Environment, Legislature

House bill would ban sale, production of PFAS in North Carolina

(Illustration: EnviroScience Inc.)

Companies could no longer manufacture PFAS, also known as perfluorinated compounds, in North Carolina under a new proposal, House Bill 1109.

If enacted into law, the measure would also prohibit the export of the toxic compounds, “except for products specifically authorized or required to contain PFAS under federal law.”

The bill was introduced May 14; it has eight co-sponsors, all Democrats: Pricey Harrison, John Autry, Alison Dahle, Susan Fisher, Marcia Morey, Deb Butler, Zack Hawkins and Raymond Smith.

There are 5,000 types of PFAS. Most are used in, or byproducts of, the manufacture of dozens of waterproof and stain-resistant consumer goods, such as clothing, cookware, pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags, and more.

Of the few types of PFAS that scientists have studied, all have been linked to various health problems in humans, including several cancers, thyroid disorders, low birth weight, high blood pressure during pregnancy, ulcerative colitis and high cholesterol.

The compounds are widespread in the environment, especially rivers, lakes groundwater and drinking water supplies. They are often referred to as “forever chemicals” because they take decades to degrade.

The bill would allow DEQ to assess civil penalties of $5,000 to $25,000 for the first offense, and $10,000 for subsequent offenses. The maximum penalty for one month is $200,000.

It also would appropriate $100,000 in one-time money for additional monitoring and enforcement.

Several of the same sponsors also introduced two additional PFAS-related measures:

  • HB 1108 would require any company that discharges PFAS into the waterways to disclose the types, amounts and concentrations in order to receive a permit from the NC Department of Environmental Quality.

The same information would be required of wastewater treatment plants, both public and private, that receive discharges from industry. Those plants would have to remove the PFAS before discharging or require the industrial source to do so.

Among the other provisions are requirements for DEQ to study PFAS in landfill leachate and in biosolids that are applied to land.

PFAS enter landfills when contaminated consumer goods are thrown away. Leachate is liquid from the garbage that is captured in tanks beneath the landfill.

Biosolids are generated from wastewater treatment plants and used to fertilize agricultural fields. However, when it rains runoff from those fields can send PFAS into the groundwater and surface water. From there, the compounds can enter the drinking water supply.

In addition to the $5 million to DEQ for water quality monitoring, the State Water Infrastructure Authority would receive $80,000,000 in one-time money to issue matching grants to water systems to build or improve their  drinking water treatment systems to “substantially reduce public exposure to detectable PFAS.”

  • HB 1110 would require two state agencies to study the various effects of the compounds on human health and wildlife. DEQ  would be required to create an inventory of direct and indirect discharges of PFAS into surface water, air, groundwater and soil.

The Office of Management and Budget would calculate costs to local and state governments, several of which have had to spend millions of dollars to upgrade their drinking water treatment systems to reduce PFAS levels; those expenses are then passed on to ratepayers.

The NC Policy Collaboratory would also be charged with studying the future costs of removing or reducing the contaminant loads.

The bill would appropriate $600,000 for the studies.

Higher Ed, Legislature, News

One year after UNC-Charlotte shooting, ads call out legislature for inaction on gun laws

One year after the campus shooting that killed two and injured four at UNC-Charlotte, gun safety advocates are launching a new online ad campaign to highlight the General Assembly’s failure to pass new gun laws.

“More than 1,300 North Carolinians have been shot and killed, and twice that wounded, in the year since gun violence shook UNC Charlotte to its core,” said Grace McClain, volunteer leader with the North Carolina chapter of Moms Demand Action, part of the national Everytown for Gun Safety organization. “The response from our lawmakers? Crickets. So with these new ads, we’re letting them know that their failure to act not only costs lives – it’ll cost them their seats, too.”

On Monday the Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund launched a new digital video ad titled “A Year of Inaction” as part of a $250,000 campaign to push for stricter gun safety laws.

The ad will run on Facebook and is part of a $60 million effort to elect candidates who support stronger gun laws in November.

The ads will ask viewers to visit a site that allows them to sign on to a pledge to vote with gun safety in mind in November.

Most North Carolinians are already for stronger gun laws, the group said in a press release this week. It points to its poll, released in January, showing 79% of North Carolina voters in its survey support stronger gun laws. 

In the poll, 75% of respondents said they were less likely to vote for a candidate who supports allowing people convicted of domestic violence to own guns. Sixty percent also said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate  who opposes “red flag” laws that would allow police to confiscate weapons from those found by a judge to be an extreme danger to themselves or others. Nearly 70% said they were less likely to support a candidate who is against background checks for all gun sales.

Despite those numbers, new gun laws have gotten traction in the Republican dominated General Assembly.

