Thousands of people live near log fumigation operations; Royal Pest Solutions fined for methyl bromide emissions violations


An aeria map shows the location of a log fumigation facility and the nearest home 220 feet away.

A log fumigation facility operated by Flowers Timber in Seven Springs is just 220 feet — less than a length of a football field — from the nearest home. (Photo: Google Earth via DEQ)

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More than 4,000 people live within a mile and a half of North Carolina’s four log fumigation facilities, and some are just 220 to 630 feet away –equivalent to the length of one to two football fields.

These residents would be the highest at risk of chronic exposure to methyl bromide that drifted onto their property. And there are no state or federal regulations to protect the neighbors and the general public from methyl bromide in ambient air.

“We don’t want adverse effects happening to people at that fence line,” Division of Air Quality Director Mike Abraczinskas told the Environmental Management Commission’s Air Quality Committee yesterday. The committee discussed temporary rules to set levels of the toxic compound escaping beyond the property lines of log fumigation operations. Update: The commission voted 4-3 not to adopt temporary rules. Instead the proposal will undergo a lengthier process in permanent rule-making, which delays DEQ’s ability to implement enforceable limits on ambient air levels.

Methyl bromide can harm human health, including neurological, reproductive, respiratory, kidney, liver and esophageal damage, as well as nasal lesions. Because of those effects and its damage to the ozone layer, methyl bromide has been largely  banned internationally. However, there are a few “critical exemptions” to kill pests, including the fumigation of some fruits and logs for export, as well as  dried country ham, which can contain mites.

In log fumigation, the wood is placed inside shipping containers, which are then pumped with methyl bromide gas. After 16 to 72 hours, the containers are opened, and the gas escapes into the air. Facilities in North Carolina don’t use pollution controls on the containers, although that technology is available.

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While temporary rules would at least buy the Division of Air Quality and the EMC time to craft permanent ones, there is already resistance from the NC Department of Agriculture. According to state documents, agriculture officials told DAQ that “logs are a big export business” and the department “would be concerned if this approach ended it.”

The Department of Commerce also questioned whether the proposed rules would regulate the wood pellet industry. Since those operations don’t use methyl bromide, they would not be subject to them.

An aerial photo showing homes 610 feet and 463 feet from a fumigation facility in Chadbourn, in Columbus County.

Nearly half of the 529 people living within 1.5 miles of the Chadbourn facility are Black. Two homes lie even closer.

Current North Carolina air permits do limit overall annual emissions of methyl bromide from the facilities themselves. But  DAQ is asking the EMC to temporarily establish ambient air level limits at .005 parts milligrams per cubic meter for a chronic exposure. (This is also listed in some documents as the equivalent of 1.3 parts per billion.)

This is a minimum risk level at which no adverse health effects can be expected in the general public if they were exposed every day, all day. State regulators said the level was calculated based on the EPA’s best available science, but that it needs updated.

The proposed temporary rule is intended to protect the general public and doesn’t include occupational exposures, although permanent regulations could do so. 

This .005 ppm threshold is the same as adopted by South Carolina, Minnesota and Massachusetts. Six other states’ chronic exposure levels are not as stringent. They use annual, eight-hour or one-hour exposures to set their limits, which the industry prefers. Using annual calculations could dilute the actual daily exposures, while shorter time frames would constitute acute exposures, more applicable to workers onsite.

DAQ staff used computer modeling to estimate ambient air levels at the fenceline of four existing log fumigation facilities. Based on the amount of methyl bromide used and the type of logs fumigated (hardwoods require more gas than softwoods, like pine), none of the current facilities would comply with the proposed .005 ppm level — even if they aerated just one container per day.

Malec Brothers, which is proposing to operate a facility in Columbus County, stated in its air permit application that it would fumigate about 45 containers daily.

DAQ has asked Royal Pest Solutions, the primary log fumigation company in the Southeast, for feedback on the draft rules and preliminary modeling. State officials have received no response, Abraczinskas said.

Two of the current facilities are located in predominantly communities of color: Royal Pest Solutions in Chadbourn and Flowers Timber in Seven Springs.

