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A cauldron of trouble brews at NC port

RALEIGH — All those who beat the drum so loudly for less government regulation during the recently completed regular session of the North Carolina General Assembly might want to pay attention to a drama unfolding in Morehead City.

It seems that PCS Phosphate, which mines phosphate in Beaufort County, wants to open a sulfur melting facility at the North Carolina port in Morehead. The company needs the molten sulfur to produce the phosphoric acid needed for its fertilizer production.

The company, port officials and state regulators apparently lined up all the state permits needed with virtually no input from the public. Meanwhile, North Carolina Department of Commerce officials were putting together an incentives deal in which a few local officials were informed but with confidentiality provisions that called for no public discussion of the project.

When a local marina owner, as an adjacent property owner, was informed because of expected changes to a navigation channel, he called the local paper. Then all you-know-what broke loose.

In a matter of a few days, a citizens group formed to oppose the project, and the local chamber of commerce passed a resolution against it.

Surprisingly, the tourism-related business owners who operate restaurants and shops along the Morehead waterfront aren’t too excited about the prospect of the rotten-egg smell of sulfur wafting westward toward their businesses.

According to a spokeswoman for the state Division of Coastal Management, no public hearing was required for the project because it is allowed under an amendment to an existing permit held by the ports authority. An environmental assessment was completed in December, with any perfunctory published notices missed by local residents.

Those facts have apparently garnered the attention of some environmental groups, including the Southern Environmental Law Center.

How the story ends is anyone’s guess.

No one, though, can objectively look at the circumstances and conclude that the state entities involved are acting in any way like accountable government.

The secrecy — no matter the explanation — is troubling. If it’s required when incentives are considered, then state officials need to more carefully choose when they use incentives.

The community deserved an early, full and open explanation of the project.

Private property owners in that community and any community have an expectation that government isn’t going to allow the rights of another, single property owner to trump their rights, to undermine their economic prosperity, to imperil their safety.

Like it or not, those rights are enforced with regulation, be it complex environmental permitting or simple zoning.

An interesting aspect of the Morehead controversy is that the one part of the process that could have led to residents’ scrutiny — the environmental assessment — would no longer be required under a sweeping regulatory reform bill that passed the legislature. (Gov. Perdue vetoed the bill, but the veto could be overridden any day.)

But pushing the notion that regulation always acts as a burden to business, and never a protector of it, makes for a far better political sales pitch, doesn’t it?

Scott Mooneyham writes about North Carolina politics for the Capitol Press Association.

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