agriculture, Environment, Legislature

As EPA prepares to rescind the Waters of the US rule, state ag department has an extra $250K sitting around

A problem a lot of state agencies wish they had: Where to spend an extra $250,000? (Photo: Philip Taylor, Creative Commons)

H ouse lawmakers handed the state Department of Agriculture $250,000 to fight a legal battle that is all but moot. And now, unlike many cash-strapped agencies, the department has an extra quarter-million dollars that it needs to spend.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced late last week that he would rescind the Waters of the United States rule to less stringent, pre-2015 regulations. It is the first step in redefining what constitutes waterways that are regulated under the Clean Water Act. Big ag opposed the rule because swine and cattle farms were subject to stricter environmental regulations if their runoff reached waterways regulated under WOTUS.

The House siphoned the money from a rural grants program and gave it to the state agriculture department to pay for its legal battle against the WOTUS rule. (The amount is less than the $1 million the Senate had proposed extracting from the Department of Environmental Quality for that purpose.) The funding survived negotiations in the conference committee and made it into the final budget, now law.

Budget language allows the Department of Agriculture to use the money to hire and pay for outside counsel — ironically, a legal prerogative lawmakers stripped from Gov. Cooper. But the budget doesn’t detail what happens to the money should the department choose not to pursue a lawsuit. For example, some department budgets revert unused money to the General Fund.

If Pruitt completes the rollback as expected, the state agriculture department will have to decide how to spend its windfall. “As of yet, no decision has been made about how the department will use the appropriation if WOTUS is rescinded,” Agriculture Department Public Affairs Director Brian Long said in an email.

The agriculture budget does list worthy programs in the department that undoubtedly could use more funding: Money is needed to buy out swine farms in the 100-year flood plain; currently, it can receive unused funds from the Forest Service for that purpose. Or the department could preserve more farmland. Or it could toss a few dollars to the beehive grant fund, which is open to donations. Or work in concert with DEQ to identify levels of bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticides in surface, ground and drinking water.

Even though Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler has long opposed WOTUS, his department didn’t even request the money, according to Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Democrat from Guilford County. At a House ag committee meeting last month, she also noted that the Trump administration was rolling back WOTUS, making the appropriation obsolete.

For these reasons, Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Republican from Henderson County, called the the department funding “not a wise use of taxpayer money.”

agriculture, Environment

200,000 gallons of dairy manure spills into Pott Creek, prompting utilities to switch water supplies

Manure in Pott Creek? The pun is unintentional. (Photo: Wikicommons)

Update: Lincolnton resumed withdrawing water from the river on July 4, according to public utilities officials.

Lincolnton and Dallas public utilities have stopped withdrawing water from the Catawba River after 200,000 gallons of manure spilled from a dairy farm upstream. A pump at Gladden Farm in Catawba County failed last week, allowing the feces-ridden sludge to enter Pott Creek, a tributary of the South Fork of the Catawba River.

200,000 gallons is equivalent to the amount of water in 10 average-size, in-ground swimming pools.

Lincolnton, population 10,000, and Dallas, with 4,600 people, voluntarily began using alternative water supplies or reserves for drinking water, according to a DEQ statement.

DEQ says it is monitoring water quality in Pott Creek, while the farm owners clean up the source of the spill.

Catawba Waterkeeper Sam Perkins was out of the office today and unavailable for comment.

Two fish kills were reported, although the number of dead fish was low — just nine so far.

According to its state environmental permit, the Gladden farm is allowed to have 150 milk cows and one manure lagoon. The five-year permit expires in September 2019.

There are three permitted dairy farms in Catawba County, totaling 560 cows.

agriculture, Environment, Legislature

Neonic pesticides shorten bees’ lives in newly discovered way — with consequences for our drinking water

These public water systems have granular activated charcoal systems that can filter neonic pesticides from drinking water. (Map courtesy ToxicFree NC, using NC DEQ data)

A new study confirms that honeybees exposed to neonic pesticides, long implicated in their illness and death, send them to an early grave– putting the health of entire hive at risk.

Canadian researchers used “field realistic” exposure levels to study the bees’ health. Skeptics of neonics’ toxicity — the very companies that manufacture the chemicals — often complained that previous studies exposed bees’ to unusually high levels of the pesticide. The “field realistic” study, however, likewise showed neonics, as bees might encounter them in the wild, harm the insects’ health.

Even more surprising, though, is a finding which has implications for human health.

First, the bees in the Canadian study appear to have ingested neonics in a roundabout way: During irrigation or rain, neonic pesticides run off the corn and soybean fields in the water. Other plants in adjacent fields then take up that water as they grow, and honeybees ingest the pesticide via their pollen.

Healthy bee hive at American Tobacco Campus, Durham (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

This same mechanism likely means that neonics are entering the drinking water supply via fields runoff. Unfortunately, state environmental regulators don’t test for the pesticide in surface, ground or drinking water. Last year, the NC Department of Environmental Quality told the state pesticide board that because of a lack of funding and equipment, it does not monitor for neonics in waterways, including drinking water supplies.

Conventional methods used at water treatment plants don’t remove the neonics, according to a University of Iowa study. Granular activated charcoal systems do appear to remove the pesticide.

