Environment, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

Private firm to investigate Gov. Cooper’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline deal: “We have no political agenda”

A private firm formed by three former federal agents will investigate Gov. Roy Cooper’s controversial memorandum of understanding with Dominion Energy over the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

At a subcommittee meeting today, lawmakers announced they had hired Eagle Intel, based in Wilmington, to conduct the investigation. The firm, composed of Frank Brostrom, Tom Beers and Kevin Greene, incorporated last year. Brostrom worked for the FBI, and Beers and Greene for the Internal Revenue Service. Their areas of expertise focused on tax evasion and financial and political corruption, as well as organized crime and terrorism cases.

This is not a criminal probe, but a civil one, prompted by legislative oversight, said Sen. Harry Brown, a Republican from Onslow County.

The firm charges $100 an hour for its services, but until the investigation is under way, it’s unknown what the final cost will be.

Under the non-binding MOU signed by Cooper and Dominion nearly a year ago, the Virginia-based utility and Duke Energy, co-owners of ACP, LLC, would pay $57.8 million for economic development and renewable energy projects along the 160-mile route through eastern North Carolina. The announcement of the MOU coincided by just hours with the Department of Environmental Quality’s granting of a key water quality permit for the project.

Republican lawmakers then introduced and passed House Bill 90, which funneled the money away from its original purpose and toward public schools in the affected counties. However, no money has been disbursed yet. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has not issued its final construction permits for part of the route in North Carolina, which would trigger half of the amount to be due.

The other half of the money would be payable when the ACP is completed. That could take years. Last week, a federal appeals court halted all construction on the 600-mile pipeline over US Fish and Wildlife’s questionable assessment of the project’s potential damage to endangered species.

DEQ and the governor’s office have denied working in tandem on the timing of the permit and the MOU. But Republican lawmakers want Eagle Intel to determine if the MOU involved “pay-to-play” — that the voluntary monetary contribution smoothed the way for the water quality permit.

Lawmakers, led by a Republican majoriy, informally requested documents from the governor’s office and DEQ about the MOU, but never received them, despite multiple inquiries. They filed a formal public records request last month. (Environmental advocates and the media, including Policy Watch, likewise filed records requests from the governor and received no documents of significance; the requests have yet to be completely fulfilled.)

Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat on the panel that hired Eagle Intel, said the governor’s office and DEQ are expected to provide documents by Dec. 20. “I think it’s premature to investigate,” McKissick said.

But the governor’s office, as if to say, “touche’,” filed its own records request with lawmakers. In a document dated today, Dec. 12, Kristi Jones, the governor’s chief of staff, formally asked for voluminous information that could reveal whether Republican lawmakers’ concerns are legitimate or merely a power play. Among the governor’s request is communications among legislators, staff and any third parties, including the state Republican Party, executive director Dallas Woodhouse and chairman Robin Hayes.

The agents, who were present at today’s subcommittee meeting, emphasized that they have “no political agenda, no dog in the fight.”

“We will follow where the facts lead us,” Brostrom said.

According to voter registration records, Brostrom and Greene are registered Republicans; Beers is unaffiliated.

Commentary, Courts & the Law, Environment, Legislature, News, Special Session, Voting

The week’s Top Stories on NC Policy Watch

1. The next big battle in North Carolina politics is just days away

The 2018 election may finally be in the rear view mirror, but for better or worse, the next battle over the state’s future will commence very soon – on Tuesday, November 27. That’s the day that Republican legislative leaders will convene the latest of their endless stream of “special” legislative sessions.

Unfortunately, there’s little indication that there will be anything very special about this particular convening – unless, that is, one places a high priority on voter suppression, dishonest schemes to amend the state constitution, and rump, lame duck governance in which unaccountable decision makers attempt to foist lasting change upon a mostly uninformed public.

