Instead of curbing pollution, state lawmakers consider funding chemical treatment for Jordan Lake

An overgrowth of algae in Jordan Lake can harm boaters, swimmers, fishers and jet skiers. (Photo: US Army Corps of Engineers)

T o clean up the pollution in Jordan Lake, North Carolina lawmakers have tried arguing. They’ve tried SolarBees. They’ve even tried ignoring the problem. All those tactics have failed. Now state officials are examining a potential chemical treatment for the lake — yet another experiment on a vital drinking water source for more than 350,000 people.

NCPW has confirmed that the NC Department of Environmental Quality has been presented with a “demonstration project that we are continuing to review” with the US Army Corps of Engineers, said Jamie Kritzer, DEQ acting deputy secretary for public affairs.

Funding for the chemical treatment could be included in the Senate’s proposed budget, sources told NCPW. The amount of money could not be confirmed.

It’s unclear why lawmakers would pursue this avenue when last year, they created a think tank, the NC Policy Collaboratory, and gave it $500,000 to fund a two-year study about pollutant sources running into Jordan Lake.

Steve Wall, community outreach liaison for the collaboratory, told NCPW that its Jordan Lake study team met with DEQ earlier this week to update state officials on research. During that discussion, Wall said, DEQ mentioned there could be a legislative proposal to fund chemical treatment of the lake.

The lawmakers and lobbyists behind the chemical scheme are not publicly known. However, one of the state’s most powerful lobbyists, Harold Brubaker, who served 35 years in the House, including two terms as Speaker, represents SePro, a “life sciences” company that sells chemicals to kill aquatic plants in lakes and  reservoirs.

SePro’s corporate headquarters are in Carmel, Ind., but it has a research and technology campus in Whitakers, N.C., and a distribution center in Rocky Mount. A review of this year’s registered lobbyists and their clients showed that SePro was the only company that specifically offered this service.Brubaker has represented them since 2016, according to state board of elections records.

Citing confidentiality rules, Brubaker & Associates could not comment on SePro’s plans. However, a representative for the lobbying group said she would pass along a message to SePro seeking comment from NCPW.

DEQ declined to identify the company that presented the demonstration project.

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agriculture, Commentary, Environment

Crossover hangover: hog farm lawsuits, privatizing utilities and other environmental misdeeds

It’s a new legislative day. Did the crossover deadline ruin your appetite? (Photo: Creative Commons)

G ood morning. Does your head hurt? Eyes feel like two fists that spent the night punching a wall? A tinge of nausea as the eggs are frying? Yes, me too.

Crossover — when most bills must pass either the House or the Senate to proceed this session — is always a Herculean feat of enduring long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of outrage, and ultimately, depression at what our lawmakers hath wrought.

Although most bills were considered during yesterday’s marathon, crossover deadline is officially today. Both chambers are tidying up some brief unfinished business this morning. Then the legislative staff will publish a full list of bills that are eligible for further consideration this session. Beware: The contents of the loser bills can be grafted onto the winners. So an idea, bad or good, isn’t dead until the final gavel drops later this summer.

That means the billboard measures, HB 579 and 580, which were withdrawn from yesterday’s House calendar, could still reappear in other forms. At their core, these measures would allow outdoor advertising companies to mow down trees to erect their ginormous billboards. You, the driver, instead of being visually soothed by greenery inhabited by songbirds, could then get an uncluttered look at the dates of the Dixie Gun & Knife show or the auditions for Actors, Models & Talent for Christ.

Two notable bills did pass:

  • In the Senate, the controversial HB 467, which restricts the amount of money people can receive if they sue hog farms in nuisance lawsuits, sailed through along party lines, 30-19. It had previously passed the House 68-47.
  • HB 351, which would essentially encourage cities and towns to sell their water utilities to private companies, passed the House 89-30; 16 Democrats voted yes. (NCPW provided an explainer of the bill yesterday.)
    The consequences of this bill are far-ranging. Those companies — such as Aqua NC — would hike the rates, and if past is prologue, provide low-quality water and poor customer service.

