Education, Environment, Legislature, public health

Bill would require schools, day cares to test for lead in drinking water

A new bill would appropriate $8 million in non-recurring funds for public schools and some day cares to test for lead in their drinking water, as well as providing alternate water supplies for buildings that exceed federal action levels for the chemical.

House Bill 386 would require all public schools, including public charters, and those day cares located in commercial buildings to test for lead in water used for drinking, including fountains and drink stations.

Schools and day cares where lead levels are 5 parts per billion or higher — the federal action level for drinking water — would then have to immediately shut off fixtures where the elevated concentrations were detected. In addition, the bill lays out requirements for public notification — no more than 48 hours to all parents, faculty and staff in the affected school, as well as those governing alternate water supplies.

Lead is a neurotoxin that can harm the central nervous system, particularly in children, whose brains are developing. Chronic exposure to elevated lead levels can lower IQ, cause learning disabilities, behavioral problems, nerve damage and possibly Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia, according to the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health.

Last year, two school districts in North Carolina reported elevated lead levels at some of their facilities. In the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district, 27 schools tested above the action level. 

In Guilford County, three schools — Allen Jay Elementary, Frazier Elementary and Southeast Guilford Middle — all had lead in drinking water above the EPA’s action level for schools: 20 ppb. HB 386 would require schools and daycares to adhere to a more stringent federal standard set for drinking water.

The district did replace the plumbing responsible for the lead but waited four months to notify principals and parents of the findings.

Elevated lead levels are often the result of old plumbing, which has leached the chemical into drinking water. Aging schools and commercial buildings that haven’t been renovated can be affected.

Data on the age of North Carolina public schools wasn’t immediate available, but the National Center for Education Statistics reported that about a third of all public schools in the US had plumbing systems in their permanent buildings that were rated either fair or poor.

The bill establishes water testing deadlines for schools, depending on the age of the building and when the plumbing had last (or ever) been completely removed and replaced. Schools whose plumbing is new or has been renovated after Dec. 31, 1990, are exempt, as are schools that already monitor for lead.

Schools constructed on or before Dec. 31, 1960, must test by June 30, 2021. Those constructed between Jan. 1, 1961, and Dec. 31, 1990, must test by June 30, 2022.

The $8 million appropriation would provide matching funds for districts based on need.

 

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

SCSJ makes interim director permanent ahead of Supreme Court argument

Kareem Crayton

Kareem Crayton was announced Wednesday as the new executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ). He has served as the organization’s interim director since January 2018.

“We are proud to name Dr. Kareem Crayton as the Executive Director of our organization,” said Ryan Roberson, Chair of SCSJ’s Board of Directors. “It is abundantly clear to the Board that Dr. Crayton is the right person to continue leading SCSJ forward.”

Crayton was brought on after current state Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls, former executive director and founder of SCSJ, resigned to pursue running for a seat on the high court.

Crayton is a Montgomery, Alabama, native and was managing partner of Crimcard Consulting services, a firm that he founded to assist communities globally in their effort to seek political efficacy and equality. He had served on faculties including Harvard, the University of Southern California, the University of Alabama, the University of North Carolina and most recently, Vanderbilt University Law School.

The SCSJ announcement comes less than a week before the organization takes its second case in two years to the U.S. Supreme Court. Next week’s cases, Rucho v. League of Women Voters of North Carolina paired with sibling case Rucho v. Common Cause, are partisan gerrymandering challenges to North Carolina’s 2016 congressional redistricting plan. The high court could establish a national standard for how lawmakers use partisanship in the redistricting process.

Crayton said in a news release he is convinced this this pivotal moment in time in America makes the most sophisticated and mission-oriented work of civil rights advocates more crucial than ever.

“SCSJ’s work remains vital to protect voting rights and to advocate for key reforms in the criminal justice and youth justice arenas as well,” he added. “Our distinct brand of work as a community-centered organization has impact not only in the South but across the country. I am therefore proud to continue leading this talented and creative team as it defines a story that is true to SCSJ’s original vision while drafting a new chapter in its second decade of service.”

Commentary, News

The fight for $15 arrives at the General Assembly

[Cross-posted from the website of the North Carolina AFL-CIO.]

North Carolina lawmakers joined Raising Wages NC — a growing coalition of labor groups, advocates, business, and faith leaders — at a legislative press conference today to announce the introduction of H.B. 366, inclusive legislation that raises the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $15 an hour by 2024, indexes it to the cost of living, ends the subminimum wage for persons with disabilities, phases it out for tipped workers, and repeals exemptions for agricultural and domestic workers.

North Carolina’s minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 an hour for a decade and does not cover everyone. At the event, legislators, workers, business owners, and faith leaders called attention to the moral and economic imperative of making sure that everyone who works full time can earn a living wage, afford the basic necessities, and has a fair opportunity to work hard and succeed — including people with disabilities, people who care for our homes and families, people who serve our food, and the people who grow it.

“This bill will undo decades of exclusions for workers like me,” said Priscilla Smith of Durham, a direct care worker and a member of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which is part of the Raising Wages NC Coalition. “We are taking steps to finally include all workers and make sure no one gets left behind in the fight for living wages.”

