Task force recommends new environmental justice positions at four key state agencies

The task force was named after celebrated North Carolina civil rights activist Andrea Harris, who died in May at age 72. (Photo: task force report)

One of the most striking disconnects between state agencies occurred last year when the Department of Commerce announced at a legislative committee that it supported the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Meanwhile, the NC Department of Environmental Quality, although it ultimately approved the permits, was concerned about potential damage to the environment and the communities that lay in in the pipeline’s path.

Duke Energy and Dominion eventually killed the project; DEQ has since rejected permit applications for an unrelated Mountain Valley Pipeline Southgate proposal. But there has been a consistent lack of continuity among agencies in considering environmental and social justice implications of their projects.

In a report issued this week, a task force told the governor that permanent environmental justice and inclusion positions should be created at the departments of Commerce, Transportation, Natural and Cultural Resources, and the Office of Emergency Management.

The Department of Environmental Quality already has such a position.

If the four agencies create new positions, that would require funding, likely through the legislative budget process. Or an existing position could be converted or expanded to address environmental issues.

The group, officially named the Andrea Harris Social, Economic, Environmental and Health Equity Task Force, was created earlier this year by Gov. Roy Cooper to study how the COVID-19 pandemic is disproportionately harming communities of color. The task force spent the fall pinpointing how the state needed to advocate for and assist these North Carolinians. Among them were expanding rural broadband, job creation, health care and environmental justice.

Polluting industries commonly locate in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. And this pollution, particularly in the air, can cause or worsen respiratory illnesses. A Harvard study showed that exposure to fine particulate matter known as PM 2.5 increases the severity of COVID-19 symptoms and risk of death from the disease.

At dozens of public meetings about various environmental projects, community members have clamored for clean jobs rather than those created by polluting industries. The task force posed a similar question: Could we improve the economic development and health outcomes of a Tier 1 county without causing additional environmental burdens?

The four agencies that would create an EJ position routinely make decisions that can further burden these communities with pollution — or in some cases alleviate it.

For example, the Department of Transportation’s new toll road extension, I-540, routes through a low-income mobile home park.
Active Energy, a wood pellet plant in Robeson County, received a $500,000 building reuse grant from the Department of Commerce.

The Office of Emergency Management is key to helping these communities after a hurricane or flood; many of these neighborhoods are located in areas vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The Department of Natural and Cultural Resources is consulted when major projects route through Native American land; that agency is also over state parks and the Division of Land and Water Stewardship.

A second recommendation is for state officials to conduct an inventory of aging buildings — schools, senior centers and hospitals — that have radon, asbestos, mildew and mold contamination. Cleanup of those buildings could create jobs, the task force wrote.

Schools in Robeson and Edgecombe counties have been selected to test the proposal.

The “sick building” problem caused by legacy pollutants is due to delayed maintenance. “Nowhere is this problem more apparently than in NC’s public schools, especially those in hyper-segregated, concentrated poverty communities,” the presort reads. “Due to aging and poorly functioning HVAC systems, young people attending these schools are exposed to a host of chemical and biological contaminants that adversely affect their health and overall well-bing and their ability to learn.

“Reopening these schools amid the pandemic is likely to exacerbate the problem,” the report continues, “as buildings with poor ventilation, already a crucible for building-related diseases, can potentially become hotbeds for the spread of the coronavirus.”

The task force also recommended what is bound to be a heavy lift: that the legislature change statutes and rules to incorporate environmental justice into regulations. Since conservatives gained control of the General Assembly in 2011, environmental justice has been eroded, not strengthen, particularly in the annual Farm Acts.

“Legislation will be paramount to ensure our environmental justice ideals come to fruition,” the report reads.

The legislature convenes Jan. 13.

NC on “shaky ground” with COVID, Cooper lowers indoor gathering limit

On a week that brought news of a promising vaccine and a new antibody treatment for COVID-19, Governor Roy Cooper announced the state would take additional steps to slow the spread of the virus by limiting the number of people who can gather indoors.

“The science shows that the transmission of this virus is much greater indoors. And the more people who are gathered, the more easily this virus can spread,” Cooper said on Tuesday.

The governor’s new executive order will go into effect this Friday (Nov. 13) and will be in place through December 4th.

The order limiting indoor gatherings does not apply to schools, universities or religious services.

Health officials stress the recent COVID peaks the state has experienced can be traced back to smaller indoor gatherings, where people have let down their guard, avoided  wearing a mask and disregarded social distancing.

“We are on shaky ground as we head into Thanksgiving,” explained NC DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen. “The safest thing we can do for our loved ones is to limit travel, and to avoid getting together in person especially indoors.”