I can see you pushing away your plate of eggs.

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If you like paying higher water bills, you’ll love House Bill 351

A map of states that have fair value legislation: California, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri

If HB 351 becomes law, North Carolina would be the seventh state to enact “fair value legislation” for its public water systems. (Map: Global Water Intel)

I n the crush of the crossover deadline, House Bill 351 has received scant attention — just one more snowflake in the avalanche of legislation. But if it becomes law, customers of city-owned water systems could pay higher rates for lesser service.

The bill was a late addition to yesterday’s House Energy and Public Utilities Committee; it had originally been scheduled to be discussed in committee today. Instead it is scheduled for a full House vote today during its 2 p.m. session.

Essentially, the bill would change the price for which a municipality can sell its water system to a private company. Currently, cities and towns that want to sell — often because they can no longer afford the expensive upkeep on their ancient infrastructure — set a price at their rate base minus the depreciated value of the system. Just like a fixer-upper home, the 80-year-old underground mains and wheezing water treatment plants reduce the asking price.

But under “fair value legislation,” as it’s known, an “independent valuation expert” establishes the price. This is often at the full value of the system, as if it were unfettered by looming maintenance costs. That’s a win for the city, but a loss for the customers.

“If a town or city is struggling to keep up with repairs, it’s more likely to sell,” said Katie Hicks, associate director of Clean Water for North Carolina. “We know that small and rural systems are struggling to keep up. This is a mechanism to make a profit on the backs of the ratepayers.”

Although the deal is a more expensive venture for a private, investor-owned water company, fear not, shareholders: The cost could be passed along to water customers, as part of the company’s rate case before the state Utilities Commission.

And as a bonus, these “independent valuation experts” can receive up to a 5 percent commission on the sale price. So again, to use the real estate comparison, the higher the sale price, the higher the commission.

Privatizing a common good, like water, has already resulted in higher prices for North Carolina customers who are on those systems. One major private utility, Aqua North Carolina operates 750 water systems in the state and 59 wastewater treatment plants, for a total of 282,000 customers.

Many of these customers are unhappy with Aqua, which is notorious for its poor  service, high prices and brown water. (Whenever the company comes before the utilities commission asking for a rate hike, dozens of customers invariably testify to their horror stories, even bringing in jars of tea-colored tap water as evidence.)

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agriculture, Environment

Senate committee passes amended hog nuisance bill but private property rights still threatened

This is how the sausage is made: Workers in a hog slaughter and processing plant (Photo: US Government Accountability Office)

A piglet’s journey from birth to slaughter to plate is short but circuitous. Over six months, she is born, weaned, grown, finished to weight, transported hundreds of miles in an 18-wheeler to the slaughterhouse, led to a kill chute, stunned unconscious and then her throat cut. Then she becomes ham or bacon or sausage.

House Bill 467 has taken a similar path, but in this story, the measure lives. Filed on March 23 by four Republicans, the bill restricts the compensation aggrieved property owners can receive in nuisance lawsuits against hog farmers.

The bill has spent the last month being finished to weight. Two weeks ago, the full House barely debated the bill, because Speaker Tim Moore fast-tracked it as if he worked on a kill line and had a quota to meet.

Although the House did pass it on third reading, since then, that chamber requested several changes to the measure. Original language would have restricted compensatory damages for even current nuisance lawsuits. Now, those pending legal actions would not be covered by the bill, only those filed on and after the day the measure becomes law.

If the measure does become law, then compensatory damages for temporary nuisances are limited to the fair-market value of the complainant’s property.

The amendment also adds a subsection clarifying what the bill doesn’t restrict — for example, punitive damages for negligence and nuisance or petition for injunctive relief.  The latter entails asking a court to force the swine farmer to fix the problem, such as the drift of sprayed liquid manure, odors, flies, runoff, etc.

