Local Politics

Cement plant foes question lobbyist's ties

Posted June 3, 2009 7:39 p.m. EDT

— A group fighting to block a cement plant in New Hanover County is questioning the connections of a lobbyist for the company that wants to build the plant.

Virginia-based Titan America LLC wants to replace an old cement factory along the Cape Fear River with the $469 million plant in Castle Hayne. North Carolina pledged a $300,000 grant to the company last year to land the plant, which is expected to employ 161 people.

Environmental groups want to stop Titan in its tracks, arguing the company is trying to bypass emission restrictions.

"They could actually be mining for the next 100 years, and that would put at risk thousands of acres of wetlands," said Doug Springer, of Cape Fear Riverwatch.

But the groups are fighting a team of Titan lobbyists with powerful political ties. A bill that would put the plant on hold has stalled in the General Assembly.

"The concern is really the amount of pressure that they can bring to bear," Springer said.

The StopTitan.org group has questioned the role Titan lobbyist John Merritt played in bringing the plant to New Hanover County.

Merritt served as co-chief of staff for former Gov. Mike Easley in 2002-03 and then worked under contract with the state Department of Commerce as an economic developer in 2003-04.

Merritt and Easley now work for the law firm McGuire Woods, which represents Titan.

During a phone interview in which he was clearly miffed at the suggestion of impropriety, Merritt said he hasn't worked with the Department of Commerce for years. He said he had no role in the Titan negotiations last year and he was brought in later to help deal with environmental permitting.

McGuire Woods hired Easley in April.

"If they're trying to suggest there's something wrong with (the Titan deal), they need to be very careful what they're doing," Merritt said. "That assertion is idiotic. I'm not sure they'd know the truth if it hit them in the nose."

Titan claims it will operate the cleanest plant of its kind in the world. An initial permitting decision could come later this week.

Deputy Commerce Secretary Dale Carroll said he stands by the Titan deal. He pointed out that the grant is contingent on permitting and job creation.

"All of their activities with us have been very ethical and very appropriate," Carroll said.