West Virginians fear log plant’s potential health risks

Apr 27, 2023, 10:33 AM

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Residents of a small West Virginia town less than two hours from the nation’s capital are worried that their health and quality of life in the Allegheny Mountains will be upended by a logging company’s plans to relocate a toxic-spewing fumigation factory to their backyard.

Regulators will hold a public hearing next week in response to outrage over Allegheny Wood Products’ proposal to move the factory 16 miles (26 kilometers) within the same county from Moorefield to Baker. An existing air permit allows the Moorefield facility, which treats logs before overseas shipment, to annually emit nearly 10 tons of the ozone-depleting pesticide methyl bromide into the atmosphere.

Hardy County, which is along the Virginia border, has about 14,000 residents, considerable poultry and other agricultural operations, and offers tourists a network of river float trips and hiking and cycling trails.

Allegheny Wood Products applied for an air quality permit for the Baker plant in January. The state Department of Environmental Protection told the company that all state and federal air quality requirements would be met and that the Division of Air Quality has made preliminary plans to issue the permit.

A virtual public hearing is set for 6 p.m. on May 4, Department of Environmental Protection spokesperson Terry Fletcher said. A public comment period that initially was set to expire on May 5 has been extended to May 12, Fletcher said.

A telephone message left with the Petersburg-based company on the facility plans wasn’t returned.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says methyl bromide is an odorless, colorless gas used to control pests in shipping and agriculture. While dozens of countries have stopped most uses of methyl bromide, the countries to where Allegheny exports the logs require the pesticide fumigation treatment.

Under a three-decade-old international treaty called the Montreal Protocol, the United States and 197 other countries restricted most uses of methyl bromide, including in soil applications for crops, in an attempt to protect the ozone layer. But pre-shipment applications to logs were allowed to continue to help prevent the introduction or spread of pests and diseases. That exemption is valid until an acceptable alternative for methyl bromide is found, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture has not approved one.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, methyl bromide also is a neurotoxin that can cause lung disease, convulsions, comas and ultimately death. In 2015, a family of four from Delaware was sickened after methyl bromide was sprayed for pest control at the Caribbean resort where they were staying in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

About 20 states now regulate the use of methyl bromide in log fumigation, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center,

Allegheny Wood Products has operated a fumigation facility without much fanfare at its Moorefield logging yard since 2018. A recent state inspection determined “the facility is in compliance with the terms and conditions of its state-issued permit,” Fletcher said in an email.

According to documents filed with state regulators, the Moorefield property has been sold, and Allegheny Wood Products must move the fumigation facility. A plot of land was chosen just off U.S. Route 48 in unincorporated Baker. The documents said there are only a few houses near the proposed site in the rural area.

So far, comments sent to the Department of Environmental Protection have been overwhelmingly against the relocation. The public hearing will be held virtually and not in person, to the dismay of some who said not every resident has access to the internet.

Betsy Orndoff-Sayers, the mayor of the nearby community of Wardensville, demanded in a letter to the Department of Environmental Protection that the state set up an air monitoring station in Hardy County.

“We are very concerned about the effect this toxic substance may have on the quality of life, long-term health, business operation, and tourism in Hardy County,” she wrote.

Whitney Fore wrote that she and her husband bought property in the Lost River area of Hardy County so that they and their two young children “could escape the pollution of Washington.” Fore said her family is “very disheartened that the pristine wilderness of Hardy County is now threatened.”

Founded in 1973 with one sawmill in Riverton, West Virginia, Allegheny Wood Products has grown to eight sawmills in the state and touts itself as one of the largest producers of eastern U.S. hardwoods.

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West Virginians fear log plant’s potential health risks