Beyond FEMA: New flood maps show more areas at risk in North Carolina

High flood risks in Boone: Orange dots represent areas prone to major flooding; dark red dots represent an extreme flooding risk. (Map: Flood Factor/First Foundation)

New flood maps that account for intense rainfall and climate change show what many residents of western North Carolina already know: The mountains can be every bit as treacherous as the coast for flooding.

Flood Factor, a new interactive mapping tool, was developed by the First Street Foundation, a nonprofit that taps into the expertise of leading academic researchers, GIS analysts, programmers and data visualization specialists.

It analyzed 142 million properties nationwide  and their elevations, and historic and future rainfall estimates, to indicate any location’s risks of flooding from intense rainfall, rivers, tides and storm surge. First Foundation also modeled for climate change to show how the flood risks will change by mid-century. The methods were reviewed by an academic panel and submitted to peer-review journals, according to the foundation.

The New York Times has an interactive map based on Flood Factor’s data; the Flood Factor website allows you to enter a ZIP code, property address, city or state to learn the flood risk.

These are the 21 counties where FEMA maps significantly underestimate the flooding risk:

CountyFlood Factor % of properties at risk from a major stormFEMA % of properties at risk
New Hanover24.413.2

In some areas of eastern and coastal North Carolina — Hyde, Dare, Lenoir and Beaufort counties, for example, Flood Factor actually shows a lower chance of flooding than the FEMA maps. The New York Times quoted First Street as saying that “in some areas … the model may overestimate flood risk because it doesn’t capture every local flood-protection measure, such as pumps or catchment basins.”

All of inland central North Carolina, from the Foothills to the Coastal Plain, is also more susceptible to flooding, up to 10% higher risk than the FEMA maps show.

FEMA maps can be outdated or incomplete; they are also heavily politicized because a property’s location in or near a flood-prone zone can increase insurance rates or preclude developing the area altogether.


Robeson County residents tell DEQ to deny air permit for Active Energy wood pellet plant

CoalSwitch pellets (Photo: Allenby Capital)

A proposed wood pellet plant faces vehement opposition from many Robeson County residents, including elected officials, and environmental advocates, who say the facility would not only pollute the air, but also would be financially risky and environmentally unjust.

The NC Department of Environmental Quality held a virtual public hearing Monday night to receive formal comments on a draft air permit for the plant, owned and operated by Active Energy Renewable Power, in Lumberton. More than 125 people attended, and of the roughly 50 who spoke, just four asked DEQ to approve the air permit; three of them were affiliated with the company.

A subsidiary of Active Energy Group, AERP is a publicly traded British company. As Policy Watch reported in April, aided by a half-million dollars in state taxpayer money, it purchased and upgraded the old Alamac Knits factory in south Lumberton. To make its pellets, AERP would use a commercially untested technology called CoalSwitch.

While these pellets burn cleaner than coal in power plants, air emissions from their manufacturing process are only estimates, their true amounts yet unknown. AERP’s air permit application to the NC Department of Environmental Quality acknowledges that the proposed process has no precedent “to calculate air emissions from the proposed sources.”

Active Energy’s emissions projections are based on a production rate of 40,000 tons of wood pellets per year. Based on estimates — themselves questionable, because they rely on emissions from a different pellet process  — the plant will emit an estimated 56 tons of pollutants per year. These include volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, greenhouse gases, formaldehyde and benzene. VOCs and NOx combined create ground-level ozone, another harmful pollutant.


The company has told shareholders that it expects to ramp up production to 400,000 tons annually, possibly as soon as 2021. Given that significant increase, pollutant amounts would also be expected to rise.

Nonetheless, Antonio Esposito, chief operating officer of AERP, told DEQ last night that CoalSwitch is “one of the most eco friendly processes you can use. We think the impact will be minimal on forests and communities.”

Patrick Anderson, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, said wood pellet plants have routinely lowballed their emissions.

Enviva, for example, entered into a Special Consent Order with DEQ over the company’s faulty estimates. Anderson said more information is needed on acrolein and formaldehyde emissions. “These are important steps that should not be circumvented,” Anderson said.

Heather Hillaker, attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center urged DEQ to deny the permit, or at least strengthen it “to make sure AERP doesn’t evade clean air requirements.”

Without emissions modeling and additional stack testing, she said, it’s impossible to confirm AERP’s claims. Hillaker also told the agency that is should conduct a full environmental justice analysis, which is governed by federal civil rights law.

Ninety percent of people living in the same census block of the plant are from communities of color; two-thirds are low-income. Within two miles of the plant are dozens of pollution sources, including multiple poultry farms, landfills and hazardous waste sites.

