agriculture, Environment

This Week in Pollution: Smithfield eligible for big bailout, could cover lagoons, plus a scientific squabble over GenX

Sweet and sour pork: The world’s largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods is eligible for a portion of the Trump administration’s $12 billion bailout to help farmers who’ve been harmed by retaliatory tariffs by the Chinese. Yet, Smithfield is owned by Chinese company the WH Group. So … does that mean the Chinese are being paid by the US to retaliate against the US?

The Washington Post reported the story on Tuesday, noting that Smithfield/WH Group hasn’t decided whether to accept the corporate welfare, uh, I mean payments. The newspaper also quoted the USDA as saying it “could not police whether money will eventually filter to the Chinese.”

If Smithfield does accept the cash, perhaps the company could upgrade the antiquated waste management systems at its North Carolina operations?

Update: On Thursday evening, Smithfield announced it plans to covert its existing open-waste lagoons to covered “digesters,” which will capture biogas, over the next 10 years. In turn, that energy will be transported to central processing facilities to be converted into renewable natural gas (RNG) in North Carolina, Missouri, and Utah. This is part of the company’s “manure-to-energy” projects, according to the press release, which will span across 90 percent of Smithfield’s hog finishing spaces in North Carolina and Utah, and nearly all Smithfield’s hog finishing spaces in Missouri.

Conflicts of interest: An NC State professor paid by Chemours lambasted the state Science Advisory Board and public health officials over their report on GenX levels in drinking water, accusing them of “including speculative and inflammatory statements inappropriate for a science-based document.”

Toxicology professor Damien Shea submitted 27 pages of comments to the board, arguing that rat studies indicate the health advisory goal of 140 parts per trillion in drinking water is scientifically unfounded. Instead, the threshold should be 70,000 ppt, Shea wrote.

The report “provides absolutely no basis for making this conclusion,” and contained critical errors, Shea wrote. It is a “superficial review of the data and analysis provided to [the board] by DHHS.”

After nearly a year of evaluating the available science — and noting the conspicuous lack of it — the 16-member SAB agreed with the Department of Health and Human Services that 140 parts per trillion of GenX in drinking water is an acceptable provisional health goal. However, the board intentionally didn’t use the word “safe,” because, they said, “there’s not a bright line.” Instead the board worded its conclusion to say “no adverse non-cancer health effects” are expected.

As Policy Watch reported earlier this year, Shea issued a paper criticizing state regulators’ groundwater standard of 10 parts per trillion for GenX as “too stringent.” Chemours then used Shea’s conclusions to argue that the NC Department of Environmental Quality should relax the limit to 70,000 ppt.

Chemours, the company responsible for widespread GenX contamination, paid Shea for that paper, as well as his most recent work criticizing the drinking water standard. However, in both cases, he noted that the work was “solely” his own.

Board chairman Jamie Bartram, a professor and founding director of the Water Institute at UNC Chapel Hill, said the group had been “diligent in reflecting on and reviewing” Shea’s critiques. “I didn’t find any that weren’t considered carefully.”

Community members whose drinking water has been contaminated with GenX also criticized the 140 ppt benchmark — for being too lenient, Residents advocated for 10 ppt, the same concentration as the state’s groundwater standard, especially since most of the private wells contain many types of fluorinated compounds.

Mike Watters, who lives in Gray’s Creek near the Chemours plant in Bladen County, wrote that “DEQ just keeps kicking the can down the road at the expense of residents near the facility.” Watters and dozens of other residents demanded that the Department of Environmental Quality wield its legal authority to bring Chemours to heel — which state environmental officials have been slow to do.

Gone to waste: Flooding from Hurricane Florence contributed to sewage and wastewater spills totaling more than 67 million gallons, according to recent DEQ figures. Bypasses of wastewater treatment plants — at various stages of disinfection — accounted for 37.1 million gallons, with raw sewage spills composing 26.7 million gallons.

The wastewater treatment plant breaches included both public and privately owned systems, such as Aqua North Carolina, Mt. Olive Pickle company and Archer Daniels Midland. The sewage spills, known in wastewater lingo as SSOs (sanitary sewer overflows), involved at least a half-dozen public utilities that are on the state’s “unit assistance list.” These utilities often don’t have enough customer revenue to maintain or upgrade their aging systems.

For example, Cerro Gordo, population 200, in Columbus County, has only 11 sewer customers. (The town’s system did not have a spill during the hurricane.) If Cerro Gordo were to pay for its vital sewer upgrades without any grants or other financial assistance, according to figurers from the State Infrastructure Authority, its customers would pay — wait for it — $1,300 a month..

The median household income in Cerro Gordo is $36,875 a year; the sewer bill alone would eat up 42 percent of their paycheck.

 

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