it could skirt the inquiries if it didn’t receive public money for the project. So, rather than go through a proper review, Titan declined the $4.5 million incentive package offered by local and state officials.
By the time Titan made that decision in late 2010, however, EPA had finalized its new rules. The updated standards required that Titan restart its air permit application and go through another round of public hearings. This time, locals were ready. The meetings drew attendance unlike anything seen before in North Hanover County.
Nonetheless, the state issued a second air permit, despite vociferous objections. So SELC went to work appealing the permit.
That appeal was working its way through the court system when surprising news came. On March 10, Titan America issued a press release announcing it was no longer pursuing the project. The community rejoiced.
“They expected to be up and running in 2 years,” Parr recalls. “But, eventually, more than 17,000 citizens signed petitions to Stop Titan.”
It was an amazing turn of events for a small community long dominated by a handful of powerful business and landowners.
“We’ve seen a different conversation break through.”
But the groups behind Stop Titan did more than stop the project; they started a dialogue.
“If there’s a silver lining,” said Darrell, “it’s that this community has become so educated, engaged and involved with what’s happening around them. It’s become a community that has found its voice.”
That voice is now discussing ways to be more intentional about future development, recognizing the economic and community value inherent in a healthy environment. The latest efforts are focused on improving New Hanover County’s Special Use Permit, or SUP, which dictates how officials evaluate and review proposed industrial projects.
“We’ve seen a different conversation break through. It’s shifted to, ‘what is it that makes southeastern North Carolina special and what do we want it to be? What’s our future?’ The work we’ve done with our partners in the region has helped create space for this whole conversation to take place,” said Gisler. “Hopefully that’s the lasting effect of all this.”