The NC Pork Council supports the amendments, CEO Andy Curliss told the committee.

While these changes improve the bill — a low bar, indeed — several Democratic senators said they were concerned that it still strips people of their basic property rights. (This is ironic, considering the GOP has long touted private property rights as the conservative issue uber alles.)

But Republican Sen. Brent Jackson, an agribusinessman, blames “out-of-state lawyers” (code for those meddling New York City folk) for generating these nuisance lawsuits. These attorneys — some from New York, but others from the very North Carolina cities of Chapel Hill and Charlotte — represent low-income, miniority neighbors of industrialized hog farms in these nuisance lawsuits.

“I consider these to be frivolous lawsuits,” said Jackson, who represents Duplin, Johnston and Sampson counties — all hog strongholds. “The industry can’t sustain this. Without the livestock industry there would be tumbleweed rolling down city streets.”

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Very sneaky, cities — using science to buttress your buffer rules

A buffer of trees and bushes along the Catawba River

A buffer along the Catawba River (Photo: Grady McCallie)

T he bystanders and lobbyists who this afternoon popped over to the Senate Rules Committee from House Environment — where Rep. Jimmy Dixon was comparing the science behind spraying landfill juice into the air to the eureka moment of discovering the Earth is round (a bumpy spheroid, actually, but more on that later) — were equally entertained by their senators’ keen minds.

Riparian buffers, one of the provisions in SB 434, a gumbo of environmental laws, were doubted, defamed and denigrated as “veneer environmentalism” by Sen. Andy Wells. Yes that Sen. Wells, a self-described “fan of water quality: a Republican Realtor who co-sponsored a Regulatory Reform bill that would allow developers to destroy longer stretches of streams with impunity.

But back to the buffers. These areas of vegetation — brush, trees and the like — that flank waterways, both intermittent and continuous, are key to preventing flooding, filtering pollution and providing homes for wildlife.

“But do they work?” said Wells.

Well, yeah, according to science.

Current legislation requires local governments that want to supersede the  puny 50-foot buffers mandated by the state to present scientific evidence that they need stricter rules in their watersheds. With that latitude, some jurisdictions, as NCPW reported last fall, have chosen to impose wider buffers — 100 feet to 250 feet, depending on the vulnerability of their respective ecosystems.

Using that provision, Cary, Carrboro, Wake County and Orange County threw themselves on the mercy of the Environmental Management Commission, paying tens of thousands of dollars to produce scientific studies proving that their buffer rules were sound and necessary. These jurisdictions were allowed to keep their buffer rules.

However, cities and towns, said GOP Sen. Bill Rabon, “use this provision to get around the buffer rules.”  SB 434 would circumvent the municipalities’ alleged circumvention — touché! — while benefitting the real estate and development interests.

Under the bill, local governments could not use science to plead their case. They would have to adhere to puny 50-foot buffers mandated by the state — unless these protections were implemented before 1997. The new buffer rules would also apply to the Catawba River. A drinking water source for 2.5 million people, the river has been heavily developed along the shoreline.

Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr., a Durham Democrat, noted that if the state’s geography were uniform — like Kansas — then perhaps this provision would make sense. “This [50-foot width] is a floor not a ceiling,” McKissick said. “We have areas with steep slopes and flat plains.”

Sen. Terry Van Duyn, a Buncombe County Democrat, asked Wells, “Why don’t we see if buffers are working?”

Wells, who, incidentally, co-sponsored the “Protection from Government Overreach Act”, used a false equivalency to justify the weak buffer rules. “How about everybody else, dumping nutrients from their yards into the street, which are piped straight into the creek?” he said. “We’re getting hung up on a buffer issue when there are other things [to consider].”

Both activities can be regulated, without precluding the other. Nonetheless, SB 434, which includes repealing a plastic bag ban on the coast, passed the rules committee with a favorable recommendation. The full Senate passed the bill, 31-17, Monday night.