No longer able to rely on the EPA, DEQ turns to NC Policy Collaboratory for PFAS testing in drinking water

Detlef Knappe, an NC State University professor, at a 2017 legislative committee meeting. He is the lead scientist working with the NC Policy Collaboratory to take over PFAS testing previously conducted by the EPA. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

With the EPA hamstrung by the government shutdown, the NC Department of Environmental Quality has asked the NC Policy Collaboratory to sample drinking water for 26 types of perfluorinated compounds.

DEQ samples weekly at five facilities — Bladen Bluffs, International Paper, Northwest Brunswick, Pender County and the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority’s Sweeney plant — and usually sends those to the EPA for testing. However, because of the 35-day federal government shutdown, most EPA employees were furloughed and couldn’t conduct the tests at the agency’s Athens, Ga., lab. Over the past month, DEQ’s samples have been refrigerated to preserve them.

Even though the government reopens today, it’s expected the backlog of work could take weeks, even months, to plow through. And it’s possible the government could close again in three weeks if President Trump and Congress can’t agree on a border security plan.

Detlef Knappe of NC State University, who with an EPA scientist was the first to discover these compounds in the Cape Fear River and drinking water supplies, is leading the project.

Last year, the legislature budgeted $5 million for the collaboratory to award grants to more than 20 researchers within the UNC System to conduct PFAS testing and work on related research projects on the compounds in drinking water, air emissions — as well as ways to remove them to protect the public health.

Collaboratory Research Director Jeffrey Warren said the group will cover costs, estimated at $10,000 per month. That is equivalent to five samples at $500 each, per week for a month. The collaborators is awarding an initial $50,000 grant to Knappe to cover the two-month backlog, which started even before the shutdown, as well as sampling, through the end of April.

The EPA took as long as six weeks to analyze the samples and return the data. Warren said the collaboratory scientists could do that in half the time.

Duke University scientist Lee Ferguson has also offered to train a DEQ employee, especially hired to operate a mass spectrometer to do in-house PFAS analysis, on the equipment. The mass spec, as it’s known, is identical to the one Ferguson uses in his laboratory. He will set up the system, shaving six months to a year off the agency’s start-up time, Warren said. Duke University is not part of the UNC system covered by the collaboratory, so Ferguson will offer these services to DEQ for free.



Monday surprise: Jeffrey Warren named research director of NC Policy Collaboratory

Jeffrey Warren, former science adviser to Sen. Phil Berger, is now the research director of the NC Policy Collaboratory. (Photo: LinkedIn)

Jeffrey Warren finally got the job he wanted. After a national search, the soon-to-be former science adviser to Sen. Phil Berger, Warren has been named the research director of the NC Policy Collaboratory, a environmental think tank at UNC Chapel Hill. Warren will report to Brad Ives, the director of the Collaboratory, who also serves as the university’s chief sustainability officer and associate vice chancellor for campus enterprises.

Warren’s salary is $175,000 a year.

According to a press release issued today, Warren will “develop requests for proposals for research, as approved by the faculty-led collaboratory Advisory Board, supporting natural resource management issues within North Carolina. He will also support and monitor research on collaboratory projects; work with researchers to prepare reports for the General Assembly; and support other operational needs of the collaboratory.”

The collaboratory was a controversial creature of the General Assembly. Late in last year’s session, lawmakers appropriated $1 million for the project without any academic input. Behind the scenes, Warren was responsible for many pieces of deleterious environmental legislation, such as curbing local government power in regulating fracking, restricting the way scientists measure sea level rise. Academics and environmental advocates were apprehensive that, given Warren’s reputation, the collaboratory would become another instrument of obstruction.

“I can’t think of an individual whose had more of an impact on the environment in a negative way than Jeffrey Warren,” State Rep. Pricey Harrison, a six-term Democratic lawmaker from Guilford County, told NCPW last summer.

