agriculture, Environment

This Week in Pollution: coal ash, hog lagoons and a wayward EPA

Rainfall from Hurricane Florence overlaid with the locations of industrialized livestock operations. (Map: Environmental Working Group)

Good morning, before I delve into the weekly recap of Contamination’s Greatest Hits, I want to tell you what I just heard at the NC Chamber of Commerce’s Agri-Business conference this morning.

Ray Starling, who used to be with the NC Department of Agriculture, is now chief of staff at the USDA. One day, Starling said, he was in the Oval Office visiting with President Trump. “On the president’s desk was a box made of wood with the presidential seal on one side and it had a red button. The president pushes the red button. I thought the floor was going to open up in front of me and I would fall through it. I was fairly certain some country had been blown off the map.”

Instead, Starling said, “moments later a man entered the Oval Office carrying a silver platter” with a Diet Coke for the president.

And now you know.

First up, a perennial favorite since 2014: Coal ash. Sampling by Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Matthew Starr near the inactive coal ash basins at the HF Lee plant, showed arsenic levels in the Neuse River, the drinking water source for Goldsboro, at 186 parts per million, far above the drinking water standard of 10 ppm. Near the Sutton plant, whose lake drains into the beleaguered Cape Fear River, also a major drinking water supply, the results were an off-the-charts 710 ppm.

Meanwhile, Duke Energy and the NC Department of Environmental Quality each did its own testing near both HF Lee and Sutton. DEQ found elevated levels of copper near Sutton, but both the agency’s and the utility’s samples indicated arsenic contamination was below drinking water standards there and at HF Lee.

How can these results be so contradictory — one set menacing and the other hunky-dory? Well, the variations can hinge on several factors: where and when the samples were taken, and how far into the water column — in other words, how deep the samplers plunged the bottle. Sediment, aka dirt in the riverbed, would be even more telling, because the contaminants might have nestled there. But sediment rarely stays put. Boats, storms, wind can all stir it up, sending contamination downstream.

DEQ and Duke, and the riverkeepers, will continue to monitor potential contamination in the rivers.

Speaking of coal, the EPA (rechristened for the purposes of this column as Experiencing Peak Apocalypse) plans to roll back mercury emissions rules for coal-fired power plants. Mercury, also known in 14th-century parlance as quicksilver, is not an element to be messed with. (Nonetheless, in eighth-grade science class, we entertained ourselves by goosing globules of it on our desks. This occurred in the dark ages of 1978, when trepanation may have still been in vogue in my small town.)

Historically, coal-fired power plants have been major emitters of mercury. When the mercury falls back to the Earth and enters water, it converts to methylmercury. Fish take up methylmercury, and when people eat fish, they also get a dose. Mercury can harm the nervous system, including that of a developing fetus, which is why pregnant women are advised to restrict their intake of certain mercury-prone species, such as tuna. There are fish advisories for mercury contamination in waterways throughout North Carolina for everyone.

Who thinks weakening mercury rules is a good idea? The New York Times breaks down the issue, but essentially the EPA, led by former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, reasons that the cost to industry to adhere to the rule is greater than the public health costs if the rule is rolled back. I’d like to see the math on that, right after I cough up this lung. Nonetheless, the score is Industry 1, Health Benefits 0.

Also lurking in the post-Hurricane Florence waters of eastern North Carolina is millions of gallons of hog and poultry waste. Policy Watch reported this week on the many farms that still lie within the 100-year flood plain. The.Waterkeeper Alliance and the Environmental Working Group released a set of maps overlapping historic rainfall amounts with the density of these industrialized operations. The EWG’s spatial analysis concluded that “there are 926  concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, housing more than 3.8 million hogs and 578 poultry CAFOs holding an estimated 35 million fowl in areas where the National Weather Service said flooding was ‘occurring or imminent’ after Florence.”

Hog farms often receive the most attention, unlike poultry farms, which escape necessary scrutiny because they are virtually unregulated. These farms that use “dry litter” (which no longer stays dry in a flood) aren’t required to have a permit. We don’t know where they are or who might have complained about them.

On the issue of hog farms, the Waterkeeper Alliance is suing the EPA over exemptions bestowed upon these industrialized  operations. Unlike many other polluting industries, these farms aren’t required to inform state and local officials about dangerous levels of pollutants that could be emanating from the operations.. For many industries, these disclosures are required under the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act. However, the Fair Agricultural Reporting Method Act gives the livestock industries a pass on reporting air emissions — ammonia, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter — that can exacerbate respiratory illness of those living near the farms.

Living near these concentrated animal feeding operations might shorten your lifespan, according to a September article published by Duke University scientist Julia Kravchenko and four of her colleagues in the NC Medical Journal.

The study concluded that North Carolina communities located near hog CAFOs “had higher all-cause and infant mortality, mortality due to anemia, kidney disease, tuberculosis, septicemia, and higher hospital admissions/emergency room visits of low-birth weight infants.”

The study doesn’t go so far as to establish causality with exposures from hog CAFOs, but the authors write that future studies are needed to “determine factors that influence these outcomes, as well as the need to improve screening and diagnostic strategies for these diseases in North Carolina communities adjacent to hog CAFOs.”

