Environment

Former EPA Science Advisory Board member and Duke professor reveals how the agency ignored science to favor wood-pellet industry

Bill Schlesinger recently left the EPA’s Science Advisory Board after six years. The Trump administration, he says, dismissed the expertise of the board and its subcommittees. (Photo: Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies)

Judging from an Oct. 23 blog post, Bill Schlesinger left the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, if not disgusted, at least dismayed.

The former dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, Schlesinger recently rotated off the board after six years. During that time, the SAB devolved from advising EPA administrators on the thorniest environmental issues of the modern era to, under Trump and his industry-beholden appointees, shaking their fists at clouds. “Since the advent of the current administration, science has been ignored and marginalized,” Schlesinger wrote on his Citizen Scientist blog. “The SAB seems an annoyance, and new procedures are proposed to circumvent its use of the best scientific expertise and published science on important and relevant issues.”

Among those issues is whether to classify burning “woody biomass,” aka trees, as “carbon neutral.” Enviva, which operates three wood pellet plants in North Carolina — with a fourth pending —  chops up North Carolina timber, including hardwoods, into material that looks like dog kibble. The company then ships the pellets to the United Kingdom, where they are burned instead of coal. This is the UK’s way of meeting its “renewable energy” goals, but in fact, burning wood releases as much, if not more, carbon dioxide, a major contributor to climate change, into the atmosphere than coal. And when trees are cut, they release more. Even when the trees are replanted, it takes decades for them to absorb as much carbon as their ancestors.

Schlesinger is a former biogeochemistry professor whose recent work focuses on understanding how trees and soil influence atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. “Some of the issues concern the age of the existing trees that are harvested and how long it takes regrowing biomass to reaccumulate the carbon,” Schlesinger wrote. “It is also important to consider whether the biomass considered includes only the stands that are harvested or the larger balance of carbon on the entire landscape, which may be affected by many other factors.”

As a Science Advisory Board subcommittee deliberated wood-as-renewable-energy, then-EPA administrator Scott Pruitt announced in April 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.”

Make America Great Again by harvesting trees. Click To Tweet

Last week, shortly before the SAB finalized its scientific analysis, the EPA released the Trump administration’s alternative to the Clean Power Plan, Schlesinger wrote, again stating that burning wood for energy qualified as carbon-neutral. “My point here is that decisions are being made, not on the basis of a thoughtful and deliberative evaluation of the science, but on the ideological beliefs of the current administration in Washington, perhaps with the help of corporate influence.”

Since 2012, when Schlesinger joined the SAB under the Obama administration, he has seen the group of esteemed, respected scientists become marginalized. The number of requests for guidance “dropped dramatically,” Schlesinger wrote, “as did the number of times we actually met to conduct business.”

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“I have a dark message for other academic scientists who might think of serving on the SAB,” he continued. “… Unfortunately, the SAB is no place to serve if you value your time and potential contributions to protecting the environment of our nation. Wait until the nightmare is over.”

agriculture, Environment

Prepare for a Texas duel as Smithfield hires new, and yes, out-of-state lawyer for upcoming hog nuisance trial

Two men argued at a Stand for Farm Families rally earlier this summer in Raleigh. The man on the left opposed factory farms, while the man on the right attended the event in support of hog farmers. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Over the summer, as Murphy-Brown lost three historic nuisance lawsuits in which juries penalized them more than a half-billion dollars, the hog industry and its surrogates changed tactics. If they could not win before a judge and jury, they would do so in the legislature and in the court of public opinion. At choreographed rallies, at press conferences, on the House and Senate floor, they threw red meat — or being pork, white meat — to their base to rally them against people suing industrialized swine farms for nuisance. The charge: Out-of-state trial lawyers have invaded North Carolina to ruin family farmers.

“We need to change the statutes and stop [the trial lawyers] from spreading like cancer in the country,” said US Sen. Thom Tillis at a National Agriculture Roundtable earlier this fall. One of his main campaign contributors is McGuireWoods, the firm that had been unsuccessfully defending Murphy-Brown, a Smithfield subsidiary, in the nuisance suits. “I hope we can put them out of a job.”

Now the world’s largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods has hired one of those out-of-state trial lawyers to defend it in the next hog nuisance case. Robert Thackston, a partner at Hawkins, Parnell Thackston & Young in Dallas, will square off against Michael Kaeske, the plaintiffs’ attorney, who is also from Dallas. Kaeske was hired by Salisbury firm Wallace & Graham to be the lead attorney at trial.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin Nov. 13 in US District Court in Raleigh. Judge David Faber, from the Southern District of West Virginia, will hear the case. Senior Judge Earl Britt, 86, presided over the first three cases.

