agriculture, Environment

Facing lawsuit, NC Department of Agriculture agrees to provide public records without exorbitant fees

Steven Troxler, commissioner of the NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Under pressure, the department has changed its records policy to make it easier for people to access public information. (Photo: NCDACS)

Under the McCrory administration, it was pain-staking, if not impossible to pry public records from the hands of state agencies; requests for the taxpayer-funded information languished for months, even years.

Yet since Gov. Cooper took office, most of these departments have been more responsive and forthcoming with providing public taxpayer-funded information — with one notable exception: the NC Department of Agriculture.

Now the agriculture department has agreed to change its records policy, after reaching a settlement with the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Waterkeeper Alliance.

In the agreement announced last week, the department will update its public records policy to stop charging fees for the inspection of public records, according to the SELC.

(These inspections don’t incur copying costs. Groups or individuals occasionally bring their own portable scanners to preserve the records on their personal computers.)

Headed by Commissioner Steve Troxler, an anti-regulatory ally of McCrory, the department proposed charging the Waterkeeper Alliance $4,000 merely to inspect public records related to damage from Hurricane Matthew on hog and poultry farms.

As part of the agreement, the department will make that information available for free to the Waterkeeper Alliance and to reimburse the group for the costs of litigation.

Finally, under the settlement terms, the department will donate $2,000 to the Sunshine Center of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition – a nonpartisan group that advocates for public access to government activity, records and meetings.

The alliance had made the request to both the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Environmental Quality in January. DEQ produced the records without charge in March.

 

 

agriculture, Environment

Swine farm discharges waste into Trent River; DEQ investigating

A swine farm near Comfort discharged waste into a tributary that flows into the Trent River near Old Comfort Road and Highway 41. DEQ hasn’t named the farm; there are 49 in Jones County. (Map: Google)

An unknown amount of wastewater from a swine farm near the town of Comfort has spilled into the Trent River in Jones County, the NC Department of Environmental Quality announced late this afternoon. As a result, state officials are advising kayakers and boaters to avoid the Trent River downstream, particularly at the Chinqapin Chapel Road.

The spill was reported to the agency midday Thursday, DEQ said. A water quality team from the division’s Washington Regional office was deployed to the farm. DEQ investigators saw wastewater in a wooded area and flowing off-site. The wastewater discharge traveled nearly two miles from the farm through an unnamed tributary, eventually reaching the Trent River near the intersection of Highway 41 and Old Comfort Road.

DEQ investigators took water samples for testing and analysis, but the results are pending. The state is continuing to investigate the spill, DEQ said, and will determine an appropriate enforcement action.

According to DEQ’s database of animal feeding operation permits, there are 49 industrialized swine farms in Jones County, with a total of as many as 220,000 hogs.

The Trent River starts in Lenoir County, about 15 miles southwest of Kinston. It meanders for 100 miles through Jones and Craven counties before joining the Neuse River in downtown New Bern.

agriculture, Courts & the Law, Environment

Waterkeeper Alliance sues state agriculture department over public records request

 

Steven Troxler, commissioner of the NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (Photo: NCDACS)

The Waterkeeper Alliance, known for its role as an environmental watchdog over industrialized hog farming practices, has filed a complaint against the NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services for allegedly violating the state’s Public Records Act.

The dispute centers on whether the agency lawfully charged the alliance more than $2,000 to merely inspect public documents. The documents in question were related to potential flood damage from Hurricane Matthew on hog and poultry farms.

A department spokesperson could not be reached for comment, although it is common for agencies to refrain from speaking about ongoing litigation.

The issue dates back to earlier this year, when the alliance filed a public records request on Jan. 20. It asked to inspect “all communications” with the EPA, USDA, FEMA, and any state, city, county government ‘as part of the agriculture’s review, consultation of response to flooding of agricultural operations in North Carolina related to Hurricane Matthew,” which had occurred the previous October.

The alliance also asked to inspect related to the department’s emergency response, proposals and preparedness plans as they related to storm-related flooding of these operations. The group had planned to copy or scan the documents using its own portable equipment.

The group filed a similar request with the NC Department of Environmental Quality, which produced the records in March and allowed the group to inspect them without charging fees.

The records are of interest because when Hurricane Matthew brought historic floods to eastern North Carolina, there were concerns over the integrity of the area’s 3,000-plus hog waste lagoons. Agriculture Commissioner Steven Troxler has maintained no lagoons were breached, but advocates, some of whom flew over the area, said they observed floodwaters topping the brim of some structures.

