Courts & the Law, Education, Legislature, News

After Parkland, N.C. Democratic lawmakers call for package of gun reforms

Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, center, at a previous
N.C. General Assembly press conference.

More than a month after a gunman killed 17 in a Florida high school, several North Carolina Democrats called on state lawmakers Monday to pass a package of gun reforms that’s expected to include an expansion of background checks, raising the age for purchasing assault weapons, a ban on bump stocks and additional funding for school counselors and psychologists.

Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr., a veteran Durham Democrat, called the package “incremental legislation” that he hoped would have the support of Republicans and Democrats in the General Assembly.

“We’re taking steps to move our state in the right direction,” said McKissick.

McKissick noted he’s also a victim of gun violence, referring to a reported 1985 incident in a North Carolina convenience store in which robbers reportedly wounded him with a sawed-off shotgun.

Monday’s press conference at the state legislature was hosted by Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Wake County Democrat, and included multiple calls for “common sense” reforms from Democrats such as McKissick, Rep. Marcia Morey, Rep. Grier Martin and Sen. Jeff Jackson.

“We realize the issue of gun violence can be fraught with controversy,” said Chaudhuri. “But controversy should not be confused with common sense gun measures.”

No North Carolina Republicans have officially endorsed the proposals put forth Monday, but Democratic lawmakers insisted that the measures have “bipartisan” support, pointing out similar reforms were passed by Florida Republican lawmakers and signed by Republican Gov. Rick Scott this month.

No draft legislation was available yet Monday, but Democrats said the package will follow Florida Republicans in lifting the legal age to purchase assault weapons from 18 to 21 and banning bump stocks, which can be used to speed firing from semi-automatic rifles. A gunman reportedly used bump stocks last year when he allegedly killed 58 and injured more than 800 at a Las Vegas concert.

“This is the essence of bipartisanship,” said Jackson, a Charlotte Democrat.

Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham)

The package would also include a “red flag” provision, said Morey, a retired district court judge from Durham, allowing courts to hold a hearing to determine if a “dangerous” individual’s guns should be taken away.

Morey compared her proposal to existing court protections for victims of domestic violence, who can petition courts to seize weapons and impose restraining orders on their alleged abusers.

Monday’s press conference followed several days after K-12 students nationwide walked out of their classrooms to protest gun violence. 

Many of the ideas put forth Monday mirrored those made by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper last week, although lawmakers said they will also move to expand funding for school counselors and psychologists. It was unclear how much additional funding legislators would seek at press time.

McKissick said North Carolina employs one school psychologist for every 2,000 students. Nationally, schools have about one psychologist for every 700 students.

Meanwhile, he said the state has just one school counselor for every 375 students, compared to the national ratio, which is about one for every 250 students.

Lawmakers said they would also support an anonymous tip line statewide that would allow individuals to report persons that they believe to be dangerous.

Finally, the package would direct the state’s Center for Safer Schools to study whether additional school resource officers are need in K-12 schools.

Asked why the proposals would not include mandatory wait times for firearms purchases, McKissick said Democrats were hoping to build a consensus. A proposal on wait times would have generated “substantial pushback,” he said.

“You want to try to come up with issues that hopefully will get that bipartisan support.”

Bipartisan support will be pivotal for reforms in the Republican-dominated legislature. However, state Republicans have been reluctant to back any enhanced gun control measures since the Parkland shooting.

House Speaker Tim Moore, a Cleveland County Republican, assembled a select panel on school safety to consider similar matters. That committee is scheduled to hold its first meeting Wednesday morning.

Meanwhile, at least one GOP lawmaker has joined in on calls to arm teachers, an idea that’s receiving a mostly icy reception from the state’s educators, according to an Elon University poll this month.

Environment, Legislature

Ethics complaint vs House Speaker Tim Moore alleges he sought preferential treatment from DEQ

N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore (Photo: NCGA)

Campaign for Accountability, a Washington, D.C., watchdog group, has filed an ethics complaint against House Speaker Tim Moore, alleging that in 2014 and 2015, he tried to receive preferential treatment from state environmental regulators.