A graduate of UNC law school, Thackston has represented plaintiffs, including landowners whose property was affected by a nearby nuisance, as well as defendants against those very types of claims, according the firm’s website. He has defended manufacturers who made products with ingredients like benzene, dioxin, PCBs and asbestos. (Thackston also gave a presentation, “Defending Retailers in Asbestos Litigation,” in 2003.)

Coincidentally, asbestos is how Kaekse made his name: by representing plaintiffs with mesothelioma, a fatal type of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.

In the hog cases, McGuireWoods and Wallace & Graham, including Kaeske, spent the fall in mediation, hoping to avert the need for more trials. Those proceedings are confidential, but nonetheless, the fourth case, Gillis v. Murphy-Brown, will proceed in November. It is one more than 20 still pending before the court.

Gillis v. Murphy-Brown, which involves a farm raising 7,184 hogs in Sampson County, is different from the previous lawsuits, with potentially more at stake for the company. In all of the litigation, Murphy-Brown has been the defendant, not the individual farmer. Because the company owns the hogs and strictly dictates every aspect of farm’s operations, it is responsible for paying any punitive and compensatory damages related to odor and flies from open-pit hog lagoons and sprayfields that the juries have deemed a nuisance to the neighbors.

The individual farmers, contracted with Murphy-Brown, are penalized, but not by the jury; the company, instead of upgrading the waste systems and thus eliminating the nuisance, “depopulates” the farm. It chooses to remove the pigs and the primary source of the farmers’ livelihood. Without disclosing the nuances of these agreements, Murphy-Brown and the NC Pork Council have portrayed the lawsuits as an assault on small family farmers.

In the Gillis case, Smithfield not only owns the hogs but also the farm itself. There is no “family farmer” to shield the company from responsibility or to appear at rallies on its behalf.

 

Gillis by Lisa Sorg on Scribd

Environment

Methyl bromide: So toxic that DEQ proposes first-ever cap on air levels

The proposed site of the log fumigation facility in Delco: The logs would be placed in shipping containers, gassed with methyl bromide to kill insects, and then transported to China. If the containers leak the chemical above a certain concentration, workers would use “sandbags, duct tape, etc.” to contain the errant emissions, according to the company’s air permit application. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Methyl bromide is invisible. A toxic air pollutant, it can’t be tasted or smelled. But when exposed to the gas, the body knows it has been violated.

Depending on the frequency and degree of the exposure to the compound, the lungs may fill with fluid or grow lesions. The kidneys, liver and esophagus can suffer. A developing fetus might fail to normally grow.

And the brain: Like a fortress, the brain contains cells to repel substances from entering the sensitive organ. But methyl bromide can breach what is known as the blood-brain barrier. It storms the gates, potentially leading to tremors and other neurological damage.

Despite methyl bromide’s proven toxicity, there are no North Carolina or federal regulations governing its concentrations in the ambient air. When state regulators compiled its list of regulated Toxic Air Pollutants in the late 1980s and early 1990s, NC Division of Air Quality Director Mike Abraczinskas said, “methyl bromide didn’t make the cut.”

Now an influx of air permit applications for the use of methyl bromide has prompted the NC Department of Environmental Quality to approach the Science Advisory Board for guidance on setting exposure limits to the gas. Although the compound has been banned internationally, primarily because it depletes the ozone layer, it’s still legal to use methyl bromide to kill pests in logs slated for export to many countries, including China.

Companies fill shipping containers with logs timbered from North Carolina forests, then pump methyl bromide inside. After 12 to 72 hours, workers open the container doors, releasing nearly all of the gas into the air; methyl bromide can travel miles both up into the atmosphere and across land.

DEQ is recommending a temporary draft rule setting a maximum level of 1 part per billion by volume (the unit of measurement used for gases), for chronic 24-hour exposure. DEQ used the only definitive EPA data, which is from the 1990s, to calculate the recommendation. Three other states used EPA’s figures in setting their standards.

What happens if my kid walks home from school everyday right when they open the doors & emit methyl bromide? Click To Tweet

If the Environmental Management Commission next month approves the temporary draft rule — and if it becomes final — North Carolina will be the 23rd state to adopt its own threshold.

A division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the ATSDR, published preliminary updated information this year, although it has not been finalized. In draft form, those conclusions mirror the EPA’s, said Sandy Mort, a DEQ environmental toxicologist.

Several SAB members said that while the science currently supports DEQ’s recommendation, many questions remain about its protectiveness. For example, some people have a genetic predisposition to methyl bromide’s effects because of the presence of an enzyme. Pregnant women and children are also at risk. One proposed facility near Delco and Riegelwood in Columbus County is only one mile from a school.

