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Secrets and Sulfur at the Morehead City Port

Proposed site. Wetlands indicated in purple. From the PCS Phosphate EA.

The news caught us by surprise. PCS Phospate, a division of Potash Corp. and one of the largest suppliers of fertilizer in the world is planing to build a Sulfur processing plant in Morehead City. Seemingly overnight, it had grown from a few rumors to an announcement that the final permitting and funding process was already underway. Initial planning began almost a year ago, and an environmental assessment was produce in in December 2010, but at no point during this year of closed door meetings was there ever a public review. The first official notice occurred when an adjacent landowner was informed of the expansion.

The proposal calls for the construction of a new facility that can convert formed solid sulfur into molten sulfur, store the molten sulfur, and then transport it by barge to the Aurora Phosphate Mine in Beaufort County, NC. Once complete, the boilers would be able to produce 5,000 tons of liquid sulfur per day. Molten sulfur would be transported by barge via the inter-coastal waterway. This would require a 400 ft expansion of the existing docks to accommodate additional barges.

Molten sulfur is essential for the production of sulfuric acid, which is then used to manufacture phosphoric acid from phosphate. The phosphoric acid is a key ingredient in commercial fertilizers. Molten sulfur is produce by melting formed solid sulfur at 235 F and running the resultant liquid through a filtration process. The process also produces Sulfur Dioxide, a major air pollutant and one of the primary agents that causes acid rain as well as respiratory problems. The current OSHA permissible exposure limit is 5 ppm, although industry health and safety organization recommend short term exposures of no more than 0.25 ppm.

According to the EA:

Major activities and site improvements include the construction of two 2,500 tons per day sulfur melters, the minor modification of the existing conveyor gallery, the construction of two new storage dome structures with 90,000 ton total storage capacity and with a future third dome footprint allowance, the construction of two new 15,000 ton liquid sulfur storage tanks, and the construction of two new boilers and relocation of one existing boiler from Radio Island for melting and maintaining the sulfur as a liquid in the storage tanks (Figure 3). The two storage domes, base, conveyors, and platforms will be approximately 32,800 square feet and 152 feet tall (160 feet above sea level). The boiler building will be approximately 6,400 square feet and 27 feet tall. The control room and lab will be approximately 1,600 square feet and 15 feet tall. The fire water tank and pump house will be 300 square feet and 15 feet tall. There will also be two roof structures totaling 3,500 square feet, approximately 35 feet tall over the sulfur filters. The sulfur filters will filter impurities from the solid sulfur. The Berth One area will be upgraded to enable molten sulfur to be off-loaded from ships and pumped to new molten storage tanks. Piping, valves, and a jib crane will be installed to facilitate connection to on-board discharge piping. Sulfur piping will be installed from Berth One to the new molten sulfur storage tanks. The total disturbed land area for the main process areas described above and the control room and parking is approximately 3.8 acres.


It should be made clear at this point that an Environmental Assessment (EA) is not the same as an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). An EA is a preliminary investigation for major issues that would prevent a project. It also consists of small scale site assessments for potential groundwater and soil contamination, among other factors. An EIS is a thorough and rigorous exploration of all potential environmental damages that could result from both the project construction and as a result of industrial processes and includes mitigation and remediation strategies. Although Potash Corp has already declared an intent to begin construction as soon as possible, no EIS has been conducted. Without any environmental impact statement, public review of the environmental assessment, or consultation with any environmental scientists in a county that boasts not one but five marine laboratories representing federal and state governments and public and private universities, with decades of experience working in the proposed area, the EA concludes that:

“The proposed project is not anticipated to negatively impact the environment. “

Protesters. Image from Carteret County News-Times

It’s possible that the project may not negatively impact the environment, but given the information they’ve provided, along with the EA, I would not be able to reach that conclusion, and I doubt PCS Phosphate would, either.

Public opposition has be swift. Citizen groups have already mobilized to petition the Governor, local councils have vocally condemned the project, and even the US Army has stated that the construction could compromise vessel operations. Complaints range from concern for the environment, to damage to fisheries, to loss of tourist revenue.

At this point, the future of the project, and the impact on the environment is uncertain. Over the next few days we’ll dissect the issues at hand, and attempt to place this project and the politics involved in a broader context. While we are not necessarily opposed to new industrial developments, it should be obvious that we are biased in favor of socially and environmentally responsible development, not half-executed assessments conducted in secret.

You can keep up to date with recent news at http://cleancounty.org/.

Deep-sea biologist, population/conservation geneticist, backyard farm advocate. The deep sea is Earth's last great wilderness.

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