Last year Democrats in the N.C. House again introduced new gun bills. Like all such bills they have introduced since the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the bills didn’t even get a vote.

Legislature, News, public health

Can a pandemic push North Carolina to finally expand Medicaid? These House members hope so.

Seven House Democrats took part in a conference call Wednesday to urge lawmakers to pass House Bill 1040, Healthcare for Working North Carolinians.

On the day when North Carolina surpassed 10,000 COVID-19 cases, a group of House Democrats gathered by teleconference to make the case for Medicaid expansion.

Rep. Sydney Batch, a Wake County Democrat, told reporters that the newly filed Healthcare for Working North Carolinians Act (HB 1040) would help thousands of residents who are either uninsured or underinsured.

“Not only will this bill help frontline workers who have supported us through this crisis, it will also help many North Carolinians who have unfortunately lost their jobs because of this crisis and are now in the coverage gap,” explained Rep. Batch.

Rep. Sydney Batch

Batch estimated that Medicaid expansion would return $4.5 billion in federal tax money to North Carolina’s overwhelmed health care system, allowing state tax dollars to be used for economic recovery initiatives.

Mecklenburg County Rep. Christy Clark, a cancer survivor, believes the latest bill could provide health coverage to as many as 500,000 North Carolians who are working but can’t cover the cost of insurance.

“Those are the very people who are keeping the state running during this unprecedented pandemic,” explained Clark. “People deserve quality healthcare at a cost that will not break their bank or prevent them from seeking care at all.”

Twenty-seven percent of adults in North Carolina have unpaid medical debt, according to Clark.

Rep. James Gailliard

Rep. James Gailliard, a Nash County pastor, noted that expansion was especially critical for rural North Carolina where food deserts and a lack of broadband further compound negative health outcomes.

“What we have done in our unwillingness to give people access to healthcare is we have participated in creating a public health crisis. We see it playing out right in front of us with the pandemic.”

Click below to hear Rep. Gailliard discuss the impact expansion would have for his regional hospital:

Rep. Verla Insko (Orange County-D.) believes the issue of expansion is finding more support among voters as COVID-19 changes life around us, but she acknowledged that Senate Republicans will need to stand-up to that chamber’s leadership for the measure to ultimately pass.

A Cone Health Foundation report released last summer estimates Medicaid expansion would create 37,200 more jobs in North Carolina by 2022.

The legislation, filed on the opening day of the session, has been referred to the House Rules Committee.

Read HB 1040 here.

COVID-19, Education, Higher Ed, Legislature, News

UNC System slashes budget requests in pandemic, tables tuition and fee increase discussion

The UNC System will delay hundreds of millions in budget requests to the legislature as the state braces for economic hardship caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

At its Friday meeting the UNC Board of Governors unanimously approved a budget request that is largely in line with the amount the system received from the state in the 2018-2019 year. That’s a radical change from just a few weeks ago, when many members of the board argued the board should not let the worsening COVID-19 pandemic get in the way of budget requests for large projects and long-term planning.

“Overall this revised biennial budget…will represent a $185 million decrease in operating expenditures from our original budget request ,” said Interim UNC System President Bill Roper. “And will remove remove nearly all of the $632 million of capital improvement projects previously approved by the legislature.”

UNC System Interim President Bill Roper.

Up until last month Roper was barnstorming the state, appearing at various UNC campuses to draw attention to the needs and capital projects going unfunded because of the state budget stalemate between Gov. Roy Cooper, a democrat, and the Republican majority in state legislature. But the pandemic and the “unprecedented challenge” it represents have changed that, Roper said — at least for now.

“All of these projects are of critical importance to be sure and they will remain priorities,” Roper said. “At the appropriate time and opportunity we must revisit these delayed projects with renewed sense of urgency.”

The system will make a one-time, COVID-19 relief request of $45 million “to partially offset the new expenses and lost revenue as a result of the pandemic,” Roper said.

The university system understands that the pandemic drive down revenues available to the state in the near-term, Roper said, and is acting accordingly.

Like every university system UNC is concerned about enrollment, Roper said — especially among international students. But it is too early to yet have a clear picture of the full financial impact the pandemic will have on the system 17 campuses. All the schools are already taking steps to brace for that impact, Roper said.

“Four weeks ago today I directed all the universities and the UNC System office to suspend hiring, promotions and salary actions except those that are critical to our mission,” Roper said. “The chancellors have modified their operations accordingly and they are closely monitoring personnel decisions consistent with my direction.”

But the schools will be ready for the Fall semester, Roper said — whatever that ultimately looks like.

“We’ve also been actively engaged with contingency planning over the last several weeks,” he said. “Our planning focuses on making sure our universities can perform our essential functions of teaching, research and service for the people of North Carolina no matter what circumstances we face.”

