Legislature, News

Rep. Chris Millis received $1,000 from developer of controversial aquarium site shortly after larger project was announced

A complaint filed by the New Hanover Democratic Party targets Rep. Chris Millis over questions about his advocacy for funding a new aquarium that could benefit a campaign donor.

The financial connection became clearer today between a wealthy political donor and former Rep. Chris Millis, who secured state funding for a questionable aquarium project that could benefit that donor.

But a timeline of events raises further legal and ethical questions about what at best is an unusual deal.

On Oct. 1, $300,000 was added to the budget bill — passed and ratified earlier this summer  — for the planning and permitting of a satellite aquarium at the Blake Farm in Scotts Hill. The 1,300-acre planned mixed-use development of retail, residential, hotels and offices, is only about 30 miles from the long-standing state aquarium at Fort Fisher.

In addition to the aquarium being built with state funds the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources did not request the facility. Nonetheless, the department would be required to run it. The aquarium would focus on shellfish, such as oysters, crabs, clams and shrimp.

Millis had earlier advocated for the appropriation, but resigned on Sept. 15, two weeks before the bill passed, ostensibly to spend more time with his family.

Now, back up three years: Millis, a civil engineer by trade, is connected to Blake’s Farm, LLC and the aquarium project through its registered agent and land developer Raiford Trask III. On Oct. 31, 2014, seven months after Trask announced plans for the project, albeit without mentioning an aquarium, he contributed $1,000 to Millis’ House campaign.

Meanwhile, also in 2014, the civil engineering firm Paramounte, which is Millis’s employer, worked on the 980-acre Lane’s Ferry Project, in Pender County. Lane’s Ferry was developed by a company managed by Heide Trask, Jr, a cousin of Raiford Trask III.

Millis told WRAL earlier this month that he didn’t personally work on the Lane’s Ferry Project. However, it’s arguable that if Paramounte’s finances or reputation benefits from a successful project, the employees would benefit, as well.

Trask told the TV station that he didn’t know Millis’s firm was involved in Lane’s Ferry. While possible, that’s also unlikely, since Paramounte submitted site plans to the Pender County government for the project and was named in media reports.

The Trask family frequently contributes to political candidates of both parties, although most of the money goes to Republicans.

The New Hanover County Democrats filed a 10-page complaint today with the NC Secretary of State’s Lobbying Compliance Division. The complaint names Trask, Millis and Blakes of Scott Hill, LLC.  A Democratic Party representative Richard Poole is asking the secretary of state’s office to investigate whether Trask improperly lobbied Millis and his fellow Republican lawmakers Rep. Holly Grange of New Hanover County and Sen. Bill Rabon, who represents four counties, including Pender and New Hanover.

Trask is not listed in the state’s directory of lobbyists.

The complaint also asks if Trask, Rabon, Millis and Grange circumvented state law by directing a sole-source procurement with no public bidding for a state facility. Michele Walker, spokeswoman for DCNR, told Policy Watch last week that bidding on the project will be required to go through a standard Request for Proposals process.

“I’m concerned that developing a new aquarium in Pender County will undermine the patronage and funding of the existing aquarium,” Poole of the New Hanover Democratic Party wrote. “I believe that funds expended on a Pender shellfish aquarium could be better spent elsewhere.”

 

Complaint vs Aquarium by Anonymous B0mRtPKjko on Scribd

Environment, Legislature

A third of 110 private drinking water wells near Chemours tested high for GenX

Rep. Bill Brisson: “It’s not like the mice fell over dead when they were injected with GenX.” (Photo: NC General Assembly)

NC Policy Watch has more coverage of yesterday’s meeting of the House Select Committee on River Quality.

An assisting living home on Tranquility Road. Nine residences in one subdivision and three in another.

Sampling from September show the extent — so far — of GenX contamination in private drinking water wells near the Chemours plant. And the results have prompted state environmental regulators to extend the testing boundaries in hopes of capturing a fuller picture of the problem.

