Solar cell manufacturing facility passes procedural hurdle despite neighbors’ concerns

FORT MILL, S.C. — A controversial solar cell manufacturing facility is one step closer to opening in Fort Mill after securing its construction permit. Friday afternoon, the Department of Health and Environmental Control released its approved permit, allowing the proposed Silfab Solar panel manufacturing facility off Highway 77 to begin construction.

Silfab is a Canadian-based solar panel company. They have multiple two-panel manufacturing facilities in Washington, but in those plants, the facility assembles solar panels from cells it imports. The proposed plant in Fort Mill will be the first plant where the facility will manufacture solar modules and photovoltaic cells to assemble into panels on-site or at its other facilities.

Silfab is currently leasing an existing warehouse on Logistics Lane and plans to modify the facility to accommodate the advanced manufacturing process. The company promises the Fort Mill facility will bring 800 jobs to the region, starting at an hourly wage of $19 and $60,000 for salaried employees.

The synthetic minor permit, released Friday, details the emissions requirements for the factory as well as regulations regarding how the company must handle chemicals the EPA identifies as hazardous air pollutants, such as hydrochloric acid, hydrofluoric acid, toluene, and silane. The chemicals will be stored on-site and used in the manufacturing process.

Neighbors’ concerns

The decision comes despite significant opposition from Fort Mill and York County neighbors. Concerns range from the traffic impact of the facility to its water usage but primarily, many are concerned about how close the facility will be to two York County schools, currently under construction on properties directly adjacent to the Logistics Lane facility.

At a public hearing in October, hundreds of neighbors packed the hearing room voicing their fears about the impact of chemical emissions so close to the schools and the risk of potential chemical leaks.

Neighbors are also skeptical of Silfab’s emission-reduction claims and are worried DHEC will not apply enough regulatory oversight to ensure the company will reliably keep its chemicals out of the air and water.

“There’s 2,000 or 2,500 children that are going to be in those two schools and this air they’re gonna breathe with toxic pollution in it, that close,” said Andy Lytle, a neighbor opposed to the project.

In response to those comments, DHEC has increased the frequency of several reporting, records, and testing standards. DHEX added that all air pollutants the plant may emit are well below state and federal air quality guidelines.

In response to parents’ concerns, the school district said it will defer to the expertise of regulatory agencies to ensure community safety.

Permits needed

Silfab must submit a risk management plant to the EPA for approval and apply for a separate operating permit once the internal construction at the Logistics Lane facility is complete.

DHEC says the facility can start construction and begin operating under its construction permit, and an operating permit “will later be issued if the facility demonstrates that it met the conditions of its construction permit.”

The existing building that Silfab plans to use is zoned as “light industrial” and York County determined the planned fabrication within the facility is a legal land use.

Lytle disagrees, arguing the use of several highly regulated chemicals should require a higher zoning standard.

“That just doesn’t sound like light industrial to me,” Lytle said.

The county’s standards do allow for electronics manufacturing in the light industrial zoning category, though solar cell manufacturing is new to York County and South Carolina in general.

The Fort Mill School District sent the following statement in response to the proposal: “The District Administration nor the School Board is involved in the planning or approval process for the zoning or use of property surrounding our schools. This responsibility lies with the York County Council. We maintain a strong relationship with York County and have communicated with them regarding this project and the safety of the facility once completed. We understand that multiple agencies, including the EPA, SC DHEC, SCDOT, etc., have guidelines and regulations governing the placement and operation of businesses like this one. As this project progresses through the required construction phases, we will defer to the expertise of these agencies to ensure the safety of our surrounding community, as they are the governing bodies for projects of this nature. The District remains steadfast in our commitment to the ongoing safety of our students and faculty. We will continue to prioritize this focus throughout the development and operation of this project.”

VIDEO: York Co. solar plant part of manufacturing trend in the southeast

Michelle Alfini

Michelle Alfini, wsoctv.com

Michelle is a climate reporter for Channel 9.