Environment, Legislature

Sen. Trudy Wade: Her loss, should it stand, could be a win for the environment

Photo of Senator Trudy Wade of Guilford County

In 2017, Sen. Trudy Wade, a Republican of Guilford County, toured the Sweeney treatment plant in Wilmington, where GenX had been detected in the drinking water. Wade, long an environmental antagonist, appears to have lost re-election. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

Throughout her three terms, Sen. Trudy Wade earned a reputation as a faithful ally of polluting industries, consistently reliable for a vote against environmental regulation.

But if current election results hold, those industries, particularly waste management, will have lost their best friend in the legislature.

According to unofficial results from Guilford County, Democrat Michael Garrett beat Wade by 763 votes. Provisional ballots aren’t included in that total. Given the margin of less than 1 percent, Wade could request a recount.

Nonetheless, Wade, who serves on the Environmental Review Commission and key oversight and appropriations committees over the environment and agriculture, has left a legacy in the legislature, even for her support of bills that didn’t pass.

She has sponsored bills to relax protective buffers between landfills and wildlife refuges, to allow garbage trucks to be only “leak-resistant” rather than leak-proof, and to discontinue electronics recycling.

On June 29, 2016, in the final days of the session, Wade was on the Senate ag/environment committee when suddenly, language for an ill-advised and untried “leachate aerosolization technology” appeared in an omnibus environmental bill. On June 30, the Wade campaign received $5,000 from Kelly Houston, its inventor, as well as another $5,000 from Houston’s wife.

Leachate aerosolization quickly became known as “garbage juice in a snow blower” because the technology sucked landfill leachate from tanks and sprayed it into the air. Ostensibly, the contaminated particles would fall harmlessly to the landfill surface. That contention was false; the particles can travel for miles, depending on the wind and topography.

That bill ultimately failed, but was resurrected in the next session by Rep. Jimmy Dixon, when it failed again — but came closer to becoming law.

She also supported House Bill 56, a grab-bag of environmental laws, containing a controversial section that sharply limits public input once state environmental officials issue a mining or landfill permit. These permits are known as “life-of-site” and are valid for as long as a company wants to operate. The maneuver also blunts opportunities for public comment, because hearings for permit renewals are generally when that comment is taken.

As a member of the Environmental Review Commission, Wade refused to recommend emergency funding for the NC Department of Environmental Quality to combat the GenX problem in the Cape Fear River and drinking water in New Hanover and Brunswick counties.

Instead, she and fellow senators Mike Lee (who trails by 36 votes to Harper Peterson, according to unofficial election results), Bill Rabon and Andy Wells sent a letter to the EPA asking the agency to audit the NC Department of Environmental Quality’s handling of discharge permits. While there have been legitimate questions about how DEQ handled the GenX drinking water crisis, the request to the EPA amounted to political posturing. The EPA already audits DEQ, and concluded it was appropriately operating the program.

Garrett’s apparent victory over Wade is in part the result of a redrawn district. Two years ago, Garrett lost by 6 percentage points. But after maps were changed to remedy gerrymandering, the district became more hospitable for Democrats. However, Wade is not one to go gently into the good night. In 2004, she lost her Guilford County Commissioners seat by fewer than 300 votes. She appealed to the state Supreme Court and stayed in office for 18 months before ultimately having to concede it.


To reduce your risk of autism, dementia and diabetes, avoid breathing in traffic

This is an illustration of smoke coming from a car's tailpipe

(Illustration: Creative Commons)

Air pollution from cars and trucks is linked not only to the usual suspects —  heart attacks and asthma — but also to cognitive disorders like autism in children and dementia in adults, researchers have found. And merely living near a heavily trafficked road can increase the risk, said David Peden, a pediatrics professor at the UNC School of Medicine.

“What’s outside comes inside,” said Peden, who is also the director of the UNC Center for Environmental Medicine, Asthma and Lung Biology. He and several scientists spoke about the intersection of environment and public health at a forum at Duke University last week.

Abundant in tailpipe emissions, microscopic particulate matter, known as PM 2.5, is the primary culprit. These particles, much smaller than the width of a human hair, burrow deep into the lungs. There, as the Lancet medical journal reported, the invaders fire up the immune system and cause inflammation elsewhere in the body. Developing fetuses and very young children are particularly prone to the cognitive harm from PM 2.5. In older adults, one study from Toronto showed that living within 150 feet of a heavily trafficked roadway increased the risk for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

In addition, diabetes and osteoporosis are now thought to potentially be linked to chronic exposure to air pollution, Peden said. 

