Environment

When life gives you coal ash, make coal ash art

Caroline Armijo (All photos: Dayna Reggero, The Climate Listening Project, The Story We Want)

Caroline Armijo was feeling relaxed, her mind open, during a guided meditation class when she was visited by a creative muse: Why not take coal ash, the source of misery for so many people in her hometown of Walnut Cove, and fashion something beautiful from it?

Now Armijo, an environmental activist and a mixed-media artist, is creating sculpture out of crisis. She recently received a $350,000 grant for The Lilies Project, a joint art installation with the Center for Composite and Material Research at NC A&T. Together, Armijo, Kunigal Shivakumar and his colleagues at the Center will use the ash from Belews Creek to sculpt a flowered archway at Fowler Park in Walnut Cove.

Armijo’s project is one of 23 that received money through ArtPlace America’s National Creative Placemaking Fund.

“I’m going to make the mold,” Armijo said, and the scientists will procure the coal ash. “I’m scared of it.”

Center Director Kunigal Shivakumar and his fellow scientists explained in the grant proposal that they will use a polymer to encapsulate the ash. This will seal the material and prevent the leaching of heavy metals into the groundwater and air.

A block made from coal ash that is safe to touch. The Center for Composite and Material Research is creating safe reuses for the toxic material. 

Ash is already combined with other materials to strengthen concrete, but Armijo said, some of it is not the proper quality for that use. “My intent is to demonstrate a new technology to reuse the ash that concrete companies don’t buy.”

For nine generations, Armijo’s family has lived in Walnut Cove, population 1,383, in rural Stokes County. However, it wasn’t until 1974 that the small town got a new neighbor: Duke Energy’s Belews Creek power plant and its 20 million tons of coal ash stored in an unlined, leaking pit.

The project will include oral histories of residents who have been affected by coal ash, plus a walking tour and a performance. The name of the project was inspired from the movie Lilies of the Field, which includes a song, “Amen,” written by Belews Creek resident Jester Hairston. Hairston, known for writing gospel music, was born in Belews Creek in 1901. He died in Los Angeles at age 99.

Armijo has been an environmental justice activist since 2010, fighting against fracking and advocating for complete cleanup of the coal ash basins — especially as neighbors and a family member developed brain tumors.

ArtPlace’s National Creative Placemaking Fund has now supported 279 projects in 223 communities of all sizes, totaling $86.4 million worth of investments across 46 states, American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands.

This year the fund received nearly 1,000 applications; the group invests in community development projects that intersect with the arts. More than half of this year’s recipients are from rural areas.

ArtPlace is funded by private donors, like the Ford and Rockefeller foundations; federal agencies, including the National Endowment for the Arts; and financial institutions, such as MetLife and Chase Bank.

Environment

None of NC’s 39 Superfund sites apparently need “immediate, intense attention” from EPA

JFD Electronics in Oxford is adjacent to another Superfund site, Cristex Drum. JFD also lies just west of an apartment complex for low-income and minority residents. (Google Street View)

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced on Friday 21 Superfund sites that need “immediate, intense attention” — and none of them is in North Carolina.

These targeted sites, scattered throughout the U.S., include old tanneries, smelters and dumps that contain radioactive waste.

Granted, it would be difficult to single out 21 sites, considering nationwide there are more than 1,330 — all of them demanding more attention and money than is available.

To qualify for Superfund, also known as the National Priorities List, the heavily contaminated areas must threaten human health and the environment, plus the polluters (also known as “potentially responsible parties”) have declared bankruptcy, are embroiled in litigation or can’t be found. In 157 cases, though, the federal or state government is responsible for the pollution. For example, Camp Lejeune and Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station are on North Carolina’s list.

At least three of the state’s 39 Superfund sites appear to meet the criteria that Pruitt laid out earlier this year:

  • Five years on the National Priorities List without a selected cleanup method, also known as a remedy
  • More than two years have passed since a remedy was selected, but its design has stalled
  • Clean up hasn’t started at sites where the polluters have been identified

The 21 priority sites Pruitt said, “have seemingly taken far too long to remediate.”

