agriculture, Environment

Durham officials tighten loopholes on illegal dumping near Falls Lake, but enforcement remains lax

For a year, state officials have ordered Jim Puryear, the owner of 101 Southview Road in Durham, to plant vegetation on his land to curb erosion after an illegal dumping operation polluted a stream and wetlands near Falls Lake. This photo, taken Dec. 1, 2019, shows nothing has been planted. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Years of illegal dumping near Falls Lake finally prompted Durham County officials to strengthen rules on what constitutes “beneficial fill” — used to improve farmland — and what is merely trash disguised as dirt.

Durham County Commissioners last week approved changes to the Unified Development Ordinance that require more accountability from landowners who want to use beneficial fill. 

The commission passed the amendment by a 3-1 vote. James Hill voted no; Brenda Howerton was absent from the meeting.

Durham City Council had already approved the changes earlier in November. 

Durham County Commissioner Wendy Jacobs: “This is very serious.” (Photo: Durham County)

Landowners who want to use beneficial fill now have to apply to the county, said Ryan Eaves, Durham County’s Stormwater Control and Erosion manager. They must detail their proposed activity, including the source of the fill material, and how long the disposal will occur.

“Sedimentation sounds benign,” said Commissioner Ellen Reckhow. But when dirt accumulates in waterways it leads to more flooding. Contaminants can also hitchhike on the sediment particles, further polluting the waterways. 

“iI’s an environmental issue and a safety issue,” Reckhow said.

However, several people who live near the lake and the illegal dump sites objected to the amendments, saying they are still insufficient to protect the water supply for a half million people downstream and those on neighboring private drinking water wells.

“The proposed changes aren’t going to stop the environmental abuse,” Ruth McDaniel, a farmer and soil scientist who lives on Benny Ross Road, adjacent to a former illegal dump site, told the commission. “It’s are not the best that our community can produce, and I ask that changes not be enacted until there is more stakeholder input.”

State law defines beneficial fill as dirt, asphalt and concrete, whose purpose is “to improve land use potential or other approved beneficial reuses.” 

Dumping has occurred at these five addresses near Falls Lake. With the exception of 2817 Baptist Road, the other locations have been shut down by either county or state officials — or both. Russell Stoutt is responsible for the illegal dumping at Kingsmill Farm, Benny Ross Road and Southview Road, according to state and county documents.

But at least one illegal dumper has outmaneuvered county officials for three years. Policy Watch previously reported on three parcels — 550 Benny Ross Road, 101 Southview Road and 201 Southview Road — where hundreds tons of dirt infiltrated with trash and other unknown substances had been dumped under the guise of beneficial fill.

All of the sites lie within a half-mile of Falls Lake; the acreage is also veined with streams that flow into the drinking water reservoir.

Russell Stoutt owns the eight-acre Benny Ross Road property. The county and the NC Department of Environmental Quality together fined him nearly $100,000 for erosion and water quality violations. However, Stoutt has yet to pay the penalty, and the case is in litigation.

McDaniel told the commission that the county has not enforced existing regulations regarding illegal dumping. For example, after county officials ordered Stoutt to stop dumping on Benny Ross Road, he continued for another four months, McDaniel said. 

“We were calling for inspections because it hadn’t stopped,” she said. “Russell knows we’re watching him. It just starts somewhere else.”

After the county forced Stoutt to stop dumping on Benny Ross Road, he began hauling dirt and trash to the Southview Road parcels, which are owned by Jim Puryear of Wendell. Stoutt filled in parts of wetlands and streams that contribute to the environmental health of the Falls Lake watershed. 

Because property owners are responsible for activity on their land, Puryear was fined $22,000 by DEQ for the Southview Road violations. For nearly a year state officials have ordered Puryear to plant grass or other vegetation to keep the erosion in check. As of Dec. 1, there was none — just packed mud after a recent rain.

