Environment

Complete 540 gets go-ahead from Fish and Wildlife despite likely death of some threatened mussels

Young Yellow Lance Mussels (Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service)

By their nature, mussels are the couch potatoes of bivalve world. Sedentary and sluggish, they muddle through life in silt sand, and are slow to elude danger. Among the predators imperiling the mussels in Swift and Middle creeks are humans. Humans that build houses and pave driveways and drive on new roads, like the 27-mile, six-lane Complete 540 tollway proposed for southern Wake County.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service last week determined that the toll road will not jeopardize the tenuous existence of two  mussels, whose habitat includes Swift and Middle creeks: the threatened Yellow Lance Mussel and the endangered Dwarf Wedgemussel. The $2.2 billion project would cross both creeks and route through their watersheds.

Although USFWS wrote that urbanization will continue in southern Wake County whether 540 is built or not, “any additional effects” on the mussels “are of concern … given the precarious state of the species in Swift Creek.”

The toll road is controversial not only because of its environmental impacts to rivers, streams and wetlands, which DOT will be required to mitigate — but the project is also displacing 200 households and several businesses.

To prevent their extinction and yet allow the road to be built, USFWS wrote in its Biological Opinion, the state transportation department must follow the proper protocols. These include building 50-foot riparian buffers, diverting hazardous waste away from the streams, keeping bridge posts out of the creeks, partially funding a breeding facility, and relocating survivors and their heirs to more amenable places in their natural habitats.

To encourage more mussels, USFWS also directed NC DOT to pay $2 million to upgrade an NC State University propagation facility at Yates Mill Park and to allocate another $3 million to the state Wildlife Resources Commission for a Non-Game Aquatic Project Fund.

These funds are supposed to help compensate for the human harm to the mussels. Pollution, excessive silt, riverbank changes and extreme weather — humans are directly responsible for all of these changes — jeopardize them. Since there are so few mussels, they are loners who live far from one another. If they were people, they would live way out in the country, with no immediate neighbors, and thus, would have little chance to meet someone and start a family.

Mussels also depend on host fish, including various darters, sculpins and shiners on which to lay their eggs. If these fish are crushed by construction equipment or harassed by excessive noise, as the USFWS document mentions, then the mussel eggs no longer have a free ride. But since fish swim faster than mussels (and who doesn’t), USFWS predicts they can escape the pile drivers and construction crews.

The Yellow Lance Mussel, just designated as a threatened species earlier this month, faces similar challenges to the Dwarf Wedgemussel. For one, like people, the Yellow Lance Mussel needs clean water. They seem to be faring better in the Tar River, where 45 to 53 of them recently have been spotted. But the Neuse River watershed, vulnerable to myriad insults — hog farms, urbanization, the likely construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline — has proven more hostile. From 2014 – 2016, only one lone Yellow Lance Mussel was found there.

 

Environment

Before state Supreme Court, Duke Energy lawyer calls NC WARN’s solar agreement with church “almost exploitative”

NC WARN installed a 5.25-kilowatt solar system on the roof of Faith Community Church in Greensboro. Duke Energy filed an opinion against the project at the NCUC, alleging NC WARN is acting as a public utility. The case is now before the state Supreme Court. (Photo: NC WARN)

The sun has risen and set nearly 1,100 times since NC WARN installed a small solar power system on the roof of Faith Community Church in Greensboro. And since that time in May 2015, the Durham-based environmental nonprofit has been fined $60,000 by the NC Utilities Commission — the penalty was later rescinded — and has taken its case to the Court of Appeals, which ruled 2–1 against NC WARN. The group appealed and today argued before the state’s highest court that it should be allowed to provide solar energy to the church.

Typical of high-level legal battles, the oral arguments dove deep into the semantical weeds: What defines “public”?

Is NC WARN “selling” the electricity — verboten under North Carolina law? Is it  legally “leasing” the system, or operating in regulatory limbo under a “unique” finance agreement?