As usual, we know very little about the specifics of the planned session at this point, but multiple news outlets have reported that it will feature the adoption of legislation to implement (i.e. flesh out the details for) some or all of three constitutional amendments approved by voters last week. That means that we could see legislation related to the amendments on voter ID, victims’ rights and hunting and fishing. The tax cap amendment requires no new legislation.[Read more…] ===
2. With the supermajority doomed, North Carolina should reconsider Medicaid expansion

Despite the manufactured panic of the migrant caravan, despite the midterm’s so-called “referendum on Trump,” despite the nation’s nonsensical gun laws, despite an election that often seemed a direct rebuke of misogynist GOP leaders and policies, the pollsters told us the 2018 election would begin and end with healthcare.

Prevailing wisdom held that, in 2010, voters were rankled by Obamacare when they tossed Democrats and other supporters of former President Obama’s signature legislation.

If past is prologue, 2018’s bad-tempered midterms would spell similar problems for Republicans, who’d, according to the polls, irritated voters by meddling with Obamacare. These days the law, warts and all, enjoys broad support in the general public, and enthusiasm for the GOP’s “repeal Obamacare or bust” campaign seemed to wane even before the late John McCain’s dramatic thumbs down.

Remarkably, a full-throated 41 percent of voters told exit pollsters last week that health care was their most important issue this year, according to NBC News, dwarfing even the economy, gun reform, and immigration. To twist Clinton strategist James Carville’s words, it’s Obamacare, stupid. [Read more…]

3. Partisan gerrymandering will be North Carolina’s next big court battle

Breaking the Republicans’ veto-proof legislative majorities was the short game for North Carolina Democrats and many voting rights activists this year. Their long game? Ending partisan gerrymandering for good in North Carolina.

Common Cause, the North Carolina Democratic Party and a group of individual voters filed a lawsuit earlier this week in Wake County Superior Court challenging the redrawn 2017 maps used in the election last week. They are using the state constitution’s Equal Protection and Free Election clauses as well as the free speech and association guarantees to make their case.

“There is nothing ‘equal’ about the ‘terms’ on which North Carolinians vote for candidates for the General Assembly,” the 69-page lawsuit states. “North Carolina’s Constitution also commands that ‘all elections shall be free’ – a provision that has no counterpart in the federal constitution. Elections to the North Carolina General Assembly are not ‘free’ when the outcomes are predetermined by partisan actors sitting behind a computer.” [Read more…]

***Bonus read: Trump nominee Farr could be confirmed to Eastern District judgeship by end of year

4. Republican legislators pledge to probe Cooper Atlantic Coast Pipeline deal

The Joint Subcommittee on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline voted Wednesday to launch an investigation into Gov. Roy Cooper’s office, albeit one without an investigator — and without any notion of how much the inquiry would cost.

The investigation, spearheaded by Republican Sens. Harry Brown and Paul Newton and Rep. Dean Arp, will look into whether Gov. Roy Cooper’s $57.8 million Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Duke Energy and Dominion Energy was a “pay to play” deal to construct a segment of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in North Carolina.

The lawmakers have implied that, in exchange for ponying up the money — which Cooper would control via an escrow account — the utilities would receive key water quality permits from the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). [Read more...]

5. High-powered trial lawyers joust as latest hog trial commences

Robert Thackston, who is tall, bald, with a trunk as straight as a redwood’s, removed his midnight-blue suit jacket to reveal a white twill shirt so crisp it threatened to shatter.

On the seventh floor, in Room No. 2 of the federal courthouse in Raleigh, the Texas lawyer sat at the head of a scurry of attorneys hired by Smithfield, the world’s largest pork producer. He rocked in his chair and flipped through his thicket of notes, as if perusing a wine list. He raised his eyes and gazed at the grid of lights in the ceiling. He seemed to be rehearsing.
Robert Thackston

Behind him, in the gallery, fellow Texas attorney Michael Kaeske, graying but boyish, smiled and shook hands with each of the plaintiffs. The eight Black neighbors of a 6,000-head industrialized hog farm near Rose Hill in Sampson County had entrusted him with their story. It seemed to weigh on him. Flanked by lawyers from the Salisbury firm Wallace and Graham, which hired him as the lead attorney, he approached his desk and turned around to face the packed courtroom. He touched three fingers to the side of his neck, as if measuring his pulse.

