Environment

Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board could leverage local communities to pressure General Assembly for stronger laws

 

The 16-member board includes scientists, lawyers, public health experts and community organizers who are white, Black, Latinx and American Indian.

What the EPA won’t do because its leadership is beholden to polluting industries. What DEQ can’t do for lack of funding and political power. What many local governments refuse to do for fear industry will pass them over.

The state’s 16-member Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board is charged, if not explicitly, to do that. To wield political pressure, backed by the voices from their respective communities, and squeeze the General Assembly, federal and state regulators, and local planning and zoning boards to protect low-income neighborhoods and communities of color from the ravages of pollution.

“When do environmental justice communities get to be made whole?” said board member Veronica Carter at a meeting in Hollister last week. “We’ve got to figure out how to do something in the permit process or these communities will never have a chance.”

An environmental justice analysis is legally required in only one state program: The permitting of solid waste landfills.

Assistant DEQ Secretary Sheila Holman told the board that new landfills require an environmental impact analysis, which includes an assessment of the project on vulnerable communities. DEQ can deny a permit application for a new landfill if the  agency determines the cumulative impact disproportionately affects a minority or low income community.

There is no environmental justice requirement in the state for the siting of major air polluters, like wood pellet plants. Such a mandate would require the cooperation of the General Assembly, which under Republican control, has been loathe to add any environmental protections to the state law. In fact, legislators have rolled back many of the protections. Solid waste landfills now are allowed to operate under “life-of-site” permits, sharply curbing communities’ right to comment on the very operations that could contaminate the quality of their air, land and drinking water.

It’s also worth noting that the state’s Environmental Management Commission has significant rule-making authority. EMC members are appointed by the governor and House and Senate leadership. Rarely, if ever, does the EMC discuss environmental justice issues when it approves rules.

When do environmental justice communities get to be made whole? Click To Tweet

Board member Jamie Cole asked how the group could advise the Environmental Management Commission not only on justice issues but also on public engagement. The rule-making process can be byzantine and deeply steeped in science and legal minutiae; someone must be able to translate the issues into layperson’s terms. (Holman said EMC Chairman J.D. Solomon has requested to meet Environmental Justice board Chairman Jim Johnson Jr.)

Although political tides could turn in the next election, Regan also noted that any advances DEQ makes under his leadership and that of Gov. Roy Cooper could easily be undone under a different administration. “What should the legislative fix be?” said DEQ Secretary Michael Regan. “What should the General Assembly be required to do for legacy purposes?”

Regan also slipped inn a not-so-subtle criticism of previous DEQ secretaries John Skvarla and Donald van der Vaart, who were appointed by then-Gov. Pat McCrory. That administration routinely ignored environmental justice issues in its pursuit of being “business-friendly.”

“There is a lot willingness from staff to jump in [to address environmental justice],” Regan said. “A lot of this energy had been suppressed.” Read more

agriculture, immigration, News

More bad news for immigrant workers

While members of Congress seek to make the H-2A program cheaper and easier for employers by rolling-back worker protections, the US Department of Labor  continues to kick bad-actor employers out of the program. This week the USDOL’s Wage and Hour office in Raleigh announced that they had debarred two farm labor contractors from the H-2A guestworker programThis is just the latest in a series of such announcements, which underscores the flaws in the H-2A program.

The H-2A program allows employers to bring in foreign guestworkers to work in agriculture for up to 10 months.  By statute, H-2A visas are only supposed to be issued when importing foreign labor will not have an adverse effect on the wages and working conditions of the local workers doing the same kind of work.  To that end, DOL has passed regulations which govern the test of the local labor market which employers must first do before being permitted to bring in visa workers.

Additional regulations govern how workers – both H-2A visa workers and U.S. workers – are treated on the job, including setting a minimum wage, a minimum hours guarantee, the requirement that employers provide free housing which meets minimum standards and that employers reimburse the foreign visa workers for their inbound transportation costs and the expense of obtaining their visa.   The reimbursement requirement is important because visa workers usually arrive in the U.S. to begin working with significant debt, making it difficult for them to afford basic necessities, unlikely to complain about dangerous or illegal working conditions, and vulnerable to human trafficking as discussed in several publications (Close to Slavery, No Way to Treat a Guest) and articles (The New American Slavery: Invited to the U.S., Foreign Workers Find a Nightmare; “All You Americans Are Fired”).

This week’s announcement from the Raleigh USDOL office comes on the heels of similar announcements in April and May.  Worldwide Staffing, LLC, another H-2A Labor Contractor, was debarred by USDOL in April for  failing to reimburse employees for inbound expenses, owing wages,  failing  to provide adequate cooking facilities and overcharging for meals.  In May, USDOL announced they had debarred Marisa Garcia-Pineda, an H-2A labor contractor, who owed $195,735 in backwages, had charged illegal recruitment fees, and failed to reimburse the workers, among other violations.  That is all just from the last few months and there will be more this year.  Kudos to USDOL, but these actions represent a very small fraction of the problem because they can only debar employers from the H-2A program in the most extreme cases.

