Environment, Legislature

Pork fattens the environmental budget while necessities get chopped

From the ‘New York World,” 1848

The NC Department of Environmental Quality can’t always get what it wants. It can’t even get what it needs.

DEQ had requested 37 new positions in the state environmental budget to address the crisis of perfluorinated compounds in drinking water supplies. The House tepidly responded with seven positions; the Senate, always financially brutal toward DEQ, eliminated the appropriation. The conference budget settled for just five additional full-time positions, but only two of them are devoted to PFAS sampling and analysis. The others are for permitting and administration.

DEQ Secretary Michael Regan criticized the conference budget, saying in a prepared statement that it “does not allow DEQ to keep pace with the demands of a growing economy or the critical water quality issues facing North Carolina. The lack of funding negatively impacts the communities dealing with PFAS contamination and aging water infrastructure. It asks them to go without necessary resources.”

A $2 million PFAS Recovery Fund initially was to be used to provide alternate water supplies to households whose drinking water had been contaminated by Chemours. But a consent order between Chemours, DEQ and Cape Fear River Watch requires the company to pay for and supply the water, either through filtration systems or connections to public supplies.

Freed up, those recovery funds could have been used to add staff in the Division of Water Resources for PFAS work. Instead, the conference budget divvies the money among several earmarks, including general wastewater and water projects for Benson (represented in the Senate by Republican Brent Jackson, an appropriations committee chairman) and Kenansville (also represented by Jackson and Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a Duplin County Republican who chairs appropriations in the House).

Neither town has documented PFAS contamination in its water supply.

Maysville does have a PFAS problem. The town would receive $500,000 to replace its only well, which has been contaminated with PFAS by firefighting foam. It’s unclear, though, if a new well is prudent. Granulated carbon filters can remove PFAS. And the Maysville well taps draws from the Castle Hayne aquifer; if the aquifer itself is contaminated, a new well might not consistently provide clean water.

Five towns with friends in high places secured earmarks, cutting in line to grab a slice of the way-too-small money pie for water and sewer improvements:

  • Four Oaks (again Sen. Jackson territory): $200,000
  • Wilson’s Mills (ditto, Jackson): $100,000
  • Salemburg (Jackson again delivers): $150,000
  • Midland (represented by Sen. Paul Newton, an appropriations subcommittee chair): $500,000
  • Bethel (represented by Democrat Don Davis, who’s on two appropriations committees): $150,000

The State Water Infrastructure Authority estimates at least $17 billion in improvements are needed in North Carolina over the next 20 years. Since the needs are so great and so numerous, the infrastructure authority accepts grant applications from municipalities and then scores them before awarding any money — independent of the state budget earmarks.

Of the seven cities and counties that received infrastructure earmarks in the state budget, only two — Maysville and Sampson County — received funding approval from the Water Infrastructure Authority last fall, according to DEQ documents. Bethel received a small grant for “assessment.” The other four towns didn’t even apply.

Another year, another earmark for the Charlotte Motor Speedway, which is in the pole position to receive as much as $2 million from the pot of money to clean up old dumps, known as pre-1983 landfills because they were built before that year, when liners began to be required. There are more than 800 sites statewide with unlined landfills, none of them apparently with as much cachet as CMS. [Update: A reader noted that this is not new money.
However, the provision does change the required match from 2:1 two private dollars for every one State dollar to 1:1, still a great deal for CMS.]

This is the second consecutive such appropriation for CMS. The infield sits atop one part of a landfill, which extends beyond the gates. The landfill was built in 1980 and closed in 1992, although dumping reportedly occurred there since the 1940s. Groundwater monitoring from 2018 showed spikes of barium, cobalt, benzenes, nickel, toluene, and acetone — all of which can cause health problems and in some cases, cancer.

Budget-writers also inserted a controversial provision to delay by a year the implementation of the general swine, cattle and some poultry operating permits. The new regulations, announced by DEQ after several months of public comment, are scheduled to go into effect on Oct. 1.

