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  • Jefferson Weaver

Planning board may take another look at Malec

It’s back to the drawing board for Malec Brothers, at least from the perspective of the county commissioners.

Citing public opinion against the log fumigation project, the Columbus County commissioners voted unanimously to “start the process all over,” at the suggestion of County Manager/Attorney Mike Stephens.

Malec Brothers has applied to the Division of Air Quality for a permit to fumigate logs at a Delco facility for export to China. The process would use methyl bromide, a pesticide once used for tobacco beds and currently in use overseas on produce farms.

The firm would release 140 tons of methyl bromide gas into the air every year, according to its application, making it one of the largest such operations in the country. Eastern Columbus residents have questioned whether the gas would endanger students at nearby schools, as well as the community at large. So many speakers turned out at the first Division of Air Quality public hearing that a second meeting was held at East Columbus. Hundreds turned out for that public hearing.

Monday’s surprise move came after the board heard from a dozen Riegelwood, Delco and Bolton area residents who criticized the proposed operation, which was endorsed by the county, according to Malec Brothers’ application to the state.

The site for the plant is listed as heavy industry in the county’s land use plan, and Malec Brothers’ application did not require approval by the commissioners, only the planning board.

When board chair Amon McKenzie asked Stephens if the county had “done everything possible” to inform the public and make sure the operation would be safe, Stephens asked if the board wanted a recommendation.

“I’d suggest we start all over again,” Stephens said. “We need to gather information from both sides of the issue. It’s obvious the citizens are concerned. I think we need to look at this more thoroughly and carefully.”

Commissioners James Prevatte placed Stephens’ suggestion in the form of a motion, which was given a second by Ricky Bullard. The motion was quickly approved.

“We need to go through this and see if there is anything that can be done differently,” Prevatte said. He also noted, with several other commissioners, that even a negative endorsement by the planning board and commissioners might have no effect on the outcome.

“The county cannot trump the state,” McKenzie said, referring to the DAQ application.

The meeting had a full house shortly after 6 p.m., and McKenzie noted that many of those in attendance were there to discuss the Malec Brothers plant.

“We are concerned about the safety of everyone in this county,” he said.

Donna Hammond and Steve Camlin of Acme-Delco-Riegelwood Fire-Rescue noted that the east end of the county is recognized as one of the most dangerous corridors in the state due to number of chemicals and explosive materials traveling through there.

“We have ammunition trucks, chemical tankers, trains full of chemicals,” Camlin said. “We don’t need something to make matters worse if there is an accident.”

The future effects on the community were a major worry for Hammond.

“I am concerned with long-term specific organ toxicity,” she said. “Exposure to this chemical can bring developmental problems in children, as well as other problems.”

Hammond questioned whether the gas can be safely handled, and also whether the risks had been downplayed.

“I was teaching a class on hazardous materials today, and as soon as I opened up the book, the first that was there was methyl bromide,” she said. “”If you care about the people of this area, please don’t let this in here. They say they take the dangers seriously, but there is no sign they do.”

Commissioner Giles “Buddy” Byrd defended himself after one speaker questioned whether any board members have a financial interest in the development. Byrd said that while he owns a log yard in Chadbourn that uses the fumigation process, he leased the yard and has no involvement in its daily operations. He also questioned whether the dangers were being overblown.

“We used methyl bromide when we grew tobacco,” he said. “When I was growing up, I used to run around barefoot in the tobacco beds.”

Will White of Riegelwood said he retired from International Paper in part due to disability related to chemical exposure. He was concerned that the methyl bromide, which is odorless, could accidentally be released in large quantities “And we would never know what happened.” He was also worried the facility might close down in a few years.

“What happens when we wake up one morning and they’re gone, except for all the mess they’ve left for us?” he said.

James Duncan said he is worried about overharvesting of timber leading to a closure of IP and the West Frazier sawmill.

“I don’t think we need to be shipping these logs to China,” he said. “The people that want to do this fumigating need to take their plant and go to China with it, if they like it so much.”

Andrew Buchanan called on the board to show their support of the residents’ concerns, or side with the plant.

“If you are against this, stand up,” Buchanan challenged the board. Prevatte, Bullard, Trent Burroughs and Charles McDowell stood, while McKenzie, Edwin Russ and Byrd stayed seated.

McKenzie chided the board members for standing, noting that the board was not scheduled to vote on the operation. At the same time, he told the audience that the commissioners also have questions, and would not knowingly endanger the residents of any community.

“Safety for our families and children is our number one priority,” McKenzie said. “Our primary concern is that no one is going to be harmed.” It was at that point McKenzie asked Stephens for his advice, and he suggested further investigation of the proposal.

During the commissioners’ comment segment of the meeting, several members of the board said they are leery of the Malec Brothers proposition, especially in light of the public comments against it.

Byrd said that he didn’t know about the initial public hearing until the day of the event, but made a special trip to attend. Responding to criticism that he had signed up to speak but didn’t, Byrd said he asked County Economic Development Director Gary Lanier to sign him in on what he thought was an “attendance sheet.”

“We’re just trying to get information just like you,” Byrd said.

Stephens will report to the commissioners with a plan before the next scheduled meeting.

The Division of Air Quality has not set a definite date for a decision on the Malec Brothers’ permit.

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