New language also limits the height of dirt stockpiles. At Benny Ross Road, Stoutt had piled dirt 40 feet high, with steep slopes that threatened to collapse.  Read more

Environment

Because of PFAS contamination, Gray’s Creek Elementary to remain on bottled water

Inside the Sweeney water treatment plant at the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority. Although levels of GenX have decreased over the past two years since Chemours stopped discharging the compound into the Cape Fear River, water entering the plant is still contaminated with 1,4-Dioxane and PFAS from upstream industrial discharge. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

Students at Gray’s Creek Elementary School will remain on bottled water for at least another six months after recent tests showed drinking water wells contained perfluorinated compounds — PFAS — and GenX.

Chemours tested the drinking water well in late October at the request of the Cumberland County School system. Samples results show GenX levels of 6 parts per trillion and two individual PFAS levels of  34 ppt and 13 ppt.

DEQ has advised people not to drink water with PFAS levels of above 10 ppt for a single compound or a combined total of 70 ppt. The NC Department of Health and Human Services has set a health advisory goal of 140 ppt for GenX.

Exposure to PFAS and GenX have been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, high cholesterol, high blood pressure during pregnancy, thyroid disorders, low birth weight and other health problems.

Gray’s Creek enrolls more than 400 students in Pre-K through fifth grade; it lies five miles north of Chemours, in Hope Mills.

The school has been on bottled water since 2017, when GenX at levels of 5 ppt were initially detected in the drinking water wells.

A Chemours spokeswoman said the company is working with Cumberland County Schools and DEQ to quickly determine the most effective and feasible replacement drinking water system for Gray’s Creek Elementary School.

As part of a consent order with DEQ and Cape Fear River Watch, Chemours must provide and maintain permanent water systems to any public building, including schools, whose water is contaminated with GenX or PFAS. The most recent sampling results now require Chemours to provide a permanent alternate water system within six months. Until that time, the school will remain on bottled water, DEQ said.

Alderman Road Elementary School, which is located nearby was resampled in June 2019; results provided in September showed non-detection for GenX and other PFAS compounds, according to DEQ.

Downstream, some schools in New Hanover and Brunswick County are on public systems whose water is also contaminated. However, the consent order is limited to businesses, schools and homes that are on private drinking water wells; it does not apply to those on public systems.

Cape Fear Public Utility Authority tests from October showed total PFAS levels, including GenX, in treated water from the Sweeny plant at 330 ppt. Concentrations of 1,4-Dioxane, a likely human carcinogen, have decreased over the past three months, from 1.3 parts per billion in September, to 0.82 ppb last month. That is still above the EPA’s health goal of 0.35 ppb for drinking water.

At the Brunswick County Northwest Plant, sampling conducted in October showed GenX at levels of 14 ppt and 13.2 ppt. Testing detected 18 PFAS compounds at a total concentration of 390 ppt.

CFPUA and Brunswick County are suing Chemours in separate lawsuits.

This story has been corrected to say Chemours, not DEQ, tested the drinking water supply at Gray’s Creek Elementary.

Environment

Demonstrators to protest liquefied natural gas plant near Lumbee tribal lands

Site of the liquified natural gas facility in Robeson County (Map: Piedmont Natural Gas)

Hundreds of people on Saturday are expected to protest a Liquefied Natural Gas storage and processing facility in Robeson County, where several major natural gas projects are either under way or proposed.

The billion cubic foot LNG facility, a $250 million project of Piedmont Natural Gas, is between Red Springs — Lumbee tribal land — and Maxton, a predominantly Black community.

In addition to the LNG plant, other natural gas infrastructure in Robeson County proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Metering and Regulating Station near Prospect, a potential pipeline from Prospect to South Carolina, and a possible second compressor station to pressurize the gas southward.

At least one farm and other properties could be taken under eminent domain to construct a 4-mile pipeline from an existing Duke Energy/Piedmont Gas pipeline to the LNG site on Rev. Bill Road.

