Other issues since GenX emerged include methyl bromide, National Gypsum

WILMINGTON -- During the year since GenX first broke into the public's consciousness, Wilmington-area residents have pushed back against air emissions permits and also questioned the area's development, a heightened level of concern many in the environmental community trace back to awareness of the toxic chemical.

"If you think about National Gypsum and the two methyl bromide operations, those permits would have likely slipped right through without anyone noticing if it wasn't for this general uproar people are in about their air and about their water," said Erin Carey, the coastal conservation programs coordinator for the Sierra Club's North Carolina chapter.

Southeast North Carolina residents are familiar with battling for their environment, with public debates ranging from chemical terminals on the Cape Fear River in the late 1970s to Navassa residents' battle against a proposed Hugo Neu landfill to the nearly decade-long fight against the Titan cement plant. While GenX worries may have broadened the number of people concerned about environmental topics, others point to that history to explain the groups that have emerged to advocate for certain causes.

Ashley Daniels, a Wilmington resident, is helping residents in her native Columbus County organize in their fight against Malec Brothers' proposed methyl bromide facility. The company is asking to use as much as 140 tons annually of the pesticide that can cause irreversible damage to humans after eight hours of exposure at 67 parts per million.

"People have always been active here, people have always been engaged and involved -- fight after fight," Daniels said. "I think things have been compounded. There's kind of this attitude of, 'Companies and corporations can do what they want to and (residents) have to take it and they have to like it,' and it's super disrespectful."

Public response from residents in recent weeks has forced the Columbus County Board of Commissioners to reconsider whether it will grant the necessary permits for the Malec Brothers operation, even as DEQ deliberates over the air quality permit.

The GenX story has, Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo said, permanently altered business recruitment in the region. Any industry that wants to come to the area must be willing, the mayor believes, to explain its processes and any potential environmental impacts to residents before receiving incentives or permits.

"We want to make sure it's safe, we want to make sure it's going to be environmentally clean, and we want to make sure they're good corporate citizens in the community. ... It's part of the process now," Saffo said.

When New Hanover County and Wilmington were considering approving a $580,000 incentive package for National Gypsum to resume operations at its Wilmington plant, for instance, environmental groups raised concerns about formaldehyde emissions. While the incentives were ultimately approved, company officials did visit the city to address concerns by walking officials and media members through their plans.

And in March, Tima Capital withdrew a request to expand emissions of methyl bromide from 10 tons annually to more than 60 tons. The withdrawal came after the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality received more than 1,100 comments about the project in the closing days of a public comment period.

In its letter to regulators, Tima wrote that the land's owner requested it no longer operate fumigation operations at the site.

Kemp Burdette, the Cape Fear Riverkeeper at Cape Fear River Watch, said environmental awareness typically comes in waves, as people grow concerned about a specific topic close to home then pay less attention once it has been settled. That approach occasionally means, he added, that systemic issues are left lingering.

"Over time, the needle is moving. It moves in fits and starts," Burdette said. "It jumps way over to real intense awareness of issues and then it slowly recedes back. I do think that every time, it ends up further and further toward the awareness side of the gauge."

In light of GenX revelations, there have been several community organizations founded to express concerns about environmental topics. North Carolina Stop Gen-X In Our Water has gone from a Facebook group with nearly 10,000 members dedicated to holding Chemours accountable for GenX to an incorporated 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

Clean Cape Fear, meanwhile, approaches the issues from a progressive standpoint, pushing back against Republican-initiated cuts to regulators and questioning local lawmakers' decisions. Within 10 days of the GenX story breaking, co-founders Jessica Cannon and Emily Donovan had created a Facebook page dubbed Toxin Free Cape Fear -- a name that soon changed.

Cannon said many members were already working together on local issues after the 2016 elections, laying the groundwork for the organization that would become Clean Cape Fear. The Stop Titan issue, Cannon said, also laid the groundwork for how residents could take on a corporation posing a health risk.

"There's just a backbone of people that had already kind of gotten their feet wet and were fairly savvy about how private companies can sometimes have their bottom line at the forefront and not necessarily be crossing all their t's and dotting all their i's with respect to public health," Cannon said.

Several founding members of Clean Cape Fear were active in the months after GenX hit headlines, but had to step away once the group turned toward the political because of their ongoing work with nonprofits. Madi Polera was among that group, instead continuing research at Cape Fear River Watch, including a study about whether GenX can be found in fish and alligators that was prompted by a question at a public forum.

Polera said there are people in the area who may not otherwise be interested in environmental issues who have become involved in recent months because they found an aspect of the story that interested them or touched their lives.

"There are some people that are brand new to making calls to people that are in power and writing letters and showing up at public meetings," Polera said. "This is not business as usual because this is a topic that people can so easily relate to."

Reporter Adam Wagner can be reached at 910-343-2389 or Adam.Wagner@GateHouseMedia.com.