agriculture, Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, Education, Legislature, News, public health

The week’s Top Five on Policy Watch

1. A moment of extreme danger for NC public schools

There have been a lot of regressive education policies that have emanated from the North Carolina General Assembly in recent decades. Even prior to the Republican takeover that commenced in 2011, many Democratic leaders had already embraced the flawed conservative idea that our schools and students were struggling in many places because they were too “soft” and lacked sufficient “competition.” Hence, the early-century moves to introduce charter schools, dramatically expand the number of high-stakes, standardized tests and limit so-called “social promotions.”

In the last seven-plus years of GOP rule, the relative trickle of conservative education schemes has turned into a flood. Lawmakers have slashed funding, dramatically expanded charters (including for-profit, virtual charters), introduced private school vouchers, “education savings accounts,” “performance-based pay,” and state-initiated conversions of struggling schools to charter schools, and talked openly and repeatedly of privatizing what has long been understood to be a core function of government.

As unhelpful as each of these developments has been, however, they may well end up paling in comparison to the new and dangerous two-part change that’s currently making its way into law during the current legislative session.

At issue is the enormously controversial and dangerous plan to fundamentally alter the way North Carolina funds public schools by allowing individual cities to get into the business of running and funding public schools. Under the plan approved by the Senate last week, four wealthy suburbs of Charlotte that are angry with the administration of the county school system would be granted authority to fund their own charter schools and give priority admission to their towns’ students.

The plan is so radical and potentially game-changing that it actually drew negative votes from five Senate Republicans last week – something that almost never happens in that intensely partisan body – and is now attracting national attention. [Read more…]

2. In surprise revision to school safety bill, Senate Republicans seek insurance overhaul that may threaten NC’s Affordable Care Act marketplace

3. State lawmakers moving suddenly and swiftly to shut down nuisance suits against industrial hog farms

4. “Piecemeal” judicial redistricting: Lawmakers pushing a trio of bills that would impact a third of state’s residents

5. Amid anti-LGBTQ violence, NC Democrats seek expansion of state hate crimes law

Environment, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

State budget: DEQ still snubbed, plus Jordan Lake rules delayed again and an odd line item for Charlotte

The state budget: Stingy (again) toward DEQ (Creative Commons)

The state budget, having secretly curdled inside Republican bill writers for several weeks, was finally served to the public last night just before 9 p.m. At 748 pages long — including the conference report-– and weighing more than a pound, the financial blueprint for the next fiscal year spoils most hopes of  environmental protection for North Carolinians.

Republicans tweaked the GenX portion of the bill, which had already been divulged in the Water Safety Act. But the the minor tinkering did nothing to address perennial underfunding of the Department of Environmental Quality. Conservative lawmakers still snubbed the agency, appropriating $2.3 million for long overdue water and permitting projects. Lest that sound like a significant figure, over the past seven years, lawmakers have cut DEQ’s budget so deeply that $2.3 million is the equivalent of finding $20 in a winter coat pocket. Nice to have, but it won’t go far.

This section of the bill does remove the unfunded mandate lawmakers had saddled DEQ with: to develop a monitoring, remediation and corrective action plan for fluorinated compounds in public and private water supplies. That project — on its face, prudent and essential — disappeared because lawmakers refused to fund it.

Instead, the NC Collaboratory, a think tank headquartered at UNC Chapel Hill, received nearly three times that amount, raking in $5 million to essentially do what DEQ is statutorily charged with doing to rein in emerging contaminants — but without the regulatory authority. The Collaboratory, run by rainmakers Brad Ives, a former assistant secretary for DENR (now DEQ), and Jeffrey Warren, the former research director for Sen. Phil Berger, did take a “hit” in that its original appropriation in the Water Safety Act was $8 million. (The Collaboratory got another $1 million to analyze water quality issues in the Haw River and to continue its analysis in Jordan Lake.)

The GenX part of the Water Safety Act, as Policy Watch reported last week, contains several legal and constitutional pitfalls regarding the governor’s power that the budget only partially addresses. The Environmental Management Commission is designated as the rulemaking authority, wise, because that’s the EMC’s role. Several procedural changes attempt to circumvent the potential for a prolonged contested case appeal, should Chemours disagree with the governor’s shut down of its facility.

The bill does try to confront the serious legal chain of custody issues that outsourcing data collection and analysis to the university system presents, but it’s hardly foolproof. Somewhere, Chemours lawyers are lighting cigars.

Read more

Environment, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

Analysis: Water Safety Act constitutionally suspect, could slow down enforcement, clean up

Rep. Ted Davis Jr., a New Hanover County Republican (Photo: NCGA)

It’s curious how two legislators, who, in their day jobs are attorneys, have co-sponsored bills that leak state and federal law like a sieve.

The Water Safety Act — Senate Bill 724 and  its identical companion legislation House Bill 972 — pretend to strengthen regulations and enforcement against Chemours, but in reality, make the state vulnerable to legal action by the company and do little to clean up GenX contamination.