Cohen reiterated those who are planning on gathering for the upcoming holiday should themselves get a COVID test several days before seeing family.

Read full guidance for holiday gatherings here.

“Even though this means changes to long-standing holiday traditions for many of us, take comfort that there is light at the end of the tunnel,” said the governor.

Cooper said advances in vaccines and with the public working together, the holidays will look much different a year from now.

On Tuesday, North Carolina recorded 2,582 new cases of the coronavirus with 1,230 people hospitalized, a new high for the state.

The governor also announced Tuesday that full-service restaurants are now eligible for assistance through the Mortgage, Utility and Rent Relief Program (MURR) administered by the NC Department of Commerce.

Eligible businesses can apply for up to 4 months of rent or mortgage interest capped at $20,000.

Sen. Tillis says Trump will now extend offshore drilling moratorium to NC

In 2018, coastal residents packed a hearing and rally in opposition to offshore drilling and seismic testing. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

In a struggle to defend his incumbency, Sen. Thom Tillis announced on his website yesterday that he had spoken with President Donald Trump and “was informed that North Carolina will be included in a Presidential Memorandum” banning offshore drilling for 10 years. The moratorium would be in effect from July 1, 2022, to June 30, 2032.

On his Senate website, Tillis noted he had “urged” President Trump to extend  the moratorium to North Carolina.

The White House has not formally announced North Carolina’s inclusion in the moratorium.

Earlier this month, in what was tantamount to a political snub, Trump reinstated an offshore drilling moratorium for Florida, Georgia and South Carolina — but no North Carolina. The other Southeastern states included in the moratorium have Republican governors.

Trump also needs those states to win the election, and polling has showed voters there overwhelmingly oppose drilling off their respective states’ coasts.

Tillis also needs to galvanize support for his political campaign. An average of all polls taken in North Carolina show Tillis and Democratic opponent Cal Cunningham in a tie. However, results of a CBS 17/Emerson College poll published yesterday show Cunningham ahead 48.9% to 43%.

As for offshore drilling, Gov. Cooper’s administration has consistently opposed the prospect of that activity off the coast. The NC Department of Environmental Quality denied WesternGeco’s request to conduct offshore seismic testing, but was overruled by the US Department of Commerce.

Attorney General Josh Stein recently announced his office had filed suit against the federal Commerce Department over the WesternGeco approval.

WesternGeco subsequently withdrew its federal application. Four other companies have applied to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to conduct the testing.

North Carolina environmental groups ranging from the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club and Oceana, were cautiously optimistic about Tillis’s announcement.

“If this is true, we welcome the withdrawal of North Carolina from offshore drilling for 10 years,” said Randy Sturgill, Oceana Action senior campaign organizer, for the Southeast region. “With this action, President Trump acknowledges overwhelming opposition from North Carolina’s communities, businesses and bipartisan elected officials.

“Of course, it was the President’s own plan that threatened our state in the first place. Other East and West Coast states remain on the table for expanded drilling and deserve the same protections. What President Trump deems good enough for North Carolina and Florida should be good enough for other states, too. It’s time for the President to permanently protect our coasts and formally withdraw his entire radical offshore drilling plan.”

WesternGeco withdraws seismic testing application, but NC coast still vulnerable to offshore drilling

The area off the North Carolina coast that would be open to offshore seismic testing and oil and gas drilling.

WesternGeco has withdrawn its application to conduct underwater seismic testing for the oil and gas industries off the coast of North Carolina. But without a federal moratorium on the testing and drilling, these waters and the coast remain at risk.

The company notified the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management of its withdrawal on Sept. 4. BOEM had not yet ruled on the application.

WesternGeco had planned to shoot air guns  every 10 seconds, 208 days a year, at 225 to 260 decibels — louder than a rocket launch — from 19 miles offshore from the coast of Maryland, past North Carolina and further down the East Coast to 50 miles offshore of St. Augustine, Fla.

Even though the company would be using air guns outside of North Carolina’s jurisdictional boundary, the sound and shock waves travel for miles. Fish and other aquatic life often swim farther at sea and then return to the North Carolina coast, its bays and estuaries. Scientists have concluded that the seismic testing could harm the sea life that makes North Carolina its home base.

It’s unclear with prompted the withdrawal. The Trump administration had lifted a long-term moratorium on drilling and testing along the Southeast Coast. But earlier this week, the administration reversed itself, and again banned offshore drilling along the coasts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

However, in what appeared to be a snub to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, Trump excluded North Carolina from the moratorium, allowing testing and drilling to occur.