Exposure to PM 2.5 causes similar health problems as smoking cigarettes, Peden said: “It’s societal smoking.”

These public health findings also raise environmental justice issues. Mobile home parks, public housing developments and low-income communities are often located near highways because wealthier people can afford to live away from the pollution and noise.

Given the science, it would be logical to strengthen air pollution rules. But the Trump administration recently announced that it plans to roll back Obama-era fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks. This regulatory unraveling would result in greater amounts of carbon dioxide emissions — a greenhouse gas — and yes, PM 2.5.

The EPA’s proposal would create a feedback loop of damage to the environment and public health. Higher rates of carbon emissions contribute to climate change. And climate change causes weather extremes, such as historic droughts. Those droughts contribute to wildfires, which also spike PM 2.5 emissions, recently in the Pacific Northwest, but also in western North Carolina in 2016. The particulate matter can also travel hundreds of miles, to urban areas, already beleaguered by pollution. For example, in 2008, pollutants from a peat fire at Pocosin Lakes near the coast traveled at least as far inland as Durham, where for many days residents could smell the smoke.

(The state Department of Environmental Quality opposes the proposal, and sent a 45-page letter to the EPA and US Department of Transportation registering its disgruntlement.)

Wayne Cascio is the director of the National Health and Environmental Effects Research Lab at the EPA’s office in RTP. He said long-term PM 2.5 exposure, as well as nitrogen dioxide, another tailpipe emission, can accelerate aging, lead to hardening of the arteries and raise cholesterol levels. “These health effects have real costs,” Cascio said.

He declined to comment on the contradictions between the EPA’s scientific findings and the agency’s politically driven decisions.

“The administration has supported and funded our work,” Cascio said. “As scientists, we don’t get into policy.”


Red wolves can’t be arbitrarily killed, federal judge rules in key decision against US Fish and Wildlife

Photo of an endangered red wolf in its natural habitat of coastal North Carolina

Photo: Wildlands Network

A federal district court judge has forbidden the US Fish and Wildlife Service from allowing private landowners to kill nonthreatening red wolves, ruling that the agency has violated several sections of the Endangered Species Act.

Chief US District Court Judge Terence Boyle ruled late yesterday that the USFWS can no longer grant “take permits” except under extremely narrow circumstances: if the animals pose an imminent threat to people, pets and livestock. Boyle had granted a preliminary injunction on this practice in 2016; today’s ruling makes it permanent. With fewer than 35 remaining, red wolves are nearly extinct in the wild.

Defenders of Wildlife and the Animal Welfare Institute had sued USFWS. The Southern Environmental Law Center represented the groups.

Boyle also determined that USFWS had violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to conduct an environmental assessment or impact statement about the effects of the agency’s new and controversial rules to manage the red wolf population. The judge’s decision will likely delay their implementation, scheduled for as early as Nov. 30.

Those rules include the transfer of most red wolves to zoos and nature centers. The agency would corral the remaining wolves — about a dozen — onto a federal bombing range and a nature preserve in Dare County, sharply reducing their habitat. Until today’s court decision, USFWS had proposed that if the wolves strayed from that property, they could be legally shot. Conservation biologists have publicly stated that under current and proposed management practices, the species would go extinct within six years.

USFWS argued in a court hearing last month that the case was moot because the new rules were pending. Boyle disagreed, but in a small win for the agency, he did not require USFWS to conduct another five-year review of the species because one was recently completed.

The law doesn't allow the agency to just walk away from species conservation Click To Tweet

The USFWS could not be reached for comment.

Johanna Hamburger, wildlife attorney for the Animal Welfare Institute, applauded Boyle’s decision. “The USFWS has a duty under the Endangered Species Act to implement proactive conservation measures to achieve species recovery.”

Jason Rylander, staff attorney for Defenders of Wildlife, said the decision “offers a glimmer of hope for species recovery and new energy to make this program successful once again.”

In 1987, USFWS introduced a breeding pair of the rare wolves into eastern North Carolina and designated five coastal counties as their habitat. After the population peaked at more than 100 wolves in 2000 — an achievement the agency heralded as a successful reintroduction of the species into the wild.

Since then, the population has plummeted. Many of the wolves were shot legally and illegally. Meanwhile, a few disgruntled landowners swayed state and federal wildlife officials to stop managing the wolves, which made the animals vulnerable to extinction.

In his 19-page decision, Boyle criticized USFWS, agreeing with the plaintiffs that the agency’s actions were “arbitrary and capricious.” Nor are the wolves as unpopular as opponents have claimed. In September 2014, USFWS said it received 228 letters requesting that red wolves be removed from private land, and by October of that year, it had received 405 individual requests to do so.