In its letter to the state ethics commission, the group said that Moore allegedly violated state ethics law because he used his public position for financial benefit and that he did not avoid conflicts of interest.

Moore could not be immediately reached for comment.

According to emails included in the complaint by Campaign for Accountability, Moore, an executive in Southeast Land Holdings, LLC, asked the Underground Storage Tank division at the NC Department of Environmental Quality to waive penalties and grant extensions related to the removal of underground diesel tanks at a property the company owned in Siler City.

The purpose of the foot-dragging was to put the financial and liability onus for the environmental clean up on future property owners.

Southeast Land Holdings had purchased the 8.9-acre former poultry processing plant at a bankruptcy sale in November 2013, according to Chatham County land records. Southeast sold the property for $550,000 in September 2016.

From the chronology laid out in the emails, it appears that Southeast Land Holdings stonewalled for more than eight months on cleaning up the corroding tanks, one of which contained diesel about 5 inches deep.

When these tanks leak — and nearly all of them do — they can allow contaminants such as diesel and gasoline to enter the groundwater. Depending on the area, contaminated groundwater can then pollute drinking water wells or lakes and streams.

On Aug. 11 2014, the UST Division conducted an compliance inspection, based on a complaint from a neighbor of the property who said they smelled fumes. Ten days later, the UST Division issued Southeast a notice of violation, in part for failing to “permanently close two substandard UST systems.”

The next month, DEQ emails show that Moore requested a meeting with two people in UST Division, including its chief, as well as a waiver of late payment penalties totaling $2,520. DEQ granted the waiver, which is not unusual.

Art Barnhardt, the UST Section Chief, wrote to Moore, who had indicated to DEQ that a new property owner could use the tanks — effectively allowing Southeast to absolve itself of any responsibility for them.

“You indicated that perhaps the new owner could possibly continue to use the tanks … That does not appear to be a viable option in this case … It is doubtful a new owner would want to utilize a system of this age and status.”

In November 2014, DEQ gave Southeast a 30-day extension to close and remove the tanks.

However, by the following April, Southeast had still failed to hold up its end of the deal; Moore called UST Division asking for yet another extension “to find a buyer for the property.” Southeast did not remove the tanks as required, although it did pay tank fees.

In early May 2015 –18 months after Southeast purchased the property and nine since the notice of violation — the tanks still had not been closed.

“The LLC seems to have delayed the environmental assessment pending a sale of the property,” wrote Linda Culpepper, then DEQ’s director of waste management. “A pending sale should not delay an assessment.”

Then-Assistant DEQ Secretary Tom Reeder, who was copied on internal emails, appeared reluctant to let Moore and Southeast off the hook. Reeder directed Culpepper to “handle this case just like it would any other one with similar circumstances.”

Also in May 2015, Moore told DEQ that the diesel had been removed from the tanks. By cleaning out the tanks (but not removing them), Southeast became eligible for DEQ grants to help cover the cost.

Southeast said it had a prospective buyer that agreed to remove the tanks, prompting Moore to request yet another extension — 90 days. DEQ approved the extension.

That buyer fell through, but in September 2016, Southeast sold the property to Mountainaire Farms. And that fall, Southeast filed a claim with DEQ to recoup $22,4000 in clean up costs for the tanks.

 

Environment, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

Gov. Cooper’s office: Lawmakers have “imperiled” pipeline agreement by reallocating funds

At a public hearing in Garysburg, Tom Betts, a supporter of the Atlantic Coast
Pipeline, echoed the utilities’ promises that the project will bring economic
development and jobs to eastern North Carolina. However, privately,
local economic developers were concerned those claims were overblown.
(Photo: Lisa Sorg)

In a letter to lawmakers today, Kristi Jones, chief of staff for Gov. Roy Cooper, implied that a $57.8 million mitigation fund for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline could be in jeopardy now that lawmakers have reallocated the money from its original purpose.

