PCS Phosphate: Participation is necessary, whether or not it’s required

Since finding out about PCS Phosphate’s plans to build  a sulfur melting facility at the Morehead City Port, the community has been swift to organize in opposition of the plant. Some of the reaction is in genuine concern about the environmental and economic impacts of the plant, but most if it circles around the fact that by the time the first public articles were released about the plant, permits had been signed and to many, the plan seemed like a done deal. All without input or comment from the public, or even from much of the Morehead City leadership.

The permit issuers are just doing their jobs – but the situation begs a larger review of state agency activity. Many state employees feel like it would help them to collaborate with people in another agency (eg regarding mercury in the Cape Fear), and in cases like this, an approach agency-by-agency can leave out the big picture. In this case, the big picture is that PCS Phosphate has yet to do a full environmental impact statement or collect any comments on the project as a whole. Sure, 4.5 kg of hydrogen sulfide a day seems ok (air permit), and it fits with the industrial zoning of the port (zoning permit). But will the addition of emitting industries compete with the tourist industry? We have no idea. In previous cases, such as the Titan Cement case in Wilmington, this has left the company open for lawsuits that have been tied up in court for years.

Take the Titan case as an example – a poll of New Hanover County voters revealed that almost three-quarters of voters want the permitting process delayed until a full environmental and social impact review is completed. The permitting process there, as in Morehead City, began with Air Quality. Since first applying for a permit in early 2008, there has been a series of back-and-forth with the Department of Air Quality, which is now receiving input from other state agencies. Although Titan seems to be following the letter of the law, citizens and DAQ permitters have decided that they are not following the spirit of the regulation – to protect North Carolina’s citizens and environment.

As a result of the public outcry over the early air permits, concerned citizens sued Titan under the State Environmental Protection Act. The judge ruled that Titan must undergo a full environmental review. This means that no building can occur before all permits are issued.

Although the Titan case is still embroiled in legal battles and agency negotiations, it offers an early precedent for legal corporate behavior. Although the air permit, among others, is allowed to be issued before public comment or complete permitting, this is no longer an advisable strategy for the company. Changes within the state agency and legal precedent regarding full environmental review are underfoot – in ways that should send PCS Phosphate knocking on doors to garner public support, not hiding from the community.

Furthermore, even if the state weren’t re-thinking its permitting review, it’s well-established political theory that it’s not about the final product – it’s all about process. If people feel included in the process, empowered by the space to be heard by company officials, they are more likely to create a fruitful relationship between the company and the community. Regardless of how environmentally and socially reponsible the company may be, if the citizens aren’t kept in the loop along the way, animosity is fostered from day one. Regardless of what the state or a judge mandates, it is important for a company to be part of the community and should therefore be working with concerned citizens of their own accord.

July 25, 2011 • 3:45 pm