Commentary, Defending Democracy, Education, Environment, Legislature, News, Voting

The week’s top stories on NC Policy Watch

1. Lack of support for power-grabbing amendments speaks volumes

There are a lot of strange – even downright bizarre – aspects to the ongoing effort by North Carolina Republican legislators to pass a slate of six constitutional amendments during this fall’s election.

There is, for instance, the absurd dearth of process that accompanied the approval of the amendments during the final harried days of the 2018 legislative session. Ideally, constitutional amendments are accompanied by weeks, or even months, of debate, multiple public hearings, lengthy oral testimony and written analyses from academics and other experts, detailed findings from study commissions and extended opportunities for the public at-large and various interest groups to weigh in.

This year, however, few, if any, of those things were present. Instead, lawmakers rammed through all six amendments during the final week of June. Two of the amendments were then actually rewritten in a single day at the end of August – just a handful of days prior to the distribution of absentee ballots. [Read more…]

2. PFAS, but not GenX, found in blood of residents living near Chemours plant

Four types of fluorinated compounds were detected in blood samples of all 30 people tested who live near the Chemours plant, although none of the compounds was GenX, the NC Department of Health and Human Services announced today.

In July, DHHS, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Cumberland County Health Department tested for 17 types of fluorinated compounds in the blood and urine of 30 people living near the facility, which abuts the Bladen-Cumberland county line.

All of the people who voluntarily participated in the program use well water for their household needs. Many of the private wells, plus rainwater, lakes, soil, groundwater and even honey have tested positive for fluorinated compounds. [Read more…]

**Bonus read: Last chance for the red wolf? Advocates ask federal judge to intervene to preserve endangered species

3. Questions linger about victims’ rights constitutional amendment, big budget campaign

Early voting started Wednesday, which means North Carolinians will finally get to decide on six proposed constitutional amendments, including one that would bolster crime victims’ rights.

At first glance, voting on an amendment to enhance victims’ rights may seem like a no-brainer, but like many issues, it’s not so black and white. Supporters of the amendment say victims need teeth in the law to assert their rights. Opponents say victims’ rights already are enshrined in the constitution and enhancing them should be done by statute, not by an experimental amendment. [Read more…]

**Bonus read: 3-judge panel rules Board of Elections, Ethics Enforcement structure unconstitutional

4. Battle looms as state officials propose takeover of Goldsboro elementary school

If North Carolina goes forward with the recommendation to allow a private charter operator to take control of a Goldsboro elementary school, they should expect a stubborn resistance, the school’s principal told Policy Watch Wednesday.

“You’re bringing in outside people, but Wayne County is a unique district,” said Carver Heights Elementary Principal Cortrina Smith. “You are going to consistently receive pushback, because we don’t know you, but you’re in my house and you’re trying to tell us what to do. You don’t know my kids, you don’t know my community.”

Smith is in her third year as principal at the struggling Goldsboro school, which serves a predominantly poor population in eastern North Carolina. But if the State Board of Education approves the so-called Innovative School District’s (ISD) recommendation this week to turn over operations and leadership in the elementary to a yet-to-be-named private operator, the school may see many of its teachers and administrators, including Smith, scuttled in the next year. [Read more…]

**Bonus read: NC’s latest school takeover experiment will deny Goldsboro students the education they deserve

5. Eastern North Carolina residents press for a just hurricane recovery

As lawmakers gathered Monday to approve funding for Hurricane Florence relief, residents and community leaders from Eastern North Carolina came together outside the General Assembly.

They told their personal recovery stories and encouraged lawmakers to put recovery money – and their political power – where it’s most needed.

The Just Florence Recovery Collective represents more than 25 community organizations and dozens of impacted residents. Its goal: to shed a light on racial and class disparities that have made storm damage worse and recovery slower in North Carolina’s poorest and encourage those in power to reverse the trend and make those communities whole.

Bobby Jones of the Down East Coal Ash Coalition came from Goldsboro where, he said, “part of our community has been used as a dumping ground for Duke Energy’s 6 million tons of poisonous coal ash.” [Read more…]

**Bonus read: Legislature, Cooper make headway on hurricane recovery, but vexing longer-term issues loom

Upcoming event:
Can’t wait to see how the mid-terms turn out?

Join us October 30th for the latest polling and prognostications from PPP’s Tom Jensen

The 2018 election is headed into the homestretch and early voting is already underway. Join us as we learn the details of where things stand and what the political world is likely to look like on November 7 with one of America’s premier pollsters, Tom Jensen of Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling.

Tom Jensen has been the Director of Public Policy Polling since 2007. During that time he has overseen thousands of polling projects, covering everything from Presidential and Senate races to County Commissioner and School Board races all over the country. He is the voice behind PPP’s popular Twitter account, which has more than 100,000 followers.

Register today for our next Crucial Conversation!

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 .