Three years ago, NC WARN installed the 5.25-kilowatt system as part of a power purchase agreement in which the church pays 5 cents a kilowatt hour for solar-generated electricity. NC WARN has discontinued the agreement and has provided no power until the court case is settled.

All along, NC WARN has contended that this is a finance agreement, a private contract that should not be meddled with by the utilities commission. “This case is about overregulation,” said Matthew Quinn, attorney for NC WARN. “Is the function of  [this agreement] to sell power or to help Faith Community Church put a solar system on its roof?”

NC WARN contends it’s the latter. Judge Robin Hudson seemed unconvinced. Reading from the Power Purchase Agreement, she noted that the church “will purchase electricity” from NC WARN. “Are we supposed to read this as not selling electricity?” she asked Quinn.

“Yes,” Quinn replied, adding that a previous court ruling considered the “function” of an overall agreement.

For their part, Duke Energy, Dominion Energy and the public staff of the NC Utilities Commission have countered that NC WARN is essentially acting as a utility and must be regulated as such. If private entities go rogue and sell electricity, they argue, it would upend the state’s entire regulatory scheme: In exchange for a near-monopoly, Duke Energy agrees to have its rates set by the utilities commission.

“This is not altruistic,” said Dwight Allen, attorney for Duke Energy. “NC WARN is trying to be a utility.” The agreement with the church, he added, “is almost exploitative.”

Judge Sam Ervin IV served on the utilities commission from 1999 – 2008, and as such, is well-versed in relevant law. He asked Quinn about NC WARN’s view that this is a “test case,” which could push the boundaries of the state’s energy law. “You want this case to be a model for other nonprofits,” Ervin told Quinn. “That it would cover not only this contract but that you will enter into other contracts.”

“It’s our position that it would be unfair to hold NC WARN to contracts that may or not happen,” Quinn replied.

To be a utility, electricity has to be sold to the public, Quinn told the court. And NC WARN’s only customer is the church, not multiple customers. In fact, in his dissent, Appellate Court Judge Chris Dillon wrote that NC WARN wasn’t acting as a public utility because one church doesn’t meet the definition of “public.

Allen told the justices that a prior NC Supreme Court ruling determined that one person, and presumably, an entity like a church, can qualify as “the public.”

To complicate matters, since the original court filing, state lawmakers passed House Bill 589, complex in the way only a utility lawyer could love. With extensive input from many interested parties, including Duke Energy, the bill legalized third-party leasing of solar power, with certain restrictions. And it and provided higher monetary rebates for nonprofits that want to install rooftop systems — including churches, like Faith Community.

Environment

Study finds GenX, other fluorinated compounds still in tap water; NC State scientists to discuss results tomorrow

But hey, you get a free spatula: Teflon and other non-stick surfaces are made using fluorinated compounds, which can harm human health and the environment. (Photo of advertisement: Creative Commons)

GenX and other fluorinated chemicals have been found in most tap water samples collected from 198 homes served by the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, according to results from a study conducted in New Hanover County late last year by NC State scientists. 

Scientists from the university’s Center for Human Health and the Environment are scheduled to discuss the results during a public forum tomorrow at the Fisher Student Center at UNC Wilmington. Doors open at 6 p.m.

None of the samples exceeded the state’s health advisory goal of 140 parts per trillion for GenX in drinking water. There is no EPA regulatory standard for GenX.

However, concentrations of three of the 17 compounds  — Nafion Byproduct 2, PFMOAA and PFOHxA — are unknown because scientists didn’t have the tools to measure them at the time of the analysis. The EPA is still working on test standards for these compounds. 

The total concentrations of all compounds is also important. For PFOS and PFOA, the EPA has set a health advisory goal of 70 parts per trillion combined in drinking water. 

Scientists collected tap water from each home’s kitchen faucet and tested the sample for 17 fluorochemicals, including GenX, from Nov. 3 to Dec. 8, 2017. Since the water came directly from the homes’ faucets, it had been treated by the Cape Fear Public Utility’s Sweeney plant.

None of the samples from four homes served by the utility’s groundwater plant had detectable levels of GenX.

Scientists shared the results with the utility. Blood and urine results are still being analyzed.