The fourth hog nuisance case against Smithfield Foods began in US District Court on Wednesday. Yet even before the trial, its methods and strategies contrasted with the previous three. The farm in question, Sholar, is owned and operated by Smithfield Foods. Although in all of the cases the defendant is Smithfield, the company has often used its growers — family farmers contractually bound to corporate whims — as a public relations tool to elicit sympathy. This time, there is no family farmer. There is just Smithfield. [Read more…]

6. Folwell, State Health Plan swim against rising tide with denial of insurance coverage to transgender individuals

North Carolina is not the only state whose transgender state employees and dependents are without insurance coverage under their state’s health plan.

But the state’s blanket exclusion of treatments for gender dysphoria—from counseling and hormone treatment to gender confirmation surgery—puts it firmly in the minority.

Only 12 states in the U.S. currently have explicit exclusions of transgender and transition-related health care in their state employee health benefits. Seventeen states and Washington D.C explicitly provide for this type of care as part of their employee health benefits. Twenty-one states don’t specifically cover the treatment but do not have a blanket exclusion, making it easier for patients to appeal for some treatments and for the coverage to expand to include them.

“Generally speaking, it’s a positive trend,” said Logan Casey with the Movement Advancement Project, a Colorado-based group that tracks state stances on LGBTQ rights issues. [Read more…]

7. Weekly Editorial Cartoon:

 

Environment, Legislature

Sen. Trudy Wade: Her loss, should it stand, could be a win for the environment

Photo of Senator Trudy Wade of Guilford County

In 2017, Sen. Trudy Wade, a Republican of Guilford County, toured the Sweeney treatment plant in Wilmington, where GenX had been detected in the drinking water. Wade, long an environmental antagonist, appears to have lost re-election. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

Throughout her three terms, Sen. Trudy Wade earned a reputation as a faithful ally of polluting industries, consistently reliable for a vote against environmental regulation.

But if current election results hold, those industries, particularly waste management, will have lost their best friend in the legislature.

According to unofficial results from Guilford County, Democrat Michael Garrett beat Wade by 763 votes. Provisional ballots aren’t included in that total. Given the margin of less than 1 percent, Wade could request a recount.

Nonetheless, Wade, who serves on the Environmental Review Commission and key oversight and appropriations committees over the environment and agriculture, has left a legacy in the legislature, even for her support of bills that didn’t pass.

She has sponsored bills to relax protective buffers between landfills and wildlife refuges, to allow garbage trucks to be only “leak-resistant” rather than leak-proof, and to discontinue electronics recycling.

On June 29, 2016, in the final days of the session, Wade was on the Senate ag/environment committee when suddenly, language for an ill-advised and untried “leachate aerosolization technology” appeared in an omnibus environmental bill. On June 30, the Wade campaign received $5,000 from Kelly Houston, its inventor, as well as another $5,000 from Houston’s wife.

Leachate aerosolization quickly became known as “garbage juice in a snow blower” because the technology sucked landfill leachate from tanks and sprayed it into the air. Ostensibly, the contaminated particles would fall harmlessly to the landfill surface. That contention was false; the particles can travel for miles, depending on the wind and topography.

That bill ultimately failed, but was resurrected in the next session by Rep. Jimmy Dixon, when it failed again — but came closer to becoming law.

She also supported House Bill 56, a grab-bag of environmental laws, containing a controversial section that sharply limits public input once state environmental officials issue a mining or landfill permit. These permits are known as “life-of-site” and are valid for as long as a company wants to operate. The maneuver also blunts opportunities for public comment, because hearings for permit renewals are generally when that comment is taken.

