News, public health

State health experts ask Congress for help combating opioid crisis

WASHINGTON — North Carolina and other states need sustained, flexible federal funding to support programs working to reduce deaths and addiction from opioids and other drugs, state health officials told Congress today.

Public health officials asked lawmakers for continued commitment to Medicaid and programs that help states address drug addiction problems. A panel of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing on the issue.

“Moving an entire system of care is a monumental task. We’re working diligently and we’ve made staggering progress, but please don’t give up,” Jennifer Smith, secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, told lawmakers. “It depends on sustained funding and support.”

States, particularly North Carolina, have been trying to respond to a growing problem of addiction and overdose to opioids and other drugs. From 1999 to 2017, nearly 400,000 people across the United States died from opioid overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Federal lawmakers passed a collection of bipartisan bills in 2018 aimed at fighting the crisis. The legislation provided states billions of dollars in federal funding to assist with response, treatment and recovery.  

State public health officials from Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and West Virginia also credited Medicaid expansion in their states for giving them the ability to pay to treat many of those who face addiction.

Rep. Diane DeGette (D-Colo.), who chaired the hearing, said states are now facing a “fourth wave” of the opioid crisis: a large increase in methamphetamine use.  

“In 2018, there were more than twice as many deaths involving meth as 2015, and meth is increasingly turning up in overdose deaths and drug busts across the country,” DeGette said. 

“Given the complexity of the epidemic and its ability to evolve, states, federal government agencies and Congress must remain vigilant.”

“This is not a crisis that we can resolve overnight, and it requires ongoing federal and state attention,” said Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.). “States are on the front lines of this national emergency, providing much of the support for those in need.  They are our eyes and ears on what is occurring on the ground, and that’s why this hearing is so important.”

Over the past two decades, North Carolina has had 12,000 deaths due to opioid overdose, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).  In 2016, North Carolina was in the top eight states for fentanyl overdose deaths alone.

“North Carolina was hard hit by the opioid crisis. The consequences have been large, and far reaching,” said Kody Kinsley, a DHHS deputy secretary.

In 2016, 1,407 people died in North Carolina due to unintended overdoses. For each death, there were six more hospitalizations, Kinsley said. But in 2018, North Carolina saw its first decline in deaths in five years. 

“The most significant thing you can do would be to give us more time. Sustaining funding over longer windows of time or permanently would allow states to be ready for the next wave of the epidemic,” Kinsley said. 

Kinsley asked for lawmakers to increase the substance abuse and treatment block grants, which have stayed constant for North Carolina even though the population is growing. 

Kinsley said an even bigger boost would be for North Carolina lawmakers to expand Medicaid. More than half of the people who come to North Carolina hospitals with an overdose are uninsured, so much of the extra federal funding for opioids in North Carolina goes directly to their treatment. North Carolina provided treatment to 12,000 uninsured persons with the federal programs.

But that also means that money is not available to start new programs like other states that rely on Medicaid to treat their patients, like Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.

“At present, more than two-thirds of our federal opioid response grants are just going for treatment and expanding care for those that are uninsured,” Kinsley said. “So we do not have those dollars available to expand workforce and treatment.”

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Environment, News, Trump Administration

Critics warn Trump EPA’s coal ash plan will let polluters off the hook

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration wants to give electric utilities a pass on proving they could finance a hazardous waste cleanup in the event of a Superfund disaster.

The proposed rule from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says electric utilities should not have to make “financial assurances” to cover the risk the industry will produce pollution it cannot afford to clean up.

The rule comes in response to a decade-long push and legal battle with environmental groups, who petitioned the EPA to write the rules during the Obama administration. But under the Trump administration, EPA decided electric utilities do not pose a significant risk and can forego the requirement.

The decision calls into question who will be on the hook to pay for and clean up old waste sites with lagoons of coal ash, the toxic byproduct that is left when coal is burned in power plants to produce electricity. Stored in pits, coal ash can contaminate drinking water or blow into nearby communities. It went largely unregulated until EPA issued rules in 2015 to address the problem.

Earlier this year, the NC Department of Environmental Quality determined that the Duke Energy must remove all coal ash from its remaining nine impoundments at six plants in North Carolina: Allen, Belews Creek, Cliffside/Rogers, Marshall, Mayo and Roxboro.

According to the order, Duke can move the coal ashroughly 100 million tons in total — to lined, dry landfills, either onsite or offsite. The utility can also recycle the ash at beneficiation plants, which prepare the material to be reused in concrete. Three such facilities are planned for North Carolina: in Wayne, Chatham and Rowan counties.