“It’s unclear if North Carolina will receive these funds, denying businesses and farms in eastern North Carolina access to natural gas and much-needed economic development,” read the letter, addressed to Republicans Sen. Bill Rabon and Rep. David Lewis.

Divided between Duke Energy and Dominion Energy, the money was to be used to offset environmental impacts from the pipeline’s construction, as well as economic development and renewable energy projects in the eight counties along the route: Northampton, Halifax, Nash, Wilson, Johnston, Cumberland, Sampson and Robeson.

But earlier this week, lawmakers passed House Bill 90, hodgepodge legislation that tied a critical class-size provision to the diversion of the mitigation funds to school districts in the affected counties. Gov. Cooper allowed the bill to become law without his signature.

Dominion Energy co-signed a memorandum of agreement with Cooper’s office; the utility could not immediately be reached for comment.

The fund, though, has been controversial among lawmakers and environmental advocates who view it as financial exchange for state approval of a key water quality permit. The fund would have been voluntary and non-binding. And even with financial help, it’s unlikely that industry in eastern North Carolina could afford the millions of dollars to hook onto the pipeline.

Nor are there assurances that the cost of the natural gas would be affordable, an important point since these counties are among the poorest in the state.

In the letter, Jones also explained the origin of the fund. The details confirm what pipeline opponents have been cautioning for the past 18 months: That despite the utilities’ and economic developers’ public claims, there was private concern that the economic prospects of the project was overblown.

It is also unclear, based on Jones’s letter, whether ratepayers or shareholders would cover the cost of the mitigation fund. If ratepayers were to bear the financial burden — in addition to the $5.5 billion cost of the project — that would further undermine the claim that the pipeline would help eastern North Carolina.

Jones wrote that discussions began in 2017  — although she does not say what month — when “eastern North Carolina economic developers and others expressed concerns about whether the pipeline would bring the economic growth it promised.”

Cooper and his administration were also concerned about the pipeline’s ability to revive eastern North Carolina’s economy as well as the environmental impacts to air, water and forests along the route, Jones wrote. She added that the fund was established independent of permit approvals by the NC Department of Environmental Quality.

The fund would have been administered by a third-party selected by the governor, although Jones wrote that Cooper would not decide what projects would be funded. Distribution of the money to environmental and economic projects would have been based on reviews of applications by “qualified government entities and nonprofits.”

Examples of those entities, Jones wrote, were the Rural Infrastructure Authority and the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, both of which currently award grants to similar types of projects. Jones told lawmakers that Cooper would have signed an executive order that would have made the fund subject to Public Records and Open Meetings Laws, as well as the State Ethics Act.

 

Kristi Jones/Roy Cooper letter by Lisa Sorg on Scribd

Environment, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

Another day, another violation for Chemours over GenX, PFOA contamination

The purple lines indicate Phase 4 of drinking water well testing near the Chemours Fayetteville
Works plant. DEQ is requiring the fourth phase because the agency has not yet found the
edge of the GenX contamination (Map: NCDEQ)

During a House floor debate last month on GenX legislation, Rep. Pat McElraft took an unusual stance: defending Chemours, the spin-off company of DuPont responsible for widespread pollution in drinking water and the Cape Fear River.

“Chemours is serious about cleaning up the contamination,” said McElraft, a Carteret County Republican. “Don’t blame Chemours totally. Maybe they made mistakes. They’re trying to do their best to do what’s right.”

There was no evidence to support that contention then, and there is even less now. DEQ released a letter today to Chemours detailing the company’s refusal to comply with the agency’s requests to control the release of perfluorinated and polyfluorinated compounds from its Fayetteville Works plant.

After groundwater tests on and near the Chemours plant showed high levels of PFOAs and PFOSs, DEQ sent the company a letter on Dec. 15, 2017, demanding that it implement “interim” measures to control the sources of contamination and stop the discharge. The company was also required to identify and address any hazards that occurred because of the contamination.

