Go Backstage: Delco, methyl bromide and how to make people care about somewhere they’ve never been


Cathy and Anthony Stafford opened Good Boy Hotdogs behind their home along Andrew Jackson Highway in Delco, population 348. (Photos: Lisa Sorg)

Go Backstage is an occasional series explaining to readers the process of reporting and writing stories. The purpose of the series is to help readers understand the nuances of journalism and to add transparency to the process. If you’d like to know how a previous environmental story was reported, and the decisions that went into it, contact me at lisa@ncpolicywatch.com.

For more information about tonight’s public hearing in Delco, scroll to the bottom of this story.

Raise your hand if you’ve spent any time in Delco, North Carolina.

I hadn’t either, except for cruising through as a roundabout way to get from Wilmington to Riegelwood. But this hamlet in eastern Columbus County, population 348, is now at the center of an environmental justice story.

As I reported yesterday, Malec Brothers Transport, an Australian company, wants to operate a fumigation facility using a highly toxic chemical methyl bromide to kill pests in logs bound for China.

(I resisted the temptation to suggest titling the story My Chemical Bromance.)

Half of people living within a mile of the proposed facility — the area includes the tiny town of Acme and the only slightly larger Riegelwood — are Black, Latinx or American Indian.

These are primarily low-income areas. A quarter of households in Columbus County are below the federal poverty threshold.

But as Ashley Niquetta Daniels, who grew up in the area, told me, Delco residents “are humble, hard-working, decent people. They deserve to have their voices heard.”

In a previous Go Backstage post, I noted that my stories are based on documents and people.  The challenge with Delco was that until I found Ashley via mutual friend on Facebook, I could find no one in the town who even knew the fumigation facility was in the works.

That’s often the case. In general, people don’t have the time to peruse the NC Department of Environmental Quality’s public hearings/comments list, which is how I learned about the proposal. People may not even know it exists. (Here’s the link for future reference.) After a long day at work, most folks wouldn’t have the energy to decipher arcane air permits. Cathy and Anthony Stafford, for example, are busy running a small business, Good Boy Hotdogs, behind their home.

This is the information gap the media and community leaders are supposed to fill.

Ashley Niquetta Daniels (Courtesy photo)

While I often curse Facebook for its privacy breaches, in this case, it led me to Ashley via former colleague Fiona Morgan of News Voices North Carolina. The nonprofit helps engage local communities and connect newsrooms with the public. Fiona tagged me in a video Ashley posted to get the word out about the fumigation facility. Now I had a community connection. Without Ashley — and Fiona — the story would have been less engaging.

As for the documents, correspondence in the permit applications often illuminates the conflict between the polluter and the regulator. For example, the exchange DEQ and Malec Brothers was particularly interesting because it contained bewildering information: Workers at the fumigation facility would seal off leaks from the shipping containers using “sandbags, duct tape, etc.,” which supposedly is the industry standard in Australia.

In addition to speaking with DEQ, I interviewed James Harris, the CEO of Malec Brothers’ US operations. He politely answered my questions. But it’s also my job to challenge his answers or to put them in context. When Harris said there had been two public hearings on the facility, he was being factual. But the truth and the facts aren’t necessarily the same.

Harris failed to mention that these hearings were part of the county’s planning board and board of adjustment meetings — to most folks, arcane governmental bodies that rarely draw large turnouts for much of anything. Those boards also meet in Whiteville, 28 miles from Delco, where there were no public meetings about the facility. This hardly qualifies as public outreach.

I pored through the relevant scientific literature and government reports. Through a serious of random online searches, I located a scientist in New Zealand who had published articles in peer-reviewed journals about the health effects of methyl bromide. Because of his schedule and the time difference — New Zealand is 16 hours ahead — I had to call him at 1 in the morning, my time. (My first question to him: “How is tomorrow?” His reply: “Wonderful.”)

Finally, the time came to write. The 2,500-word story took about eight or nine hours, including factchecking. Until the seventh hour, I had not interviewed Ashley, but had the rest of the story built. Ashley was assertive, informed and inspiring. That’s when I knew I had the piece I had hoped for.





  1. Peter Joyce

    May 3, 2018 at 10:18 pm

    They mention in the article that ‘recapture’ of the methyl bromide would not be an option.
    Yet, my company has the two largest facilities in the world for destroying methyl bromide AFTER fumigation – located at the Port of Miami and in Nipomo, CA. No one from this company contacted me. The California facility has undergone 3 state-sanction source tests*, done by an independent contractor, that prove an efficacy of over 90% destruction of the methyl bromide. There is no reason that methyl bromide should be vented directly to the atmosphere without, at least, EVALUATING the available systems on the market for destroying the methyl bromide. see http://www.valuerecovery.net.
    The state of Virginia has formally concluded that air pollution controls ARE applicable to methyl bromide through the issuance of a Title V permit that required them. See Royal Fumigation application for Suffolk, VA available from the Virginia DEQ.

    I received this notice too late to attend the meeting.

    * Contact Brian Aunger, San Luis Obispo Air Pollution Control District for these reports.
    Brian Aunger
    Permit Engineer
    Air Pollution Control District, San Luis Obispo County, California
    (805) 781-4666


    Peter J. Joyce
    Value Recovery, Inc.

  2. Brian Gurgainus

    May 3, 2018 at 11:49 pm

    I ive in delco it’s all i lnow i dont want o leave. And i don’t want to be poisoned because some one can save a dollar.

  3. Deo vindice

    May 6, 2018 at 2:38 pm

    I’ve lived in Delco all my life my family has been there since the beginning, for generations its all the same some big company or some rich folks think we all a bunch of dumb recheck hicks that don’t know anything there are two types of people there, the people that don’t care or outsiders who don’t know the real delconians, and then you have the real delconians the true grit morally sound hard working real blue collar American. These people are about family and values the ones who truly fight against the slimy fat cats who line their pockets with our money that we put our blood sweat and tears into, for y’all outsiders out there that have never been to Delco or know nothing about it, I would be careful who y’all mess with ain’t no telling the lenthes these folks might go to protect their families. Keep on y’all ain’t seen nothing yet we don’t want your money or your stupid jobs nobody cared about us before this story we do it all on our own, how about a real story like how corrupt the police department is and how sheriff hatchett protects gangs and criminals because no body knows that the drugs are how the columbus county police department gets there money that’s why everyone around there packs we protect ourselves the cops are the thugs they are the druglords of columbus county, not to mention they are around 8 cops short due to the fact that the commissioners are pocketing money. That’s a real story. CORRUPTION AND GREED YOU SHOULD ALL KNOW BETTER WHAT WOULD YOUR FATHERS OR MOTHERS SAY OR ANYONE THAT IS CLOSE TO YOU WITH A MORAL COMPASS? YOU WILL HEAR US, YOU WILL SEE US, BUT NOT BEFORE ITS TOO LATE. BECAUSE THE TREE OF LIBERTY NEEDS TO BE DRENCHED IN THE BLOOD OF TRAITORS AND TYRANTS AND WE WILL HAVE OUR DAY.

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