As a member of the Environmental Review Commission, Wade refused to recommend emergency funding for the NC Department of Environmental Quality to combat the GenX problem in the Cape Fear River and drinking water in New Hanover and Brunswick counties.

Instead, she and fellow senators Mike Lee (who trails by 36 votes to Harper Peterson, according to unofficial election results), Bill Rabon and Andy Wells sent a letter to the EPA asking the agency to audit the NC Department of Environmental Quality’s handling of discharge permits. While there have been legitimate questions about how DEQ handled the GenX drinking water crisis, the request to the EPA amounted to political posturing. The EPA already audits DEQ, and concluded it was appropriately operating the program.

Garrett’s apparent victory over Wade is in part the result of a redrawn district. Two years ago, Garrett lost by 6 percentage points. But after maps were changed to remedy gerrymandering, the district became more hospitable for Democrats. However, Wade is not one to go gently into the good night. In 2004, she lost her Guilford County Commissioners seat by fewer than 300 votes. She appealed to the state Supreme Court and stayed in office for 18 months before ultimately having to concede it.

agriculture, Commentary, Defending Democracy, Education, Legislature, News

The week’s Top Stories on Policy Watch

1. Call Trump’s migrant caravan panic what it is: Out-and-out racism.

One day, these figures – President Trump and his cohorts, the muck-brained minions of Fox News – will distance themselves from their own words and actions.

They will hedge and equivocate with other political controversies. They will suggest that 2018 was a less enlightened time, that the real-world consequences of their partisan-minded manipulations of the Central American migrant caravan – a winding stretch of desperate folks seeking jobs and safety – was murky at best.

Do not allow Trump and his followers such a luxury.

Document and attribute every word, every half-cooked assumption, every bone tossed to the dogs of the alt-right. Don’t let them forget what they said and did, because the marginalized Latino immigrants that such calamity is meant to intimidate will never forget. [Read more…]

2. The 2018 election: Fear on trial

It would be an understatement to say that a lot of very different issues and individuals will impact the outcome of the 2018 election that climaxes next Tuesday. Here in North Carolina, there are more than 200 different congressional, legislative and judicial races, multiple local bond proposals and, of course, a slate of six controversial constitutional amendments to be decided. The decisions voters render will go a long way toward deciding the future of healthcare, the federal and state courts, public education, tax policy, human rights and the very nature of our democracy itself.

All that said, it’s clear that one phenomenon looms larger than any other two years after the election of Donald Trump: fear.

And, no, the fear at issue is not the fear that many Americans confront on a daily basis as they contemplate the reality of having a narcissistic serial liar backed by a delusional and increasingly well-armed army of extremists ensconced in the White House. The fear in this case is the anxiety and dread that have become the stock-in-trade and lingua franca of Trumpism.[Read more...]

3. State health plan board member disagrees with Folwell, opposes denial of coverage to transgender people

Last week, transgender North Carolinians and their families spoke out against the decision by state officials to deny coverage of treatments for transgender people from the NC State Health Plan.

Now, at least one member of the health plan’s board of trustees — the only one other than state treasurer Dale Folwell yet to respond to Policy Watch inquiries — is speaking out on the issue and urging a change.

“The core issue for me is that we have a group of State Health Plan members who have reached out to us for help,” said Kim Hargett in an interview with Policy Watch. “The goal of the state health plan is to help our members. At this point, it warrants looking for ways to help them.”

Hargett, a teacher at Marshville Elementary School in Union County, is one of two members of the board appointed by Gov. Roy Cooper. [Read more…]

4. NC recovery courts training encourages reducing stigma, equal access

One of the major themes at a statewide conference this week for recovery court personnel was stigma.

“It’s important to smash the stigma in all settings, but especially this one,” said Donald McDonald, Executive Director of Addiction Professionals of North Carolina. “Stigma keeps us from doing our best work for the people we serve.”