In total, the NC Department of Environmental Quality and Chemours have tested 110 wells. Of those, 40 had concentrations of GenX above the state’s provisional health goal of 140 parts per trillion. The Marshwood Lake subdivision, located northeast of the Chemours plant near the Bladen-Cumberland County line, recorded the highest number of exceedances — nine wells. And the highest concentration — 1,300 ppt — was also found in a well there.

Chemours is providing bottled water to all homes whose wells are above health goal.

Assistant Secretary of the Environment Sheila Holman told the House Select Committee on River Quality yesterday that additional wells would be sampled in a one-mile radius from the Chemours property line. The most recent tests were conducted one and a half miles from the center of the Chemours site. Since the site is so large, more than 2,300 acres, using the property line as a starting point would allow more wells to be sampled.

Because most of the affected wells are uphill from the plant, state environmental regulators theorize that the groundwater has become contaminated with GenX through air emissions — atmospheric deposition — from  Chemours. There is speculation — and the science is largely absent on this point — that certain compounds leaving the Chemours stack chemically transform into GenX when they come into contact with water. There isn’t an “obvious method” of measuring the ambient air quality near the plant for GenX, Holman said, but there are test methods being developed that can better measure the compound leaving the plant from the stack. “Does the contaminant act as a gas or a particle?” Holman said. “We don’t know.”

DEQ will also conduct soil and aquifer testing, plus additional sampling of Willis Creek, which runs north of the plant and feeds into the Cape Fear River.

We're scaring the puddin' out of the public Click To Tweet

At the committee meeting, lawmakers split their concerns between stopping unknown contaminants from entering the drinking water supply and dampening any public alarm over the safety of that water.

Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a Duplin County Republican, said people who have politicized the issue, including Gov. Roy Cooper, “need a spanking.” That politicization, Dixon claimed, has provided grist for the rumor mill. “How do we do this” — advising the public on the risks — “without scaring the puddin’ out of Mr. and Mrs. Public?”

“Are we scaring people?” reiterated Rep. Bob Steinburg, a Republican representing several counties in northeastern North Carolina. “Is there an uptick in cancer in these regions? We don’t want to incite panic.”

Overall, there has not been a significant increase in cancer compared with the state average, Department of Health and Human Services epidemiologist Zachary Moore said. But cancer is not the only illness that can be caused by exposure to GenX and perfluorinated compounds; the immune system and hormonal regulators can also be affected.

“It’s not my intent to create panic,” answered NC State University scientist Detlef Knappe. He has not signed on to the state’s announcement that the water is safe to drink, he said because “we need to look at the fuller range of compounds.”

In the industrialized world, the risk of chemical exposure is inherent in the normal course of living. “But this is an unnecessary risk,” Knappe said.

It's not like the mice fell over dead when they were injected with GenX Click To Tweet

There have been examples of predatory behavior on the part of some private well testers. Residents in Wilmington received mailers and phone calls offering testing services — for $850. (The state will conduct the tests for free in affected regions.) Although DEQ has not advised anyone not to bathe or wash dishes in the affected water, nonetheless, said Rep. Bill Brisson of Bladen County, “folks are scared to death. The testing has been blown out of proportion.”

Unfortunately, in his remarks Brisson did not seem to fully understand the scientific method, risk assessment or the caution that should accompany uncertainty. “It’s not like the mice fell over dead when they were injected with GenX,” Brisson said. “People die every day. There have been no tests showing it harms humans. There are no abnormal levels of cancer, but people are blaming GenX for their cancers for the past 30 years.”

 

Results from September show that 22 of 70 private drinking water wells sampled — 31 percent — contained concentrations of GenX above the state’s provisional health goal of 140 parts per trillion. Those wells are indicated by the red icons. Click on the icon for the address and concentration levels. An additional 23 wells tested positive for GenX but below the health goal. Twenty-five wells did not contain the compound.
Of all wells that had some level of GenX in them, the minimum concentration was 11 ppt and the maximum was 1,300 ppt. None of the wells exceeded EPA drinking water standards for other perfluorinated compounds. Subsequent testing of 40 more wells has shown that an additional 18 exceeded the health goals. Source: NC DEQ

Environment, Legislature

New legislation would resurrect fracking proponent Jim Womack’s career on the oil and gas commission

Jim Womack

Jim Womack, a fracking proponent and dethroned oil and gas commissioner, appears likely to get his wish to return to that board.

