Commentary, News

BREAKING: Conservative lawmaker calls for HB2 repeal in GOP-funded ad

There is some big and promising HB2 news this afternoon. A conservative Republican state legislator, Wake County’s Chris Malone, has formally endorsed repeal of the law. This is from a statement Malone included in a new campaign flyer (see below):

“HB2 is costing Wake County and North Carolina too much. I call for full repeal of HB2 now. I also support adding anti-discrimination language to state laws. I call upon law enforcement to enforce existing laws banning inappropriate behavior in public facilities. Let’s repeal HB2 and move on to issues that matter to our community and state.”

To make the development all the more encouraging and newsworthy, the flyer specifies that it was paid for by the North Carolina Republican Party.

This is, of course, incredibly encouraging news and would appear to indicate that the GOP and its executive director Dallas Woodhouse (and perhaps even Gov. McCrory) have finally had a major change of heart on the matter. Reporter Colin Campbell of Raleigh’s News & Observer has more on Malone’s new position here.




Report reveals yawning achievement gap in Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools

students-taking-an-exam-by-zelig-school-creative-commonsAt Policy Watch, we’ve written extensively on the struggle to close the so-called “achievement gap” between white students and some minority students in North Carolina.

Now, in a must-read in The News & Observer this week, a new report in one of North Carolina’s most academically decorated systems reveals just how persistent the gaps remain in the state.

From the N&O:

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools will create a new, data-driven set of long-range goals and yearly interventions to improve student performance, after receiving a troubling report that shows persistent achievement gaps and poor comparisons to state averages.

The Annual Report of Student Performance for 2015-16 was formally presented to the school board Thursday night in Lincoln Center.

The state average was better than the district’s in 11 categories.

A composite chart of end-of-grade and end-of-course scores shows that only 31 percent of black students and 40 percent of Latino students were in the college-ready range, compared to 85 percent of white students.

A team working with Interim Assistant Superintendent for Instructional Services Rydell Harrison has identified four areas of concern in the 2014-15 data, and will perform a “deep dive” into those issues to discover what’s causing them.

One big concern is that the study shows five groups of students with significant gaps between graduation rates and eligibility for UNC system colleges, based on ACT scores.

Those students include African-Americans, Latinos, students with disabilities, students that are economically disadvantaged, and students with limited English proficiency.

Among those. African-American students saw the largest gap at 41 percent, even though they graduated at 82 percent.

Read more


Duke University scientist concludes Chromium 6 contamination widespread in NC, but not from Duke Energy

chromic-acid-molecule-e1365020277566Even more North Carolina households than previously thought could be exposed to Chromium 6 in their drinking water, some of them at unsafe levels. However, the source of the contamination is not Duke Energy’s leaking coal ash ponds, but rather ancient volcanic rock leaching into aquifers.

These scientific findings, in addition to being troubling for people on both public and private water systems, could influence public environmental and health policy.

Avner Vengosh, a Duke University professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, released the results of a new study today.

Of the 376 wells researchers sampled, 90 percent had detectable levels of Chromium 6, also known as hexavalent chromium, which can cause cancer. Some wells were close to coal ash ponds; others were far away.

By using tracers and analyzing the geochemical fingerprint of contaminants, Vengosh and his team could follow the Chromium 6 back to its source. Think of it as the contaminants’ DNA.

“Our analysis showed that groundwater samples with high levels of hexavalent chromium have very different geochemical fingerprints than what we see in groundwater contaminated from leaking coal ash ponds,” Vengosh said in an announcement by the Nicholas School.

Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds, though, are not benign. Vengosh said that arsenic and selenium in well water near those ponds does come from coal ash. “The impact of leaking coal ash ponds on water resources is still a major environmental issue,” Vengosh said.

While the study results could be a positive development for Duke Energy, it’s bad news for the thousands of private well owners — nearly a third of North Carolinians — who may be exposed to Chromium 6 from natural sources.

“This doesn’t mean it poses less of a threat,” Vengosh said. “If anything, because the contamination stems from water-rock interactions that are common across the Piedmont region, people in a much larger geographic area may be at risk.”

Chromium 6 is also present in many public water systems both in North Carolina and nationwide. The NC Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Health and Human Services — with involvement from the governor’s office — used that fact to assure some well owners near coal ash ponds that their water posed no threat under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

This was controversial because there is no federal drinking water standard for Chromium 6. Under the SDWA, the levels of total chromium, which combines two types, is capped at 100 parts per billion.