Documents included in each home’s results emphasized that changes in concentration are expected because of varying levels of GenX entering the treatment plant over time. Several factors contribute to that variation. For example, Chemours accidentally discharged GenX from its Fayetteville Works plant several times after the company ostensibly stopped releasing the chemical. 

GenX has also been found in sediment in the Cape Fear River, which, when stirred up by wind, rain or boats, can release the chemical into the water. GenX has also been detected in rainwater not only near the Chemours facility but also at a weather station in Wilmington.

DEQ has issued several notices of violation to Chemours for these illegal discharges, including air emissions; state regulators and the attorney general’s office have also asked a Bladen County Superior Court judge for a permanent injunction to prohibit the company for discharging or emitting GenX into the environment in any form. 

Environment

A second natural gas pipeline proposed for NC would run through Rockingham, Alamance counties

This is a developing story and will be updated this afternoon.

An extension of the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline has been proposed for North Carolina, potentially opening the door for fracking operations in Rockingham County.

Known as MVP Southgate, the 300-mile pipeline would extend from Pittsylvania County, Va., into Rockingham and Alamance counties.

Once in North Carolina, the pipeline would route for about 50 miles: east of Eden, north of Reidsville and then into Alamance County, near Graham and I-40.

The routing is ominous because western Rockingham County is one of the areas of the state eyed for fracking. Rockingham County, along with Stokes County, sit atop the Triassic Rift Basin, thought to be a source of methane.

Coincidentally, the state’s Oil and Gas Commission recently reconvened after being on hiatus for several years. Headed by Jim Womack, an avid fracking proponent from Lee County, the commission is expected to restart the interest in natural gas exploration in North Carolina. Chatham and Lee county governments both have established moratoria on fracking; earlier this year, Womack said the oil and gas commission would challenge those moratoria.

Like the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which is running through 160 miles in eastern North Carolina, the MVP starts at a fracked gas facility in West Virginia and routes through Virginia.

MVP is owned by a conglomerate: EQT Midstream Partners, NextEra Energy, Inc., Consolidated Edison, Inc., WGL Holdings, Inc., and RGC Resources.  PSNC Energy, which serves North Carolina, has committed to using the gas should the Southgate portion be built.

Since the Southgate portion of the MVP was not in the original proposal to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the extension would need its approval.

Environment, Governor Roy Cooper

Gov. Cooper proposes $14 million for DEQ, $536,000 for DHHS to tackle emerging contaminants

Gov. Roy Cooper

The NC Department of Environmental Quality would add 45 jobs, primarily in water resources, and upgrade its outdated lab to address the statewide problem of emerging contaminants, according a portion of Gov. Roy Cooper’s draft budget released today.

Under the proposal, DEQ would receive $7 million for water quality analysis and sampling of emerging contaminants, as well as for chipping away the 40 percent backlog of wastewater discharge permits. The Division of Air Quality would also receive part of that money to conduct rainwater sampling and analyze potential air pollutants across the state. Thirty-nine new full-time employees would study emerging contaminants in all water sources, including surface water, groundwater, wastewater, plus soil and sediment.

Other recommendations:

  • $1 million to fund scientific equipment and laboratory analysis. Although a high-resolution mass spectrometer isn’t mentioned by name in the draft, that type of equipment — costing roughly $500,000 — depending on the model, is necessary to conduct the complex monitoring of emerging contaminants. Six new full-time employees would be hired and trained to use the equipment and process samples.
  • $4.4 million for a “permit transformation” project that would provide public online access and tracking for all permits.
  • $1.5 million to upgrade the Reedy Creek Laboratory, where scientists analyze air and water samples. Built in 1991, the facility has not been substantially renovated since.
  • $536,000 for Department of Health and Human Services to hire a medical risk assessor, a Ph.D level-environmental toxicologist, a public health educator and a public health epidemiologist. This DHHS appropriate is the same amount of funding and personnel that Cooper requested last August, but that the legislature did not approve.

The short session begins May 16, when the legislature is expected to consider the recommendation.