Workers at these facilities could also be at risk, said Woodhall Stopford, past director of the Occupational and Environmental Medicine Toxicology Program at Duke University. Although they are supposed to wear protective gear, including respirators, their exposure levels are still unclear.

The instrumentation at the facilities might not detect low but nonetheless toxic levels of methyl bromide. The facility operators told DEQ they do not keep records of ambient air levels, Abraczinskas said.

Technically, the Department of Labor, not DEQ, is responsible for environmental and health conditions inside the facilities’ property boundaries.

I suspect the board might like to look at workers,” said SAB Chairman Jaime Bartram.

And the 24-hour average exposure could fail to capture peak emissions, said NC State scientist Detlef Knappe. “What happens if my kid walks home from school every day at 3 p.m., right when they open the doors?”


The Division of Air Quality has placed pending air permit applications on hold, Abraczinskas said, “until we fill the regulatory void.”

  • Malec Brothers, an Australian company, has proposed a log fumigation facility near Delco and Riegelwood in Columbus County, which would emit 100 to 140 tons of methyl bromide a year.
  • Royal Pest Solutions, which has been fined for environmental violations in Georgia and Virginia, plans to build an operation in Scotland Neck in Halifax County, although it would emit less than 10 tons per year. Royal Pest Solutions is headquartered in Delaware.
  • Renewable Green in South Mills, in Camden County, would also emit less than 10 tons annually.
  • Pinnacle World Trade plans to operate in Williamston, in Martin County.

Five existing facilities, each of which emits less than 10 tons of methyl bromide per year, have been notified that their air permits will likely be amended: RLS Log in Elizabethtown, Royal Pest Solutions in Chadbourn, plus two facilities in Wilmington, and Flowers Timber in Seven Springs.

agriculture, Environment, Legislature

This Week in Pollution: PFAS in drinking water, Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s secret drilling fluids, plus hog farm odor complaints

Firefighting foam pours from a hose after a training exercise. (Photo: US Department of Defense)

It costs the City of Greensboro, make that the ratepayers, $9,000 a month, plus $1,000 a day, for a treatment system to reduce and remove per- and poly-fluorinated compounds — PFAS — from the drinking water.

Firefighting foam used in training exercises at Piedmond Triad International Airport is one likely source of the contamination. Foam leaves the runways and tarmacs, then enters Horsebend Creek, which drains north into lakes supplying the city’s water.

Storm water runoff from airports (which could also contain contaminants like jet fuel, oils and other petroleum products) is A-OK by the legislature. In 2017, lawmakers tucked a provision into Senate Bill 8 directing DEQ and local government to give airports a pass on runoff from runways, taxiways, and “any other areas” that flows into grass buffers, shoulders and swales.

Greensboro has learned the hard — and expensive — way that grass isn’t a proven PFAS removal system.

Ten years ago, water entering the city’s treatment plant rarely exceeded the EPA’s health advisory goal of 200 parts per trillion. But since the federal agency lowered the threshold to 70 ppt (for individual compounds or a combination), Greensboro has been forced to rent activated carbon technology to limit the levels in water flowing from hundreds of thousands of taps.

If the EPA further reduces the goal to the single digits, which is possible if not likely, “we’ll need to remove it all,” Mike Borchers, assistant director of the city’s Division of Water Resources said at a drinking water forum sponsored by the Cape Fear River Assembly.

A $30 million upgrade to the water treatment system will help keep the concentrations in check, but stemming the source is the more obvious — and cheaper — solution.

Is my water safe? “That’s not a simple answer,” Rebecca Sadosky, NC DEQ’s drinking water protection program coordinator, told the forum attendees. “There have always been things in the drinking water.”

Hardly heartwarming, but the fact is that safe water doesn’t equal risk-free water. As detection technology improves, scientists and regulators are finding unforeseen contaminants, such 1,4 dioxane and GenX and other fluorinated compounds in our water supplies.

In addition to the pesky problem of plastic, bottled water isn’t necessarily better. The water could be sourced from another public system, which might have its own treatment issues. Bottled water isn’t regulated by the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Act, but rather the FDA. Heads up, La Croix fans: Sparkling water is regulated as a soft drink.

University scientists from throughout the state will sample 190 surface water intakes at public water systems, plus groundwater wells serving another 158 municipalities, as part of the NC Policy Collaboratory’s PFAS project.

Funded by a $5 million appropriation by the legislature, the project also includes studying the vulnerability of private wells to PFAS and developing treatment technologies to remove the compounds. Other science teams will analyze air emissions and atmospheric deposition of the compounds, such as Gen X.

The Collaboratory is required to file quarterly progress reports with the Environmental Review Commission. The first one was published on Oct. 1.