State toxicologist Ken Rudo and state epidemiologist Megan Davies were both concerned that by invoking the Safe Drinking Water Act, the state was misleading well owners and downplaying the health risk.

Nor does the federal standard apply to groundwater or well water near coal ash impoundments. Plus, the science supporting that standard is 25 years old.

As part of its emerging contaminants program, the EPA is reviewing health and toxicity data about Chromium 6 and could set a new standard.

Vengesh’s research could change environmental and health policy, although since the findings were just released today, it’s too early to know.

For example, under state legislation passed in 2006, new wells must be tested for contaminants before they can be used. However, existing wells have no such requirement. Private well owners can have their wells tested, but it is not incumbent upon state regulators to fix the problem.

Now that science has further reinforced the theory that Chromium 6 is more widespread, legislation could introduced to test more private wells. In fact, DHHS issued 50 to 70 health risk evaluations for Chromium 6 in  wells that were not near ash basins.

Under the state’s Coal Ash Management Acta health advisory is issued when Chromium 6 exceeds .07 parts per billion in wells near coal ash ponds.

Additional testing would likely be expensive and require a significant appropriation. And the state would likely have to consider how to accurately convey any health risks to well owners, who would likely have to pay for filtration or other remedies themselves.

The findings could also prompt a call for the state to impose more stringent drinking water and groundwater standards, similar to that of California. It’s the only state to set a maximum level for Chromium 6 in drinking water — 10 parts per billion.

Clean Water for North Carolina reiterated several of the study findings, including that contaminants from coal ash sites have polluted nearby groundwater. “The findings also do not make the excavation and safe storage of coal ash and provision of clean drinking water sources to neighboring communities any less urgent.”










As election season winds down, a closer look at dark money (Audio)

The Center for Responsive Politics projects that when the 2016 election season wraps up two weeks from now, the spending level by candidates and special interest parties in the federal races could reach a whopping $6.6 billion. The presidential race alone is expected to cost $100 million more than it did in 2012.

But it’s not just outside spending at the top of the ticket that should have you concerned.

Karen Hobert Flynn, national president of Common Cause, says her organization is seeing more and more outside money being used to influence down ballot races at the state and local level. While the amounts are smaller the impact can be troubling:

“That money —  people don’t give it out of the goodness of their heart. They give that money because they want something in return. And they often get that something in return,” explained Hobert Flynn.

Hobert Flynn recently joined NC Policy Watch to discuss the role of dark money, the state of voting rights, and the effort to end partisan gerrymandering. Click below to listen to our podcast with the democracy reform activist.


Also be sure to check out CRP’s chart: Top Election Spenders, by Election Cycle.


Group visits Triad to promote ending gridlock over popular gun violence regulations

Gun-violenceGun owners can advocate for common sense laws and have their weapons too.

Susan Ladd wrote in the Greensboro News and Record that if it were left to the American people, background checks would be required at gun shows, and gun purchases would be off limits for convicted felons, people with mental health problems and people on terrorist watch lists.

But any legislation that even hints at increasing regulations on guns is dead on arrival in Congress, invariably failing along party lines.

The reason? Republican politicians are creating policy to satisfy the gun lobby, not the American people.

The answer? Vote for candidates who support common-sense gun regulations from the top of the ballot to the bottom.

Supporting tougher gun laws doesn’t mean stomping out the Second Amendment, which was part of the message Tuesday from the Vocal Majority Tour, which stopped in Greensboro and Winston-Salem. It’s sponsored by Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ Americans for Responsible Solutions PAC.

Ladd writes about the frustrating cycle that plays out at the state and national level: despite outcry after mass shootings, and consistent, overwhelming public support, gun laws can’t make their way through a GOP-dominated Congress or state legislature.

Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford), who is herself a gun owner, recalls that after the mass shootings in Aurora and Newtown, gun rights group Grassroots North Carolina vowed to block any new regulations. In fact, the General Assembly voted to expand the places you can carry guns to include parks, greenways, bars and restaurants where liquor is served, and on school grounds.

“It was absolutely the wrong direction to go,” Harrison said.

The Law Center for Gun Violence graded North Carolina an “F” in 2015 for gun laws after it enacted a law weakening the criteria for issuing a handgun permit and loosened restrictions for keeping guns in vehicles. Recommendations for bettering its grade include requiring background checks on all gun sales and prohibiting the possession of guns in bars.

That might be difficult without a change in leadership – hence the get out the vote message from the Vocal Majority Tour. As Ladd points out:

The only thing standing in the way are politicians who care more about special interests than they do about their constituents.