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Wed January 7, 2009
Titan Cement: Castle Hayne
By Michelle Bliss
Wilmington, NC – When news broke last spring that Titan America would build what could be one of the largest cement plants in the country, there was a mixed reaction of praise for its economic boost and concern over its environmental impact.
The plant would sit on more than 1,800 acres of land on the banks of the Northeast Cape Fear River, in the sleepy town of Castle Hayne at the same location where the old Ideal Cement plant operated before closing down in the 1980's.
All this month WHQR takes a look at the proposed cement plant, and we start this morning in Castle Hayne, where Michelle Bliss talked with residents about the land and its history of cement production.
Ernest Puskas hops into his grey pickup truck and drives through his backyard where the Prince George Creek runs right along the edge of his property. He's a lifelong resident of Castle Hayne and has lived in his home off Prince George Avenue for 43 years now. He knows the community like the back of his hand and says his favorite spot is actually his own backyard, where his two grandsons can run wild.
"They think this is heaven back here; it's just got the creek, a little bit of woodlands, and a good field here...this is our little cabin here."
Puskas gets out of the truck and walks over to the wooden planks leading out to the creek, right where he taught his grandsons to fish. Next to the planks are wire minnow buckets they use to collect bait.
"They've been fishing since they were big enough to hold a pole."
Puskas gazes up at the canopy of oak, pine, and gum trees draping overhead, then returns to the truck where he discusses the history of his backyard, along with many other Castle Hayne properties.
"All of this land in here is part of Castle Hayne's Colony. It was a subdivision created by Mr. Hugh MacRae back around the turn of the century. It was laid out as all 10-acre lots."
Deciding to leave his property and take a spin around town, Puskas points out a fairly new housing development along the way.
"Well, this is a very nice neighborhood, but I don't like the influx of new houses."
After passing the new houses, Puskas heads over to Holly Shelter Road where he says a lot of Castle Hayne's industry is tucked out of the way.
"Part of this is part of the quarry right back here, the Martin Marietta rock quarry, and you wouldn't know it just by riding down the road here. And we have the block plant here and the S&W Ready Mix, and Titan owns that company. That's where they take the cement and mix it with rock and sand and make concrete."
The Martin Marietta quarry was owned by the Ideal Cement plant until it shut down back in the 80's. Next to the quarry and the old Ideal operation is the Cemex plant which distributes bulk cement. Cemex Manager Allen Ponder points out the different parts of the old Ideal plant and says the property has been pretty quiet during Titan's permitting process.
"Well most of this right here in the front was for maintenance. And then the kilns start back there in the warehouse, right at the stack. And the cement flows in through that wing and gets cooked."
Former Castle Hayne resident Willis Haynes spent 15 years working almost every job in the Ideal Cement plant. He vividly remembers the hard physical labor he put in at Ideal's massive, concrete complex of tall cylindrical buildings. He says one thing he'll never forget was the constant trail of dust.
"It'll fall on your cars. Your cars will kind of feel like sandpaper. And the only places in that cement plant you didn't have to wear a respirator was the control room, the lab, and the office. Anywhere else it was dusty. And there was places so dusty you could not see your hand in front of you."
Haynes says the pay was high for a blue collar job, but the working conditions were a nightmare. He notes that the old Ideal Cement plant was a wet process plant which means it used an outdated and energy-guzzling method for making cement.
"It's the only place in the world I knew where you could be wading in mud waist-deep, dust blowing in your eyes, freezing to death on the bottom, and the skin actually being drawn off of you from the heat on top."
The new plant would be a dry process plant. Either way, Haynes says the process is laborious and it doesn't just affect those working inside the plant. He says the plant dried out a handful of ponds with cypress trees growing in them on Holly Shelter Road. It also shut down a nearby farm.
"Well they had a blueberry farm there and Ideal had to buy that blueberry farm because people didn't like cement-coated blueberries."
A much more recent buy-out took place on Castle Hayne Road where the new Bo's Food Store replaced the Piggly Wiggly last month. Despite the economy, Store Manager Mike Crowell says business is good and the possibility of a cement company would help the store keep its sales high.
"Right now, I think anything that'll help the economy around here will benefit us also. I actually hope that they hire some people from around here, there's a lot of people that needs jobs around here. And that'll also help us by them being able to shop more."
One of Crowell's cashiers, 19-year-old Daniel Bundy, can't wait for the cement plant, which could be one of the largest in the country, to begin its operations.
"I filled out an application for them, for when they come to build the plant. I think it'll do good things and bring more employment opportunities to the people, especially in the way the economy is right now with people talking about recession."
Farther down Castle Hayne Road is a boat ramp onto the Cape Fear River. A Rocky Point resident named Chad helps his two-year-old daughter Alexa feed bread crumbs to the ducks.
Chad has lived near the Cape Fear River for 11 years and takes his little girl to the water all the time. He is adamant about the harmless nature of the proposed cement plant.
"I think people are raising a big stink about nothing. With the way that they protect the environment now what harm can they really do? The EPA is all over everybody. They can't hurt it too much without the EPA knowing about it. To me, let them come! Bring me a job!"
Despite the back-and-forth over the possibility of Titan Cement coming to Castle Hayne, lifelong resident Ernest Puskas sits on his back porch and talks about how growth and change in his hometown are nothing new.
"I grew up hunting all the woodlands around here that's now populated to the point that you can't hardly hunt anymore. When I was younger, I had a boat and we water-skied in the river, and everything was fine then. And now, there are signs down at the boat landing warning people about going in the water and I don't like that. But, what do we do?"
No matter what happens with Titan's proposed cement plant, Puskas will keep doing what he does best: having adventures with his grandsons in one of Castle Hayne's gems--his own backyard.
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