JFD Electronics in Oxford can check off that box; it has been on the Superfund list for 28 years. Although the original cleanup method was completed in 2000, federal officials have determined that it’s insufficient to for the long-term. The “remedy must be modified,” federal documents show, with more stringent clean up levels for several contaminants, including hexavalent chromium and 1-4, dioxane, which has been found in groundwater.

An apartment complex for low-income, minority residents lies east of the former factory grounds.

With contaminated soil, sediment and groundwater, the 42-acre Horton Iron and Metal site in Wilmington has languished since 2011. Fertilizer was originally manufactured here from 1911 to 1954. Then in 1960s and 1970s, ship breaking of World War II Liberty ships took place in the two slips on site.

The site has been under investigation for more than six years.

The NC Department of Transportation is one of the parties responsible for the TCE pollution at the Aberdeen Contaminated Groundwater site east of Highway 211 on Old Pee Dee Road.

A clean up method was finalized in 2013 — new wells and/or treatment systems for the town’s public water supply — and is due to be finished this year.

However, an underground plume of TCE at this site has co-mingled with another plume of pesticide contaminated groundwater from another nearby Superfund site — Geigy Chemical Corporation. A treatment system will now have to address all the contaminants from the two locations.

The goal, Pruitt said, was to clean up the sites and ready them for revitalization. This process often takes years, if not decades, depending on several factors: the complexity of the site, the type of contamination, the cost, which can exceed tens of millions of dollars, and the type of proposed reuse. Levels of residual contamination can be higher at industrial sites, for example, than residential ones.

Environment

NC DEQ delays decision on Atlantic Coast Pipeline air permit, requests more info on toxic pollutants

The chemical structure of benzene: A chemical that’s bad for you and the environment

Benzene, a known carcinogen, would be emitted from the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s compressor station, prompting state environmental officials to delay its decision on its air permit. NC Department of Environmental Quality is asking the ACP, LLC, owned primarily by Duke Energy and Dominion Energy, for more information about the station’s projected benzene emissions, as well as all of the facility’s toxic air pollutants.

The request for information stops the clock on the requirement that NC DEQ issue a permit decision within 30 days of a public hearing. That hearing was held nearly three weeks ago in Garysburg, where opponents and supporters turned out to speak on the pipeline and the compressor station.

The compressor station would be located in Pleasant Hill in Northampton County. The siting of the station in the area raises environmental justice issues because 58 percent of the county’s population is Black. In addition, Northampton County is home to several polluting industries, which create a cumulative impact on the residents. Many of the industries involve the timber sector: paper and pulp mills, and an Enviva wood pellet plant.

Two other permits are also in limbo, pending more information from ACP.

The Division of Water Resources has not yet received the additional information requested in its Nov. 28 letter to Atlantic Coast Pipeline, LLC.

Nor has ACP responded to the Oct. 23 letter of disapproval that requested more information for the second erosion and sediment control plan, which is required for the section of project that would impact Northampton, Halifax, Nash, Wilson and Johnston counties.

However, the Division of Energy, Mineral and Land Resources issued a letter of approval with modifications for the erosion and sediment control plan submitted for the section of the pipeline that would traverse Cumberland, Robeson and Sampson counties.

Environment

It’s even been found in honey: Mysteries deepen about extent, risks of GenX contamination

The Secretaries’ Science Advisory Board met in Wilmington to discuss the latest findings on GenX sampling. Our charge is to use the best available science to assist decision makers,” said SAB Chairman Jamie Bartram. “That’s quite a charge, because there’s very little science to help us.(Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Earlier this summer, it appeared that GenX contamination, while a crisis, could at least be contained. And once the pollutant was contained, state environmental officials believed, they could then begin the arduous process of removing it.

But as the NC Department of Environmental Quality has continued its investigation, now in its sixth month, officials have detected high levels of the chemical not only in groundwater, but also surface water, private drinking water wells — and now, even honey from a farm near the plant near the Cumberland/Bladen county line.

In June, GenX was detected at high levels in the Cape Fear River and drinking water downstream of the Chemours Fayetteville Works plant. But by July, levels of the contaminant sharply dropped after Chemours said it had stopped discharging the chemical — not to zero, but a significant decline.

“I was thinking, ‘We have a success story,” Assistant Secretary of the Environment Sheila Holman told members of the Secretaries’ Science Advisory Board yesterday. “But now, not so much.”