DEQ must consider these cumulative impacts, said Sherri White-Williamson Environmental Justice Coordinator with the North Carolina Conservation Network. “You must safeguard the health of the community and bring no further environmental harm to the citizens of Robeson County.”

Communities of color already suffer from higher rates of respiratory illnesses and are disproportionately sickened by COVID-19 than white people. According to the Robeson County Health Department, as of June 22, there have been 1,185 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 37 deaths. Polluting industries are also more likely to locate near neighborhoods that lack the political, social and economic power to fight them.

“I’m totally against it coming because of the air pollutants,” Carol Richardson, a member of the Concerned Citizens of Robeson County and the NAACP, said. “To add this wood pellet plant would increase the threat to our health and well-being. Can you guarantee there will be no harm to us now or in future because of this plant? No, no, no, to the wood pellet plant.”

Although marketed as “clean energy,” wood pellets are a polluting industry. A single pellet plant can emit tons of hazardous air pollutants and greenhouse gases each year. And because the plants consume not just “waste wood,” but also whole trees, they contribute to deforestation. Even replanting trees can’t keep pace with the destruction of wildlife habitats, releases of carbon stored in the wood, and more severe flooding in low-lying areas — areas like Robeson County.

Active Energy Renewable Power occupies a 415,000-square-foot building that used to house Alamac American Knits. The company has applied to the state for an air permit to manufacture wood pellets. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Anita Cunningham of the Robeson County Coalition for Clean and Green Industry lives near the plant. Some of the wood would be sourced from Robeson County, and cutting the trees, Cunningham said, would add to the county’s severe flooding problems. “The trees absorb the water,” Cunningham said. “Do not grant this permit. It bothers me that more dirty industry is coming to North Carolina and Robeson County.”

Like Enviva, which has four wood pellet plants in North Carolina, AERP has located in an economically disadvantaged area and has used the lure of jobs to boost support. However, opponents told DEQ that the purported economic benefit doesn’t outweigh the environmental and public health costs.

Robeson County Commissioner Pauline Campbell said she doesn’t support recruiting more polluting industries to locate in Robeson County. “We’ve been subjected to environmental injustices for longer than I can remember,” she said.

AERP is legally required to create at least 40 full-time jobs, according to stipulations of a $500,000 state grant. (Some state documents say the facility will hire 50-60 people.)

In April 2019, the NC Department of Commerce awarded the money to AERP to go toward upfitting the building. The money is allocated to Robeson County, which in turn, gives it to AERP as a forgivable loan.

According to Active Energy’s application to the state, pay will range from $35,000 to $50,000 annually and the company will cover 50% of workers’ health insurance premiums.

The agreement with the state says that Active Energy has 18 months from the award date — or October of this year — to create most of the jobs, and they must be maintained for at least six consecutive months within the two-year grant period.

If Active Energy fails to meet the job terms of the agreement, the company must repay the money. But Commerce Department documents explicitly say that Robeson County is ultimately on the hook for the refund, regardless of whether officials can collect from AERP.

While the company projects it will eventually generate $10 million in revenue annually, between the lumber operations and the pellet plant. But AERP is currently deep in debt, according to its public financial statements and those submitted to the state Commerce Department. In 2014, Active Energy, the parent company, reported a loss of $2.7 million; those losses more than doubled the next year. In 2017, the company reported a comprehensive loss for the year of more than $14 million.

Recent investor analysis by Allenby Capital showed the company reported more than $17 million in debt last year.

Rep. Charles Graham, a five-term Democrat who lives in Lumberton, said he is “not behind this project at this time.”

“We do need jobs but I heard and support citizens’ voices,” Graham said. “I’ve heard from a lot of people that DEQ should slow down. We need more information.”

This post has been corrected to say more information is needed on acrolein and formaldehyde, not chromium and formaldehyde.


Pipeline news: Dominion requests 2-year extension for ACP; feds approve MVP

In 2017, hundreds of people turned out in Rocky Mount to comment on the water quality and riparian buffer impacts of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

Construction on the 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline won’t be complete until 2022, Dominion Energy told federal regulators last week in its request for a two-year extension.

Dominion and Duke Energy, co-owners of the ACP, originally projected construction would be finished in 2019. Multiple legal challenges and permitting issues have added to the delays, as well as the price tag: $8 billion, up 60% from the initial estimate of $5 billion. Most of that cost will be passed on to ratepayers.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission could legally grant the time extension if it determines the delays are the result of “good cause.”

Based on its previous decisions, FERC will likely approve the request.

Trees have already been cut in Northampton and Cumberland counties, part of the ACP’s 160-mile route through eastern North Carolina. Many areas along the North Carolina route are communities of color or low-income neighborhoods.

Although the US Supreme Court ruled last week that the pipeline could route beneath a portion of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia, the utilities still have to secure eight environmental permits to finish the project.