The system has already begun issuing pro-rated refunds to students for unused room and board for the current semester, Roper said, and anticipates 80 percent of those refunds will be processed by the end of next week.

UNC Board of Governors member Temple Sloan

The board also voted to delay until May any decision on raising tuition and fees.

While most of the state’s universities would like to see tuition and fees increased and have proposed an average increase for new, in-state undergraduates of $2.5 percent, or about $165. But board members say they are reluctant to raise costs to students with so much economic uncertainty related to the pandemic.

“Given the unprecedented and extraordinary disruption that has impacted our entire country, our great state of North Carolina, our universities and all the students, faculty and staff that are the life blood of our institution, now is simply not the appropriate time to discuss the campus request for tuition and fee increased,” said Temple Sloan, chairman of the board’s budget and finance committee.

The committee will hold a special meeting within 10-14 days to discuss the issue.

“My personal opinion is if you had asked me two months ago about my thoughts on a tuition and fee increase you would have received a starkly different answer than the one that you would receive today,” Sloan said.

UNC Board of Governors Chairman Randy Ramsey echoed that sentiment.

“My opinion has changed greatly,” Ramsey said of tuition and fee increases. “I will have a very difficult time supporting any at all at this point.”

 

COVID-19, Legislature

Want to help North Carolinians left jobless because of COVID-19? Improve the state’s unemployment insurance system.

It’s an astonishing number.

Source: NCDES

More than 423,000 workers in the Tar Heel state have filed for unemployment in the last three weeks. Nearly 370,000 of those cases list COVID-19 as the reason for their loss of work.

But many are finding that the state’s unemployment insurance system is far from generous. Benefits last for a shorter period and are smaller now than before the Great Recession.

Today’s must read opinion piece comes from economic analyst John Quinterno, a principal with South by North Strategies, Ltd. in Chapel Hill.

Quinterno explains in an op-ed for Capitol Broadcasting:

First, many individuals will discover that they simply do not qualify for regular state unemployment insurance benefits. Self-employed persons, independent contractors and “gig economy” workers generally are ineligible, while other workers will not satisfy the existing non-monetary and monetary criteria. That is especially likely for low-wage workers with erratic schedules and uneven earnings histories.

Second, those who do qualify will receive modest benefits — the maximum benefit is $350 a week — for no more than 12 weeks. Finally, successful claimants will benefit less from the expansions authorized by the federal CARES Act.

For workers who qualify for unemployment insurance, the CARES Act allows them to draw their regular payment plus a $600-per-week supplement; for the average claimant in North Carolina, that should yield a benefit of about $877 a week, with the maximum benefit reaching $950 a week. The CARES Act also extends benefits for 13 weeks beyond the normal maximum benefit period. Yet since North Carolina currently caps duration at 12 weeks, as opposed to the 26 weeks standard in most other states, an unemployed Tar Heel will receive no more than 25 weeks of benefits instead of the 39 weeks available most elsewhere.

In short, unemployed North Carolinians lucky enough to qualify for insurance will receive far less for far shorter periods than their counterparts in much of the country.

A positive aspect of the CARES Act is that it temporarily allows for people normally ineligible for unemployment insurance, such as the self-employed, independent contractors, and “gig economy” workers, to draw benefits and a $600-per-week supplement. Should such workers qualify, they still will receive less in North Carolina than in other states due to the current 12-week cap on duration and the low average weekly payment amount. (At a minimum, these workers will receive $734 a week.)

Recently, Gov. Roy Cooper has used executive authority to implement positive reforms, such as waving the waiting week required before a first check is sent to eligible claimants, suspending work search requirements, and certifying that payments will not be charged back to employers. Those steps will preserve eligibility for people and enable the state to claim as much as $30 million in federal funds to help administer the surge of claims in a timely manner.

Legislative action ultimately will be needed if the unemployment insurance system is to meet the COVID-19 crisis.

  • Eligibility criteria should be loosened to make the system more responsive to the needs of an increasingly low-wage, part-time, and contingent labor force.
  • Benefit formulas and amounts must be redesigned to provide adequate wage replacement that grows with the economy
  • North Carolina also should restore maximum benefit duration to 26 weeks, as is standard in most states.
  • Finally, the state should strengthen its mechanism for handling partial claims and establish a work-sharing program.

The COVID-19 crisis has confronted North Carolina’s unemployment insurance system with a moment of truth. It is time to admit that the 2013 “reform” was an ideologically inspired effort to effectively eliminate unemployment insurance. Absent change, the system will prove incapable of providing meaningful assistance on a scale commensurate with the wave of joblessness sweeping across the state alongside the coronavirus.

Read Quinterno’s full column here.