Environment, Trump Administration

In contract negotiations, EPA employees demand right to scientific integrity

Left to right: Dan Doyle, national vice-president for the American Federation of Government Employees; Ken Krebs, an EPA chemist and leader in the local union, and Janice Dye, a research biologist at the agency. They were among about 20 EPA workers, union members and advocates who demonstrated in front of the agency’s office in Research Triangle Park.

Several EPA workers, their advocates and union representatives with the American Federation of Government Employees demonstrated outside the agency’s Research Triangle Park offices Tuesday, the first day of key contract negotiations with management.

The union, management and a mediator will try to agree on a contract for the entire agency at the EPA offices in Research Triangle Park over the next two weeks. The discussions have taken on even more importance given President Trump’s proposed 26% budget cut to the agency, announced last week.

Ken Krebs, a chemist who works in the EPA Office of Research and Development, is also the executive Vice President of the local AFGE chapter. “Morale has always been questionable,” Krebs said. But the hiring freeze has hurt the agency’s ability to handle the workload, and the layoffs, Krebs said, have meant the loss of long-time employees and the benefit of their institutional memory.

Congress sets federal employees’ wages, so the negotiations are not about pay. Instead, the bargaining team wants better working conditions for EPA employees. These include “the attacks on science, the gutting of regulations,” said Dan Doyle, Vice President of the AFGE’s Fourth District, which includes part of the Southeast. “And the staffing levels.”

President Trump’s proposed budget would cut EPA’s workforce by 11% over last fiscal year, from 14,172 full-time equivalent positions to 12,610. In 2012, there were 17,000 FTEs at the agency,

This includes whistleblower protections, the protection of scientific integrity in EPA work, the enforcement of environmental laws without political interference, and the right to openly discuss solutions to climate change and conduct climate change research.

Last summer, the EPA abruptly ended negotiations with the union and imposed a “sham” contract on the workers, Doyle said.

The one-sided contract “severely limited telework, evicted union representatives from agency office space and restricted employees from filing a grievance over disciplinary actions,” Government Executive magazine reported at the time. The contractual dispute predates the Trump administration, dating to at least 2010.

Doyle said some EPA managers are also afraid of retaliation by the Trump administration. “My personal belief is that they have no safety if they speak truth to power. If they speak out get fired.”

 

Environment

New wood pellet plant proposed for Lumberton, area already home to multiple pollution sources

Photo of wood pellets

Trees are ground into wood pellets, which are then shipped to the United Kingdom, where they are burned for fuel, emitting carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into the air. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Note: There have been questions about the difference between company’s projected tonnage of 400,000 tons per year by 2021 and the amount listed in the article. The 39,420 figure came from the best official source I had at the time. The draft air permit is not yet posted on the Division of Air Quality’s website, so the final amount is not yet public.

Active Energy Group, a publicly traded British company, has applied to the state Division of Air Quality to build and operate a wood pellet plant in Lumberton, raising environmental justice issues for the largely Native American community.

If approved, the facility would annually produce 39,420 oven-dried tons of wood pellets, sourced from forests in North Carolina and the Southeast, at a plant located at 1885 Alamac Road. From there, the pellets would be shipped to the United Kingdom and Europe, where they would be burned instead of coal. Even though wood pellets generate large amounts of carbon dioxide when burned, Europe and the UK are using them ostensibly to help attain their renewable energy goals.

The Active Energy plant in Lumberton is near several pollution sources. NC Department of Environmental Quality’s Community Mapping Tool lists at least a dozen:

  • The Town of Lumberton’s solid waste landfill;
  • Two inactive hazardous waste sites;
  • Three above-ground storage tank incidents;
  • Two closed coal ash structural fill sites;
  • One unlined landfill;
  • Duke Energy’s former Weatherspoon plant, where the coal ash is being excavated;
  • A brownfields site, where solvents had been detected in the groundwater;
  • And a NC Renewable Power plant, a major pollutant source that burns poultry litter and wood waste; DAQ recently cited the facility for three exceedances of nitrogen oxide in 2018.