Nearly half of the 529 people living within 1.5 miles of the Chadbourn operation in Columbus County are Black. Three percent are Latinx and 1 percent are American Indian, according to the EPA’s Environmental Justice Screen.

Nearly 800 people live within that distance of the Flowers Timber operation in Seven Springs. A third are Latinx; 23 percent are Black.

Two Wilmington facilities operated by RPS — one at 3701 River Road and another at 2200 Burnett Road — are not in large communities of color. However, some of the 3,600 people who live nearby might get a double dose: Parts of the 1.5-mile buffers for each operation overlap.

Other than routine air permitting and reviews, the state paid little attention to methyl bromide until earlier this year. That’s when Malec Brothers applied for an air permit for a fumigation facility in Columbus County, near the small towns of Delco and Riegelwood. Residents packed public hearings, objecting to the permit. DAQ, in turn, put that permit, and other pending applications, on hold.

At the time, Malec Brothers officials — who are Australian — said there was no economically feasible technology to control methyl bromide emissions. They suggested using sandbags and duct tape to control errant emissions. But now the company is importing equipment by Mebrom — an Australian company — for a test to be conducted at the proposed facility in Delco. DAQ and the state Department of Agriculture will oversee the tests, said Michael Pjetraj, DAQ deputy director.

Mebrom uses scrubbers and thermal destruction — which would also be subject to air emissions rules — to capture and reduce methyl bromide emissions. The technology has yet to be launched commercially.

Value Recovery and Nordiko, the latter of which is also Australian, use carbon-based technology. These methods are used in the US and internationally. Cost ranges from $35 to $270 per aerated container. The number of containers fluctuates, depending on market demand.

Concurrently, DAQ and the EMC would deliberate on permanent rules, which would be open to public comment and hearings. Those regulations also require an economic impact analysis.

“We want to protect the public from methyl bromide and maintain our market position,” Abraczinskas said.

The NC Department of Environmental Quality has fined Royal Pest Solutions $6,700 for emitting more than 10 tons of methyl bromide at its two log fumigation facilities in New Hanover County, a violation of their air permits.

According to state documents, Royal Pest Solutions’s facility at the Port of Wilmington exceeded its pollutant limits earlier this year by a total of 1,348 pounds — more than a half ton. Anne Bookout, general counsel for RPS, told state regulators that the exceedances occurred from January through March because unaerated containers had been loaded onto ships bound for China; containers are not air-tight and have a leak rate of 20 percent.

The containers were not aerated because the company’s fumigation area at the port had been moved to a “more cramped location,” Bookout said. As a safety measure, RPS did not aerate the containers after fumigation. By April, RPS had been assigned a new area at the port, and it began aerating the containers again.

DAQ fined the company $4,904 — 6 percent of the maximum penalty allowed under state law. The facility had no prior air quality violations.

A second Royal Pest Solutions operation at 800/810 Sunnyvale Drive miscalculated the 12-month rolling use for methyl bromide in 2017. Under its permit, RPS’s methyl bromide emissions are capped at 10 tons for any consecutive 12-month period. The company exceeded that amount by 832 pounds, or 4 percent of the allowable total.

The company explained the error as a result of manual calculations, and said it use an Excel spreadsheet and formulas in the future, according to the documents.

DAQ fined RPS $1,829, including investigative costs, which is 6 percent of the maximum penalty allowed by state law. However, RPS has stopped fumigating logs at the Sunnyvale Drive location. Its air permit was up for renewal in May, but the company requested a rescission, or cancelation, in late March.

The facility began fumigating logs since 2015, two years after receiving a permit to do so in May 2013. Since then, DAQ issued a notice of deficiency for a late report in 2015, and a notice of violation in 2016 for two late reports.

RPS has compiled several violations related to its fumigation operations in Virginia. That state’s regulators fined the company $33,000 last year, for violations at its Chesapeake facility, and forced the company to stop fumigation in Suffolk in 2016.

RPS has filed for an air permit for a proposed fumigation facility north of Scotland Neck in Halifax County. However, like the other proposed permits, including one filed by Malec Brothers for an operation in Columbus County, it is on hold during EMC rule-making.


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