This morning, the House Rules Committee proposed a substitute for Senate Bill 416 that would change the requirements for the oil and gas commission to allow anyone who simply joins a conservation group — including environmental imposters — to serve on it.

The new language would allow two commission seats to be reserved for “members” of a nongovernmental conservation interest. This is a small but significant change from the current language, which requires those seats to be held by “representatives” of those interests.

Representatives of these groups are usually staff or board members, whose conservation bonafides are well-known. But becoming a member of a conservation group is as easy as paying annual dues; a fracking advocate such as Womack, for example, could cut a check to any of those groups and then qualify for an appointment.

In fact, the only open commission seat that could be appointed by the Senate — Womack’s former post — is reserved for a conservation group representative. By all indications, however, lawmakers intend to pass the law change described above and then appoint Womack as the Senate’s choice. Senate Bill 694, which was introduced earlier today, includes the following language:

“SECTION 3.17. Consistent with G.S. 143B-293.2(a1)(5), the previous appointment of James Womack of Lee County to the North Carolina Oil and Gas Commission is extended from June 30, 2018 to December 31, 2018.”

Last month, Womack tried to hold an illegal meeting of the oil and gas commission for the first time in 18 months. But John Nicholson, chief deputy of the NC Department of Environment, advised Womack that he was no longer on the commission, and thus had no authority to call a meeting. At the time, several commission members had not filled out their statements of economic interests, which the state board of ethics and elections must review before the members can serve.

Environment, Legislature

Pleading fear and ignorance, House lawmakers get schooled on GenX

Rep. Frank Iler, a Republican from Brunswick County: “We’ve been operating on fear and sheer ignorance.” (Photo: NC General Assembly)

(The Senate Select Committee on North Carolina River Quality meets today at 2 p.m. in Room 1027/1128 of the Legislative Building.)

The neighborhood immediately north of the Chemours plant, which straddles the Cumberland-Bladen county line, is a mix of mobile homes, concrete-block houses painted white or gray, and upscale brick manses, some still under construction.

But what all of these households have in common is a small wellhouse in the yard. Too far from Fayetteville to connect to that city’s utility, the homes are on private drinking water wells. And here on the brim of the Chemours plant, 19 wells — their exact locations kept confidential for privacy reasons — are tainted with GenX, an unregulated contaminant produced by the facility’s vinyl ether manufacturing line.

From southern Cumberland County and areas downstream, including Brunswick County and Wilmington, GenX has been detected in the Cape Fear River and in private and public drinking water supplies. And for the last four months, lawmakers and state environmental and health officials have been trying to calm the public while attempting to get a handle on a contaminant that they know little about, and can neither taste, smell, nor see.

We’ve been operating on fear and sheer ignorance Click To Tweet

Last Thursday, at the first meeting of the House Select Committee on North Carolina River Quality, Rep. Frank Iler, a Brunswick County Republican provided overdue guidance to his colleagues: “We’ve been operating on fear and sheer ignorance. We need true information.”

Iler’s candor notwithstanding, lawmakers have spent the summer accusing state environmental and health officials of carelessness — and the media of recklessness — in their handling of the GenX crisis.

The legislature rebuffed Gov. Cooper’s request for $2.6 million to help those agencies address drinking water contaminants statewide. Then, signaling their discontent, lawamkers passed legislation that at the last-minute, appropriated $435,000 to the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority and UNC Wilmington to study the contaminant.

(Read a related post from the Port City Daily about how the utility’s PR firm tweaked a press release to insinuate the governor had a lackadaisical attitude toward the crisis.)