Other polluting facilities in Robeson County include the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and a related compressor station, as well as a liquified natural gas plant operated by Piedmont Natural Gas.

According to federal data 1,633 people live within the census tract of the proposed wood pellet facility. Two-thirds of the population is non-white; nearly a third are below the federal poverty line. The area also has higher rates of heart disease, stroke and hospitalizations from asthma than the state average.

The wood pellet industry has framed the fuel source as “renewable.” However, as Policy Watch has previously reported, the science shows that every step of wood pellet production carries significant environmental and climate consequences.

When trees are timbered from North Carolina forests, they exhale carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change, into the air. Replanting cannot keep pace with the timbering in terms of the carbon dioxide balance. Once abroad, when wood pellets are burned, they produce more carbon dioxide than coal, further contributing to climate change. In turn, those changes cause extreme weather, like Hurricane Florence, which devastated eastern and southeastern North Carolina in 2016 and 2018.

In fact, Hurricane Matthew in 2016 reportedly compelled Alamac American Knits to close its facility the following year. Ironically, Active Energy, bought the Alamac Knits building,  the Laurinburg Exchange reported in April 2019.

The EPA has also sacrificed science on wood pellets and instead caved into industry pressure, according to former EPA Science Advisory Board member and Duke University Professor Bill Schlesinger. He discussed on his blog that as a SAB subcommittee deliberated wood-as-renewable-energy, then-EPA administrator Scott Pruitt announced  that the agency considered woody biomass to be carbon neutral. “He had ignored the SAB process and what the SAB might have reported from a scientific analysis of the issue,” Schlesinger wrote. “I can’t say there is evidence that politics were involved—such as lobbying by the forest products industry—but it sure looked like it. Make America Great Again by harvesting trees.”

A separate company Enviva already operates four facilities in North Carolina, all of them in or near communities of color or low-income neighborhoods: Garysburg, Hamlet, Faison and Ahoskie.

The Active Energy facility would use its proprietary CoalSwitch technology. According to the company website, CoalSwitch treats the wood to remove most of the soluble mineral contaminants, lowering its production costs but still producing “top shelf products that command a substantial premium over other biomass-derived products.”

A public meeting hosted by DAQ is tentatively scheduled for Monday, March 16, 2020 at the Bill Sapp Recreation Center, 1100 N. Cedar St., Lumberton, at 6 pm.

Environment

The NC Oil and Gas Commission: Pointless, obsolete and often surreal

Butler Well 3, a natural gas well in northern Lee County, has been idle for nearly 22 years. It’s unclear if the well has been regularly inspected for leaks. (Photo: Oil and Gas Commission)

Out in the woods in far northern Lee County, two natural gas wells have been idling, under pressure as much as 900 pounds per square inch, for nearly 22 years. Over several days in September 1998, Simpson 1 and Butler 3, as the test wells are known, were fracked by Amvest using nitrogen foam. While a small amount of gas flowed from the wells, the fracking ultimately failed. The wells have lain fallow since.

The Oil and Gas Commission — or at least the two members who attended the Feb. 10 meeting — is concerned about fate of these wells and the potential dangers they pose to neighbors. The wells are grandfathered and not subject to current oil and gas inspection regulations.

“The casing over time corrodes,” said Commission Chairman Jim Lister. “There could be a mechanical integrity issue.”

“Are the wells inspected monthly?” Lister asked.

No one at the state Geological Survey or Department of Environmental Quality knew.

“Do they present a liability to the state or to residents?” Lister pressed. “What happens if there’s a problem with the well? With the groundwater? If they’re damaged? If there are leaks?”

No idea.

“Who spends the money to plug an abandoned well. The state?”

Again, no one knew.

Rebecca Wyhof Salmon, the only other commissioner physically present at the meeting, echoed Lister’s concerns about the well integrity. “If no one is inspecting them regularly,” said Salmon, who is also a Sanford City Councilwoman in Lee County, “we have a responsibility to the community.”

