West Virginia company drops bid to build logging pesticide facility amid fierce opposition

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A West Virginia logging company hoping to build a toxic-spewing facility in the picturesque Allegheny Mountains has withdrawn an application for an air permit following vehement opposition from residents, regulators said Thursday.

The state Department of Environmental Protection said it received a formal notice from Allegheny Wood Products. In a brief letter to the agency dated Wednesday, the company cited “a further review of our business needs” as the reason for the application's withdrawal.

The company wanted to construct a fumigation facility in the Hardy County community of Baker to treat logs before they are shipped overseas. The DEP's Division of Air Quality had said it tentatively planned to issue the air permit that would let the facility emit up to nearly 10 tons of the pesticide methyl bromide into the atmosphere each year.

Local residents have bombarded regulators with opposition to the facility, saying it would be a threat to their health and the environment. During a public hearing earlier this month, state air quality permit engineer Steve Pursley had said meeting air quality thresholds, not public opinion, was the deciding factor in the issuance of the state permit.

A final decision on the permit was supposed to happen sometime after the public comment period on the proposal ended May 12. Now, in light of the company's withdrawal, no further action will be taken on the application, the DEP said. If the company wants to go ahead and locate the facility anywhere in the state, it would have to submit a new air quality permit application and restart the permitting process, the agency said.

In earlier comments posted on the DEP's website, some Hardy County residents invoked the Feb. 3 fiery train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, and other environmental disasters in asking officials to preserve their health and natural resources.

Hardy County, along the Virginia line less than a two hours' drive from Washington, D.C., has about 14,000 residents, considerable poultry and other agricultural operations. It also offers tourists an array of river float trips and hiking and cycling trails.

The company would have faced problems getting approval from local authorities in Hardy County anyway. During the public hearing, Hardy County Planner Melissa Scott said the proposed location off U.S. Route 48 was zoned for agricultural use, not industrial use. Scott read a letter approved by the county commission that said “the requirements for Hardy County zoning compliance have not been met.”

In a statement Thursday, Scott said the company's decision on the application “was the best for all parties involved. On behalf of those who opposed this project, thank you for this decision."

Scott said the county commission is sympathetic to the needs of Allegheny Wood Products, and "we hope they can find a solution that will enable them to meet their business needs in a way that assures the public that there are no adverse impacts to the surrounding community.”

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.

Several residents pleaded with the DEP prior to the hearing to further review the public health and environmental threats from the pesticide’s fumigation use and seek alternative treatments.

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 Allegheny exports the logs to 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 on 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. It is three times heavier than air, can accumulate in poorly ventilated or low-lying areas and remain in the air for days under adverse conditions, the CDC said.

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

Allegheny Wood Products owned two fumigation facilities in Moorefield. One opened in 2018 and has met air quality standards, according to the DEP. The other facility closed last year and the company had wanted to move it 16 miles (25 kilometers) to Baker before the application's withdrawal.