CASTLE HAYNE – Titan America’s unexpected announcement yesterday that it was abandoning its controversial plans to build a cement plant here was welcome news to opponents who have been fighting the plans for almost a decade.
“I’m salivating at the thought of the big glass of scotch I’m going to have in a little bit,” said Mike Giles, a coastal advocate for the N.C. Coastal Federation and a leader of the opposition. “I may even get drunk.”
In the works since 2008, the proposed cement plant had drawn fire from environmental groups and area residents worried about the potential effects on air quality, groundwater and human health. The plant was initially expected to start production in 2011 but ongoing legal battles with environmental groups had stalled the company’s construction timeline.
None of that was mentioned in the Titan’s announcement yesterday. Instead, company officials said regional market conditions had changed and building a new plant was not worth the high cost.
“Our decision to suspend construction on the cement plant in Castle Hayne is driven by basic project economics,” said Bill Zarkalis, Titan America’s CEO. “The pace of demand growth in the specific markets does not seem adequate to justify the addition of substantial new production capacity – more so because the costs to construct a new cement plant in the United States have risen substantially in the past few years.”
Zarkalis said risks associated with the project had worsened with the North Carolina market increasingly vulnerable to cement imports because of the strong U.S. dollar, the global cement supply situation and low ocean freight costs.
Zarkalis said the company continues to be committed to long-term growth, but “the Castle Hayne option simply does not meet our economic criteria.”
Giles noted that May will mark eight years that environmental groups and local residents coalesced to fight Titan’s plans. “This is obviously the best news we’ve heard in almost eight years,” he said. “I’m very proud of the thousands of people who came together to fight this bad project.”
Kelly Stryker was one of them. In fact, she was among the first. She and seven other residents formed Friends of the Lower Cape Fear, the first of the anti-Titan groups. They printed the first bumper stickers, put up the first billboards.
“People constantly told us that they admired what we were doing but we were not going to win,” Stryker remembers. “That’s what a lot of people thought. But after thousands of people signed petitions and hundreds of people crowded into boring meetings, we did win. It’s just a great lesson. You can make a difference; you can have positive outcomes if you stick with it”
Kayne Darrell of Castle Hayne was also an early organizer of a grassroots effort, Citizens Against Titan, to fight the project. Darrell said she began to hear rumors last week that the company may be dropping the plan, but she refused to get her hopes up until she knew it was real.
“I’m still pinching myself. I’ve been dreaming about this day for eight years,” Darrell said. “It’s hugely rewarding but never once did I stop believing it would happen. We all need to be really proud of what we’ve done. It hasn’t been easy but I never doubted because, I know it sounds cliché, but we had the power of the people behind us.”
N.C. Rep. Rick Catlin, R-New Hanover, had also long opposed the project. He served on New Hanover County’s board of commissioners prior to his election to the General Assembly in 2010. Catlin said Thursday he wasn’t surprised by Titan’s announcement.
“I understand why they’ve done that. I’ve always suspected, based on my research, that there was not a definite economic driver for them to build the plant, based on international competition and some other issues,” Catlin said.
Catlin said the decision eliminates some big concerns about environmental threats associated with the project. Air quality was a worry from the start, but Catlin said the bigger threat was the groundwater supply. Titan’s plans for the mining operation involved pumping out as much as 16 million gallons of water per day from the aquifer systems that provide drinking water for much of the region.
“We wanted to make sure we didn’t degrade our aquifers and increase saltwater intrusion but now that issue has gone away,” Catlin said.
Catlin said the decision also raises the possibility of finding a better use for the Titan site.
“That part of Castle Hayne is on a beautiful river,” he said. “If the property became available, it could make a nice place for a park. If they are moving on, we need to look at ways of putting that land to use for the benefit of our citizens.”
Titan said it will continue to operate its cement terminal at the Castle Hayne site. The terminal has been operating here since the early 1990s. The company said it has no plans to sell the property and the project could be reviewed again if economic conditions change.
Not everyone was pleased with Titan’s announcement. Bob Warwick is on the executive committee of the Coalition for Economic Advancement, a nonprofit that promotes job growth in New Hanover County. It has been one of Titan’s main proponents. The special-use permit, or SUP, for new industrial development that the county approved in 2011 placed “onerous” restrictions on industrial proposals, he said, and led to Titan finally abandoning its plans.
“It’s obviously a sad day for New Hanover County,” Warwick noted. “It’s the result of the SUP that the county put in place to try and block Titan. They were successful and and it’s cost the county a $500 million investment and 150 jobs.”
The company has so far not invested a dime in the county or provided anyone with any jobs, noted Jonathan Barfield Jr., the chairman of the county’s Board of Commissioners. “As far as I’m concerned, the announcement is just news.”
Titan America serves its North Carolina customers from its Roanoke, Va., cement plant with a network of distribution terminals, warehouses and more than 20 ready-mix concrete plants.
All existing Titan operations in North Carolina would continue to run as they have and no jobs will be affected by the decision, said Robert Sells, Titan America’s Mid-Atlantic business unit president.