And as Berger’s right-hand man, Warren also had power to carve out a line item for the think tank and to potentially create the top job for himself. But that didn’t come to pass when Brad Ives, a former assistant secretary at DEQ, was hired as director last fall. An advisory panel of scientists also helps advise Ives on potential projects seeking funding.

Since then, the collaboratory has undertaken important work, including a study of pollution sources in Jordan Lake. How that academic pursuit will square with Warren’s history of advocating for a delay in the Jordan Lake rules remains to be seen.

The next meeting of the collaboratory is Tuesday, March 14, from 10 a.m. to noon in Room 311A of the South Building at UNC Chapel Hill.

Environment, Legislature

NC Policy Collaboratory: Solid science, but legislature’s timeline rushes process

Hurricane Matthew rainfall totals: Some parts of eastern North Carolina received more than 20 inches in the week prior to, and during the storm. Two projects funded by the NC Policy Collaboratory would study flooding and resiliency related to natural disasters. (Map: NASA)

The NC Policy Collaboratory has an enviable challenge, but a challenge nonetheless: How to spend more than $200,000 in a hurry.

Only six months old, the environmental think tank at UNC is charged with funding and sponsoring research related to natural resources and the economy, then delivering those findings to the General Assembly. In turn, the legislature will, well, we don’t know what they’ll do. But it is clear that in hastily establishing the collaboratory, lawmakers didn’t think the process through.

Today the group, composed of a well-rounded advisory board of scientists and public policy experts, recommended funding all three research projects that it received: two that would explore hurricane impacts and rebuilding, and another that would study wildfires. The two hurricane projects included requirements that researchers get input from local governments and emergency management directors.

The concept of “input” was lost on the state legislature when its leadership concocted the collaboratory last June. Without information from UNC faculty and administrators, lawmakers didn’t consider how the state’s financial deadlines could collide with the university’s. For example, money for all the projects must be not only allocated, but also spent by June 30, the end of state government’s fiscal year.

And because there was no guidance on how to set up the collaboratory, the establishment of which was inserted into the state budget, the group couldn’t hold its first meeting until last November.

“This legislation was developed in a vacuum without understanding the academic calendar,” said Brad Ives, interim director of the collaboratory. He is also the UNC chief director of sustainability and an associate vice chancellor. “Working with new vice-chancellor [Clayton Somers, formerly House Speaker Tim Moore’s chief of staff] we can help the legislature understand that we have to have graduate students and professors lined up to fit into the cycle.”

The legislature appropriated $1 million in annual recurring funds for the collaboratory through at least Fiscal Year 2017-2018. Lawmakers also approved matching funds of $3.5 million. But the budget language is vague, Ives said, regarding how quickly the that money would have to be spent or if the funds could be carried over into the next budget year.

“Even if we raised the money, we might not get the match to use unless we can spend it before the end of the year,” Ives said. “Hopefully that wasn’t anyone’s intent when the language was written.”

Ives added that he would seek clarification from lawmakers and the state budget office.

The tight turnaround also didn’t allow enough time for a lot of proposals to come before the collaboratory. There were only three for this round of funding. Although all met the scientific, academic and policy requirements, collaboratory members did weigh the implications of their recommendations.

“What we fund in 2016 will signal to researchers what we’re interested in in 2017,” said member Anita Brown Graham, UNC professor of public law and government. “We don’t want to send the wrong signals.”

Ives said the process has been “very ad hoc and rushed.”

“We have to ask ‘Is this a project that UNC wants its name associated with? Does the project set the tone we want?'” Ives said. “There’s not a lot of the fiscal year left, but let’s not put the money to work just to put the money to work. We’re not trying to shovel money out the door.”

In addition to checking off all of the scientific and methodology boxes, the projects must have real-world applications — satisfying the sweet spot between policy and research.

“Once we get this money spent and close the books on this year, we’ll look to next year so we can hit the ground running,” said collaboratory chairman Al Segars, a distinguished professor and faculty director of the Center for Sustainable Enterprise. “The project criteria will be more stringent.”