Despite the well-documented history of abuse of workers in the H-2A program, efforts in Congress to roll-back worker protections are ongoing.  Representative Goodlatte’s terrible Agricultural Guestworker Act was part of more comprehensive immigration legislation that was recently voted down in the House, but apparently Speaker Ryan has promised to address farm-labor legislation this summer.  In addition, the Trump Administration is expected to introduce new proposed rules for the H-2A program which would make it cheaper and more appealing to agricultural employers while undermining the basic protections for workers.

Environment

DEQ slow its roll on approving methyl bromide emissions from proposed log fumigation; Royal Pest has dicey history

 

Sandy Hester and his daughter, Mary, implore state environmental officials to deny the air permit for a fumigation operation near Delco. “What you’re doing is insane,” Mary said. A public hearing and information session were held in May at East Columbus High School. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

Two critical air permits involving methyl bromide are still under review by the NC Department of Environmental Quality, placing the companies’ plans for log fumigation on hold.

Royal Pest Solutions, based in New Castle, Del., and Malec Brothers, headquartered in Australia, had submitted applications for air permits last November. Although methyl bromide has been phased out in most countries because of its toxicity and its depletion of the ozone layer, there are exemptions. China, for example, requires logs entering its borders to be fumigated with methyl bromide to kill any invasive pests.

The two proposed fumigation facilities would export logs, most of them timbered in North Carolina, to China.

As Policy Watch reported in May, Malec Brothers proposed a log fumigation facility in rural Columbus County, near Delco and Riegelwood. That operation, which would be within a mile of a school, would emit 100 to 140 tons of methyl bromide each year, as much as 40 times more than the amount emitted from all sources statewide. Overwhelming community opposition prompted DEQ’s Division of Air Quality to slow down its review to further consider the public comments.

Division of Air Quality spokeswoman Sharon Martin said Malec Brothers has not amended its application to change emission amounts or controls. The company would place logs in large shipping containers, then infuse them with methyl bromide gas for 16 to 72 hours.

The containers would then be opened to allow any remaining gas to escape. The company’s air permit application stated that it would contain any excessive methyl bromide leaks using “sandbags and duct tape.”

As for Royal Pest Solutions, it has proposed a smaller facility at 476 Lees Meadow Road in Scotland Neck that would emit up to 9.5 tons of methyl bromide each year. Like Malec Brothers, that proposed operation would also use shipping containers for fumigation. However, according to Royal’s air permit application, the company would also use the tarp method. Logs would be piled on the ground, covered by a plastic tarp and fumigant would be injected inside. The emissions from the bulk piles beneath the tarp would be vented through a 30-foot stack.

Anne Bookout, vice president and general counsel for Royal Pest Solutions, told Policy Watch the company’s permit is still pending. “I understand that the regulators are not issuing any fumigation permits until they have resolved some of their internal issues with fumigation.”

The Lees Meadow Road neighborhood includes other industry, such as a lumberyard. But the facility would also lie a half-mile east-northeast of the Sylvan Heights Bird Park, a main tourist destination for Halifax County, as well as a quarter-mile from St. Matthew Holy Church. According to the EPA’s Environmental Justice Screen, of the 2,193 people who live within two miles of the proposed facility, 79 percent are from communities of color.

Emails obtained under the Public Records Act show that on May 1, Charles McEachern, an environmental engineer with the Division of Air Quality, told Bookout that “given the public hearing” for the Malec Brothers permit and “ongoing internal staff discussions” additional changes to the permit could be necessary. “At this time, your permit will be placed on hold,” in part, pending the” outcome of the Malec Brothers public hearing.”

In 2015, Royal was ordered to stop its fumigation operations at Suffolk County, Va., facility. The Virginia DEQ revoked the company’s air permit for failure to notify the agency before construction, anticipated startup, and actual startup. According to public documents, Royal also did not obtain a permit before construction; nor did it submit a Title V permit
application within one year of startup of the facility.

Last year, Virginia DEQ cited Royal’s Chesapeake, Va., fumigation operation, fining it $33,000 for violations of its air permit. Those violations included failure to meet any of the three minimum requirements: The company did not maintain a 300-foot zone that was off-limits to the public; it did not use a capture and control system for the fumigant; and it did not use monitoring equipment or methods to prevent levels of methyl bromide from exceeding approved concentrations in ambient air.

 

 

News

By 2040 just eight states – NC included – will hold 50 percent of U.S. population

An interesting piece in the Washington Post points to new population projections that show that by 2040, about half of the population of the United States will live in just eight states.

North Carolina is among them.