According to a report released today by the nonpartisan NC Justice Center, gradually raising the minimum wage in North Carolina to $15 an hour by 2024 “would boost paychecks for almost 1.6 million working people, giving each of them a raise of $4,422 per year and a combined $7 billion for all workers across the state.” Moreover, the report’s authors reviewed empirical studies on job growth and employment rates and found no difference between states which have enacted minimum wage increases and those that have not. Even in cases where employers reduced hours to offset higher labor costs, the report finds that workers still came out ahead from higher hourly earnings and predicted that North Carolina “businesses will directly benefit” when 1.6 million new customers are able to spend those higher earnings on their goods and services.

“As I always say, the economy and community cannot be successful unless everyone has an opportunity to participate,” said Eric Henry, president of TS Designs in Burlington and chair of the N.C. Business Council. “Raising the minimum wage to $15 by 2024 is a good step toward achieving that goal.”

Reps. Susan Fisher, Jean Farmer-Butterfield, MaryAnn Black, and Pricey Harrison are primary sponsors of H.B. 366. In addition to lawmakers, speakers at the press conference included Rev. Jennifer Copeland, NC Council of Churches; Wendy’s worker Earl Bradley and Waffle House waitress Eshawney Gaston, Raise Up for $15 and a Union; direct care worker Priscilla Smith, National Domestic Workers Alliance We Dream in Black NC Chapter; TS Designs president Eric Henry, NC Business Council; and Ana Pardo, NC Justice Center Workers’ Rights Project.

For more information about the campaign, visit www.raisingwagesnc.org.

Commentary, Courts & the Law, News

A must-read: New series shows long odds for sexual assault convictions in NC

From time to time, good reporters go above and beyond in their public service.

Case in point: A new four-part series publishing this week details the stunningly long odds of a sexual assault conviction in North Carolina today. And in some counties, it’s near impossible.

The numbers indicate, quite frankly, what many advocates have long believed to be the case: the criminal justice system is stacked against victims. 

From Carolina Public Press’ synopsis of the series:

Analysis of 4 ½ years of North Carolina court data shows that about 1 in 4 sexual assault defendants who were charged and had their cases resolved in that time window were convicted of either sexual assault or a reduced and related charge. Of those cases in that time period, 50 defendants went to trial; 23 were found guilty. But individual counties had different outcomes. More than 30 of the state’s 100 counties had no sexual assault or reduced-charge convictions at all. A few were well above the statewide level.

A collaborative investigative project spanning 6 ½ months and including 11 news organizations analyzed statewide court data and conducted extensive interviews with sexual assault survivors, victim advocates, medical professionals, law enforcement, prosecutors and state officials across the North Carolina.

The result is Seeking Conviction, an investigative series examining sexual assault convictions in North Carolina, the challenges to successful prosecution, the differences across jurisdictions and the issues state court rulings create when it comes to consent.

Keying on its exhaustive analysis of court records, the series found that the prospect of a sexual assault conviction varies depending on your zip code.

Indeed, in some counties, suspects face very little chance of a conviction, while in others, the chances are markedly higher.

This week’s series is a call to action. Make it the first of many, many conversations.

Environment

Wake County judge temporarily halts quarry operation near Umstead Park

 

There will be no hole in the ground, at least for now.

Wake Stone is temporarily prohibited from starting its new quarry operation near Umstead State Park, according to an injunction granted in Wake County Superior Court. The company may conduct exploratory borings, but can’t clear trees or begin digging the pit on the 105-acre tract.

The Umstead Coalition is among several plaintiffs who asked for the injunction, alleging that a March 1, 2019, lease agreement between the RDU Airport Authority and Wake Stone is illegal. Since the property would be leased for “non-aeronautical use,” the Federal Aviation Administration must approve of the agreement, known as a “release.” However, the RDU Airport Authority has not requested a release, nor has the FAA granted one.

The lease is for 25 years, plus a 10-year extension. The airport could earn from $8.5 million to $24 million from lease payments and potential royalties over that time. Wake Stone has also agreed to contribute $3.6 million for Wake County to manage a parcel known as the “286 tract” for mountain biking, and to fund connectors between the park and greenway system. The company would also pay another $3 million to reclaim part of the land when the mineral sources have been exhausted – in the middle of this century.

The airport bought the land in 1970 for a runway that was never built. Wake Stone had proposed quarrying the land several years ago, but the airport authority rejected the request. The company then built a quarry on private land nearby.

The plaintiffs also argue that non-aeronautical uses of the property must be approved by the four local governments that have a stake in the airport: the cities of Raleigh and Durham, and the counties of Wake and Durham. None of those governments has agreed, or even been approached, to approve the quarry.

An evidentiary hearing will be held within the next two weeks to hear the case on its merits.

In addition to the Umstead Coalition, the plaintiffs are Triangle Off-Road Cyclists, William Doucette, and Tamara and Randal Dunn. The Dunns own property couched between the park and the airport land; the Airport Authority has reserved the right to use eminent domain to seize the Dunns’ property and another tract owned by Betsy Beasley in order for the quarry to operate.