Commentary, Environment, Legislature, News, Special Session

The week’s top stories on Policy Watch

1. Coal ash flowing like pudding in Neuse River near Duke’s Goldsboro power plant
Matthew Starr had paddled only a half mile of a stretch of Neuse River near Duke Energy’s HF Lee plant in Goldsboro when he saw initial signs that something had gone very wrong.

“There was exposed coal ash on trees, floating in the river, on the road,” said Starr, the Upper Neuse Riverkeeper. “There was coal ash lying the ground. We scooped it up out of the water.”

Flooding from Hurricane Florence had drowned two inactive coal ash basins in five feet of water. The active basins, according to state regulators, were structurally sound, but the Half Mile Branch Creek, according to images published by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), was flowing through the inactive basin complex, which is covered in trees and other vegetation.[Read more…]

2. Tillis, Burr and other Kavanaugh supporters must cling to one or more of four very troubling beliefs
The sordid saga of Judge Brett Kavanaugh and his nomination to serve a lifetime appointment on the United States Supreme Court is quickly careering toward some sort of very explosive and disturbing conclusion. Either the conservative jurist will be confirmed despite repeated allegations of dishonesty and past incidents of sexual violence or his nomination will be withdrawn or rejected based on those same allegations. In either instance, it’s a sad and remarkable state of affairs.
It’s the sexual assault allegations that have really seized the news headlines in recent days. The first allegation involves Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a California college professor and clinical psychology instructor, who says that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a high school party more than 35 years ago while his buddy, Mark Judge, looked on. At last word, the Senate Judiciary Committee was scheduled to receive testimony from Ford later this week. [Read more…]

3. A word to the General Assembly: This time, keep the politics out of hurricane relief
“Both the House and the Senate, our hearts go out to all the folks that were affected by Hurricane Florence,” Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican, said Monday as a handful of GOP power-players visited a storm-wracked Wilmington.
Horn promised Senate and House leaders in the North Carolina General Assembly were toiling away behind the scenes on a relief package, one so badly-needed for portions of the state submerged by Hurricane Florence and its watery aftermath.

And top Republicans like House Majority Leader John Bell say the agenda will be limited when they return next week for an emergency session, with a focus on relief funding, teacher pay and the school calendar in districts shuttered by the storm. [Read more…]

4. A tale of two stories: price gouging in NC from consumers, business perspectives
For most, news of an impending hurricane means picking up some bread and an extra case of water, fueling up the gas tank and deciding whether to evacuate.

For some businesses though, that same news means dollar signs – it creates an opportunity to take advantage of desperate people planning for the worst.

The North Carolina Attorney General’s Office has received more than 700 reports of price gouging – a prosecutable crime – since Sept. 7, when Gov. Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency in anticipation of Hurricane Florence. [Read more…]

5. Update from Robeson County: Florence wreaks havoc on already struggling and neglected communities
Huge pools of standing flood water still surround houses in south Lumberton’s Turner Terrace neighborhood, drawing roving clouds of mosquitoes.

Downed power lines float in the deep brown pools and lay tangled in the many fallen trees.

The stench of sewage is oppressive.

Still, many of its residents want to come home.

Adrienne Kennedy’s family has lived in this lower income Black neighborhood for three generations. But like many of her neighbors, she had to leave after Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Flood damage and pervasive mold drove her and her two young sons to Fayetteville, where they still live as what she calls “climate refugees.” [Read more…]

6. Hurricane Florence is exposing North Carolina’s racial and geographic inequalities
Hurricane Florence tore through the Carolinas, leaving entire cities devastated, claiming dozens of lives, and doing what will likely be billions of dollars in damage. But this hurricane has exposed much more than tree roots and the foundations of homes — it has exposed the gross and growing inequality embedded in our state.

For years, eastern North Carolina has been home to some of the state’s most impoverished towns and communities. In 2016, 19 of the 20 poorest counties in the entire state were all located in the east. In addition to poverty, eastern North Carolina is also home to some of the state’s hungriest communities. In 2016, more than 300,000 people in the 18 counties declared disaster areas did not have enough food to eat each night. [Read more...]

Commentary, Courts & the Law, Education, Environment, Legislature, News

The week’s top stories on Policy Watch

1. The dirty half dozen: What you need to know about all six proposed constitutional amendments

The 2018 midterm elections are upon us and North Carolina voters will soon pass judgment on, among many other things, an unprecedented raft of six constitutional amendments.

The proposals include:

  • a proposal to permanently cap the state income tax rate,
  • a proposal to remake the state Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement so as to alter its composition and how its members are selected,
  • a proposal to dramatically alter and limit the Governor’s authority when it comes to filling vacancies that occur on the state courts,
  • a proposal to require some undetermined form of photo identification for in-person voting,
  • a proposal to establish a state constitutional “right” to hunt and fish, and
  • a proposal to enact a multi-faceted “victims’ rights” amendment known as “Marsy’s Law.”

There are many compelling reasons to oppose all six – starting with the absurd and outrageous lack of process that accompanied their approval by the General Assembly during the final harried days of the 2018 legislative session, the hurried rewrite of two amendments in late August, and the deceitful and dishonest way the proposals will be summarized and presented on the ballot.