Statewide Action to Stop the LNG Plant
Saturday, Nov. 16 10am-4pm
Oxendine Elementary School 5599 Oxendine School Road, Maxton  

As part of the March for Justice, protesters can walk along the 4.5- mile route to the LNG plant; transportation will be provided to pick up marchers during the walk. The Celebration of Our Sacred Lands and Waters will be held at Oxendine Elementary School, organizers announced, “to commemorate the gifts of healthy land, water, and air that are gifts of the Creator that we are called to honor and protect, not aimlessly harm and pollute.”

A bus will take demonstrators from Durham on Saturday morning. Sign up online.

Environment

Drinking water wells in central NC, including Wake and Mecklenburg counties, at increased risk of containing cancer-causing contaminant

The regions in orange and red have the greatest probability of groundwater contaminated with hexavalent chromium. The dots represent the concentrations in individual wells. Although hexavalent chromium is found in coal ash, it is also naturally occurring. The geology of central and some areas of western North Carolina contributes to the element’s presence in groundwater. (Map: Science of the Total Environment)

More than half of the drinking water wells in central North Carolina could contain levels of hexavalent chromium above the state’s health advisory level, according to a new study by Duke University professor and scientist Avner Vengosh.

And wells in Wake and Mecklenburg counties are at heightened risk of containing the known carcinogen.

Although hexavalent chromium — also known as Chromium 6 — is often found near coal ash ponds, it is also naturally occurring within certain geologic belts.

Of 865 wells that Duke researchers tested, 470 exceeded 0.07 parts per billion for hexavalent chromium, the state’s drinking water advisory level. That level is based on a 1-in-1-million cancer risk over a 70-year lifetime. While not enforceable, the state’s benchmark is more stringent than the EPA’s, which is 100 ppb.

Researchers then used this data to develop a computer model that predicted the occurrence of exceedances in drinking water wells based on the their location, including an area’s geology. The model also factored in the acidity, oxygen content, and salinity of the groundwater.

 “The areas where we see the largest number of groundwater users, like Wake and Mecklenburg Counties, coincide with some of the highest probabilities for the occurrence of hexavalent chromium above the health advisory level,” said Rachel Coyte, a doctoral student in Vengosh’s lab and lead author on the study.

Roughly 4 million people in North Carolina rely on groundwater for drinking, cooking and bathing. Private drinking water wells are not regulated by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. State law requires water from wells drilled within the last 10 years to be tested initially, but there is no requirement for subsequent monitoring. Older wells aren’t required to be tested at all.

“Unlike public groundwater systems, private wells have no testing requirements and therefore many private well owners do not know the concentration of hexavalent chromium in their well water,” Vengosh said. “Since we show that total chromium can be a good proxy for the presence of hexavalent chromium, homeowners can test total chromium, which is more common and cheaper.”

Under-the-sink reverse osmosis systems can remove hexavalent chromium. They cost $150 to $200 per sink.

Some well owners are hesitant to test their wells. Naeema Muhammad, co-director of the NC Environmental Justice Network, recently told an audience at UNC that some low-income households “don’t want to know” what’s in their water because they can’t afford treatment systems on their wells.

“They’re afraid if they can’t treat their water, they’ll have to move” — impractical or even impossible for low-income people, Muhammad said.

Vengosh and Coyte’s findings were published in the journal Science of the Total Environment; the study was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Environment, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

Senior advisor to lawmakers: Gov. Cooper’s office didn’t meddle in DEQ permitting of Atlantic Coast Pipeline

The segments in red indicate where construction on the pipeline was to begin in 2019; construction scheduled for 2019 along the segment in blue. The project is on hold while the US Supreme Court weighs the utilities’ appeal of a lower court’s rejection of key federal permits in Virginia. (Map: Atlantic Coast Pipeline)

Skepticism about the economic promises of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline prompted Gov. Roy Cooper’s office to establish a $57.8 million mitigation fund, a top official told lawmakers this morning. 

Ken Eudy, senior advisor to the governor, told the Joint Subcommittee on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline that Cooper did not use a key water quality permit as pressure utilities to create the fund.

