A controversial electric power plant in Southport will cease all operations by the end of March, a spokeswoman for CPI USA confirmed. Also known as Capital Power, CPI ran an 88-megawatt generator at the north end of Southport.
The plant burned old tires, wood waste (including old railroad ties) and coal to generate electricity and steam for the nearby Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) citric acid plant.
CPI first stirred controversy in 2017 when a malfunction spewed fine ash and soot across several residential neighborhoods. In 2019, state environmental regulators sought to tighten restrictions on the plant’s discharges of wastewater and storm water.
Residents, environmental groups and local officials were surprised to learn then that CPI was routinely discharging cooling water that also came in contact with bottom ash from the boilers. The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) eventually issued more restrictive permits although local government officials and environmental groups wanted the permits denied.
CPI’s issues, however, went beyond wastewater and stormwater discharges. The company’s air quality permit was up for review late last year and people concerned about the plant braced themselves for another round of public hearings.
Since 2016, CPI operated under a special order of consent (SOC) from DEQ. The agency fined the plant a total of $473,320 for excessive emissions of sulfur dioxide and particulates, records state. The SOC was intended to give the company a chance to make improvements.
In 2020, lawyers from the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) openly questioned why there had been no apparent followup on the SOC.
Before the formal hearing process on air permits began, CPI announced it was closing in March 2021 when its contract with ADM expired.
Karen Williams, spokeswoman for Duke Energy, said she could not offer details but stated that there were “environmental provisions” for the Duke-owned property where CPI operated. The wastewater and stormwater discharges that were the subject of the 2019 controversy all went into Duke’s canal that takes cooling water from the Brunswick Nuclear Plant and discharges it 2,000 feet off the shore of Caswell Beach.
Williams said there were no immediate plans for use of the site.
“We’re excited to see the end of pollution from coal and tire burning,” said Leslie Griffith with SELC.
“The neighbors are all happy to see them gone,” Tom Tomlinson, of the nearby Turtle Creek subdivision, said. “Everybody’s house here needs to be power washed every six months.”
“I hate for anyone to lose their job,” stated Oak Island Mayor Pro Tem Loman Scott. “However this chapter in an ongoing environmental nightmare is finally coming to a close. Due largely to citizen and community involvement. I have no doubt if not for the public outrage this environmental pollution would have continued unabated for many years without intervention by state or federal authorities.”
Southport Mayor Joe Pat Hatem said the plant had lost its renewable energy credits, which made it unfeasible to operate.
“It’s been a tough situation for them, with an older plant,” he said. “I regret the loss of employment, but the upside is that our environment will be much less impacted.”
Hatem said closure was a good first step but he intended to follow up and make sure that DEQ and other regulators forced the company to clean the site of all contamination. He credited local residents for getting involved and focusing on CPI’s activities.
“For now, we see it as a win for Southport,” said Pete Key of Brunswick Environmental Action Team. “Families will literally breathe easier now.”
Key said he was sorry for the loss of jobs (54 full-time), but glad to see an “old-school” generator shut down.
“That is wonderful,” said Caswell Beach Mayor Deborah Ahlers. “I can’t believe they were able to do what they did. It took it so long to get it stopped.”
One of the reasons for the plant was to provide the process team for ADM, which makes citric acid and sodium citrate. A spokeswoman for the company stated in an email that closure of CPI would not create an “impact to our Southport operations.” She declined to provide details about how ADM would acquire steam.
DEQ’s public records, however, show that ADM was issued a final air quality permit on January 4 for three new natural-gas fired boilers. Under certain circumstances, such as an interruption of natural gas flow, the boilers could utilize number 2 fuel oil. For the most part, though, they will use natural gas, which comes to Southport via a pipeline.
Key said he would like to see companies like ADM use cleaner power sources, such as nuclear energy, but natural gas was still an improvement over the fuels used at CPI.
Griffith said that SELC had reviewed the draft and final permits for ADM’s new boilers and had no objections.