An overview of the MVP Southgate Project route (Map: MVP Southgate)

FERC also granted a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity for the Mountain Valley Pipeline Southgate project. This pipeline would run from Pittsylvania County, Va., enter North Carolina near Eden in Rockingham County and travel 46 miles southeast, ending in Haw River, in Alamance County.

It is the southern extension of the main MVP, which routes through West Virginia and Virginia. The project has amassed roughly 300 environmental violations in Virginia, where state regulators there have placed a temporary stop-work order on the project.

The pipeline is owned by a consortium of energy companies and investors, including EQM Midstream and Next Era Energy.

The NC Department of Environmental Quality has sent two letters to FERC expressing their skepticism that the natural gas is needed.

The 2019 letter states that “the Department remains unconvinced that the project satisfies the criteria for the Commission to deem it in the public interest, and whether it is essential to ensure future growth and prosperity for North Carolinians.”

Environmental advocates immediately condemned FERC’s decision. “The Mountain Valley main pipeline has violated water quality standards more than 300 times in Virginia and West Virginia. Yet, this same company plans to extend into North Carolina and bring its reckless construction practices to bear on the communities of these three counties for an entirely unneeded project,” said Ridge Graham, North Carolina field coordinator for Appalachian Voices.

The FERC certificate allows the developer, Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC, to begin using eminent domain to seize private property for construction along the proposed route, even as the pipeline’s viability remains in question

DEQ has yet to issue several permits for MVP Southgate, including a key water quality permit. Also known as a 401, this permit is required if a project could discharge contaminants into a waterway. MVP Southgate will cross major water bodies, including Stoney Creek Reservoir, a major drinking water supply for the City of Burlington; the Dan River and tributaries to the Haw River, 80 times.

DEQ rejected MVP Southgate’s 401 application a year ago because it was incomplete.

However, DEQ has less authority over the 401 process than it used to, because of environmental rollbacks by the Trump administration.

On June 1, President Trump signed an executive order to fast-track energy projects like natural gas pipelines, undoing key components of a 50-year-old environmental law.

States can no longer consider any factors except water quality in acting on a 401 permit. For example, if DEQ found that the MVP Southgate project would draw down aquifers or reservoirs serving as a drinking water supply, that’s a water quantity issue, and could not be considered.

Nor can states cite climate change as a reason to deny a 401 permit.

States now have one year to act on a 401 permit request and the “clock does not stop.” Previously, when state regulators sent back a permit application, like DEQ did last year with MVP Southgate, the timetable for acting on the project paused. Now there is no pause.

If DEQ does not act on the permit within a year, the EPA can step in and approve it. The EPA can also override a state agency’s denial of a permit if the EPA disagrees with how it reached the decision.

States can’t reopen or modify a 401 permit, even if new circumstances or relevant information becomes available.


DEQ cites Chemours for illegal dumping of PFAS-contaminated soil

One of several semis and dump trucks that hauled debris from Chemours to an unlined landfill last week (Photo: Mike Watters)

Chemours could be fined after state environmental regulators cited the company for dumping soil and tree roots likely contaminated with perfluorinated compounds into an unlined landfill.

The NC Department of Environmental Quality found that Chemours failed to test the material for PFAS contamination before transporting multiple loads of soil and other yard waste from the Fayetteville Works facility for disposal in an unlined landfill.

“We will not tolerate irresponsible actions or attempts to cut corners that risk further impacts to the surrounding communities and to water quality,” said DEQ Secretary Michael S. Regan in a prepared statement.

Based on a tip from citizen watchdog Mike Watters, Policy Watch reported earlier this month that Chemours was hauling soil and tree stumps from Old Outfall No. 2, an area near the Fayetteville Works plant known to be contaminated with PFAS.

Watters also alerted DEQ to the activity.

Watters told Policy watch that within just three hours he observed 22 dump trucks taking the material to Hunt’s Land Construction and Inert Debris Landfill, which is unlined. he landfill is authorized to accept uncontaminated land clearing and inert debris.

Jeremy Hunt, who owns the landfill, told DEQ that Chemours dumped 32 loads of mostly yard waste and six loads of tree roots and soil.

DEQ ordered Chemours to remove the material from Hunt’s landfill. Chemours intended to then take it to the Robeson County landfill, which is lined.

There is well-documented and pervasive PFAS contamination at the Chemours facility, including soil data showing PFAS contamination in areas near the site location from which the soil was taken and disposed of at the unlined landfill, DEQ said.

