Hamlet residents: “We don’t want to be crash test dummies” for facility that would process creosote-treated railroad ties

By: - March 2, 2021 1:00 pm
Biochar is often produced from woody debris; the International Tie Disposal facility would use not only untreated lumber, but also old creosote-treated railroad ties to make the material.

Comment period ends March 3 for International Tie Disposal site, proposed for an environmental justice community

Barbara Brealy has attended Marks Creek Presbyterian Church in Hamlet all of her 80 years. Since last May, Brealy and her fellow 92 congregants — a third of them older than 65 — have attended Sunday services outside, forced out of their pews by the pandemic. The notion that they and future generations of churchgoers could be subjected to more than 100 tons of pollution from a proposed nearby facility did not sit well with her.

“The game lands, the farms, the birds, the yards of our people,” Brealy told state environmental regulators Monday night at a virtual public hearing on the air permit. “I’m thinking of the children, the people who will come after us.”

International Tie Disposal, based in Weddington near Charlotte, has proposed building a plant that would cook old creosote-treated railroad ties at low temperatures, turning them into “biochar,” a shredded material often made of woody debris, lumber, grasses and animal bedding. The end product can be used to enrich soil and sequester carbon, which some scientists believe can help mitigate climate change.

However, International Tie’s proposed manufacturing process, known as slow pyrolysis, emits pollutants; adding contaminated railroad ties to the recipe is controversial. The technology to remove the lingering creosote — a probable human carcinogen — from the ties is largely experimental on a commercial scale. The company contracted with a Colorado firm, Biochar Now, to run emissions tests, which were  conducted on just three kilns of clean wood last year. As for creosote-treated railroad ties, the only test cited in International Tie’s air quality permit application was for one kiln; it was conducted five years ago.

International Tie’s plant, which would be located adjacent to the CSX rail yard and near the church, would release hazardous air pollutants, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter, all of which can harm human health. Dust from loading and unloading, and fumes from truck traffic are also expected to be emitted into the air.

At a virtual public hearing Monday night, Richmond County residents, including the Hamlet City Manager, pleaded with state environmental officials to deny the draft air permit for International Tie Disposal, rebutting economic developers’ and company officials’ assurances that the facility would benefit the community.

Hope and Lonnie Norton live near the church and about six-tenths of a mile from the proposed site. “This impacts us in a real and direct way,” Hope Norton said. “These industries always find their way into low-income communities. We are the path of least resistance. This is a new process with very little data. We’ll simply serve as an example to others of what not to do.”

International Tie Disposal did amend its application to address some community concerns. Basil Polivka II told state regulators that the railroad ties would not be stockpiled in the open. And the diesel-powered tie chopper, instead of being outdoors, would be enclosed in shipping containers and run on electricity. The shipping containers would also contain baffling to reduce noise.

This screenshot shows the proximity of the church and nearby residences to the proposed International Tie Disposal facility. The dots on the map represent facilities that have state permits to discharge or emit pollution. (Base map: DEQ Community Mapping System)

Yet these changes don’t reduce emissions coming from the smokestacks. The state’s Division of Air Quality is requiring monitoring and stack testing, but not air dispersion modeling. Such data would be important because it could help predict how the pollutants move through the neighborhood. DAQ justified the lack of air dispersion modeling on estimates that toxic pollution rates would fall well below permitted thresholds.

That’s not to say there are no toxic pollutants. There are 37 separate compounds listed in the air permit — formaldehyde and chlorine, among them — albeit in extremely small amounts.

“It’s irresponsible and unethical to allow this facility to be built and then measure pollution we’re exposed to,” said Chad Gardner, who lives with his family near the proposed site. “We can’t physically stand any more pollution in his concentrated area.” His wife, Lisa Gardner, likened the community to “crash test dummies,” subjects of an environmental experiment.

The census block where International Tie would be built is home to 2,323 people, according to DEQ’s Community Mapping System. More than a third are Black, Latinx or American Indian; 62% of the households are low-income, many earning less than $15,000 a year. The census block has higher rates than the state average of deaths from heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, as well as elevated infant death and child mortality rates. Rates of hospitalizations related to asthma are also above the state average. Several polluting industries are near the proposed International Tie plant, including the Enviva wood pellet plant across the road, as well as the railroad itself.

Therese Vick, research director for the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, criticized state regulators for failing to fully account for environmental justice issues in Hamlet. “It’s incumbent on you to do everything you can to protect this community,” Vick said. “Once emissions are released in the community, you can’t bring them back.”

The hearing also revealed fractures within city and county government over the proposal. Richmond County Commissioners had approved a rezoning of the property from agricultural to industrial, which allowed International Tie to locate there; that rezone is now being challenged in superior court. If opponents of the rezone win, then the Division of Air Quality could not issue the permit, at least for the facility to be located on that tract.

Hamlet City Manager Matt Christian emphasized that the town was excluded from discussions about International Tie. “Any other claim is patently false,” Christian said.

Christian noted that the town’s drinking water supply, Water Lake, is a half-mile from the proposed facility. Any environmental harm to the lake would threaten the town’s duty to provide public services, he said.

Martie Butler, Richmond County’s director of economic development, praised the company and touted the $12 million investment and 55 full-time jobs the project would create. A company official said the wages would range from $18 to $25 an hour — equivalent to $37,000 to $52,000 a year —with two weeks’ vacation and full benefits. These wages are above the county’s annual median household and individual incomes of $36,000 and $21,000, respectively.

“Its environmental impacts will be minimal,” Butler said. Denying the air permit would “deny the county economic benefits,” she said, including additional business for rail and trucking.

Ann Wheeler, who lives near the proposed site, said the potential economic benefits don’t outweigh the public health threats. “No job matters if you lose your life,” Wheeler said. “I ask you, would you want your family to go to sleep beside this company tonight?”

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.