The legislation could be folded into a larger budget bill, making it all but impossible to defeat.

Primary sponsors of the House version are Republicans Ted Davis Jr. (the lawyer of the bunch), Holly Grange, Frank Iler and Bill Brisson. They all are members of the House Select Committee on River Quality.

The Senate counterpart is co-sponsored by Republicans Mike Lee, an attorney, plus Bill Rabon and Wesley Meredith.

The Department of Environmental Quality and Gov. Cooper both issued statements and analysis critical of the bill today. But environmental lawyers, policy analysts and environmental groups, have also chimed in. They have noted the bills’ serious legal defects that could hamper cleanups, run afoul of current state and federal laws, and deprive Chemours and other polluters their constitutional right to due process.

Sen. Mike Lee, a Republican from New Hanover County (Photo: NCGA)

The bills makes DEQ’s actions dependent on the governor, who is authorized to issue an administrative order to “require a facility to cease all operations that result in the production of a pollutant.” (In the bill, “pollutant” is not defined.)

“On its face, a governor’s order sounds like a quicker and more direct way to stop the release of these pollutants,” wrote former Assistant DEQ Secretary Robin Smith, now a lawyer and consultant in private practice, on her environmental blog. “In reality, any order could be appealed in an administrative hearing and the administrative law judge has the power to prevent the order from going into effect until there has been a final decision on the appeal.”

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Those appeals can take months; meanwhile, contamination could continue unabated.

On the other hand, DEQ can go directly (and quickly) to court for an injunction, which the agency has already done in Bladen County to stop Chemours from discharging GenX offsite.

While the legislation appears to target Chemours and its “discharge” of GenX and fluorinated compounds, DEQ pointed out that “discharges,” as defined in state law, exclude air emissions. GenX-related compounds are being emitted into the air from the Chemours plant and contaminating surface water, soil, groundwater and drinking water — topics also extensively discussed in the House River Quality Committee.

In addition, the bill sponsors seemed to go out of their way not to fund DEQ, other than $2.3 million worth of breadcrumbs. “While providing extravagant funding to those other entities, the bill fails to make a long-term investment in DEQ’s regulatory programs that have been subject to budget cuts since 2011,” DEQ said in its analysis.

By comparison, the bill serves as an ATM for other entities: the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority ($450,000), local governments ($2 million), the state health department ($530,000), and the NC Collaboratory at UNC ($8 million), whose research director is Jeffrey Warren, former science advisor to Sen. Phil Berger.

Read more

Environment, Legislature

It’s raining GenX bills: GOP legislation largely ignores DEQ for funding

Rep. Ted Davis Jr. (Photo: NCGA)

Within hours of House Democrats filing HB 968, four more House members, this time all Republicans, put up their own bill, HB 972, which essentially rebuffs any meaningful appropriations for the NC Department of Environmental Quality.

Instead, it appropriates just $2.3 million to DEQ and gives money to just about anyone else who has asked for it: the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority ($450,000), local governments ($2 million), the state health department ($530,000), and the NC Collaboratory ($8 million).

The language in HB 968 resembles the Senate version of the Water Safety Act, introduced during a special session last winter, which seemed almost mean-spirited toward DEQ.

In comparison, Democrats introduced a bill today that would appropriate more than $14 million to DEQ and the state health department to address the GenX crisis.

In Republicans’ HB 972, DEQ is often used as a pass-through for funding. For example, The bill would appropriate $2 million in one-time money to DEQ, which would then disperse funds to local governments to connect households to public water supplies. The polluter would then reimburse the state via a Recovery Fund.

Another $450,000 would go to DEQ for grants to the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority for water sampling and testing new treatment technologies.

The $1.3 million in one-time money to DEQ would be used for temporary staff to conduct water quality sampling for emerging contaminants, to address permitting backlogs, and to sample and analyze GenX in the air, soil and river sediment.

(The funding is being diverted from the dead-on-arrival SePro project. Last year, lawmakers appropriated $1.3 million for the private company to test algae-killing chemicals and other dubious treatments in Jordan Lake. State environmental officials and the US Army Corps of Engineers killed the deal over concerns about potential harm to aquatic organisms and wildlife.)

Another $479,000 would go toward statewide sampling for emerging contaminants, plus $537,000 for a high-resolution mass spectrometer.

Rep. Susan Martin (Photo: NCGA)

DEQ receives no funding to develop a detailed remediation plan for emerging contaminants, as laid out in the bill.

The big winner is the NC Collaboratory, whose research director is Jeffrey Warren, former science adviser to Sen. Phil Berger. The Collaboratory’s one-time $8 million windfall would be used to corral academics to conduct targeted and nontargeted monitoring for emerging contaminants in public water supplies. Money would also be used to buy equipment, pay for research time, study air emissions and to conduct computer modeling for private well contamination and treatment options — all duties usually assumed by DEQ.