Some advocacy groups are concerned EPA’s proposal could open the door for coal-fired power plants to abandon toxic coal ash pollution or leave consumers to foot the bill.

“We know there is coal ash pollution across the United States that will cost billions of dollars to clean up, and the question becomes who is going to pay for it,” said Sarah Saadoun, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, an international human-rights advocacy group that is tracking the regulation.

The obscure federal rule has gone mostly overlooked since its proposal in July. The public comment deadline closes Sept. 27, but there are currently only seven comments filed — while other environmental regulations garner hundreds of submissions.

“This regulation is a little technical-sounding … but it can have very real repercussions in terms of whether or not coal ash will be cleaned up and whether consumers will be saddled with that expense, or whether the companies that have been polluting will pay to clean it up,” Saadoun said. Read more

News

U.S. House votes to ban new offshore drilling

NC delegation splits along part lines, with one curious exception

WASHINGTON — North Carolina Republican Rep. Patrick McHenry voted this week to ban drilling off Florida’s Gulf Coast, but he voted against a bill to prohibit drilling off of the coasts of North Carolina and other Atlantic states.

The votes came as U.S. House lawmakers approved bipartisan legislation Wednesday that would block new offshore drilling off the majority of the U.S. coast — despite pushback from many Republicans.

The legislation would put in place far-reaching new protections, blocking drilling off most of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Lawmakers are scheduled to vote Thursday on a similar ban for drilling in the Arctic Ocean.

Rep. Patrick McHenry

The efforts take aim at the Trump administration’s push to open up vast new areas of the U.S. coasts to oil and gas exploration.

But the sweeping proposals face an uncertain future. It’s unlikely that Republican leadership in the Senate will act on the legislation and the White House has threatened to veto the bills.

Congress voted 238-189 to pass H.R. 1941, the Coastal and Marine Economies Act, which blocks the Interior Department from seeking any new drilling off the Pacific or Atlantic coasts. Twelve Republicans voted for the bill; five Democrats voted against it.

The House also voted 248-180 in favor of H.R. 205, a proposal from Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Fla.) that would block oil and gas leasing in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida. There is already a moratorium on oil and gas drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico that expires in June 2022. This bill would permanently extend it.

Twenty-two Republicans, including McHenry, voted in favor of Rooney’s bill dealing with the Florida coast; five Democrats voted against it.

“Rep. McHenry has long been a supporter of energy exploration of our nation’s coasts and continues to believe it can be an important resource to ensure American energy independence,” a spokeswoman for McHenry said in a statement. “However—because of concerns raised by military leaders and the Department of Defense on the impact drilling will have on vital national security operations in the eastern Gulf of Mexico—Rep. McHenry supported the moratorium on drilling there.”

Without any new protections in place, states including Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Maine, Maryland and other coastal states could see a number of new lease sales in the coming years.

Rep. David Price

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have pushed for measures that would limit drilling along their own state’s shorelines. With the exception of McHenry’s vote on H.R. 205, however, all North Carolina representatives voted along party lines, with Democrats Alma Adams, G.K. Butterfield and David Price voting “yes” on both measures and Republicans Ted Budd, Virginia Foxx, George Holding, Richard Hudson, Mark Meadows, David Rouzer and Mark Walker voting “no.”

In response to the vote, Congressman Price issued a statement that included the following:

“Deepwater Horizon was the largest oil spill in American history and the second largest in the world. The Trump administration’s proposal to roll back key safety regulations puts all of the nation’s coastlines at risk of another Deepwater Horizon level catastrophe. This amendment puts the interests of American workers, coastal communities, and marine wildlife first, rather than prioritizing the pocketbooks of large oil corporations. It would ensure that carefully crafted regulations are protected from arbitrary executive actions that would seek to undermine safety and jeopardize our environment. I take pride in North Carolina’s beautiful and abundant coast, and I will continue to do everything I can in Congress to protect all 300 miles of the North Carolina coastline. I am extremely pleased that this legislation passed the House of Representatives, and I urge my colleagues in the Senate to take it up without delay.”

GOP opposition

The Trump administration has pushed for massive new oil and gas exploration in ocean waters, as part of the administration’s “all of the above” energy policy. The Interior Department regularly drafts new five-year plans for oil and gas leasing.

The Trump administration’s proposal for 2019-2024 would open drilling up and down the West Coast and Atlantic Seaboard, including some areas that have been closed for decades. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt put a pause on those plans while the administration litigates whether some areas should be open to drilling. But in the meantime, opponents of drilling want to block future development. Read more