Although WesternGeco is no longer interested in North Carolina waters, other companies have also applied. Without a federal moratorium, the coast is still vulnerable. Senior Attorney Catherine Wannamaker with the Southern Environmental Law Center issued a statement:

“The entire East Coast is unified in opposition to seismic blasting and oil drilling in the Atlantic Ocean, and this appears to be another recognition of that reality. But, like the President’s announcement this week, this isn’t a cause for celebration. Just as the other Atlantic states are still at risk for drilling, there are still other companies pursuing seismic blasting. We still have work to do.”

The Cooper administration, including the NC Department of Environmental Quality, has fought offshore drilling since 2017. Nearly every local government along the North Carolina coast also has opposed it, over concerns about potential spills and their effect on marine life, fisheries, water quality and tourism.

This part of the Atlantic Ocean is beyond states’ jurisdictional boundary of three miles, but energy exploration companies still must seek state certification to determine if the proposals comply with their respective coastal management laws. If the state objects, as has North Carolina, the federal government can’t issue a permit. However, the US Department of Commerce ultimately rules on appeals and disputes.

In June, the federal government overruled North Carolina’s objection to seismic testing off the coast, saying the activity proposed by the company WesternGeco is in the national interest. The decision allowed the BOEM to issue permits for seismic testing on the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf, roughly from Maryland to Florida. Four more companies have requested permits.

In response, last month NC Attorney General Josh Stein filed suit last month against the Trump administration to block the action.

Michael Jasny, director of the marine mammal protection project at the Natural Resources Defense Council called on the remaining companies to follow WesternGeco’s lead and withdraw their applications.

“This withdrawal is a sign of how strong the bipartisan opposition is—by coastal communities and officials at every level—to the harm that seismic explosions along the Atlantic coast would cause to marine life, to our oceans, and to our climate.”

Gov. Cooper: Gyms, bowling alleys, museums can open with limits

Gov. Roy Cooper: “Stability is not victory.”

The Labor Day weekend will begin with an easing of COVID-19 restrictions at public places, according to Phase 2.5 of the Cooper administration’s reopening plan, announced today.

Beginning Friday, Sept. 4, at 5 p.m., gyms, bowling alleys and other indoor exercise facilities can open at 30% capacity. Museums and aquariums are allowed to open at 50%. Playgrounds will also open, although children age 5 and older must wear masks in public. Capacity limits at restaurants remain the same.

The limits on mass gatherings will increase to 25 people indoors and 50 people outdoors.

While state health officials recommend that public schools refrain from holding contact sporting events, like soccer and football, non-contact sports, such as tennis, can continue with no more than 50 spectators. Those attendees must also wear masks and socially distance.

Nursing homes will also allow outdoor visitation for the first time in nearly six months.

Bars, nightclubs, movie theaters, indoor entertainment centers and amusement parks will remain closed. The current restaurants must stop selling alcohol is in effect until Oct. 2.

Gov. Roy Cooper said that while the number of new COVID-19 cases is still higher than optimal, Phase 2.5 is appropriate because “key indicators remain stable.”

“But stability isn’t victory,” Cooper said.

North Carolina has reported a total of 169,425 lab-confirmed cases; 2,741 people have died.

On Sept. 1, the state Department of Health and Human Services reported 2,111 new cases, a level that Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen called “too high.”

DHHS said 953 people are hospitalized. The hospitalization rate has declined overall since late July, although the numbers are still elevated.

Similarly, the percentage of emergency room visits for COVID-like illness has declined since peaking in July, but it’s still well above the baseline.

There is sufficient hospital capacity, Cohen said.

North Carolina has been in Phase 2 for six weeks. “Our pause in Phase 2 was necessary as students returned to school and colleges,” Gov. Cooper said.

Shortly after the case counts began to stabilize, large colleges campuses opened, especially those in the UNC System, where there were outbreaks among college students. In mid-August, Cohen said, the number of positive cases increased among people ages 18 to 24.

Many campuses sent students back home for distance learning. Those who tested positive or were ill were encouraged to stay on campus to prevent community spread, Cohen said. “We’re watching the trend closely.”

The economy is one driver behind the administration’s move to Phase 2.5. “We want to do things to spur the economy and to encourage people to exercise,” Cooper said. “We know people are hurting. The more we do to slow down the virus, the faster we can let everything open.”

The state unemployment rate in July was 8.9%, up from the previous month’s figure of 7.7%.  Both numbers are below the peak in May, when the rate was 12.7%. However, there could be undercounting because some people may have given up on looking for work; the statistics also don’t include people who are underemployed.