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A fire at the Pinova facility in Brunswick on Saturday sent a cloud of black smoke into the sky and forced the evacuation of nearby residents.

While the smoke was an obvious offense to air quality in the area, an examination of regulatory records reveals it was not the facility’s only one.

The Brunswick Pinova facility is regulated as a “major sources” air polluter, defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a stationary source that can emit 10 tons per year or more of a hazardous air pollutant or 25 tons per year or more of a combination of hazardous air pollutants.

Since 2018, Georgia regulators at the Environmental Protection Division have undertaken four formal enforcement actions against the facility for violations of the Clean Air Act, resulting in $229,000 in fines over the last 12 months.

The largest fine, of $185,000, was issued in April 2022. EPD documents indicate the fine was prompted by record keeping and maintenance failures, including failing to submit reports, failing to keep records up to date, failing to repair and/or confirm repair of leaking valves and pumps, and not calibrating instruments.

These types of failures make it hard to trust the self-reported information regulators use to assess if a company is operating within the limits of its permits. But EPD hasn’t found evidence of excess air pollution, EPD spokeswoman Sara Lips said.

“Compliance issues identified for Pinova in the recent past have not resulted in emissions that exceed allowable limits, although test results are pending for one Consent Order that might determine otherwise,” she wrote in an email.

The fines imposed on Pinova were the highest for air violations in Glynn County over the last five years. But they may not have served as a deterrent, said Glynn Environmental Coalition Executive Director Rachael Thompson.

“That’s one of the huge problems when it comes to Clean Water Act violations, Clean Air Act violations, is companies are more likely to just violate the laws and pay the fines, because it’s cheaper than fixing whatever the problem is,” she said.

In its reporting in its Enforcement and Compliance History Online, or ECHO, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists the facility’s compliance status as “High Priority Violation,” and notes Pinova in Brunswick has been out of compliance in 11 of the last 12 quarters.

Complaints and response

The EPD’s Lips said the division is on it.

“The Air Branch has been rigorously pursuing Pinova’s air compliance which is reflected in corresponding enforcement,” she wrote in an email.

Glynn Environmental Coalition helped get the ball rolling on air investigations, Thompson said. Piggybacking on a popular “Smell something, Tell something” Facebook page, the nonprofit posted an air quality reporting portal on its website for residents to complain about factory or other emissions.

“We had almost 100 air quality complaints get filed between December 2020 and February 2021. And, and when those complaints are filed, the state investigates. They go on site, and they investigate.”

The state staff working on Pinova’s air compliance is not the same staff that is actively investigating the cause of the fire. 

“EPD will evaluate the situation again post-fire, if the Pinova facility failed to do something in violation of their Risk Management Plan this may result in further enforcement and potential fines,” Lips said.  “With respect to the facility’s air compliance, the cause of the fire has not yet been identified as noncompliance with their air permit or regulations, although the investigation is ongoing.”

Lips said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency distributed air monitors around the perimeter of the plant to test and monitor air quality following the blaze. 

“There were seven monitors at various locations engaged overnight and no levels were registered to call for public safety concerns,” she wrote in an email. 

The facility and neighbors

Pinova processes pine tree stumps into a variety of products including resins, rosins, waxes and gums that are used in the manufacture of many household products including adhesives, chewing gum, paper, cosmetics and foods. It’s owned by the French company DRT (Dérivés Résiniques et Terpéniques) based in a pine-growing region of France. DRT in turn is owned by Firmenich International SA, a company based in Switzerland that describes itself as a “global leader in the flavor and fragrance industry.”

DRT operates a sister plant in Rincon, north of Savannah.

The facility’s compliance status related to water pollution is listed as “Violation identified” on ECHO. No formal enforcements actions are listed, but there have been six informal actions over the last five years. The facility is listed as out of compliance with the Clean Water Act in nine of the last 12 quarters.

About 7,000 people live within one mile of the Pinova facility, according the EPA analysis. Seventy percent of them are Black and nearly half have a household income of less than $25,000 a year.

Ohio native Homer Yaryan started pine products factory at the site in 1911 after he patented his method for purifying wood rosin from pine stumps. He sold to the Hercules Powder Company in 1920. Over the ensuing decades, Hercules began producing other products from pine stumps, including toxaphene, a cancer-causing pesticide that the company ceased producing in 1980 and which was banned globally in 2001.

Toxaphene contamination contributed to making the area of and around the Pinova facility a Superfund hazardous waste site. Cleanup is ongoing. The ECHO site lists Pinova’s compliance status as “significant noncomplier,” but the state has not issued fines or undertaken a formal enforcement action in the last five years.

Similarly, ECHO lists Pinova’s compliance status for water pollution as “violation identified,” but there has been no formal enforcement action nor fines over the last five years.

Mike Crews, Pinova’s senior compliance manager, did not respond to a request for comment.

Mary Landers covers Coastal Georgia’s environment for The Current, a topic she covered for nearly 24 years at the Savannah Morning News, where she began and ended her time there writing about health,...