January 24, 2022

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After outcry, SC manufacturer drops plan to make chemical banned across the world

After a public outcry, an Orangeburg chemical manufacturer says it won’t make a highly toxic pesticide that scores of countries have banned because of the material’s environmental impact.

Gulbrandsen Chemicals dropped the effort to make pentachlorophenol because state regulators could not meet the company’s timeline on necessary approvals and because people had voiced concern about the project, according to a company statement and a report in The Times and Democrat of Orangeburg.

The company’s plan came to light Feb. 28 when The State newspaper reported on efforts to make pentachlorophenol, a wood preservative that is so toxic the public cannot buy it for general use. The chemical is used by certified companies that apply it to wooden utility poles to keep insects from chewing up the poles.

Gulbrandsen’s plan to produce the chemical would have made it one of the few — if only — manufacturers of pentachlorophenol in North America, The State reported. A plant in Mexico, the only current manufacturer in North America, is closing in 2021 to comply with an international ban on the chemical. Up to 168 countries have agreed to the ban, but the U.S. is not part of the international agreement.

“We have decided to forego the project and will not be moving forward with it,’’ company president Eric Smith told the Orangeburg newspaper.

Smith has refused interview requests from The State but said through a public relations firm last month that the chemical could be made safely at the plant, which already makes other chemicals. Pentachlorophenol is classified as a probable human carcinogen and a hazardous air pollutant, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

According to original plans, the material would have been manufactured about a mile away from the North Fork of the Edisto River, a waterway popular with people who fish and kayak. The project would have employed a handful of people at the plant, which has about 100 workers.

Edisto Riverkeeper Hugo Krispyn said he didn’t talk with anyone who wanted Gulbrandsen to make the chemical in the Edisto River region of South Carolina. Petitions were being circulated against the chemical’s manufacture, and Krispyn had spoken with state regulators about his concerns.

“Everybody I spoke to, top to bottom, left and right, thought it was a hideous idea,’’ Krispyn said.

The Edisto River, known for its black water and lush scenery, extends from central South Carolina through the nationally acclaimed ACE Basin nature preserve before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean. The North Fork is one of its major tributaries.

State Rep. Russell Ott, D-Calhoun, said he was surprised but delighted the company had chosen not to make pentachlorophenol in Orangeburg.

“I just heard from countless numbers of folks in the community’’ who had expressed concern about making the chemical along the North Fork, Ott said. “I appreciate (Gulbrandsen) being in Orangeburg County and listening to the folks, and understanding where the concern was coming from.’’

Ott is pushing legislation to temporarily ban the production of the chemical anywhere in South Carolina while the state studies its potential impacts on the environment. He said he will continue to seek passage of the legislation in case some other manufacturer has ideas of making pentachlorophenol in South Carolina. Krispyn said he supports the effort.

Pentachlorophenol production in the United States started in 1930, but the last of four U.S. plants closed in 2006, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Mexican plant ships product to Alabama for processing.

Gulbrandsen is a privately held company with facilities in 10 places worldwide, including New Jersey and India. Overall, the company employs a total of 800 people. Gulbrandsen has been in Orangeburg County for about 30 years. It was fined $8,000 in 2017 by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control for hazardous waste violations.

In a statement late Tuesday afternoon, Gulbrandsen said community “feedback’’ helped persuade the company not to produce pentachlorophenol.

“After meeting with state regulators regarding the permitting process to produce penta, we have determined we will be unable to meet our business timeline needed to move forward with this project,’’ the statement said. “Given that fact, and the helpful feedback we have received from members of our community, we have decided to forgo plans to produce penta. ‘’

A key question now is whether another facility in the U.S. will try to produce pentachlorophenol for use on utility poles. A Canadian company has expressed some interest now that the Mexican plant plans to close, but critics say utilities should move to other forms of preservatives or switch to metal or plastic poles. Pentachlorophenol, after applied to poles, can pollute groundwater, critics say. Its use has caused an outcry in many states, including those in the Northeast.

“Gulbrandsen will continue to work with the North American wood preserving market, and other industries, to develop innovative solutions in a way that honors Gulbrandsen’s core values and standards of excellence,’’ the company’s statement said.

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