Given these findings, it was disheartening to hear Dennis Kelly of Syngenta tell the agribusiness crowd this morning that one of the greatest concerns of farmers is “security — knowing you won’t be sued. That you have the right to farm according to normal agriculture practices.”

Somebody, please push the red button. No, the other one, where I get to fall through the floor.

Environment

Duke Energy reporting another coal ash breach at Sutton; shuts down nat gas plant

Flood waters from Sutton Lake are surrounding Duke Energy’s natural gas plant there, forcing the utility to temporarily shut it down. (Photo: Duke Energy)

The Cape Fear River has overtopped a dam at Sutton Lake in Wilmington, sending coal ash into the water body from the 1971 ash basin. The lake provides cooling water for Duke Energy’s Sutton plant.

According to the utility, cenospheres, which are coal combustion byproducts, are moving from that basin into the lake and onto the Cape Fear River. Cenospheres are lightweight hollow beads that can contain not only silica and aluminum, but also arsenic and lead.

The second coal ash basin, built in 1984, is stable and has not been affected, the utility said. The lined ash landfill, which suffered two breaches in its slope last weekend, is not affected by the lake water. The landfill is being repaired.

Meanwhile, lake water has surrounded the natural gas plant at the Sutton site, requiring personnel to shut it down.

Duke Energy had previously shut down both reactors at its Brunswick County nuclear plant, but only one remains offline as of today. The second unit is operating at 69 percent, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Environment

Two breaches in Sutton coal ash landfill, plus flooding at three inactive ash basins at Lee plant

Portion of a slope collapsed at the Sutton coal ash landfill, the result of flooding. (Photos: Courtesy Kemp Burdette, Cape Fear Riverkeeper)

Rising rivers and historic flooding are hampering the state and Duke Energy from fully assessing the extent of the damage to coal ash landfills and basins in eastern North Carolina, but there are reports of breaches at the Sutton plant in Wilmington and flooding at HF Lee in Goldsboro.

Cape Fear Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette told Policy Watch that he saw two breaches at the Sutton plant’s coal ash landfill, one about 30 feet wide and the other roughly 50 feet. He also described water pouring through a berm. “After 90 minutes, the contents had been emptied out,” he said. “It was a lot of water.”

Duke Energy spokeswoman Erin Culbert said that area is a designated spot between landfill cells where rain flowing on the top  is released and discharged into a sediment basin. She added that the storm water from this area has not come into contact with coal ash.

It’s still unclear if the ash has reached Sutton Lake or the Cape Fear River. “We’ll be able to do a more thorough evaluation once flooding subsides,” Culbert said, and the utility “will make the needed repairs once the storm passes and conditions are safe to do,” Culbert said.

Another view of a breach at the Sutton plant in WIlmington.

State environmental officials are also sending inspectors to the site once it is safe. Riverkeepers are also monitoring the area, both in boats and from the air.

The new landfill is under construction, and when complete, will hold 5 million tons of coal ash in three cells. As sections are completed capped and closed, Culbert said, “these kinds of events will be much less likely to occur.”

Wilmington has received 2 feet of rain over the past five days; the city is largely cut off from the rest of the state by flooding.

In Goldsboro, where the Neuse River is expected to crest at near-historic levels, the active ash basin at HF Lee “is performing well,” Culbert said, but the three inactive ash basins have had flooding. They are low-lying basins in a wooded area, and likewise took on water during Hurricane Matthew. During that 2016 storm, the Neuse River topped out at 29.7 feet, a record. Current forecasts from the National Weather Service predict it will crest at 27.1 feet by Tuesday.

“Past similar experience in Hurricane Matthew shows only a small amount of ash would be displaced with no measurable environmental effect,” Culbert said.

However, after Matthew, old stormwater containing ash entered with the river. Subsequent Duke sampling showed that levels of copper were elevated above water quality standard of 2.7 parts per billion. There were small increases in arsenic levels, but below drinking water standards.

Also during Hurricane Matthew, the inactive basins released coal ash — state regulators estimated the amount would fill the bed of a pickup truck — and cenospheres. Duke and DEQ both maintained that cenospheres, hollow balls of silicone and aluminum, are inert. However, these hollow balls can also contain arsenic and other heavy metals that are also present in fly ash.

“To say that there ‘will be no measurable effect’ does a disservice to all North Carolinians. It’s just plain wrong,” countered Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Matthew Starr. He rode in boat on the Neuse after Hurricane Matthew  and scooped up ash and cenospheres from the river. “It was like a winter wonderland.”

Afterward, DEQ required Duke to submit a plan of action, including additional sampling and removal of the cenospheres from nearby wetlands. HF Lee is also on the list of plants where the ash basins will be excavated and the material placed in lined landfills.

 

 

Environment

In Wilmington, slope on Sutton coal ash landfill fails, plus sewage spills from city wastewater plant

Duke Energy’s Sutton plant in Wilmington. Rains from Hurricane Florence caused a slope at an on-site coal ash landfill to collapse. (File photo: Duke Energy)

This post has been updated with a statement from the state Department of Environmental Quality.

