What the EPA won’t do because its leadership is beholden to polluting industries. What DEQ can’t do for lack of funding and political power. What many local governments refuse to do for fear industry will pass them over.
The state’s 16-member Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board is charged, if not explicitly, to do that. To wield political pressure, backed by the voices from their respective communities, and squeeze the General Assembly, federal and state regulators, and local planning and zoning boards to protect low-income neighborhoods and communities of color from the ravages of pollution.
“When do environmental justice communities get to be made whole?” said board member Veronica Carter at a meeting in Hollister last week. “We’ve got to figure out how to do something in the permit process or these communities will never have a chance.”
An environmental justice analysis is legally required in only one state program: The permitting of solid waste landfills.
Assistant DEQ Secretary Sheila Holman told the board that new landfills require an environmental impact analysis, which includes an assessment of the project on vulnerable communities. DEQ can deny a permit application for a new landfill if the agency determines the cumulative impact disproportionately affects a minority or low income community.
There is no environmental justice requirement in the state for the siting of major air polluters, like wood pellet plants. Such a mandate would require the cooperation of the General Assembly, which under Republican control, has been loathe to add any environmental protections to the state law. In fact, legislators have rolled back many of the protections. Solid waste landfills now are allowed to operate under “life-of-site” permits, sharply curbing communities’ right to comment on the very operations that could contaminate the quality of their air, land and drinking water.
It’s also worth noting that the state’s Environmental Management Commission has significant rule-making authority. EMC members are appointed by the governor and House and Senate leadership. Rarely, if ever, does the EMC discuss environmental justice issues when it approves rules.When do environmental justice communities get to be made whole? Click To Tweet
Board member Jamie Cole asked how the group could advise the Environmental Management Commission not only on justice issues but also on public engagement. The rule-making process can be byzantine and deeply steeped in science and legal minutiae; someone must be able to translate the issues into layperson’s terms. (Holman said EMC Chairman J.D. Solomon has requested to meet Environmental Justice board Chairman Jim Johnson Jr.)
Although political tides could turn in the next election, Regan also noted that any advances DEQ makes under his leadership and that of Gov. Roy Cooper could easily be undone under a different administration. “What should the legislative fix be?” said DEQ Secretary Michael Regan. “What should the General Assembly be required to do for legacy purposes?”
Regan also slipped inn a not-so-subtle criticism of previous DEQ secretaries John Skvarla and Donald van der Vaart, who were appointed by then-Gov. Pat McCrory. That administration routinely ignored environmental justice issues in its pursuit of being “business-friendly.”
“There is a lot willingness from staff to jump in [to address environmental justice],” Regan said. “A lot of this energy had been suppressed.”
The lowdown on the state’s high-profile pollution
- Coal ash
DEQ is working with the state attorney general’s office to speed up remediation alternatives, said Assistant DEQ Secretary Sheila Holman. Of Duke Energy’s 14 power plants that have ash impoundments, six still do not have closure plans: Rogers, Allen, Belews Creek, Roxboro, Mayo and Marshall. The deadline for that decision, which must receive DEQ approval, is Dec. 31, 2019.
Duke Energy is recommending cap in place for the facilities, arguing that it is more protective of these particular communities. It’s also cheaper. However, considering the groundwater contamination that has occurred at all of the sites — and the unpermitted seeps into waterway — DEQ has requested the utility provide an alternatives analysis. This could include capping in place, fully excavating or a hybrid of both.
- Methyl bromide
DEQ is still reviewing Malec Brothers’ permit application to emit up to 140 tons of the toxic air pollutant in to the air each year near the small community of Delco. A second permit for a similar, albeit smaller facility, operated by Royal Pest Solutions in Scotland Neck, in rural Halifax County, is on hold.
- Natural gas pipelines
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in May that the US Fish and Wildlife Service had failed to adequately limit the impact of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline on threatened and endangered species. That has shut down construction in northern portions of the route, which begins in West Virginia and continues through Virginia to Northampton County. Dominion, which co-owns the project with Duke Energy, says the court ruling won’t affect construction in eastern North Carolina. However parts of the operation in the state are already on hold until at least November because contractors are not allowed to cut trees when migratory birds are nesting or traveling.
To the west, the Mountain Valley Pipeline Southgate project is proposed to route from Virginia through Rockingham and Alamance counties. Community opposition is strong, and many landowners have forbidden surveyors and land agents from entering their property. MVP Southgate, whose owners include EQT Midstream Partners, a natural gas supplier financed by several large banks, has been using drones and other aerial imagery to try to scope out a more precise route. DEQ was scheduled to meet with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last Friday to discuss environmental justice and general environmental concerns.
- Emerging contaminants
The Environmental Protection Agency is planning to hold a public meeting in North Carolina next month in one of the affected communities. Unfortunately, the EPA has rebuffed DEQ’s request for three meetings — in Wilmington, Bladen County and Greensboro (that city also has a perfluorinated compound and 1,4-dioxane problem).
The public comment period on DEQ’s court filing against Chemours ended last week. After those comments have been incorporated into a final document to be filed with Bladen County Superior Court, the agency will ask a judge to schedule a hearing.
Meanwhile, the Southern Environmental Law Center filed suit in New Hanover County Superior Court last Friday, arguing that DEQ should use its existing authority to require Chemours to immediately stop all discharges of GenX and chemically similar compounds from the Fayetteville Works facility. SELC is representing Cape Fear River Watch.
- Wood pellets
Enviva is operating three wood pellet plants in North Carolina, all near vulnerable communities: Ahoskie in Hertford County, Garysburg in Northampton County, and Faison in Sampson County. A fourth is under construction in Richmond County near the town of Hamlet. However, the plant is on the doorstep of a predominantly Black community, Dobbins Heights. The pellets are then shipped to the United Kingdom, where they are burned for fuel instead of coal.
The pellet and timber industries have inaccurately labeled this energy source as “renewable.” Using semantical gymnastics, industry argues that since trees grow back, wood pellets qualify as renewable energy. However, when burned, wood pellets emit enormous amounts of carbon dioxide. The trees also release CO2 when they are cut, and the regrowth can’t absorb it quickly enough to keep up with the timbering. The very act of clear-cutting forests also harms water quality and wildlife habitats
There are 39 federal Superfund sites in North Carolina, plus hundreds more that operate under the state program. These sites are highly polluted, and the “potentially responsible parties,” as they’re known, are unknown, bankrupt — or in some cases unwilling to pay for the clean up. In these cases, state and federal agencies can sue to force the polluters to chip in. More often, state and federal money must be used to remediate the sites; in North Carolina, much of the money for the state program comes from the chronically depleted Inactive Hazardous Waste Fund.