Here are the projects:

  • James Johnson Jr. of the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School would lead research in rebuilding communities after Hurricane Matthew. The focus would be on senior housing and aging in place. This project would be folded into an existing one that explores resiliency and natural disasters. The budget is $45,000.
  • Chris Lenhardt, a domain scientist with the Renaissance Computing Institute has asked for $100,000 to develop near-real time flood mapping data and inland flood maps of North Carolina. The coastal plain received the brunt of the damage from Hurricane Matthew. First-responders, emergency management staff and policy-makers could use the maps and data for evacuation plans, for example.
  • Uma Shankar, a researcher with the UNC Institute for the Environment would study what are known as “fuel loads” and their effect on wildfires. In other words, drought dries out the forest floor and part of the understory. That parched brush, wood and vegetation can ignite, either naturally or intentionally, and contribute to the spread of wildfires.
    Land managers could use this information to increase public awareness about wildfire causes and help communities cope with the smoke and poor air quality. The project budget is $58,000.




NC Policy Collaboratory’s first task: What to do about the ailing Jordan Lake?

A map of the Jordan Lake watershed, which includes parts of nine counties: Forsyth, Guilford, Rockingham, Caswell, Alamance, Orange, Durham, Chatham and Wake.

A map of the Jordan Lake watershed, which includes parts of nine counties; Jordan Lake itself lies within parts of Chatham, Wake and Durham counties. (Map: NC Department of Environmental Quality)

Jordan Lake is too far gone to fully recover from the repeated insults to its shores. Decades of pollution from urban and agricultural development have placed parts of the 46,000-acre lake on the EPA’s ignoble list of impaired waters. But conditions at Jordan could at least improve, according to the NC Policy Collaboratory, and those improvements could help protect a drinking water source for more than 300,000 people in one of the fastest-growing regions of North Carolina.

The NC Policy Collaboratory, an environmental think tank at UNC Chapel Hill, is the state’s latest attempt to solve — or at least offer solutions to — the environmental, political and economic problems of improving water quality in Jordan Lake. Over the past seven years, the Jordan Lake rules have become a punch line. They were intended to reduce pollution in the lake by regulating development and land use in the watershed, which includes parts of nine counties, from upstream in Forsyth to downstream in western Wake.

But since the legislature passed the rules in 2009, politics and economics have stalled their implementation. Instead, the water quality in Jordan Lake has been held hostage to legislative dawdling, funding shortfalls, multiple studies and revisions, and a failed $1 million SolarBees project. All of this has forestalled the inevitable: It will be expensive to even modestly clean up the lake, and we will all pay for it — more so as the water becomes dirtier.

Last month, the collaboratory issued its interim update to the General Assembly, as required by statute. In the document, the scientists outline how the two-year study on Jordan will proceed, with a final report due by Dec. 31, 2018. (Water quality in Falls Lake will be tackled in separate research, with a due date of Dec. 31, 2021.) The legislature appropriated $500,000 for the studies: NC Collaboratory_JordanLake

Steve Wall, outreach liaison for the collaboratory, said the researchers will study what pollutants are entering the lake, how much and where they’re coming from. The study will also focus on “understanding the factors throughout the entire watershed that are contributing nutrients and how best to address them in a cost-effective manner,” Wall said.

Specifically, researchers plan to study the sources of “nutrients and sediment,” aka nitrogen and phosphorus, for example, and dirt. Nitrogen and phosphorus can come from lawn and field fertilizers, stormwater runoff, wastewater, even via the air, from coal-fired plants. Dirt runs into the lake when construction clears or disrupts trees, bushes, wild grasses and other buffers that usually filter it out.

This pollution is not a merely an academic problem. Nutrients feed algae, some of which can be toxic to even touch — a problem for boaters, fishers and swimmers in the lake. When algae proliferates,  treatment plants have to work harder to remove it from drinking water. Even low levels of nutrients in drinking water can be harmful.