Until 2012, Old Outfall 002 discharged process wastewater containing high levels of PFAS, including GenX, from the DuPont (now Chemours) plant into the Cape Fear River. Studies conducted at the site indicate that groundwater is contaminated with several types of PFAS constituents. Since plants can absorb PFAS through their root systems, and the soil near the old outfall was contaminated, it’s likely that the tree debris would contain the compounds as well.

Chemours spokeswoman Lisa Randolph told Policy Watch at the time that the company felled trees on the property earlier this year to build a water filtration plant that is required as part of a Consent Order with the state and Cape Fear River Watch. Chemours recently cleared the land of leftover limbs and roots and took them to Hunt’s landfill, she said.

Chemours must submit a plan to DEQ within 15 days of the violation that describes how the company removed and disposed of the material, as well as a plan to ensure it properly disposes of waste in the future.

The agency is considering fining Chemours for the latest violation. The company has already been cited nearly a dozen times since 2017 for air, groundwater and other violations related to GenX and PFAS.

agriculture, COVID-19, Governor Roy Cooper

18 groups petition Gov. Cooper for more COVID-19 data transparency, especially from meat-packing plants

Workers in a hog slaughter and processing plant (Photo: US Government Accountability Office)

As the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to rise in North Carolina, there is still a lack of data regarding outbreaks at meat-packing plants, where employees work close to one another on assembly lines and kill floors.

The dearth of transparency by both the NC Department of Health and Human Services and the meat industry prompted 18 environmental justice and worker advocates to petition Gov. Roy Cooper to provide more information and strengthen employee safety requirements.

The letter, dated June 16, urges the Cooper administration, including DHHS “to ensure that all race and ethnic demographic data related to COVID-19 tests, cases and fatalities, as well as additional guidance for the protection of critical infrastructure workers, including meat processing and poultry processing plant employees, be released to the public.”

Meat-packing plants and agribusiness in general have been reluctant, if not hostile, to disclose the extent of the disease in their facilities. DHHS has refused to release data by facility, saying it doesn’t regulate the plants.

(Policy Watch is among a coalition of media outlets suing DHHS and Gov. Cooper over their failure to provide public records, as required by law. Today, a judge ordered the parties to enter into mediation, starting July 14.)

Most rank-and-file plant workers are from communities of color. Both statewide and national data has shown that Black and Latinx people account for a disproportionate percentage of the COVID-19 cases.

As of May 28, 2020, according to the groups, Blacks accounted for 31% of North Carolina cases, but make up only 22.2% of the population. Thirty-six percent of confirmed cases are Latino people, who compose only 9.6% of the state population.

“Yet, even now the number of workers infected in plants in North Carolina remains elusive – a problem only further compounded by recent reports indicating that neither the meatpackers nor state or local officials are moving toward reducing these gaps in needed public health data,” the letter goes on.

The groups asked for seven changes to the administration’s current policy:

  • Require public disclosure of the number of all confirmed cases of COVID-19.
  • Add information reflecting locations of polluting facilities by zip code.
  • Require employers to test all employees and require all workers who test positive to self-quarantine for at least 14 days and to test negative before returning to work.
  • Require employers to provide the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) and washing stations and hand sanitizer for all employees.
  • Require employers to follow social distancing guidelines at their facilities.
  • Provide sick leave and hazardous pay for any employee working during the coronavirus outbreak.
  • Encourage different agencies within the state government to work together to address environmental justice issues and COVID-19 response.

As for smaller meat processors, they wouldn’t have to follow COVID-19 safety guidelines in order to be eligible for state grants, according to a bill that moved through the agriculture committee yesterday.

House Bill 1201 would appropriate $15 million to the NC Department of Agriculture to award as grants to small meat processors, which would alleviate any bottlenecks in the beef, pork and poultry supplies.

Rep. John Ager, a Democrat from Buncombe County, wanted to amend the bill to add worker protections and to require workers to be paid for two weeks if they can’t work because of COVID-19. “It’s money well-spent to keep workforce healthy,” Ager said during the agriculture committee discussion. “These meat and poultry plants don’t operate without workers that’s what this amendment is all about.”

The Farm Bureau immediately opposed the change. “This amendment puts a regulatory requirement on very small processors the grant is trying to help. They’re already trying to follow CDC guidelines,” Paul Sherman of the Farm Bureau told the committee.

Although the funds would be in the form of a grant — free, as opposed to a loan that would need paid back, Sherman said the amendment “would kill the interest in small processors from applying for the grant.”

Bill sponsor and Republican Rep. Jeffrey Elmore lives in Wilkes County, home to the Tyson plant, where at least 570 of 2,244 employees — a quarter of the workforce — tested positive for the coronavirus in May.

“You’ve got to remember is this [bill covers] very small processors with not a lot of employees,” Elmore said. “The grant money that could be used for machinery would be going to sanitation. It’s like taking a bazooka to an ant.”