This language essentially uses a legislative cudgel to hammer a judicial challenge to the new rules. The Farm Bureau filed a contested case hearing with the Administrative Office of the Courts, alleging DEQ overstepped its authority. The state Board of Agriculture recently voted to support the Farm Bureau’s litigation.

And this week, the NC Environmental Justice Network intervened in the case, arguing the opposite viewpoint: The rules aren’t strong enough.

University Energy Centers, perennially positioned beneath the guillotine, would receive no money, according to the conference budget. The House had funded NC State ($400,000), NC A&T ($200,000) and Appalachian State ($200,000); the Senate, again, excised the funding, and none of it was restored.


Photo of Justin Burr

If the budget becomes law, former Republican lawmaker Justin Burr would earn $113,000 a year in his new role as director of the Outdoor Heritage Advisory Council — an 80 percent raise over his current salary. (Photo: OHAC)

T he often-overlooked Wildlife Resources Commission budget gives a Christmas-in-July $52,000 pay raise to Justin Burr, a former Republican lawmaker from Albemarle.

Burr was hired earlier this year to be the director of the Outdoor Heritage Advisory Council after losing his 2018 primary, WRAL reported.

The council’s duties are to encourage people to enjoy the outdoors through “hiking, hunting, fishing, horseback riding, archery, canoeing and birding.”

He currently earns about $62,000 annually; his new salary would be $113,000.

An archived posting for the job lists several qualifications, including a minimum education level of a bachelor’s degree and experience in philanthropy or nonprofit fundraising.

A former bail bondsman, Burr doesn’t have a college degree.

The original salary hiring range, based on “budget, education, experience and equity,” was $51,895 to $88,221.

A subsequent posting for the position increased the salary range to $69,949 to $118,193. The posting also dropped the education requirement, allowing instead experience in a “related field and four years of administrative experience involving participation in planning and managing of a business or governmental program.”


Industrial hemp in a greenhouse (Photo: NC Industrial Hemp Association)

W hile the House Ag Committee debates whether smokeable hemp is masquerading as weed — a “hellish gateway drug,” in the words of Rep. Jimmy Dixon, the Sgt. Friday of the legislature — the proposed Agriculture Department budget includes funding for four new positions to work in the Industrial Hemp program.

Industrial hemp, which contains very low levels of THC — 0.3% compared with 3% to 15% for marijuana — is grown for use in CBD oil, textiles, even beverages. Because hemp resembles its cannabis cousin, law enforcement can’t distinguish between the two plants. Some district attorneys, sheriffs and police have told lawmakers they are concerned farmers could pass off pot as hemp.

Farmers have planted at least 4,000 acres of industrial hemp, which is particularly popular in western North Carolina. Dozens of hemp farmers and CBD oil salespersons testified before several legislative committees, telling lawmakers that the industry is a boon to farmers.

Some farmers, anyway: The NC Farm Act would prohibit people convicted of a drug-related felony within the last 10 years couldn’t get a hemp license. This provision clearly targets aspiring Black hemp farmers. Even though whites and Blacks use drugs at similar rates, the incarceration rate on drug charges for Blacks is almost six times that of whites.

Two controversial ag appropriations focus on how to manage the millions of gallons of hog waste generated each year. Swine waste biogas systems, which received $450,000 — would send methane from hog farms to natural gas pipelines. Environmental advocates are concerned that these systems would prompt pipeline construction — which causes its own ecological and social justice damage — and further feed America’s addiction to fossil fuels.

The innovative lagoon project would store swine waste in artificial, lined wetlands. Some federal studies have shown this system can reduce nitrogen and ammonia levels, which are primarily responsible for the stench emanating from the lagoons. Other studies recommend that the wastewater be pre-treated and the solids removed to keep the material from killing wetland plants.

This experiment still doesn’t eliminate the antiquated lagoon and sprayfield system; nor does it guarantee the wetlands won’t overflow during severe storms and hurricanes.

Both chambers have passed the conference budget. It now goes to the governor.

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