The journal of creative community

Why We’re Still Sulfurious

Editor's note:  David DuBuisson of  Beaufort has written an opinion piece that appeared in yesterday's Raleigh News & Observer.  Because his piece covers the sulfur issue in depth and brings to light new information, we asked his permission to re-print his piece here on Vibrant Village.  It appears below in its entirety.

Why we're still sulfurious

BEAUFORT -- There were moments recently when folks around here were briefly tempted to ease up on the cynicism toward politicians that all Americans feel these days.

Our state representative, Pat McElraft, who just weeks before had been a big backer of legislation that strips away vital environmental protections, suddenly rode onto the scene as the knight on the white horse ready to battle PCS Phosphate over its plan to bring sulfur pollution to the port at Morehead City. Then, just at the crucial moment, McElraft raced back to Raleigh and helped to override Gov. Bev. Perdue's veto of Senate Bill 781, the environmental home-wrecker that makes it much harder to stop an outfit like PCS. Cynicism ruled again.

But wait, here came Perdue herself, flying into Morehead City and announcing that she had persuaded PCS Phosphate to give up its plans for a sulfur melting plant at the port. The news won her a standing ovation, easily canceling out the boos she'd heard moments earlier after claiming, against all evidence, that the PCS sulfur plans for the port had been public knowledge right from the start.

(Did it ever occur to her honor that, had the sulfur scheme been public knowledge from the start, the public would not have waited a whole year before rising up en masse as the bipartisan Clean County Coalition and saying "No Way!"?)

Many of us who gathered in a two-acre warehouse at the port to hear the governor noticed that her applause line fell just shy of a total victory for the coalition. OK, PCS Phosphate was giving up the sulfur smelter at the port, but that was only part of the community's objection. What worried us even more was the prospect of dry sulfur - pelleted or in any form - being loaded, unloaded, conveyed and stored in the middle of our neighborhood.

You don't have to look very far to learn that sulfur dust is explosive, flammable and, when it mixes with air and water, corrosive and potentially toxic. That's what industry experts tell you. That's what the State Port's own safety manual tells port employees.

Smokestacks thrusting 152 feet into the sky were a dramatic symbol of what the PCS operation could do to a community whose lifeblood is tourism. But the less graphic part is the more worrisome: Solid sulfur being offloaded, conveyed and stored generates dust. It can't be easily contained because confined sulfur dust is explosive and highly flammable.

Why are the people of Carteret County so exercised that the governing boards of Beaufort, Morehead City, every other municipality and the county itself have condemned this development? It sounds like the old NIMBY syndrome - not in my backyard. But this is about the front yard. It's not the ocean view we're worried about, either, but the clean air and water that make our part of the state so desirable. It is NIMFY.

Carteret County earns $270 million a year through tourism. PCS, the prime tenant of the State Port at Morehead City, contributes at most $1.3 million a year to the port's deficit budget and nothing to the local tax coffers.

Two weeks after the PCS sulfur plant became public, a local real estate agent reported two sales lost because of it. My own little bed and breakfast had three cancellations this summer because of air quality - the perceived effects of forest fires 100 miles away. What would people think about sulfur dust in the air year-round?

Working to keep our air safe for him--and his future children--to breathe...

PCS might object at this point that the environmental impacts of what it proposes are mostly speculative. And that's true, because neither PCS nor the state has ever opened the company's glib environmental assumptions to objective, public scrutiny.

For reasons that only a Raleigh bureaucrat could appreciate, the PCS project was whisked through the approval process, including a parody of "public comment," without any actual opportunity for public challenge. Some local officials got wind of it but under strict orders not to let the public know.

In that port warehouse the other day, Perdue addressed the issue of secrecy in a curious way. First, she denied that it had happened, and then she promised that it wouldn't happen again. "Transparency," she said, would hereafter be the watchword. Right away, she said, there would be a 90-day moratorium on any developments at the port. That's what she said, though her printed remarks made no mention of a moratorium.

Three days later, word on the street was that PCS Phosphate was proceeding with plans for a dry sulfur receiving and storage facility at Morehead City. The coalition has been unable to confirm this, but understandably is preparing for the worst.

Once again, folks around here have been disabused of our native longing to believe we have a political system worthy of the people who cast the votes. Once again, we're left to wonder if the governor who flies in and admires our "cute" green T-shirts that say "Sulfurious" wouldn't really rather be schmoozing with the guys in the sharkskin suits.

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David DuBuisson is a Beaufort resident who, with his wife, operates a bed and breakfast. He is a member of the Clean County Coalition.


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