Air emissions are one source of drinking water contamination for residents living near the Chemours plant on the Bladen-Cumberland county line. Compounds leave the plant’s smokestacks and then fall to the ground, seeping into private water supplies.

So it’s not surprising that four types of PFAS (but not Gen X) were found in the blood of all 30 people who volunteered for a test conducted by the NC Department of Health and Human Services, Policy Watch reported this week. These residents live near the Chemours plant and depend on well water. 

Waterways in North Carolina can’t get a break. Some ingredients in drilling fluids and additives used for construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline are deemed “trade secrets.” Unless Dominion and Duke Energy decide you’re on a need-to-know-basis, it’s impossible to (legally) know what’s in them.

They call it an inadvertent return. Most people would call it a toxic spill. (Photo: Atlantic Coast Pipeline federal filings)

When these drilling fluids, also known as “mud,” spill — and they do spill — it is known in Orwellian terms as “an inadvertent return.” The Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC’s own federal filings say that if this ahem, return “occurs in a waterbody it will be more difficult to contain because the fluid will be dispersed into the water and carried downstream.”

From water to air: At a recent meeting of the Environmental Management Commission, member Marion Deerhake asked DEQ staff to supply statistics on odor complaints from industrialized hog farms, back to 2000 when the agency began collecting the data.

DEQ is still digging up numbers from early years of the program, but from 2012 to 2017, there were a total of 34.

Here are the statistics by year:

  • 2012             11
  • 2013               5
  • 2014               4
  • 2015               2
  • 2016               3
  • 2017               9

Judging from testimony in the three hog nuisance trials, many, if not most people don’t know how to file a complaint or whom to complain to. Start with Debra Watts, supervisor of DEQ’s Animal Feeding Operations branch: 919-707-3670 or debra.watts@ncdenr.gov .

Environment

PFAS, but not GenX, found in blood of residents living near Chemours plant

Jimmy Dew’s family owns Marshwood Lake, just northeast of the Chemours plant. He spoke earlier this year at a public information session in Bladen County. His family’s well has been contaminated with fluorinated compounds. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

Four types of fluorinated compounds were detected in blood samples of all 30 people tested who live near the Chemours plant, although none of the compounds was GenX, the NC Department of Health and Human Services announced today.

In July, DHHS, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Cumberland County Health Department tested for 17 types of fluorinated compounds in the blood and urine of 30 people living near the facility, which abuts the Bladen-Cumberland county line.

All of the people who voluntarily participated in the program use well water for their household needs. Many of the private wells, plus rainwater, lakes, soil, groundwater and even honey have tested positive for fluorinated compounds.

All study participants had some level of PFHxS in their blood. It is often found in carpet and firefighting foam.  

Also detected in all blood samples, the compounds n-PFOA, n-PFOS, and Sm-PFOS are variations of C8. It is used to make non-stick coatings, including Teflon, and can be found in fast food wrappers, pizza boxes, and microwave popcorn bags.

Although manufacturers like DuPont have phased out their use of C8 — replacing it with GenX — the compound persists for years in the human body and the environment. C8 is classified as “likely carcinogenic,” which means they can cause cancer. However, not everyone who is exposed to these compounds develops cancer. The compounds can also cause low birth weight, high cholesterol, a depressed immune system, reproductive and developmental problems, and thyroid and hormonal disorders.

C8 is the compound that triggered the class-action lawsuit by residents who drank well water contaminated by discharge from the DuPont plant in Parkersburg, WV. DuPont paid $670 million to settle the litigation.

The median detection levels of PFHxS and n-PFOS in the 30 North Carolina residents were higher than that of the US population. Median is the midpoint between the lowest and highest readings.

The highest level of PFHxS in blood among study participants was 6.7 parts per billion. By comparison, 95 percent the US population tested has levels of 5.6 ppb or below, according to 2013-14 data from the CDC.

Similarly, the highest level of n-PFOS among the study participants was 34.6 parts per billion. In the general US population, it was 14 ppb. People who drank from wells near the Parkersburg, WV, plant had median levels of 38 ppb.

Other findings included:

  • Nine of 17 fluorinated compounds were found in the blood of at least one of the participants. The other eight were not detected at all.
  • Only one fluorinated compound was found in urine, and that was at the lowest detectable level.

The sample size was small because the CDC could not test more people. Each household could have a limit of one adult and one child from 12 to 17 years old. No infants, toddlers or young children were tested.

The Environmental Protection Agency was expected to release its guidance on groundwater cleanup of fluorinated compounds, as well as human health toxicity values and a PFAS management plan as soon as last month. An EPA spokesperson told Policy Watch that the agency “continues to work toward releasing the toxicity values in the coming weeks, the groundwater cleanup values and management plan this year.”