Gov. Cooper vetoed that measure, House Bill 56, but it’s expected to come up for an override vote on Wednesday.

For six hours, the committee heard from state environmental and health officials, Duke University scientists, UNC Wilmington’s legislative liaison and the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority. There were several points of near-consensus:

  • It will require a lot of money — tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars — for sampling, monitoring and cleanup.
  • Federal and state regulations are too weak to rein in companies like Chemours, which have found legal loopholes allowing them to pollute. They also can keep much of the information about GenX secret, under federal rules governing Confidential Business Information.
  • State government and universities should work cooperatively, using their technical abilities and expertise, to attack the problem.

The problem of emerging contaminants — unregulated, secret and hard to detect with standard laboratory equipment — is plaguing environmental regulators nationwide.

“This is like industrial whack-a-mole,” Tracy Skrabal, coastal scientist and manager of the Southeast Regional Office of the NC Coastal Federation, told the select committee. “If it were that easy, we wouldn’t have a national problem.”

Read more

Environment, Legislature

Who’s cribbing from whom? Sen. Mike Lee and Civitas share talking points on GenX, DEQ funding

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

Sen. Mike Lee, a Republican from New Hanover County, gave an impassioned presentation about GenX to his fellow lawmakers on the Environmental Review Commission yesterday, saying, “We don’t know who to trust. We seem to be getting contradictory information.”

He then proposed that lawmakers not approve the governor’s request for $2.58 million in recurring funds for the state environmental and health departments, but instead, funnel the money to the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority and UNC Wilmington to come up with an “action plan.”

The subtext was that Lee doesn’t trust the state agencies, but he does trust the utility. However, the utility has experienced lapses of its own. According to a letter from DEQ to Republican Senate caucus, the utility knew about GenX in the drinking water last May — 13 months before it became public via the Star-News.

Where did this funding idea come from? An Aug. 14 letter from Civitas to the House and Senate leadership offers a few clues. Written by Civitas President Francis X. De Luca, the letter asks House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate Pro Tem Phil Berger to allocate those funds to public water systems in the lower Cape Fear. “Spending money for a solution is a much more effective and direct way to respond,” the letter reads.

Rep. Holly Grange, a Republican from New Hanover County (Photo: NCGA)

However, the “action plan,” also supported by fellow Republican Reps. Holly Grange of New Hanover County and Chris Millis of Pender County,  is inchoate. Millis, who sits on the ERC, made a motion for the General Assembly staff to coordinate with the Lower Cape Fear utilities, plus UNC Wilmington, “to begin a dialogue on a proper plan of action to address the matter before us.”

Even though there is no evidence that this rudimentary plan would address the sense of urgency facing Wilmington residents, the ERC approved it, albeit without the funding component.

Civitas, notoriously anti-regulatory, recently cribbed a page from the Southern Environmental Law Center playbook. On July 28, Civitas sent Chemours, DEQ and the EPA a written notice of illegal conduct under the Clean Water Act. If the DEQ has not adequately addressed these claims within 60 days of notification, Civitas can sue. (The Cape Fear utility sent its own 60-day notice on Aug. 3.)

The SELC used the same protocol in 2013 over Duke Energy’s coal ash storage. In that case, DEQ, under Secretary John Skvarla, thwarted SELC’s suit by bringing an enforcement action — on the 59th day. (The court allowed the firm to have intervener status in the proceeding.) DEQ’s maneuver was widely viewed as a way to shield Duke from a lengthy citizens’ lawsuit.

So if the Cooper administration and/or DEQ does file an enforcement action against Chemours, then Civitas could try to argue the agency is trying to shield Chemours, as the previous administration allegedly attempted to do with Duke Energy. And if DEQ doesn’t file an enforcement action, the Civitas could claim the agency is being soft on polluters. Either way, Civitas has politicized the issue.

And none of this will immediately help the residents of the Lower Cape Fear River Basin.

“In light of these actions,” DeLuca wrote, “We are confident we may soon see some progress, even if slow.”