Had this been a functioning commission — and had the legal information been available — this could have been an interesting, even productive discussion. But the question of the status of these wells was never resolved. (Russell Patterson of Patterson Exploration, which owns the wells, did not return a phone message from Policy Watch asking about the inspections.)

The commission failed to have a quorum of at least five people, and thus could take no formal action. Members can call in, but too few of them did. Instead, like the two main characters in the absurdist play Waiting for Godot, Lister and Salmon were the only commissioners in the room, waiting for an answer to arrive.

The commission has been dysfunctional since the legislature revived it in 2014.  The fracking boom that the McCrory administration predicted was a pipe dream, much to the relief of residents of and Chatham and Lee counties who lived in the bulls-eye, their drinking water, health and property values at risk.

Womack, who had run unsuccessfully for state Republican Party chairman, soon became the Next Best Thing: Oil and Gas Commissioner, appointed by Sen. Phil Berger. But in January 2016, the state Supreme Court ruled in McCrory vs. Berger, that the commission was unconstitutional because the governor, not the legislature had the authority to appoint the majority of the members. That decision waylaid the commission for several months.

In 2017, Womack scheduled an illegal meeting at which he planned to challenge fracking moratoriums enacted by Chatham and Lee counties. The NC Department of Environmental Quality intervened, telling Womack that the commission could not lawfully hold the meeting because Berger had not reappointed him to the new and constitutionally legitimate commission.

Berger then appointed Womack, an ardent fracking proponent, to the new commission to fill the seat reserved for conservation interests. But Womack’s only “conservation” bona fides was a volunteer with the American Council on Science and Health, a front group for several polluting industries that performs no conservation activities.

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Environment

Record rainfall causes major sewage spill in Greensboro; equivalent to gallons of maple syrup that Maine produces in a year

Click on a yellow icon to see the address and amount of sewage spilled.

The City of Greensboro discharged 675,450 gallons of untreated sewage into parts of Buffalo Creek, a tributary of the Cape Fear River, after record rainfall last week overwhelmed wastewater treatment systems.

On Feb. 6, Greensboro received 3.69 inches of rain, according to the National Weather Service. The previous record of 2 inches was set in 1955.

As required by state law, the city issued press releases listing the amounts and addresses of the spills.  “The area was cleaned and lime was spread on ground surface areas,” a city spokesperson wrote.

Because of the volume of water, the pollution was likely diluted in the creek before it reached towns and cities downstream.

A spokeswoman for the NC Department of Environmental Quality said the agency is investigating several wastewater overflows that occurred because of the storm. “Once the five-day reports come in for all of these spills, our staff will make a determination about whether enforcement actions are warranted,” she said.

How much is 675,000 gallons?

  • The State of Maine produced 675,000 gallons of maple syrup in 2016.
  • An Olympic-size swimming pool holds about 660,000 gallons of water.
  • The amount is equal to 21,774 barrels of beer.
  • It would take 1,054 hours for an Airbus ACJ319 to burn through 675,000 gallons of fuel.
Environment

Where are the floods? State mapping and alert network will tell you.

Waters are rising along the Neuse River in Smithfield, with peak flooding of 20.3 feet forecast to occur at 1 a.m. tomorrow, according to the NC Flood Inundation Mapping and Alert Network. Flood stage is 15 feet.

The map provides real-time flooding conditions along the state’s rivers, as well as trends. The Haw River at Bynum is at a major flood stage of 17.3 feet, but water levels are expected to drop by tomorrow afternoon. The South Catawba River at Lowell crested at 16.2 feet — major flood stage — around noon today, but the river is expected to subside throughout the evening.

The information is critical for people living in low-lying areas, especially near rivers and in flood plains.

The US Geological Survey also has up-to-date information on flood conditions, including rainfall amounts. Swift Creek near Apex received more than 4 inches of rain over the last two days.