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Getting Sued for Speaking Out Against Titan

WILMINGTON — They never imagined it would come to this.

Kayne Darrell and Dr. David Hill believed that they were armed with solid research when they spoke at a New Hanover County Board of Commissioners meeting in Wilmington on Feb. 1, 2010, about the alleged negative health and environmental effects a proposed cement plant would have in the area.

Kayne Darrell found out about the lawsuit when a newspaper reporter called for a comment.

At the time, Darrell, an X-ray technologist in New Hanover Regional Medical Center’s emergency department, and Hill, a Wilmington-based pediatrician, were two voices in a growing chorus of opposition at the prospect of Titan America LLC building a plant in Castle Hayne.

Darrell and Hill were not the first to speak out against Titan nor, they argue, were their comments to commissioners the most incendiary made against the company since it announced plans to build a plant in northern New Hanover County.

So Darrell and Hill were dumbfounded when they were informed more than a year following the commissioners’ meeting that Titan and Carolinas Cement Co. LLC slapped them with a defamation lawsuit seeking about $75,000 in damages.

If constructed, it will be the state’s only cement plant, promising more than 100 new jobs to the area – an economic boost during a time of high unemployment across the nation, but one that some argue would be detrimental to the environment and public health.

Much information is out about Titan in everything from news stories and editorials to Internet blogs.

“There have been many people who have made many statements,” Hill said. “Why they chose us specifically, I do not know.”

Kate McClain, a Norfolk, Va.-based spokesperson for Titan, said the company cannot comment on the case since its pending litigation. No trial date has been set.

According to the lawsuit, filed Feb. 25, 2011 in U.S. District Court, Darrell and Hill “made certain un-sworn statements about the project that were knowingly false and which were made for the purpose of harming” the company.

The lawsuit states that comments made by Darrell and Hill, which were later posted on the popular website YouTube, were made, “with full knowledge of their falsity or with a reckless disregard of the falsity of the statements, and with a wrongful or willful intent to injure plaintiffs.”

The slander complaint also states that the defendants knew they were being videotaped and that the video would later be rebroadcast to the public.

Commissioner meetings are aired and rebroadcast on a local television channel. Meetings may also be viewed online on the county’s website.

The company cites only the YouTube posting in its complaint, stating in its suit that Hill’s statements had been viewed more than 500 times and that Darrell’s had been viewed more than 400 times.

The suit alleges that Darrell’s and Hill’s statements, first posted on YouTube Feb. 27, 2010, were rebroadcast, to delay the approval of the permits for the project and/or to advocate for their denial.”

Darrell and Hill received cease-and-desist letters Feb. 25, 2011 ordering them to remove the video.

“It was a year old,” Darrell said. “I couldn’t even remember what we had said. We did take it down. Even though we took it down, they sued us anyway.”

 Dr. David Hill knew little about cement plants when Titan announced its plans.

She found out she was being sued when a local newspaper reporter called her for a comment. Shocked, Darrell said she hunkered down for a while at home. Her dream house, as she describes it, sits by a lake less than two miles from the proposed plant location. It’s where she’s lived for more than 16 years and raised her two sons.“I don’t like the limelight,” she said. “I’m much happier in the background helping my community find its own voice.”

She knew nothing about cement plants when she first got involved in her research in 2008. She’s seen yard signs around town protesting the plant and checked out a couple of anti-Titan websites.

According to Titan’s suit, Darrell talked about allegations of price fixing and corruption and “court-ordered mine closures of Titan’s Florida plant.”

A federal judge in 2009 canceled mining permits in Miami-Dade County’s Lake Belt mining region, ruling that the Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not fulfill their duty to safeguard wetlands and protected species.

The companies involved, including Titan, won their appeal to that judge’s ruling.

Evidence associated with negative health effects of pollutants released from cement plants is solid, Hill argues.

The member of a successful pediatric practice and single father of three said he knew little about cement plants until a fellow doctor in 2009 discussed his concerns about air pollutants released from such plants. Hill began to do his own research.

“The more I read the more alarmed I became,” he said. “We know that these pollutants, especially fine particle emissions, are strongly associated with increased incidents of asthma exacerbation, heart disease and in some cases strokes and some cancers as well. They’re also associated with premature birth and research now points to association of spontaneous abortion.”

At the commissioners’ meeting, according to Titan’s complaint, Hill stated, “The bottom line is we know from numerous studies that if we build this thing, more children will get sick, a handful of them will die. We also know from the adult studies that more adults will get sick and quite a few more of them are going to die as well.”

Titan is awaiting a decision from the state Division of Air Quality on a permit that would allow the company to move forward with its plans to build a plant along the Northeast Cape Fear River.Darrell and Hill continue to fight as they wait for an outcome. They’ve received tremendous support from the community. Fundraisers have been organized to collect money to cover the defense’s legal costs.

Their Wilmington-based attorneys could not be reached for comment.

“I like to say that they didn’t sue us because it wasn’t true,” Darrell said. “They sued us because it was.”

About the Author

Trista Talton

Trista Talton is a native North Carolinian who, shortly after graduating from Appalachian State University in 1996, took her first newspaper job as a reporter for the Hickory Daily Record. She has since migrated to the coast, covering everything from education and local governments to law enforcement, the environment and the military, including an embed with Marines in Kuwait for the start of the Iraq war in 2003. She has been a Coastal Review Online contributing writer since 2011 focusing on coastal-related issues from Onslow to Brunswick counties. She lives with her husband and two sons in Jacksonville.