2018 Fiscal Year State Budget, Environment, public health

NCGA welcomes 2017 hurricane season with abysmal disaster relief funding budget

Last week, the NC General Assembly welcomed in 2017’s hurricane season with a woefully inadequate budget proposal for Hurricane Matthew disaster relief funding. At only $150 million slated for hurricane recovery with $930 million of unmet need, the NCGA misses an opportunity to address long-term environmental and community resiliency.

Poultry waste can be seen streaming into floodwaters from flooded poultry facility near Seven Springs, NC

Poultry waste can be seen streaming into floodwaters from flooded poultry facility near Seven Springs, NC

Last October, in the wake of the hurricane, the Neuse River reached an historic peak of 29.74 feet, wreaking havoc on the region’s waterways and displacing thousands of people, destroying homes and entire communities, and exacerbating existing environmental justice issues in the region. The flooding contaminated the Neuse, Cape Fear, and Lumber River watersheds from various industrial polluters – including 14 swine waste lagoons, human waste from wastewater treatment facilities, and coal ash from a dam breach at the H.F. Lee plant near Goldsboro. Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Matthew Starr notes that communities are likely also facing contamination from poultry facilities, but because the Department of Environmental Quality does not require them to be permitted, they have no record of where these facilities are and therefore cannot do the appropriate testing.

Climate change will make problems worse

In a region that is already hurting from decades of environmental injustices – enduring the worst of industrial swine and poultry operations and coal burning power plants – displacement and disruption from this kind of natural disaster only worsens conditions for the families who have historically been industry dumping ground.

Unfortunately, climate change will only make the problem worse. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts that this year’s hurricane season will be a busy one – with an above-average number of storms expected in the Atlantic. Climate change creates conditions for continuous rainfall and flooding, not just major storms, which also pose a threat for frontline communities. Flood plain management in eastern North Carolina will be critical for its ability to weather future natural disasters. The state must move agricultural and municipal wastewater facilities out of the 100-year floodplains to avoid future flooding-induced contamination, and we must rebuild the outdated water and sewer infrastructure to protect the health and safety thousands of families. With last week’s announcement from the Trump Administration that the U.S. will exit the Paris Climate Agreement, it is unlikely that we will see action quick enough to curb the worst effects of a quickly changing climate.

We need leadership

The NCGA must take the long view in rebuilding eastern NC. NC leaders continue to ignore the scale of the problem, continue to leave thousands of children and families behind. How much longer will our elected leaders insist on a Band-Aid to stop a gaping wound?

Commentary, Trump Administration

Yet another disastrous Trump budget proposal: Slashing low-income energy assistance

Imagine: It’s January, and your car — the car you share with your partner to get to and from work — has just broken down. It has not been a particularly cold winter, but the apartment you rent is not well insulated so it is generally miserable unless you turn the heater up high. Upon arriving home you discover that your heating bill has arrived and it’s three times what you can afford. You will now have to choose whether to pay to get your car fixed so you can get to work, or pay the heating bill or risk a shut off by the gas company.

Thousands of low income families in North Carolina and across the country have to make these types of decisions all the time. This is why the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) exists – it provides critical monetary support to families who need help paying their energy bills. It is also, not surprisingly, one of the programs the Trump administration’s budget blueprint proposes to eliminate.

LIHEAP is an important program for our most vulnerable communities – particularly the elderly and the disabled – who are most susceptible to extreme heat and cold. These folks and low-income families often live in lower quality housing and have disproportionately high energy burdens, meaning they are paying more than 30% of their incomes in energy bills. LIHEAP provides essential relief to families who are struggling to pay their bills, and commonly have to make difficult decisions about which essential service they will be able to pay for from month to month – e.g. prescription refills or the heating bill?

In North Carolina, LIHEAP served over 191,000 households in 2016. Out of these households, 33% included an elderly person, 35% included someone with a disability, and 22% included a child under five years old. A typical family of three receiving LIHEAP assistance has a combined income of less than $17,000 a year.

The Trump administration believes that LIHEAP is ineffective – but LIHEAP’s main success is in supporting families with short-term energy emergencies. A LIHEAP family with an elderly grandparent living in the home may be experiencing a particularly cold winter and running an inefficient heater more than usual, resulting in a higher energy bill. The grandparent may also need extra medical care because of the colder weather, generating another unexpected expense for the family and placing them teetering on the edge of utility disconnection or putting them further in debt. LIHEAP provides the short-term bill assistance needed to get a family through the winter with dignity. LIHEAP also provides families with energy-related low-cost home repairs or replacements, to give these families a leg up beyond just bill assistance.

LIHEAP is a critical part of the social safety net for low-income families, and should be expanded, not eliminated. Since 2011, Congress has cut LIHEAP funding significantly, reducing its purchasing power and its role in maintaining family stability. Currently, LIHEAP is only able to meet 17% of the actual need nationally, and 16% of the need in North Carolina according to the National Energy and Utility Affordability Coalition. It is essential for Congress to support our most vulnerable families first – and programs like LIHEAP do just that.

As with so many of the Trump safety net proposals, let’s hope members of Congress think twice before rubber stamping more cuts to this vital program. You can tweet to #saveLIHEAP to help share this message.