Still, even if one were to set aside all of the profound problems of process and procedure, there are numerous important substantive deficiencies in each amendment that are more than adequate to justify a “no” vote. Here is a brief list: [Read more...]

2. Old and in the way: Hurricane Florence could barrel over landfills, waste lagoons, hazardous waste sites and more toxics

Thousands of animal waste lagoons, hazardous waste sites and other repositories of toxic material lie in and near the projected path of Hurricane Florence, increasing the risk of breaches or leaks of dangerous chemicals into the environment. (This is one important reason you should avoid wading through or touching flood waters.)

The NC Department of Environmental Quality has a new mapping and data feature, which shows the locations of these sites, both in map form and spreadsheet. All of the maps below are from the DEQ site and can be clicked on to enlarge them. We’ve linked to each map; once you get to that DEQ page, click on the “data” tab to view the addresses and facility names in spreadsheet form.

The first map shows all of the animal feeding operations for permitted swine, cattle and poultry farms that use wet litter. (Dry litter poultry farms are “deemed permitted” and are largely unregulated.) With more than a foot of rain forecast, there is a higher risk of lagoon breaches, which can send millions of gallons of animal waste to rivers, wetlands and nearby property. [Read more…]

Bonus read:

Read more

Defending Democracy, Legislature, News

With GOP member a no-show, constitutional amendments commission postpones work

Attorney General Josh Stein and Secretary of State Elaine Marshall met Tuesday without the third member of the Constitutional Amendments Publications Commission, Legislative Services Officer Paul Coble.

Votes were postponed on ballot caption and description language for six amendments to the state constitution Tuesday when one of the three-member commission’s members didn’t show up to a scheduled meeting.

The Constitutional Amendments Publications Commission is tasked with creating short captions for the proposed amendments and longer descriptions of what each amendment would do that will also be available to voters. But all three members—N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and Legislative Services Officer Paul Coble—must be in attendance for the commission to take a vote on the language.

Coble skipped the Tuesday morning meeting, stymying the ability of the commission to craft and vote on language for the ballots or descriptions.

The political tug-of-war between Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and the Republican-controlled General Assembly in the last week has complicated the commission’s work.

First, the General Assembly returned in a special session to write its own captions for the ballot, stripping the commission of the ability to do so. Republican leaders said they were afraid the commission would politicize the language.

Gov. Roy Cooper

Cooper vetoed the bill that took away the commission’s ability to write the captions. But legislative leaders, with a GOP supermajority, set up a vote Saturday to override Cooper’s latest vetoes.

Stein and Marshall, both Democrats, suggested Monday’s scheduled meeting of the commission go forward. If the veto is overridden, they said, the legislature’s caption language would move forward – but the commission is still tasked with preparing longer summaries of a paragraph or two that will be available through local boards of election.

In a Monday e-mail to Stein and Marshall, Coble argued the commission should postpone its meeting until August 6, after the veto override vote.

“I make this suggestion in order to avoid further politicizing the work of the commission and to avoid additional controversy,” Coble said. “Therefore, I will not attend any meetings of the Commission this week.”

Legislative Services Officer Paul Coble

Marshall replied by encouraging Coble to attend Tuesday’s scheduled meeting and offering to postpone discussion of the ballot captions until after Saturday’s vote. The commission could still proceed with the longer descriptions, she wrote.

When Coble failed to show for the meeting, Stein and Marshall said they were disappointed. They then turned the meeting into a “work session” on the amendment language. Going through each of the amendments, Stein and Marshall shared concern with how they were written, what they would mean for government in North Carolina and whether voters will actually understand the amendments on which they are being asked to vote.

Stein expressed concern about “the incredible disconnect between the words the voters will be voting on on the ballot and what the amendments actually do.”

“What I fear is that the voters are going to go in to get a beautiful birthday cake and see this wonderful picture with all this accurate, beautiful description of what it’s going to taste like…and then when they eat it, it’s cat food and they don’t like the taste it leaves in their mouths,” Stein said.

Of particular concern, both Stein and Marshall said, are the amendments dealing with filling judicial vacancies and an amendment that would give the legislature broad power to appoint members of boards and commissions. Both are politically controversial issues—the latter of which has been the subject of lawsuits between the last two governors and the General Assembly.

The amendment having to do with appointments on boards of commissions seems, at first glance, to deal only with the state board of elections, Marshall said. But when you examine what the amendment would actually do, it is much more expansive.

Secretary of State Elaine Marshall

“My analysis of this is that it basically affects the separation of powers in the constitution of North Carolina,” Marshall said. “And it completely limits the governor in appointing positions that currently are appointable by him.”

Stein agreed.

“This amendment if enacted would represent the most radical restructuring of our government in 150 years, since the Civil War,” Stein said. “And I agree with you, the primary impact is to completely change the separation of powers. It doesn’t clarify the separation of powers, it changes it.”

“It would essentially give the legislature unfettered power to run the executive branch,” Stein said. “Which takes power away from the voters.”

Read more