A month later Chemours responded, but failed to detail how it was stemming the discharge or controlling the sources, DEQ said. As a result, the agency is now requiring “immediate” measures to stop and clean up the pollutants. That includes excavating contaminated areas, cleaning potentially contaminated equipment, and reducing or eliminating air emissions that are contributing to the groundwater problems. Chemours has until Feb. 26 to tell DEQ what the company has done — and will continue to do — to meet the requirements.

DEQ could fine Chemours for failing to comply by the deadline.

DEQ scientists theorize that chemicals leaving the plant’s smokestacks are reacting with water — via rain or wet ground — and transforming into GenX. The contaminated water then drains into the soil and eventually pollutes the groundwater. That groundwater in turn, feeds private drinking water wells of households near the plant.

Chemours received permission yesterday from the Division of Air Quality to install a trial system to remove PFASs and PFOAs from air emissions. Any pollution captured by the filtration system must disposed offsite.

As for House Bill 189, the Senate failed to vote on it. Instead, senators rewrote the legislation, redirecting key funding for DEQ away from addressing the contamination. Instead, the agency would have to spend upward of $1.5 million on bureaucracy, including analyzing the last 43 years’ worth of wastewater discharge permits.

The House failed to vote on the Senate version this week, sending the bill to its River Quality Committee. That committee is scheduled to meet Wednesday, Feb. 21, at 9:30 a.m. in Room 643 of the Legislative Office Building.

Gov. Roy Cooper released a statement today expressing his ire for GOP lawmakers who “have gone home without doing anything to protect clean drinking water for North Carolina families.

“State environmental experts continue to hold Chemours accountable and are using all available resources to track the spread of GenX, and the latest notice of violation announced today shows the urgency. People in the Cape Fear region have a right to be angry that legislative leaders have failed to do their duty and give state scientists the tools they need to deal with GenX and other emerging contaminants.”

Environment, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

“Frankenstein’s monster”: House Bill 90 heads to governor’s desk

Note: NC Policy Watch education reporter Billy Ball is blogging about the class-size portion of the bill. 

Over the past week, House Bill 90, originally titled “NC Truth in Education,” earned a new nickname: Frankenstein’s monster.

The difference between the literary Frankenstein’s monster and the legislative one is that the former had translucent skin that, as Mary Shelley wrote, “barely disguised the workings of the arteries and muscles underneath.” The latter had no such transparency. In fact, fashioned behind closed doors, the clunky legislation fused class-size requirements, changes to elections and ethics boards, and a rebuke of the governor’s deal over the Atlantic Coast Pipeline into a form likely unrecognizable even to its creators.

Nonetheless, the House passed the bill this morning 104-12. One Republican, Hugh Blackwell of Burke County,  joined 11 Democrats in voting against it. Last Friday, the Senate passed it 37-5.

Attached at the last minute, the environmental portion of the legislation reallocates $57.8 million from a mitigation fund related to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. In late January, Gov. Roy Cooper announced he had brokered a  deal with Dominion Energy, co-owner of the controversial project with Duke Energy, to create the fund. Its purpose is to offset the pipeline’s many environmental impacts, jumpstart economic development in eastern North Carolina, as well as create renewable energy projects. Now, the bill requires the money to be used instead for local school districts in the eight counties along the pipeline’s 160-mile route through eastern North Carolina.

“That money could be used for natural gas distribution lines and creating jobs,” said Rep. Darren Jackson, a Wake County Democrat who voted against the bill. “Now we’re killing jobs” in rural North Carolina.

It’s also possible that by diverting money to the eight school districts  (the complex formula to calculate the amounts should be an Algebra test question)  that lawmakers could justify cutting education funding in the future. That could backfire because the deal between the state and Dominion is not binding. Since it’s voluntary, Jackson noted, “they can walk away without putting any money into the fund.”

Last week, Sen. Erica Smith, a Democrat representing Northampton County, where the pipeline will enter the state, said it was “unfair” to tie the fund to a much-needed class-size fix. Smith compared the trade-off to “keeping your arm but losing your leg.”

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