Torrential rain from Hurricane Florence caused a slope to collapse at a coal ash landfill at Duke Energy’s Sutton plant in Wilmington. The utility reported about 2,000 cubic yards of material, including ash, was displaced.

For context, the average commercial dump truck holds about 10-14 cubic yards, meaning the amount of displaced material at Sutton was equivalent to 142 dump truck loads.

It’s unclear if the rains carried any coal ash beyond the landfill and into the lake — and if so, how much. The landfill, which is lined, is designed to hold 5 million tons of coal ash in three cells.

The utility notified state environmental regulators of the slope failure.

DEQ Communications Director Megan S. Thorpe issued a statement, saying the agency has been “closely monitoring all coal ash impoundments that could be vulnerable in this record-breaking event.”

State inspectors will go to the plant “as soon as it is safe to do so.”

“Once the damage is assessed,” the statement went on, “DEQ will determine the best path forward and hold the utility accountable for implementing the solution that ensures the protection of public health and the environment.”

The catastrophic storm also caused a generator to fail yesterday at Wilmington’s southside wastewater treatment plant, allowing 5.25 million gallons of sewage to bypass the system. However, according to DEQ spokeswoman Bridget Munger, the wastewater was spilled at the third step in a five-step process, “so it was not nearly as bad as a raw sewage spill.” The steps that were missed were secondary clarification and disinfection, so were very few solids in the spill.

The spill is less severe than an incident in western North Carolina last April in which 15.4 million gallons were released to Long Creek. That accident was also caused by rain.

In October 2017, heavy rain also caused a release of 4.8 million gallons to Mallard Creek in the Yadkin River basin.
 
agriculture, Environment

Legislators have gone home, but the week ahead includes key dates on Chemours, coal ash, red wolves, hog waste and more

Red wolves are featured in a diorama at the Coastal North Carolina Wildlife Refuges Gateway Visitor Center in Manteo. US Fish and Wildlife is proposing new rules that would allow people to legally kill them outside of Dare County. (Photo by Lisa Sorg)

The Legislative Building might be quiet as a tomb, but state and federal agencies are crafting critical environmental policies that will affect North Carolina’s air, water and endangered species.

Tuesday, July 10: Already on the brink of extinction in the wild, the 40 or so endangered red wolves have a dim future in eastern North Carolina. Federal wildlife officials want to allow people to kill them outside of government lands in Dare County, a proposal that runs counter to the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s mission of keeping species from being snubbed out.

USFWS would reduce the existing red wolf recovery area from six counties to just one. Wolves who wander outside “protected” territory, which includes the Dare Bombing Range, can be killed without a federal permit. This habitat can support no more than 15 wolves, and any ahem, “extraneous” animals could be removed from the wild and shipped off to zoos and nature centers, where they’ll spend the rest of their lives essentially on house arrest.

USFWS is hosting a public meeting on its proposal  from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., with a public hearing to follow at 7 p.m. at Roanoke Festival Park in Manteo.

Duke Energy wants to build a fly ash processing facility at its HF Lee plant in Goldsboro, which could convert up to 300,000 tons of coal ash or reuse in cement, annually. There are two other such projects in North Carolina at the utility’s Buck and Cape Fear plants, built under the 2016 coal ash management law. That law requires Duke Energy to identify three of it ash impoundments within North Carolina where the waste can be processed for beneficial use.  While that helps draw down the ash stored in impoundments, a critical source of groundwater pollution, these operations can still emit pollutants such as lead, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter. 

A public hearing on the proposed project is slated for 7 p.m. at Wayne Community College, Moffatt Auditorium, 3000 Wayne Memorial Drive, in Goldsboro. Interested parties may submit written or oral comments during the public hearing. The public comment period remains open until July 13; you can also send comments via email to DEQ.

Jury selection begins for the third hog nuisance trial in US District Court in Raleigh. This case is out of Pender County, where neighbors of Greenwood Farms, a 10,000-hog operation, are suing Murphy-Brown, the world’s largest pork producer. Murphy-Brown lost its first two cases, in Bladen and Duplin counties, respectively. The NC Farm Act, passed by legislators last month, ensures that these lawsuits against livestock or forestry operators will be the last of their kind, unless someone challenges the statute on constitutional grounds.

Wednesday, July 11: Communities of color and low-income neighborhoods are often burdened with the environmental fallout from natural gas pipelines, Superfund sites, polluting industries or enormous hog operations. Yet these issues are often given short shrift by government agencies like the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which all but ignored environmental justice concerns in its approval of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. In May, DEQ Secretary Michael Regan and Gov. Roy Cooper announced their appointments to state’s first Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board. The group holds its inaugural meeting in Hollister in Halifax County, at the Haliwa-Saponi Tribal Government Complex,  39021 Hwy 561 from 1 to 5 p.m.

Today is the last day to comment on DEQ’s proposed court order against Chemours over its discharge and emissions of GenX and similar compounds. In June, DEQ filed paperwork in Bladen County Superior Court, asking a judge to impose several environmental requirements on the company: Read more