There are currently 49 recovery courts in 22 counties across North Carolina designed to work with people in the criminal justice system who have a substance use disorder. There are specialized family drug treatment courts, adult and youth drug treatment courts, DWI courts, mental health courts, veterans treatment courts and a tribal court. [Read more…]

5. This Week in Pollution: Living near industrialized hog farms could shorten your life

Won’t you (not) be my neighbor? Residents living within three miles of dense areas of industrialized hog farms are more likely to die sooner and suffer from chronic disease than people who don’t.

A study by by Duke University scientist Julia Kravchenko defined high density as at least 215 hogs stuffed into four-tenths of a square mile — 249 acres. Hog farms in North Carolina usually house between 1,000 and 10,000 hogs on even smaller plots of land.

In these rural zip codes, rates of kidney disease, asthma, anemia, cervical and uterine cancer, low birth weight, and high blood pressure during pregnancy were all higher than the US and North Carolina average. Death from all causes ranked eighth in the nation. [Read more…]

 

6. Stymied by questions about process and community backlash, state takeover of Goldsboro school delayed

Supporters of a controversial takeover program in struggling North Carolina schools hoped for a speedy approval of their latest project Wednesday. Instead, dogged by questions about process and a fiery local backlash surrounding a Goldsboro elementary, they’ll have to wait until at least next month for a resolution.

Members of the State Board of Education voted Thursday to delay a decision on Carver Heights Elementary in Wayne County until next month at the latest.

“You don’t have community support there,” board member Tricia Willoughby told leaders of the hotly-debated Innovative School District (ISD), a GOP-spearheaded program that would allow private groups, including for-profit companies, to temporarily seize control of up to five struggling public schools in hopes of boosting performance. [Read more…]

Environment, Legislature

Cooper signs order to combat climate change, commits to clean energy economy for NC

With historic storms lashing the state, Governor Roy Cooper says North Carolina must do more combat climate change and take steps that will lessen the impact of future natural disasters.

Cooper took the first step Monday in signing an executive order that calls on the State of North Carolina to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 40% below 2005 levels by 2025. The administration  will also take steps to support clean energy businesses moving forward.

Additionally the governor’s order also directs the following actions:

  • The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) will develop a North Carolina Clean Energy Plan to encourage the use of clean energy, including wind, solar, energy efficiency, and energy storage.
  • The North Carolina Department of Transportation will develop a plan to accelerate the use of zero-emission vehicles across state government. Cabinet agencies will prioritize the use of ZEVs for trips that can reasonably be made with a ZEV.
  • DEQ will help cabinet agencies improve their energy efficiency and publicly report utility consumption.
  • The North Carolina Department of Commerce will support the expansion of clean energy businesses and service providers, clean technology investment, and companies with a commitment to procuring renewable energy.

All cabinet agencies will integrate climate mitigation and resiliency planning into their policies, programs and operations.

Monday’s announcement received quick praise from the environmental community:

“While the Trump administration denies and withdraws, North Carolina has joined many other states and the rest of the world in taking on the crisis of climate change,” said Derb Carter, director of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s North Carolina offices. “We commend Governor Cooper for his leadership in confronting the biggest environmental challenge we face. Moving swiftly to clean sources of energy, smarter transportation and development, and enhanced natural defenses will build a stronger and more resilient North Carolina while growing our economy.”

“Governor Cooper’s executive order further advances North Carolina’s reputation as a clean energy leader. We look forward to working with him – and with our local leaders, businesses and farmers – to accelerate progress toward these goals.”  – Hawley Truax, EDF Southeast Regional Director

The solar farm at Cary’s SAS Institute served as the backdrop for today’s announcement.

Learn more by reading the full executive order below:

EO80- NC’s Commitment to Address Climate Change & Transition to a Clean Energy Economy