Courts & the Law, News

Court of appeals sets date in Rowan County prayer case

Attorneys will argue the Rowan County Board of Commissioners’ current prayer policy before all 15 judges of the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals on March 22. The court is located in Richmond, Va.

The en banc review was granted in response to the ACLU of North Carolina asking the federal court to reconsider after a 2-1 ruling in September that reversed a U.S. District Court decision holding that the county’s state sponsored prayers violated the Constitution.

At the Rowan County Board meetings, the chairman directs the public to stand for the invocation and the Pledge of Allegiance, the meeting is called to order and then there is another invocation or prayer, according to the ACLU’s lawsuit. Three Rowan County residents who do not identify as Christian are challenging the proceedings.

You can read more about the details of the case here.


Amount of toxics released into air declines, but NC’s water is in trouble

A bridge over the Cape Fear River (Photo: Creative Commons)

Breathe deeply — well, not too deeply. But swim cautiously because the water is worse than the air.

The amount of toxic pollutants that industry emitted into North Carolina’s air decreased substantially from 2005 to 2015. Unfortunately, the load of toxic contaminants increased in the state’s waterways by 200,000 pounds over that same decade.

The figures come from the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory, recently released for 2015. The database tracks more than 650 chemicals, many of them cancer-causing even at low levels, that could threaten human health and the environment. Federal law requires industrial facilities that emit or discharge those chemicals to annually report how much of each is recycled, treated, burned for energy, and disposed of. (Although the EPA reviews the data for errors, the TRI is based on self-reported numbers from each facility. Many environmental advocates view the self-reporting method as a flaw of the TRI.)

Even with these shortcomings, the data show mixed results for the state. From 2005 to 2015, the total reported releases to air, land and water decreased 68 percent. Most of the improvement occurred because of steep reductions in air toxics — 79 percent. Releases to land were also down by more than a quarter. However, the news was less rosy for water. Comparing 2005 to 2015, the amount of toxics entering the water actually increased, from 8.2 million pounds to 8.4 million pounds, about 2 percent.

Toxic release trends 2005-2015

On-site releases are defined as those that originate and discharge from the facility; off-site disposal means the toxins are transferred elsewhere, such as a hazardous waste landfill. (Source: EPA)
 2005 - 2015
Overall change in on-site releases-68%
Change in air-79%
Change in land-28%
Change in water2%

Elaine Chiosso, Haw Riverkeeper and executive director of the Haw River Assembly, said part of the increase can be attributed to an increase in the state’s population over the past decade. In 2005, 8.7 million people lived in the Tar Heel state; that figure has now increased to 10 million. “There’s more stormwater, more wastewater by volume every year,” Chiosso said. “There’s more pollution in our surface water and groundwater.”

And with more people, there is more industry, which ups the opportunity for more discharges of toxic pollutants into the state’s waterways. For example, Smithfield Foods, the hog processing plant in Tar Heel, was responsible for nearly half of the state’s toxic water releases in 2015, according to the TRI — 3.9 million pounds into the Cape Fear River. Meanwhile, the company, since purchased by a Chinese corporation, recorded growth and profits during that decade. In the last three years — or 12 quarters — Smithfield has been noncompliant with the Clean Water Act.

International Paper in Riegelwood, a small town in Columbus County, emits primarily air pollution. However, in the last three years, the pulp mill has racked up three significant Clean Water Act violations and two non-compliance ratings.

Terry Lansdell, program director for Clean Air Carolina, attributes the decrease in toxic pollutants in the air in part to the closure of several coal-fired power plants. In 2002, the state’s Clean Smokestacks Act strengthened regulations on emissions from coal-fired power plants. Then-Attorney General Roy Cooper also successfully sued the Tennessee Valley Authority over pollution seeping into western North Carolina.

Lansdell said stricter regulations have helped the state’s air and to no economic detriment. “What has made these great improvements is that the regulations have teeth,” he said.

Clean Air Carolina is advocating for more rigorous air monitoring for non-toxic emissions, such as particulate matter, which can burrow deeply into the lungs and cause breathing and heart problems. “We can’t rely on modeling and self-reporting,” Lansdell said. “That’s what put us here in the first place.”


Charlotte real estate execs on HB2: “It needs to go away.”

This week a group of Charlotte real estate executives held a 2017 market forecast – and continued to see HB2 as a problem on the horizon.

From the Charlotte Observer:

“It’s idiotic, and it needs to go away,” said Wyatt Dixon, managing principal at apartment developer Proffitt Dixon. He said an investor on an undisclosed deal recently got as far as giving them a term sheet before declaring “We’re out” after HB2 passed and backlash began.

None of the real estate executives at the Bisnow forecast said HB2 is completely destroying the city’s momentum, and key market segments such as apartments and office space are expected to keep growing in Charlotte. But the executives on two separate panels all agreed HB2 is hurting the state and making their jobs harder.

“We’ve lost an intangible,” said Jensie Teague, of Selwyn Property Group. He said Charlotte now compares less favorably with peer cities such as Austin and Nashville. “We need to get that back.”

Governor Roy Cooper says he’s working on a new run at a repeal, talking with GOP leaders in the General Assembly. The N.C. House and the N.C. Senate go back into session Jan. 25.


Real people are in the Medicaid coverage gap

The numbers are out there. For over three years the numbers have been reported on everything from how many people with diabetes could receive the medications they need to control this chronic condition to the number of jobs that could be created in each county. The numbers even show how some of the most vulnerable like children or even those that served the United States could finally gain access to the care they need if state lawmakers expanded Medicaid.

Unfortunately, the numbers have not influenced leadership in the legislature. Since the numbers and reports did not convince state lawmakers, perhaps the faces and stories of real North Carolinians will help lawmakers understand that the Medicaid Blockade hurts real people.

One real person is Kent. He is a construction worker for a small family-owned business. In fact, reports show that approximately 59,000 North Carolinians in the coverage gap have jobs in construction. Another real person is Roosevelt. He is one of the 12,000 veterans that would benefit is leadership in the General Assembly would expand Medicaid. Both of these men make too much money to be eligible for Medicaid under North Carolina’s current stingy standards, but not enough to be able to afford to but insurance in the marketplace. Roosevelt’s situation is made even more ridiculous and outrageous by the inaccessibility of Veterans Administration healthcare services.

The bottom line: It is a shame that men and women who served the country cannot get the health care they need when they need it. The Medicaid blockade is hard to justify when it impacts up to 500,000 real people. State lawmakers need to acknowledge that real people make up the numbers. They should listen to Roosevelt and others like him when they say, “I’m a human like you. I’m a citizen like you. Please do right by the people who have helped you.”


AG Josh Stein on North Carolina’s opioid epidemic, criminal justice reform and legislative lawsuits (audio)

North Carolina’s new Attorney General Josh Stein was gracious enough to join Policy Watch in studio over the weekend to discuss criminal justice reform, the repeal of HB2, and how to combat the state’s opioid epidemic.  If you missed Stein’s radio interview with Chris Fitzsimon on Sunday, make time to listen to the podcast below: