Environment, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

Gov. Cooper vetoes SB 16 over dangerous rollbacks to water quality protection

The governor’s veto last night of Senate Bill 16 has temporarily halted several environmental laws, including one that gives eminent domain power to Dominion Energy for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Gov. Cooper vetoed Senate Bill 16 , the Business and Regulatory Reform Act of 2017.

It passed the House and Senate when they convened for just one day earlier this month, and when many lawmakers were out of town attending a national legislative conference.

Cooper’s veto statement read:

We should make it easier, not harder, for state and local governments to protect water quality, whether through stormwater safeguards or by giving public health departments the ability to revisit wastewater permits if needed Rolling back ways to protect water quality is dangerous.

SB 16 includes a provision expressly enabling Dominion Energy to use eminent domain to build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in eastern North Carolina. Currently, in-state companies can condemn private property for these types of projects. But Dominion is based in Virginia, and although the company co-owns the ACP with Duke Energy, needed this language to quickly proceed, should the project receive federal approval.

The bill also micromanages DEQ by giving the Environmental Management Commission — which is politically appointed more oversight over the agency’s reports. And the measure weakens coastal stormwater and development rules, and eliminates public input from landfill permit renewals. (NCPW annotated the bill, which we’ve included below.)

Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Matthew Starr issued a statement shortly after the veto, “calling it a victory for clean water and property rights.”

“If SB 16 became law, it would open the door for oil companies using eminent domain to build dangerous pipelines through the back yards of families across the state. And it would make it more difficult for communities to hold local landfills accountable for poor practices. When it comes to clean water, SB 16 would literally pave the way for contamination. The bill’s language makes it easier for developers to skirt responsible stormwater controls, making it more likely that toxic contaminants enter our public waterways.”

SB 16 had taken on many forms since it was filed early in the session — Jan. 26. — serving primarily as a placeholder for various legislation that could be added later. One amendment that passed the House but failed in the Senate conference committee is worth watching: In June, Rep. John Bell, whose district includes counties within the Lower Neuse River basin, sponsored an amendment that would have directed the Legislative Research Commission to study flood control in that basin. While this sounds innocuous, building flood control reservoirs can create more problems than they solve. They eat up land, potentially creating environmental justice problems, and fragment ecosystems. (Ironically, a different bill would have weakened rules regarding riparian buffers, themselves a natural method of flood control.)

Under the amendment, the Legislative Research Commission would have also considered alternate water sources for Raleigh when flooding forces the US Army Corps of Engineers to lower the level of Falls Lake. Jordan Lake is already supplying water to more than 300,000 people, a number that is expected to grow; Lake Crabtree is contaminated with PCBs in the fish and sediment. Within the county, that leaves Lake Benson, near Garner. The supply of clean drinking water is definitely an issue facing Raleigh, but it seems strange to tuck such a far-reaching provision in an amendment to a omnibus bill.

Senate Bill 16 by LisaSorg on Scribd

Environment, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature, public health

NC Senate caucus insinuates Cooper’s $2.5 million request to address GenX is “simply public relations”

State Senate Republicans, in part responsible for enacting deep budget cuts for environmental programs, seem reluctant to grant Gov. Roy Cooper’s emergency funding request to deal with the chemical GenX in drinking water. Instead, in a letter sent yesterday to the governor, the Republican caucus questioned whether “any additional appropriations could make a meaningful difference in water quality and public safety in the lower Cape Fear region” and if Cooper was simply engaging in “public relations.”

The letter was signed by Sens. Bill Cook, Trudy Wade, Andy Wells, Rick Gunn, Michael Lee, Norm Sanderson and Bill Rabon. They asked for a response by Aug. 14; the legislative session reconvenes Aug. 18.

Earlier this week, Cooper, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen and Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan unveiled a proposal of how they would spend an estimated $2.5 million on not only GenX but other water quality and related public health issues.

Photograph of Senator Bill Cook of coastal North Carolina

Sen. Bill Cook (Photo: NC General Assembly)

In the letter, the caucus posed 13 questions about the administration’s handling of the GenX crisis. A few of the questions were legitimate, such as whether Chemours should be required to pay for long-term water sampling. But others appeared to be leading or had already been answered via press releases and media reports.

Among them is the decision of the Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen to drastically reduce the public health goal of GenX in drinking water. Earlier this month, Cohen announced at a press conference in Wilmington that her department adjusted the levels from 70,000 parts per trillion to 140 parts per trillion. The reason, Cohen said, is because the EPA had initially provided only one study on which to base the goal; later federal officials gave DEQ a second study that informed the decision to reduce the acceptable amount.

GOP caucus members also wanted to know why DEQ has not issued a notice of violation under the Clean Water Act to Chemours, responsible for the GenX discharge. NCPW has reported that a federal consent decree filed as part of a lawsuit in West Virginia states that GenX can be discharged into public waterways under the Clean Water Act as long as it’s a “byproduct” of the manufacturing process, not the manufacture of GenX itself.

Sen. Trudy Wade (Photo: NC General Assembly)

Part of the $2.5 million appropriation would fund an additional 16 positions within DEQ’s water resources division. This year’s budget eliminated 16.75 positions department-wide, following a pattern of continued cuts that have handcuffed the agency. There is a two-year backlog for reviewing wastewater discharge permits.

Republican caucus members responded to the request by saying:

“We know the department currently employs many individuals that perform non-regulatory functions not involving the implementation of federal or state environmental quality programs. An example of this is the “Office of Innovation” that was just created by Secretary Regan. Rather than using taxpayer funds to create additional government employees, could some of these individuals performing non-regulatory duties be shifted to assist with the permitting backlog and other regulatory functions that have been neglected?”

According to the DEQ website, two people work as policy and innovation advisors: Mary Penny Kelley, whose position in an early version of the budget was eliminated; and Jennifer Mundt. Both advisors are tasked with developing innovative policies and solutions to environmental and energy issues. As for the reality of shifting employees from “non-regulatory” duties to regulatory ones, it’s possible that the workers would not have the skills and expertise to do those jobs, particularly if they require a science or engineering degree.

Earlier this year, the Star-News in Wilmington reported on a study conducted by two EPA scientists and an NC State University professor that GenX, an unregulated, emerging contaminant had been detected in drinking water in New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties. The source of the chemical was upstream, the Chemours plant in Fayetteville, which had been discharging GenX into the Lower Cape Fear. GenX is an unregulated, “emerging” contaminant. That means the EPA has not conducted sufficient safety studies to set a maximum contaminant level for the chemical in drinking water.

There are hundreds of such contaminants, including 1,4-dioxane, found in the Haw River and the Pittsboro drinking water supply, and Chromium 6, detected in private wells near coal ash plants. The decision whether to regulate a contaminant is highly politicized, and the EPA has been criticized by the Government Accountability Office for failing to expedite scientific review.

Environment, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

In signing wind moratorium and executive order promoting wind energy, Gov. Cooper tries to have cake, eat it too

(Illustration: Creative Commons)

House Bill 589, a promising renewable energy bill until it was saddled with a last-minute wind farm moratorium, is now law. Gov. Roy Cooper signed the bill today.

From the governor’s press release:

A strong renewable energy industry is good for our environment and our economy. This bill is critical for the future of significant increases in our already booming solar industry. I strongly oppose the ugly, last-minute, politically motivated wind moratorium. However, this fragile and hard fought solar deal will be lost if I veto this legislation and that veto is sustained.

However, the governor softened the blow of the 18-month wind farm moratorium by also enacting an Executive Order No. 11, which Cooper said in a press release, “directs DEQ to continue recruiting wind energy investments and to move forward with all of the behind the scenes work involved with bringing wind energy projects online, including reviewing permits and conducting pre-application review for prospective sites. I want wind energy facilities to come online quickly when this moratorium expires so our economy and our environment can continue to benefit.”

The order also directs the NC Department of Environmental Quality to work with the Department of Administration to conduct a feasibility study regarding renewable energy and energy efficiency projects on state-owned land and property.

The renewables bill was a product of year-long negotiations among utilities and the solar industry. Not until the final days of the session did Sen. Harry Brown, a longtime opponent of wind energy, tack a moratorium onto the end of the bill. He and other wind energy opponents claimed that the farms, with their turbines as tall as 600 feet, would conflict with military training exercises. However, no one currently serving with the military with the authority to negotiate those conflicts publicly spoke against the moratorium.

The moratorium would have lasted for four years, if not for pushback from Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, who represents several northeastern counties, where these farms would be built.

Environment, Governor Roy Cooper

Gov. Cooper asks lawmakers for emergency funds for DEQ, DHHS over GenX; Sec’y Cohen says water is safe

GenX levels have dropped below state public health goals in the Lower Cape Fear River in Wilmington but residents are still concerned about the safety of their drinking water. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Gov. Roy Cooper and state health and environmental officials today tried to assure Wilmington residents that their drinking water is safe, even if it contains low levels of GenX, an unregulated chemical found in the Lower Cape Fear River.

Meanwhile, Cooper unveiled a plan at the press conference to investigate not only GenX, but other unregulated contaminants in the state’s public water systems. This includes an assessment by the State Bureau of Investigation as to whether a criminal probe is warranted and $3 million in emergency funding for the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.

.@NC_Governor We shouldn't have to have a public health situation to get those resources Click To Tweet,

Seven weeks ago, the Wilmington Star-News first published scientific findings about GenX in the Cape Fear. At that point, DHHS set an original goal of 70,000 parts trillion for the chemical. This is a lifetime exposure of drinking roughly 2 liters of water a day, and is based on one animal study provided by the EPA — the only science the federal agency said was available. DHHS later reduced that goal when federal officials produced a second “proprietary” study. “We wish we would have had that initially,” Cohen said. “We’re looking at every bit of available evidence.”

Cooper said he has also requested a public health assessment review of GenX from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Cooper and DEQ are asking state lawmakers for $3 million in emergency resource funding to review not only GenX but also other unregulated chemicals, such as 1-4 dioxane and Chromium 6, in drinking water. NCPW reported on Thursday about  the scientific and regulatory inertia in addressing the health risks of these chemicals.

Ten years’ worth of cuts, which have become especially acute since Republican lawmakers have held the majority, have decimated DEQ. Funding for water quality staff has decreased by 41 percent over the past decade, and the most recent state budget cut $1 million in salaries and eliminated a minimum of 16 positions throughout the agency.

The $3 million figure for inspectors, environmental specialists and engineers, said DEQ Secretary Michael Regan, “is conservative, but gets us in fighting shape.”

Regan said the department is already “combing through our permits” to ensure no other releases of GenX are happening.

DHHS is also requesting money for water health safety unit, which would include a toxicologist, epidemiologist and a health educator. Lawmakers are scheduled to hold a special session on Thursday, Aug. 3. However, until this funding request, it appeared that it would merely perfunctory until the next special session in September.

Although Chemours has since stopped releasing GenX into the river from its Fayetteville plant, state environmental officials plan to deny the company’s ability to discharge GenX as part of its wastewater discharge permit. The permit has expired and is up for renewal. DEQ officials had administratively continued the permit until the state investigation into the company’s discharge of GenX is complete.

“I have directed my administration to perform their work as if they and their families would be drinking this water,” Cooper said.

Cooper also is asking the State Bureau of Investigation, DEQ and the EPA to determine if a criminal probe is warranted into Chemours’s discharge of the chemical into the Lower Cape Fear River. That chemical, which is unregulated by the EPA, wound up in the public drinking water of 250,000 people living in New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties.

A federal consent order related to a case in West Virginia prohibits Chemours from discharging GenX into waterways unless it is a byproduct of manufacturing. Chemours has contended that the Cooper said he also spoke with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to “see if that consent order needs to be updated and tightened.

On Friday, the state attorney general’s office launched a civil investigation, demanding extensive documentation and information from Chemours.

GenX is one of hundreds of unregulated contaminants classified as “emerging” by the EPA. The health effects of these contaminants have not been fully studied. “I’m concerned about other compounds,” Cooper said. As a result, DEQ will required “enhanced disclosure” of companies seeking discharge permits. The governor is also expanding the scope of DEQ’s Science Advisory Board to examine unregulated compounds and their potential threat to public health.

Regan is expected to announce his appointments to the advisory board by the end of July.

The press conference occurred after Cooper, Regan and Cohen met with state and New Hanover County elected officials this morning. In what is becoming a common practice, that meeting included a pool reporter from the Wilmington Star-News, but no other journalists were allowed to attend.

Environment, Governor Roy Cooper

“Not off our coast”: Gov. Roy Cooper opposes offshore drilling

Gov. Roy Cooper announced that his office would file an official comment to the federal government opposing offshore drilling and seismic testing. (Screenshot: Gov. Roy Cooper Facebook page)

Citing the environmental and economic risks to North Carolina’s sensitive shoreline, Gov. Roy Cooper today said he opposes seismic testing offshore drilling. “It’s a bad deal for our state,” Cooper said. “We will let Washington know loud and clear that North Carolina is opposed to it.”

Cooper made the announcement at Fort Macon this morning. He said his office would send a letter to the federal government stating its opposition. The deadline for public comment on seismic testing, a precursor to offshore drilling, is Friday, July 21. NCPW reported on the risks of seismic testing in early July.

North Carolina’s coastal tourism industry accounts for 30,000 jobs and $3 billion annually; commercial fishing adds another $95 million. Areas of the coast also are home to some of the nation’s — and the globe’s — most ecological diverse areas.

“But there is a threat looming over this coastline we love and the prosperity it brings — that’s the threat of offshore drilling,” he said. “They would be opening the coast to oil and gas drilling for little potential gain. The risks outweigh the benefits.”

Cooper added that with the renewable sources, such as solar, “there are too many reliable energy options,” other than oil and gas.

Cooper’s stance starkly contrasts with that of his predecessor, Gov. Pat McCrory, who supported offshore drilling in North Carolina.

A native of Nash County, Cooper remarked that he spent much of his childhood on the coast — and brought his own children here as well. “This place is a part of who I am, as it is for many of you.Environmental groups are applauding the governor’s stance.

“Today Governor Cooper listened to all of North Carolina’s coastal communities who’ve been calling for the protection of our coast,” said Sierra Weaver, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “As Governor Cooper underscored, there’s just too much at risk for North Carolina with offshore drilling — beautiful white sand beaches that draw tourists from around the world, rich estuaries and fishing industry, and a whole Southern and coastal way of life.

“Now it’s time for President Trump to do the same. North Carolina has spoken. It’s time for Washington to listen.”

Brian Buzby, executive director of the North Carolina Conservation Network issued a comment as well:

“We want to thank Gov. Cooper for taking a bold and necessary step toward protecting our state’s coastline from the environmental and economic threats posed by offshore drilling.”

Dan Crawford, director of governmental relations at the NC League of Conservation Voters:

“Governor Cooper not only hears the concerns of his constituents — he acts on them. North Carolina has been waiting for a leader willing to come out swinging against fossil fuel specials interests for four long years.”

Erin Carey, coastal coordinator for the NC Sierra Club:

“Today Governor Cooper sent a strong, clear message to the Trump administration and the fossil fuel industry that our coast is not for sale. The natural beauty and economic engine North Carolina’s coast represents is worth more than potential profits for oil companies.