agriculture, Commentary, Defending Democracy, Education, Legislature, News

The week’s Top Stories on Policy Watch

1. Call Trump’s migrant caravan panic what it is: Out-and-out racism.

One day, these figures – President Trump and his cohorts, the muck-brained minions of Fox News – will distance themselves from their own words and actions.

They will hedge and equivocate with other political controversies. They will suggest that 2018 was a less enlightened time, that the real-world consequences of their partisan-minded manipulations of the Central American migrant caravan – a winding stretch of desperate folks seeking jobs and safety – was murky at best.

Do not allow Trump and his followers such a luxury.

Document and attribute every word, every half-cooked assumption, every bone tossed to the dogs of the alt-right. Don’t let them forget what they said and did, because the marginalized Latino immigrants that such calamity is meant to intimidate will never forget. [Read more…]

2. The 2018 election: Fear on trial

It would be an understatement to say that a lot of very different issues and individuals will impact the outcome of the 2018 election that climaxes next Tuesday. Here in North Carolina, there are more than 200 different congressional, legislative and judicial races, multiple local bond proposals and, of course, a slate of six controversial constitutional amendments to be decided. The decisions voters render will go a long way toward deciding the future of healthcare, the federal and state courts, public education, tax policy, human rights and the very nature of our democracy itself.

All that said, it’s clear that one phenomenon looms larger than any other two years after the election of Donald Trump: fear.

And, no, the fear at issue is not the fear that many Americans confront on a daily basis as they contemplate the reality of having a narcissistic serial liar backed by a delusional and increasingly well-armed army of extremists ensconced in the White House. The fear in this case is the anxiety and dread that have become the stock-in-trade and lingua franca of Trumpism.[Read more...]

3. State health plan board member disagrees with Folwell, opposes denial of coverage to transgender people

Last week, transgender North Carolinians and their families spoke out against the decision by state officials to deny coverage of treatments for transgender people from the NC State Health Plan.

Now, at least one member of the health plan’s board of trustees — the only one other than state treasurer Dale Folwell yet to respond to Policy Watch inquiries — is speaking out on the issue and urging a change.

“The core issue for me is that we have a group of State Health Plan members who have reached out to us for help,” said Kim Hargett in an interview with Policy Watch. “The goal of the state health plan is to help our members. At this point, it warrants looking for ways to help them.”

Hargett, a teacher at Marshville Elementary School in Union County, is one of two members of the board appointed by Gov. Roy Cooper. [Read more…]

4. NC recovery courts training encourages reducing stigma, equal access

One of the major themes at a statewide conference this week for recovery court personnel was stigma.

“It’s important to smash the stigma in all settings, but especially this one,” said Donald McDonald, Executive Director of Addiction Professionals of North Carolina. “Stigma keeps us from doing our best work for the people we serve.”

There are currently 49 recovery courts in 22 counties across North Carolina designed to work with people in the criminal justice system who have a substance use disorder. There are specialized family drug treatment courts, adult and youth drug treatment courts, DWI courts, mental health courts, veterans treatment courts and a tribal court. [Read more…]

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

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. [Read more…]

 

6. Stymied by questions about process and community backlash, state takeover of Goldsboro school delayed

Supporters of a controversial takeover program in struggling North Carolina schools hoped for a speedy approval of their latest project Wednesday. Instead, dogged by questions about process and a fiery local backlash surrounding a Goldsboro elementary, they’ll have to wait until at least next month for a resolution.

Members of the State Board of Education voted Thursday to delay a decision on Carver Heights Elementary in Wayne County until next month at the latest.

“You don’t have community support there,” board member Tricia Willoughby told leaders of the hotly-debated Innovative School District (ISD), a GOP-spearheaded program that would allow private groups, including for-profit companies, to temporarily seize control of up to five struggling public schools in hopes of boosting performance. [Read more…]

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.

 

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

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 .