The bill also contains a glaring redundancy. It directs the state health department to consult with federal authorities and academics via the Collaboratory to recommend health goals for fluorinated compounds, including GenX. That’s precisely what the Science Advisory Board is doing right now. In fact, it is expected to release its health goal recommendations in June.

Rep. Frank Iler (Photo: NCGA)

The co-sponsors of HB 972 are Republican Reps. Ted Davis Jr., Frank Iler, Bill Brisson and Susan Martin. All but Martin sit on the House River Quality Committee.

HB 972 empowers not only environmental regulators, but also the governor, under certain conditions, to require a facility to “cease all operations and activities” that result in the production of a pollutant.

Neither bill specifically mentions Chemours, but the punitive language in both applies to the company’s conduct in North Carolina.

All of these conditions must be met:

  • the facility has a NPDES discharge permit
  • it has received more than one notice of violation from DEQ within a two-year period
  • the discharge of the fluorinated compounds violates federal drinking water standards or health goals that have been implemented by the state health department
  • DEQ has been unable to stop the facility from these unauthorized discharges within a year of learning of them

DEQ first learned of Chemours’ GenX discharges in June 2017, almost a year ago.

Rep. Bill Brisson (Photo: NCGA)

Polluters would also be require polluters to cover the cost of alternative water supplies for households whose private drinking water wells have been contaminated. More than 100 such wells have been contaminated near Chemours Fayetteville Works plant in Bladen County.

The Democrats’ version of the bill focused on forcing polluters, such as Chemours, to pay to clean up public water supplies they had contaminated.

Environment, Legislature

House members file bill to fund DEQ, target actions by Chemours

Rep. Elmer Floyd, a Cumberland County Democrat (Photo: NCGA)

Legislation filed today in the house would appropriate more than $14 million to the NC Department of Environmental Quality, while strengthening environmental laws that appear targeted at Chemours, the company that has contaminated drinking water, the Cape Fear River, air and groundwater with GenX and related compounds.

House Bill 968 would also repeal the Hardison amendment, which the Republican majority reinstated in 2011 CQ. The Hardison amendment prohibits state legislators or agencies from passing stricter laws and rules than those established by the federal government.

Since the EPA has proposed rolling back regulations on coal ash, car emissions and clean water and air, the Hardison amendment could significantly hamstring North Carolina’s attempts to strengthen its own protections.

The legislation has four Democratic co-sponsors: Reps. Deb Butler of New Hanover County, Pricey Harrison of Guilford County, and Billy Richardson and Elmer Floyd, both of Cumberland County. of the co-sponsors, three are in districts affected by Chemours; Harrison’s district includes rivers and streams polluted with other emerging contaminants, like 1,4-dioxane.

Rep. Deb Butler, a Democrat from New Hanover County (Photo: NCGA)

The bill also contains language that would require companies to fully disclose in their environmental permits all chemicals and compounds that they discharge. Other provisions further empower the Environmental Management commission to “immediately” suspend the discharge permit of companies that allow unregulated toxic pollutants to enter the air or water.

Since the GenX crisis began a year ago, DEQ has filed notices of intent to modify or suspend Chemours’ discharge permit, as well as issued notices of violation. But no permits have actually been suspended.

The bill also establishes conditions under which the DEQ secretary and the governor could declare an emergency when it finds that a “generalized condition of water or air pollution is causing imminent danger to the health or safety of the public.” In such cases, the polluter would have to “reduce or discontinue immediately” discharge of the contaminants.

Chemours recently argued to state environmental regulators that there was no public health emergency associated with GenX; in that case, the company argued, rigorous limits on concentrations in drinking and groundwater were not warranted.

Companies would also be required to provide filtration and treatment for water supplies contaminated by illegal discharges. The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority has already spent upward of $1.7 million to reduce the amount of GenX entering Wilmington’s drinking water supply below the state’s provisional health goal of 140 parts per trillion.

The EMC could also force violators to reimburse the state for removing and halting the pollution, or face a civil penalty.

Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat (Photo: NCGA)

As for the funding, about $9 million would be recurring, and much of it for 39 positions devoted to managing, monitoring and analyzing GenX in water and air.

The balance would be allocated as one-time funds for scientific equipment, such as a high-resolution mass spectrometer, temporary staff to work on permit tracking and online access for the public, and upgrades to the Division of Water Resources’ Reedy Creek lab. That facility has not been upgraded in more than 25 years.

Rep. Billy Richardson, a Democrat representing Cumberland County (Photo: NCGA)

Another $536,000 would go to the Department of Health and Human Services to fund four positions: a medical risk assessor, toxicologist, epidemiologist and a public health educator.

Many of these funding requests had been made previously by the governor and other House lawmakers. The Senate has so far rebuffed those requests.