Preston Peck of Toxic Free NC, a nonprofit based in Raleigh, used DEQ data to create a map of public water supplies in the state that use granular activated charcoal systems. Some, but not all of North Carolina’s major cities have these systems: Raleigh, Greensboro, Durham, Charlotte and Fayetteville, for example. However Winston-Salem does not; nor do most of the smaller towns and cities.

Peck has repeatedly petitioned the state pesticide board to restrict the use of neonics to only licensed applicators. Despite a half dozen or more presentations from scientists over many months, the board failed to enact a rule to do so.

Peck took his concerns to the legislature. Earlier in the session, Democrat Reps. Pricey Harrison and Grier Martin, and Republican Reps. Chuck McGrady and Mitchell Setzer co-sponsored House Bill 363, which would have accomplished what the pesticide board failed to do. The bill stalled in the House Rules Committee.

agriculture, Environment

This Week in Pollution: Randolph Packing cattle slaughter plant in Asheboro fined $48,000

The process of slaughtering cattle produces contaminants that, can be washed into wastewater discharge and into creeks, streams and rivers. (Photo: wikicommons)

The Environmental Protection Agency has fined Randolph Packing, a cattle slaughter plant in Asheboro, $48,000 for violations of the Clean Water Act. According to a consent agreement with the company, Randolph Packing had violated the terms of its federal wastewater discharge permit for five years.

From 2011 to 2016, the company discharged “industrial stormwater” into drains throughout the facility. That pollution then flowed into two drainage ditches and into Haskett Creek, a tributary of the Deep River. With the Haw, the Deep River forms the headwaters of the Cape Fear River Basin.

Several segments of Haskett Creek have consistently been placed on the federal impaired waters list, also known as the 303d. Contamination from several sources in and around the creek has contributed to poor natural habitats and low levels of dissolved oxygen. Waste discharge from slaughterhouses can also consume oxygen in water, and leaving too little for aquatic life.

The document didn’t detail the contents of “industrial stormwater.” However, large amounts of blood and other animal waste are common byproducts of commercial slaughterhouses.

In addition to its environmental violations, in 2010, Randolph Packing recalled 96,000 pounds of beef products it had shipped to from wholesalers because of possible E. coli contamination.

agriculture, Environment, Legislature

House reallocates $250K from rural grant program to “protect” rural areas from EPA

 

Many storefronts in downtown Ahoskie are vacant or dilapidated. Rural grant programs can help small towns rehab the buildings, revitalize the area and create jobs. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Ahoskie, population 5,000, is nicknamed “The Only One,” because it is the only such named town in the world. Located in Hertford County, Ahoskie has seen better days, with its downtown revitalization occurring in very small steps: A coffee shop here, a theater there — and crumbling buildings in between.

Rep. Chris Millis sponsored an amendment to the House budget that would siphon $250,000 from a grant program to revive rural areas like Ahoskie and then funnel it to the Department of Agriculture in order to sue the EPA.

The Agriculture Department could use the money to hire outside counsel to fight the federal Waters of the United States rule, which clarifies the types of waterways that are regulated under the Clean Water Act. These include streams and wetlands that contribute to “navigable waters” already under CWA jurisdiction.

A Republican, Millis represents Onslow and Pender counties, both strongholds for industrialized hog and poultry farms. Those farms could be subject to stricter environmental regulations if their runoff reaches waterways regulated under WOTUS.

“We have to protect rural North Carolina,” Millis said in defense of his amendment. “It’s a federal land grab.”

Downtown Ahoskie (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

But the rural grants program, housed within the state Commerce Department, provides building renovation and economic infrastructure grants for job creation. Local governments in Tier 1 and 2 counties, among the state’s most economically distressed, can apply for money to renovate or demolish buildings or to upgrade their infrastructure. Millis did have other ideas for vacant, dilapidated buildings. In an earlier House ag appropriations meeting, he suggested amending the budget to fund “urban warfare” training for law enforcement, using these structures. The amendment failed.

While some buildings can’t be salvaged — and are eligible for demolition grants — others have value in their new lives. earlier this year, the town of Newton, population 13,000, received a $70,000 grant to renovate a vacant building into an Urgent Care center. The closest similar facility is a 15-minute drive away, according to the town website.

The House budget had appropriated $3.7 million for the rural grant program, plus another $2 million or so in transfers from an industrial fund.

Many conservatives and rural residents oppose WOTUS, including Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler.

However, the agriculture department didn’t request the money, said Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Democrat from Guilford County. And besides, she noted, in February the Trump administration indicated it would roll back the rule. It’s also likely to get hung up in the courts.

For these reasons, Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Republican from Henderson County, called the appropriation to the department “not a wise use of taxpayer money.”

“We don’t know what Trump’s going to do,” replied Rep. Pat McElrath, a Republican representing Carteret and Jones counties. “We’re erring on the side of caution.”

The House Agriculture/Natural Resources Committee didn’t include the appropriation in its part of the budget. The Senate version transfers more money — $1 million — from the NC Department of Environmental Quality, apparently as payback for the agency withdrawing from the lawsuit, filed by the previous administration.