NC residents demand more action from environmental justice board

Jamie Cole of the NC Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board discussed the group’s possible recommendation on the proposed swine farm permits.

During a brief break at yesterday’s convening of the Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board, a man introduced himself to me as Bill. A recent transplant to Wilmington, Bill had decided to spend some precious hours of his retirement listening to the myriad environmental crises that have buffeted the state: coal ash, GenX, methyl bromide, natural gas pipelines, the wood pellet industry, uranium and cyanide plumes, swine waste.

At one point, Bill turned to me, a tinge of buyer’s remorse in his voice, and lamented, “This state is the den of iniquity.”

Bill, it’s worth noting, is from New Jersey.  Yes, New Jersey, home of 105 Superfund sites, a childhood cancer cluster in Toms River, and some of the worst air pollution in the nation.

Although the meeting agenda was wide, it wasn’t deep, four hours being insufficient to delve into the public’s concerns. “This board is moving too slowly,” said John Wagner, who had trekked from Pittsboro to Wilmington for the event. “We have critical issues in this state and we’re running out of time.”

Wagner’s remarks pointed to the public’s impatience with the board. It lacks a sense of urgency. It has yet to advise NC Department of Environmental Quality on how to best communicate with underserved communities, particularly those without reliable access to the Internet or newspapers.  It needs to set an agenda for the DEQ, not vice versa. And it needs to wield its power. Although the board lacks rule-making authority, its members nonetheless can influence decisions at the highest levels of the department.

Part of the problem is the 16-member board meets quarterly, but considering the issues facing the state, that is too seldom. (The Environmental Management Commission, for example, meets every other month.) As a result, the board can’t be nimble in its feedback to DEQ. The deadline for public comment on Duke Energy’s plans to clean up coal ash at six sites is Friday; the affected communities unanimous in wanting the material fully excavated from unlined pits and put in dry storage. Another deadline regarding swine farm permits is looming. That short time frame forces the board and its subcommittees to scramble to write their recommendations and resolutions to DEQ.

“This board is the respected environmental experts of the state,” said Dana Sargent of Cape Fear River Watch. “The process is too slow.” DEQ’s decision how to regulate swine farms, will affect 2,300 facilities in eastern North Carolina. And the next permitting doesn’t occur until 2024. If the board doesn’t chime in now, Sargent said, “you’ll have to wait another five years.”

Sargent also pushed the board to advise DEQ to regulate perfluorinated compounds — PFAS — as a class, which the department has the statutory authority to do. (The EPA is announcing its rules on PFAS tomorrow, Feb. 14, at 9 a.m.) “Our state is failing these [affected] communities.”

One of the most vexing problems for DEQ is how to engage with rural, underserved communities. By law, the department is required to place a notice in the paper of record. But considering the demise of local newspapers — 1,800 have closed or merged nationwide since 2004 — that is no longer a reliable way to reach people. And low-income households might not be able to afford a subscription.

“We need to be better about notifying people,” board member Veronica Carter said.

Posting a notice on the DEQ website is also unsatisfactory. Some people don’t have reliable access to the internet. Others don’t have time to check the DEQ website to learn about upcoming meetings or comment periods, or to drill down to find other information they need. (DEQ does maintain an email list for notices. Email Sarah Rice to be included: sarah.rice@denr.gov).

“I know you’re understaffed and underbudgeted,” said Ashley Daniels, addressing the DEQ staff in attendance. “But if you want to include communities you have to do better.”

(DEQ is notoriously underfunded because of years of legislative budget cuts. To wit, Carter paid for a bus tour of underserved communities, as well as lunch for her colleagues. DEQ Deputy Secretary for Public Affairs Doug Heyl offered to write her a personal check to cover the expenses.)

“We don’t have the budget to advertise,” Heyl said. “We barely have the budget to do what’s legally required.”

DEQ is scheduled to launch an initial version of a promising community mapping tool on April 1 — the first of its kind for the department. The tool would allow anyone not only to find a contaminated site but also to see permits and violation records associated with it. The map shows all of the contaminated sites within certain areas, and includes demographic information about the neighborhoods.

Information gleaned from this mapping tool could empower communities to petition their local governments, who are responsible for zoning decisions and for siting facilities, including polluters. DEQ could use the data in discussions with the state Department of Commerce about where industry should go — and more important, not go.

The agency has held two public meetings to get feedback about the tool before the soft launch: one in Goldsboro and another in Winston-Salem. A third is scheduled for at Isothermal Community College in Rutherfordton on Feb. 20, from 6-8 p.m.

But Daniels said that she received a notice for the meetings only a few days before the events. (It was 12 days and nine days, respectively, according to the DEQ website.) “That’s not enough advance time” for people to find child care, Daniels said. “I didn’t know what the tool was and what we were commenting on, or where we were to comment.”

There is a survey on the DEQ website where people can comment. However, a discussion and examples of the tool are at a different spot on the website, and it’s not obvious that’s where the link will take a viewer.

Daniels encouraged DEQ and the board to collaborate with environmental groups to involve communities. For example, environmental advocates worked with churches and were instrumental in rallying Columbus County residents to oppose a proposed methyl bromide air permit for a log fumigation facility. The company, facing public pressure — and subsequent DEQ scrutiny — withdrew its permit request.

“The network can help you with churches,” Daniels said. “We’d love to help you.”

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