According to an analysis by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service of the University of Virginia, Census Bureau data suggests 49.5 percent will live in either North Carolina, California, Illinois, Florida, Georgia, New York, Pennsylvania or Texas.

What does that mean demographically and politically?

As the piece puts it:

“Thirty percent of the population of the country will control 68 percent of the seats in the U.S. Senate. Or, more starkly, half the population of the country will control 84 percent of those seats.

It’s self-evident that the 34 smaller states will be more rural than the 16 largest; a key part of the reason those states will be so much more populous is the centralization of Americans in cities. It’s true, too, that this movement to cities has reinforced partisan divisions in a process called the Big Sort.

The Weldon Cooper data, though, is less stark on the age differential. Eleven of the 16 most-populous states will have over-65 populations that are below the median density nationally. Twenty-two of the 34 less-populous states will have over-65 populations that are over the median density.

In the current political context, older voters means more Republican voters. By 2040, though, those 65-year-olds will be Generation X, a generation that currently skews more Democratic than the two generations that preceded it, according to a March study from the Pew Research Center. By 2046, even some millennials — a group that is much more Democratic-leaning — will be at retirement age (!!!).”

Read the whole piece here and the population projection data on which it is based here.

Environment

Dust-up between DEQ, advocates over environmental justice analysis at HF Lee plant; comment period ends today

The HF Lee plant in Goldsboro, as the smokestacks are being demolished. The plant has been retired, but four ash impoundments remain onsite. That ash could be processed for beneficial use at a new operation at the facility. (Photo: Duke Energy)

An environmental group is criticizing state regulators for failing to release an environmental justice analysis on a fly ash project at Duke Energy’s HF Lee plant before the public comment period closes.

Duke Energy wants to process fly ash for beneficial uses, including an ingredient in cement, at its Lee plant, at 1199 Black Jack Church Road in Goldsboro. The facility will require an air permit; the draft application is available online. The public comment period ends at 5 p.m. today. Interested persons can submit written comments via email to Ed.Martin@ncdenr.gov

“We have not finalized or released the environmental justice report because our process is to review the public comments and incorporate those into the final environmental justice analysis,” said DEQ spokeswoman Sharon Martin. “However, based on the public feedback this week, we are looking at a change going forward, with the release of a snapshot of EJ information during the public comment period, with the final report after.”

Therese Vick, community organizer with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, told Policy Watch that DEQ had informed her the analysis would be available in time for the public hearing, held earlier this week. “Their denial to extend the public comment period gives the community no opportunity to review or provide input on the report before a decision on the permit is made.”

DEQ conducted a similar assessment for a proposed fly ash project at Duke Energy’s Buck plant in Salisbury. That analysis was released on April 13; the public comment period ended on April 10.

The facility will process up to 400,000 tons of wet or dry fly ash annually. Duke Energy is using scrubbers and other advanced technologies to reduce air emissions. However, the operation won’t be emissions-free. Each year, Duke could emit more than 59 tons of very small particulate matter, known as PM 2.5, which can harm the respiratory system, especially of vulnerable people. Other annual potential emissions include 116,000 tons of greenhouse gases, 98 tons of sulfur dioxide, as well as smaller amounts of toxic air pollutants benzene, arsenic and chromium 6.

DEQ uses several publicly available tools to conduct environmental justice analyses, including the EPA’s Environmental Justice Screen and census data. That information can help DEQ determine whether a proposed permit or project disproportionately impacts communities of color or low-income neighborhoods.

According to the EJ screen, per capita income for people living within two miles of the Lee plant is $17,847 per year. That’s less than Goldsboro’s per capita income of $19,243, according to 2016 census data — and far less than the state average of $26,779. Using this data, regulators could decide that low-income communities would bear the pollution burden of the facility.

Two-thirds of people living in that area are white, according to the EJ screen, while 55 percent of Goldsboro’s population is Black.

However, data tells only part of the story. It’s equally important to canvass the area — to gather “ground truth” — to determine, for example, if the majority of people living closest to the plant are from communities of color. Age, disability status and health information of these areas can also factor into an analysis.

Environmental justice is a primary focus of both Secretary of the Environment Michael Regan, who is from Goldsboro, and Gov. Roy Cooper. DEQ’s first Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board held its inaugural meeting earlier this week. At that meeting, the agency acknowledged that it had not always succeeded at adequately communicating with the public. Last month, DEQ hired a bilingual public engagement liaison, Carolina Fonseca Jimenez, to help the agency with outreach, especially in rural communities.

The Lee and Buck facilities are two of three fly ash beneficiation projects in North Carolina. The other is  Cape Fear plant in Moncure, in Chatham County. These operations are mandated by a 2016 state law that amended the Coal Ash Management Act. The law requires the impoundment owner to identify three ash impoundment sites in North Carolina that could be suitable for a beneficial reuse facility.

The Lee plant, a retired coal-fired facility, has four ash ponds.