On March 3,  2017, Tien Cheng, an attorney with the agriculture department, responded that it would require more than 250 hours to fill the request. Cheng estimated that at $18 an hour — the pay rate for a full-time administrative assistant — the alliance would be charged at least $4,000 to inspect the records. However, a week later, a different agriculture department attorney called the alliance and reversed course, saying the group could inspect the records for free.

Cheng went on to write agencies can charge a special service fee when a request requires extensive use of resources. But the term “extensive” has not been defined. And in 2013 and 2014, former Gov. Pat McCrory exploited that vague language to revise public records policy for eight state cabinet agencies. Designed to reduce the number of records requests, those revisions were emblematic of the tension between the McCrory administration and the media and law firms seeking information.

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agriculture, Environment

Another bad actor discharging into the Cape Fear River: Cargill fined $75K

Cargill discharges into Lock’s Creek, which flows into the Cape Fear River about a mile downstream. (Screenshot Google maps)

The Cape Fear River is again a casualty of industrial pollution and urban runoff, this time because of illegal and unknown discharges from Cargill, which processes and distributes soybeans and their byproducts in Fayetteville.

The Environmental Protection Agency has fined the $100 billion company $75,500 in civil penalties as part of a proposed consent agreement that outlines Cargill’s 30-plus violations of the Clean Water Act.

Among them are missing records and sampling data, illegal spills at the plant, lax inspections, and exceedances of several pollutants as set out in the discharge permit.

When the plant did report its data, the stormwater contained high levels of acidity, particle matter (known as Total Suspended Solids in pollution parlance), and Chemical Oxygen Demand.

In at least one incident, plant officials wrongly blamed the excessive acidity of stormwater on acid rain. And instead of using scientific equipment to test for acidity, plant officials used a paper pH strip.

COD is important because it indicates the amount of organic material, in this case, mostly likely food waste and oils, in the water. Excessive amounts of COD contribute to the formation of toxic algae and kill aquatic organisms, essentially by consuming the oxygen in the water.

In at least one incident, plant officials wrongly blamed the excess acidity of stormwater on acid rain. Click To Tweet

Cargill discharges into Lock’s Creek, a tributary of the Cape Fear River. The company’s plant on Underwood Road lies about 25 miles north of Chemours, responsible for discharging the contaminant GenX into the Cape Fear River.

The violations were found during a joint inspection by the EPA and state environmental officials in February 2016. The discharge permit, issued in 2012, expires in October.

The public can comment on the proposed consent agreement through Sept. 20. Send comments in writing to the Regional Hearing Clerk at U.S. EPA, Atlanta Federal Center, 61 Forsyth Street, S.W., Atlanta, Georgia, 30303. Include the Public Notice Number CWA-04-2017-4510(b).

 

agriculture

USDA cracks down on use of term “climate change,” prompting a chilling effect on agency scientists

(Creative Commons)

At 107.39 degrees, Death Valley set the record for the average hottest month — July 2017 — in US history. Parts of Europe and the Pacific Northwest, where air conditioning is not de rigueur as in the South, are wilting under a relentless and unprecedented heat wave. The Arctic could be ice-free by 2030, and a gigantic portion of the Larsen Ice Shelf calved from Antarctica this summer, reshaping that continent’s shoreline.

But a division of the USDA is responding to these climatic changes by erasing the term altogether.

The Guardian reported today that the US Department of Agriculture is censoring the phrase “climate change” from its work, asking staff to use the words “weather extremes” instead. The sources of the information are internal emails that detail the policing of language used to describe the phenomenon and implications of a warming planet. The emails were sent within the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which is under the USDA, and works with farmers on land conservation.

The meaning of other terms were also watered down or obscured altogether: “Reduce greenhouse gases” has been replaced with “build soil organic matter, increase nutrient use efficiency,” the Guardian reported. And “sequester carbon” has become “build soil organic matter.”

Some division scientists were displeased. From the Guardian:

One employee stating on an email on 5 July that ‘we would prefer to keep the language as is” and stressing the need to maintain the “scientific integrity of the work.’

The USDA still hosts its climate change solutions page, and its Climate Change Program Office site is still live. (The NC Department of Agriculture also devotes many of its webpages to climate change.)

Using this terminology with farmers also downplays agriculture’s role in greenhouse gas emissions. Fifteen percent of US emissions comes from farming. However, Sam Clovis, Trump’s nomination to be the USDA’s chief scientist, has labeled climate research “junk science,” the Guardian wrote, adding that “Last week it was revealed that Clovis, who is not a scientist, once ran a blog where he called progressives ‘race traders and race ‘traitors’ and likened Barack Obama to a “‘communist’.”