Nationwide, water and wastewater treatment plants are already grappling with the potential cost of removing more pollutants, such as “emerging contaminants,” which not yet regulated but could be in the future. Residue from prescription drugs, hormones and over-the-counter medications also enter the wastewater system, and without additional (and expensive) controls, enter drinking water sources.

Besides the regional pollution, these larger trends significantly increase the cost of protecting the lake for cities, utilities and developers; their lobbying power is part of the reason for the rules’ hiatus. For example, Durham City Council has endorsed the new development rule. That rule raise the cost of stormwater controls for new housing and commercial and institutional construction. But the city opposes an existing development rule because it would have to to “pay an estimated $570 million, could require condemnation of private property, and take property out of the city’s tax base.”

It makes financial sense, then, according to the collaboratory documents, to pinpoint the major sources of pollution and where they’re most easily and cheaply reduced. Surprisingly, though, despite the years of angst over the lake, there is still a shortage of data, collaboratory documents say. Existing information is based on infrequent sampling from just a few larger streams. This lack of data, especially of smaller streams, “results in large uncertainty.” Researchers now plan to increase the scope of sampling and in-lake monitoring.

UNC researchers say they’ll study the long-term effectiveness of buffers, one of the ways to keep pollution out of the lake — and waterways in general. Buffers, part of “bioretention” programs, are essentially swaths of vegetation and soils that filter and capture the pollution before it reaches the water. Yet last year, the legislature curtailed buffer requirements, prohibiting local governments from requiring wider buffers except under limited circumstances.

One of many anti-environmental laws passed in the last six years, the weaker buffer rules fly in the face of science. This continual friction point between politics and science is one reason UNC faculty and environmental advocates are closely watching the collaboratory’s work — and lawmakers’ response to their findings.

The collaboratory was created and in part, funded by the legislature, and receives $1 million in state money annually. It could get $3.5 million in non-recurring, matching public funds, as well. When its line item suddenly appeared in the state budget last June, academics and environmentalists questioned lawmakers’ political motivations in funding the group: Would the collaboratory be allowed to bite the hand that feeds it?

“The collaboratory is not intended to be an advocacy organization,” Wall said, in response to a question about the group’s influence over policy. “but rather provide information and assistance to state and local governments on environmental and natural resource issues.”

The group has met twice; the next meeting of the collaboratory is Jan. 20. at 9 a.m. in Room 105 of the South Building at UNC Chapel Hill.



NC Policy Collaboratory names advisory panelists

Al Segars

Al Segars (Photo: UNC)

A watershed expert, a marine scientist and an environmental engineering professor are among on a advisory panel for the controversial NC Policy Collaboratory, a new UNC initiative created by the state legislature.

Coastal Review Online first reported the story last night.

The panelists include the chairman, Al Segars, who is the faculty director of the Center for Sustainable Enterprise;

  • Jaye Cable is the chairwoman of the Curriculum for the Environment and Ecology within the UNC Marine Sciences department. Cable’s expertise includes coastal aquifers, groundwater discharge and wetlands.
  • Greg Characklis is the director of the Center for Watershed Science Management within the UNC Institute for the Environment. His research focuses on engineering issues, such as water supply and treatment systems and the management of environmental financial risks.
  • Reggie Holley, who chairs the Board of Visitors for the UNC School of the Environment, is also a lobbyist with the Longmire Group.
  • Jeff Hughes, director of the Environmental Finance Center at UNC, specializes in water resources.
  • Rick Luettich, professor and director of the Institute of Marine Sciences, is an expert in coastal systems and resilience, including storm surge modeling.

Conspicuous by his absence, Jeffrey Warren was not named to the advisory board. Warren, who is Sen. Phil Berger’s science advisor, spearheaded much of the state’s harmful environmental legislation. His name was originally floated as a leading candidate for the director’s job.

A permanent director for the Collaboratory has not been named, but Brad Ives, the university’s chief sustainability officer, is serving in the interim. Ives was also an assistant secretary of the NC Department of Environmental Quality in the McCrory administration. He served under then-secretary John Skvarla, who is now the head of the state commerce department.