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Editorial: SC chemical company makes right call on dangerous chemical

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The former Koppers wood-treatment plant in the Charleston Neck Area, a Superfund site, once used pentachlorophenol and copper chromium arsenate as wood preservatives. File/Staff

We applaud the decision by an Orangeburg chemical company to put people before profits and halt its plans to produce a highly toxic preservative used to treat wooden utility poles.

Eric Smith, the president of Gulbrandsen, a global company with its U.S. headquarters in Orangeburg, said he decided against making pentachlorophenol partly because of community opposition and because the timeline for regulatory approvals didn’t mesh with the company’s plans.

Earlier, the company had announced plans to start making the chemical after the only North American producer, in Matamoros, Mexico, announced it was getting out of the business because Mexico is among more than 170 countries that signed onto the United Nations-sponsored Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, which banned the chemical. The United States is not a signatory.

Obviously, Gulbrandsen saw a market opportunity because pentachlorophenol — penta, for short — is still used in the United States to treat about 1 million utility poles each year and likely would be imported if not produced here. But, wisely, Mr. Smith chose the cautious route on behalf of  his employees and the surrounding community.

That’s worthy of public praise. And it bodes well for the future of Gulbrandsen, which has had other operations in Orangeburg for more than three decades.

The company is forgoing a roughly $15 million investment that would have created 15 to 20 new jobs. But Mr. Smith made the right decision. About 300 area residents had signed a petition opposing the company’s plans, and thankfully their voices were heard.

Exposure to penta damages most major organs, as well as the nervous and immune systems. High-level exposure can cause uncoordinated movement, muscle twitching and coma. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists it as a probable carcinogen and a hazardous air pollutant.

Even so, the EPA reaffirmed its use as a wood preservative in 2008.

Ideally, the United States should phase out the use of the chemical. Like many of the most effective biocides — literally, life killers — penta is highly toxic to humans, and it could pose a threat to workers, nearby residents or surrounding habitats due to an accident or long-term exposure.

And accidents do happen. An explosion and fire involving penta at a Tuscaloosa, Alabama, chemical plant last year prompted public health authorities to order residents to stay inside until the threat of exposure had passed.

Mr. Smith’s decision was first reported by the (Orangeburg) Times and Democrat. He told the newspaper, “We heard some concerns and we value our relationship with the Orangeburg community and we wanted to be a good corporate citizen.”

Orangeburg-area state Reps. Russell Ott and Gilda Cobb-Hunter also had opposed the plans, filing a bill to delay any decision about permitting production until after July 2021.

Initially, Gulbrandsen planned to seek state economic development incentives for the expansion, which we would have strongly opposed. As we have noted many times, the state’s Commerce Department can’t stop a company from coming to South Carolina, but it can and should be much more selective about the types of businesses it encourages to set up shop here.

Despite EPA warnings, the agency reaffirmed the use of penta as a wood preservative, and its production in the United States remains legal, although none has been made here since 2006. But the fact that the federal government still allows it doesn’t mean South Carolina should follow along.

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