Sometimes when you turn over one rock, another rock turns up. That's one way to look at the state's permit-granting process for the big cement plant being planned for the Wilmington area. E-mails about the permit-granting process offer a peek at another controversial issue, the laying on of economic incentives for new industries.
That glimpse, while not conclusive, does little to bolster confidence in the tax breaks and benefits that North Carolina and other states use to lure job-creating businesses. It suggests a process in which pro-company arguments might be tailored to fit the tax breaks being offered. And it adds to suspicion that some industries being courted by the state might not really have competing destinations lined up. If that's the case, why ladle out incentives to come here?
All this arises because of e-mails between state officials, a lobbyist and officials of Titan America, which plans a major cement-producing facility in Castle Hayne, near Interstate 40 north of Wilmington. The e-mails center on whether a comprehensive state environmental review (known as SEPA) should be required - our view is that it should be, although the state says it is not. But the incentives issue dovetailed into the permits question.
One thing that triggers a comprehensive review is the expenditure of "public money" on a project. The concern was that the promised incentives (totaling $4.5 million) would qualify as public money. As reported by The N&O's Lynn Bonner, a July 22, 2008 e-mail from Titan's director of business development asked "why we were not made aware of the link between SEPA and incentives."
Let me handle this, advised Titan lobbyist John Merritt, who formerly worked on economic development in the Easley administration. Merritt said he would talk to then-Commerce Secretary Jim Fain. Earlier, he had advised a company spokeswoman on how to respond to questions without raising suspicions that Titan might not qualify for a state grant.
"It is very important that the company not do anything that suggests that this is the only site you are looking at," Merritt e-mailed. And sure enough, in its application for incentives Titan asserted that it was considering sites elsewhere.
There may have been some contenders, given the good jobs the plant promises, even if Titan won't discuss alternative sites. Cement, the key ingredient in concrete, is a vital construction material. Adding to the attraction for Wilmington-area officials, the Castle Hayne location is the site of a long-closed cement plant. What better re-use for it?
So the stars were in alignment for state and local incentives, and it didn't hurt to have Merritt, a Mike Easley friend from college days, looking after Titan's interests with state agencies. And it turned out that those agencies decided that SEPA review wasn't needed after all. Officials said it would only duplicate a planned federal review.
Yet environmental issues would not go away. The plant is designed to burn coal, and that means air pollutants and toxic emissions, including mercury, in the watery Wilmington region.
Opposition from environmentalists (a lawsuit has been filed over the SEPA issue) and area residents is considerable. Given the alleged permit-granting shenanigans under the Easley administration, Gov. Beverly Perdue asked the SBI to see if "undue political pressure" was involved here. Nonetheless, her administration has hewed to the line that no comprehensive state review is needed. That leaves a pending decision on a final state air-quality permit as one key to the plant's prospects. A full state review, looking at all aspects of the plant's impact, is amply justified in this case and would be better.
State officials may be right when they say Titan can't start up unless it meets strict standards. But where is their recognition that making cement on a titanic scale - this plant would be among the nation's biggest - is a heavily polluting industry quite unlike the typical target of state incentives? Protecting public health and the environment should be the main incentive here.