The agency used this correspondence in part to justify issuing take permits and essentially giving up on the wolves. It stopped releasing the animals into the wild and halted a coyote sterilization program designed to prevent interbreeding.

Later, though, according to court documents, USFWS personnel determined that many of those who had signed letters thought they were signing a coyote hunting petition, “while others stated that that they did not have red wolves on their property, or that they did not object to having red wolves on their property; other requests for removal contained no contact information or were duplicate requests from the same address.”

Other landowners refused to allow the agency onto the property, even though they wanted a “take permit” to kill wolves — wolves that may not have even strolled across private property. “A landowner’s refusal to grant USFWS access to their property cannot serve as a proper basis for issuing a lethal take authorization,” Boyle wrote, “as doing so would impermissibly tip the scales in favor of public demand and away from USFWS’s congressionally mandated goal to recover and rehabilitate the red wolf in the wild.”

Sierra Weaver, senior attorney for the SELC, said the USFWS has spent four years “dismantling one of the most successful predator reintroductions in US history. The service knows how to protect and recover the red wolf in the wild, but it stopped listening to its scientists and started listening to bureaucrats instead. The law doesn’t allow the agency to just walk away from species conservation, like it did here.”

agriculture, Environment

This Week in Pollution: Living near industrialized hog farms could shorten your life

Average life expectancy decreases in counties along the US 64 corridor. In Raleigh, it is 80. By north of Greenville, in hog country, it is 73. (Slide: Environmental Health Scholars Forum)

Won’t you (not) be my neighbor? Residents living within three miles of dense areas of industrialized hog farms are more likely to die sooner and suffer from chronic disease than people who don’t.

A study by by Duke University scientist Julia Kravchenko defined high density as at least 215 hogs stuffed into four-tenths of a square mile — 249 acres. Hog farms in North Carolina usually house between 1,000 and 10,000 hogs on even smaller plots of land.

In these rural zip codes, rates of kidney disease, asthma, anemia, cervical and uterine cancer, low birth weight, and high blood pressure during pregnancy were all higher than the US and North Carolina average. Death from all causes ranked eighth in the nation.

Kravchenko, who discussed her research at the annual Environmental Health Scholars Forum yesterday at Duke, noted that it’s too early to conclude that living near giant hog farms — with their odors, air pollution, and pathogen-ridden open-pit waste lagoons and spray fields — cause these diseases. However, it could be a contributing factor, along with such as poor access to health care, education level and poverty.

Nonetheless, even when adjusting for some of these socio-economic factors, the rates of some diseases, such as uterine cancer, still exceeded state and national averages, Kravechenko said. Estrogen exposure is believed to contribute to uterine cancer, and coincidentally, elevated levels of the hormone were detected in surface water, ground water and runoff discharging waste from these hog farms. Estrogen can be used on hog farms to control breeding cycles.

Iowa and Minnesota, the No. 1 and 3 hog-producing states, respectively (North Carolina ranks second), did not show the same pernicious health effects on neighbors. There could be many reasons for these disparities, Kravchenko said, like the average number of hogs raised per farm. In North Carolina, the average is 1,583; in Iowa, it is 955. And in Minnesota, the figure is 727.

Michelle Nowlin, supervising attorney for the Duke University Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, said Iowa and Minnesota also use different methods of managing hog waste. For example, in Minnesota, the weather is too cold for open-pit lagoons, so farmers collect the waste and store it below ground, then spread it — not spray it — on their fields for fertilizer. The soil composition is also different in the Midwest than on North Carolina’s sandy Coastal Plain.

Hazardous air pollutants from hog farms — particulate matter, plus 45 compounds, including ammonia — can be detected as far as 15 miles away. That’s the same distance as Raleigh to Cary.

Doesn’t pass the sniff test: A civil rights complaint filed against the NC Department of Environmental Quality by the Julius Chambers Center requires more stringent air and water quality monitoring near these farms. Enforcement of the odor rules, though, is complaint-driven. And at a recent Environmental Management Commission meeting, a Division of Air Quality representative acknowledged that the technology to detect odors “is a staff person’s nose.”

However, the legislature passed a law amending the state’s odor rules, said Jamie Cole, policy advocated for the NC Conservation Network, which exempt renewable energy facilities. If Smithfield makes good on its promise to generate biogas at its hog operations, then they can stink without penalty.


agriculture, Environment

This Week in Pollution: Smithfield eligible for big bailout, could cover lagoons, plus a scientific squabble over GenX

Sweet and sour pork: The world’s largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods is eligible for a portion of the Trump administration’s $12 billion bailout to help farmers who’ve been harmed by retaliatory tariffs by the Chinese. Yet, Smithfield is owned by Chinese company the WH Group. So … does that mean the Chinese are being paid by the US to retaliate against the US?