“From the outset, Gov. Cooper told Duke Energy the permitting would be handled by experts at DEQ based on the science, technology and the law” Eudy said. “There was no interference.”

Duke Energy and Dominion Energy are majority owners of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The 600-mile project would start at a fracked gas operation in West Virginia, travel through Virginia and enter North Carolina near Garysburg in Northampton County. From there, it would route 160 miles through eight counties: Northampton, Halifax, Wilson, Nash, Johnston, Cumberland, Sampson and Robeson. 

These counties, Eudy said, “bear all of the risk and reap none of the reward.”

Eudy reiterated what had been disclosed in public documents, but his comments did underscore major turning points in the ACP controversy: 

  • Eastern North Carolinians, even business interests, became increasingly skeptical about the supposed economic promise of the ACP.
  • Meanwhile, opposition to the project was intensifying.
  • Duke Energy appeared impatient and concerned about the state’s lengthy permitting process.

After months of review and requests for more information from the utilities, the NC Department of Environmental Quality approved the essential water quality permit — a 401 — on Jan. 26, 2018. Within two hours of that approval, the governor’s office announced the mitigation fund and a memorandum of understanding, which was voluntary, with Dominion Energy. Immediately, environmental advocates and Republican lawmakers — rarely on the same side of an issue — speculated that a quid pro quo was at work.

The governor’s office and DEQ have consistently denied the permit was contingent upon the fund. In statements and transcripts released earlier this week, 10 DEQ employees told investigators they did not know of the fund until after the media reported on it.

This was a project most farmers and residents didn’t meet with open arms

Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good called the governor’s office repeatedly, according to public documents. Eudy said Good “was concerned and frustrated about the slow pace” of the permitting process.

Eudy told lawmakers that the governor’s office “had been updated on the status of a series of permits” — erosion and sedimentation, air quality and water quality. “We were kept in the loop of the timing [of the permits] but not the substance,” he said.

Cooper’s office began discussing the possibility of a fund in 2017, after DEQ and the Department of Commerce held several listening sessions in eastern North Carolina. Most of the people who attended those sessions opposed the pipeline — for safety, environmental and social justice reasons — although a few economic developers spoke in favor of it.

“If the ACP received the permits we wanted the pipeline to have economic development. Much of the property had been taken by eminent domain,” Eudy said. “This was a project most farmers and residents didn’t meet with open arms.”

To garner support for the project, ACP, LLC had purchased TV ads touting the jobs the pipeline would allegedly create. But as it became clear that the ACP would include only three connection points along the 160-mile route through North Carolina, “people in those ads began questioning those promises,” Eudy said.

Top Commerce and DEQ officials discussed how the pipeline, if permitted, could benefit Eastern North Carolina, “in light of the concerns people had raised,” Eudy said. 

Eudy said that Commerce officials said “one of the best way to create jobs was to encourage solar development.”

Under the terms of the fund, the utilities would pay in installments, and the money would be held by a trustee for disbursal. The money was to be used for environmental mitigation, economic development in eastern North Carolina and renewable energy projects in that region.

One of the best way to create jobs was to encourage solar development

Meanwhile, Eudy was also trying to mediate an impasse between Duke Energy and solar energy developers t over House Bill 589. The 2017 legislation was supposed to help accelerate solar energy projects statewide. However, Duke Energy had placed stipulations on grid interconnections, causing a  backlog that was costly for developers.

“We hoped to announce resolution to House Bill 589 and the mitigation fund to present a full picture of the state’s energy future,” Eudy said.

“Did we do things perfectly? No, we did not,” Eudy said of the MOU. “We didn’t nail down in writing how the fund would be administered.”

In 2018, state lawmakers passed a bill diverting the money to public school districts in the eight affected counties. The utilities have paid none of those funds because pipeline construction has been halted while the legality of several federal permits was considered by the US Court of Appeals — and now will be heard by the US Supreme Court.