The Washington Post reported the story on Tuesday, noting that Smithfield/WH Group hasn’t decided whether to accept the corporate welfare, uh, I mean payments. The newspaper also quoted the USDA as saying it “could not police whether money will eventually filter to the Chinese.”

If Smithfield does accept the cash, perhaps the company could upgrade the antiquated waste management systems at its North Carolina operations?

Update: On Thursday evening, Smithfield announced it plans to covert its existing open-waste lagoons to covered “digesters,” which will capture biogas, over the next 10 years. In turn, that energy will be transported to central processing facilities to be converted into renewable natural gas (RNG) in North Carolina, Missouri, and Utah. This is part of the company’s “manure-to-energy” projects, according to the press release, which will span across 90 percent of Smithfield’s hog finishing spaces in North Carolina and Utah, and nearly all Smithfield’s hog finishing spaces in Missouri.

Conflicts of interest: An NC State professor paid by Chemours lambasted the state Science Advisory Board and public health officials over their report on GenX levels in drinking water, accusing them of “including speculative and inflammatory statements inappropriate for a science-based document.”

Toxicology professor Damien Shea submitted 27 pages of comments to the board, arguing that rat studies indicate the health advisory goal of 140 parts per trillion in drinking water is scientifically unfounded. Instead, the threshold should be 70,000 ppt, Shea wrote.

The report “provides absolutely no basis for making this conclusion,” and contained critical errors, Shea wrote. It is a “superficial review of the data and analysis provided to [the board] by DHHS.”

After nearly a year of evaluating the available science — and noting the conspicuous lack of it — the 16-member SAB agreed with the Department of Health and Human Services that 140 parts per trillion of GenX in drinking water is an acceptable provisional health goal. However, the board intentionally didn’t use the word “safe,” because, they said, “there’s not a bright line.” Instead the board worded its conclusion to say “no adverse non-cancer health effects” are expected.

As Policy Watch reported earlier this year, Shea issued a paper criticizing state regulators’ groundwater standard of 10 parts per trillion for GenX as “too stringent.” Chemours then used Shea’s conclusions to argue that the NC Department of Environmental Quality should relax the limit to 70,000 ppt.

Chemours, the company responsible for widespread GenX contamination, paid Shea for that paper, as well as his most recent work criticizing the drinking water standard. However, in both cases, he noted that the work was “solely” his own.

Board chairman Jamie Bartram, a professor and founding director of the Water Institute at UNC Chapel Hill, said the group had been “diligent in reflecting on and reviewing” Shea’s critiques. “I didn’t find any that weren’t considered carefully.”

Community members whose drinking water has been contaminated with GenX also criticized the 140 ppt benchmark — for being too lenient, Residents advocated for 10 ppt, the same concentration as the state’s groundwater standard, especially since most of the private wells contain many types of fluorinated compounds.

Mike Watters, who lives in Gray’s Creek near the Chemours plant in Bladen County, wrote that “DEQ just keeps kicking the can down the road at the expense of residents near the facility.” Watters and dozens of other residents demanded that the Department of Environmental Quality wield its legal authority to bring Chemours to heel — which state environmental officials have been slow to do.

Gone to waste: Flooding from Hurricane Florence contributed to sewage and wastewater spills totaling more than 67 million gallons, according to recent DEQ figures. Bypasses of wastewater treatment plants — at various stages of disinfection — accounted for 37.1 million gallons, with raw sewage spills composing 26.7 million gallons.

The wastewater treatment plant breaches included both public and privately owned systems, such as Aqua North Carolina, Mt. Olive Pickle company and Archer Daniels Midland. The sewage spills, known in wastewater lingo as SSOs (sanitary sewer overflows), involved at least a half-dozen public utilities that are on the state’s “unit assistance list.” These utilities often don’t have enough customer revenue to maintain or upgrade their aging systems.

For example, Cerro Gordo, population 200, in Columbus County, has only 11 sewer customers. (The town’s system did not have a spill during the hurricane.) If Cerro Gordo were to pay for its vital sewer upgrades without any grants or other financial assistance, according to figurers from the State Infrastructure Authority, its customers would pay — wait for it — $1,300 a month..

The median household income in Cerro Gordo is $36,875 a year; the sewer bill alone would eat up 42 percent of their paycheck.