The SAB, which met in Wilmington, one of the affected communities, underscored the uncertainty about health risks, the dearth of independent scientific data about GenX, and the daily unease that has saddled the people who have been exposed to the chemical in their drinking water.

“Our charge is to use the best available science to assist decision makers,” said SAB Chairman Jamie Bartram. “That’s quite a charge, because there’s very little science to help us.”

“At the end of the day have very little experimental data and we don’t even have it in front of us,” added SAB member David Dorman. “There are a lot of unknowns. I’d err on the side of uncertainty to be protective.”

One of those unknowns is how GenX found its way into honey produced at a farm near the Chemours Fayetteville Works plant. The honey, which is not sold commercially but offered to the farmers’ family and friends, tested positive for GenX at a concentration of 2,000 parts per trillion.

It’s unclear how the honey was tainted: Via air or water from the Chemours plant, or if the collection container, for example, was made from plastic containing GenX or similar compounds.

The state health department’s provisional health goal is 140 parts per trillion in drinking water. There is no established health goal for food. State environmental officials will meet this week with NC Department of Agriculture’s apiary services to discuss the sampling results and potential follow-up testing.

Also mysterious is how GenX is apparently persisting in a lake at Camp Dixie, which lies three miles southwest of the Chemours plant. One sample showed a level of 600 ppt, even though the waterbody is drained about once a year and then refills.

“It’s not like the water is sitting there for 15 years,” said SAB member Phillip Tarte.

The lake is spring-fed and receives some surface water, said Division of Waste Management Director Michael Scott. DEQ will conduct additional sampling at the lake. DHHS has said the water is safe for recreational use based on that one sample.

DEQ officials speculate that GenX is entering some of the  groundwater, lakes and soil through the air. This process is known as atmospheric deposition, a process in which the contaminants leave the plant’s stacks, are dispersed and then fall on the ground.

According to computer modeling provided to the state by Chemours, the plant emitted from its stacks an estimated 1 to 4 pounds of GenX annually from 2012–2016. More important, though, are Chemours’ emissions of a similar compound — C3 dimer acid fluoride. Chemours emitted 500 to 669 pounds of that compound each year over the same time period.

When C3 dimer acid fluoride comes into contact with enough water, explained Holman, a chemical reaction occurs. The fluoride is shed, leaving C3 dimer acid — aka GenX.

Three weeks ago, on Nov. 14 and 15, Chemours reported that over 13 hours it emitted 70 pounds of C3 dimer acid fluoride into the air. According to meteorological data, Holman said, the plume dispersed south and west “toward South Carolina.” According to Weather Underground’s historical data, it was breezy in Fayetteville those days, with winds gusting to 18-20 miles per hour from the north and northeast.

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Environment

Water quality permit for Atlantic Coast Pipeline still in limbo; DEQ makes fourth request for info

The water quality permit application filed by Atlantic Coast Pipeline, LLC, still lacks key information, including an analysis of certain claims regarding economic development and the purported demand for more natural gas.

In a letter sent yesterday to the ACP, the Division of Water Resources asked for a fuller analysis of pipeline’s potential impacts to water quality and to the economy in specific areas of the affected counties. ACP did provide maps as suggested by DWR staff, but it lacked analysis and specificity. “A detailed analysis of each area’s potential for project-induced growth was not completed,” the letter read, “nor was there a detailed discussion” of existing or future regulations required protect water quality.

The construction and operation of the ACP would present serious water quality issues. The pipeline would cross major rivers and streams, as well as wetlands. Construction in parts of the Neuse River, would be particularly invasive using a cofferdam method. It essentially segments a part of the river, drains it and then builds walls to temporarily separate it from the rest of the waterway.

Aquatic organisms, including endangered and threatened species, and their habitats could be temporarily or permanently harmed, according to federal environmental documents.

The majority owners of ACP, LLC, are Dominion Energy and Duke Energy. The pipeline would start at a fracked gas operation in West Virginia and continue 600 miles through Virginia and eight counties in eastern North Carolina: Northampton, Halifax, Nash, Edgecombe, Cumberland, Sampson and Robeson.

These are some of the poorest areas of the state. Proponents of the pipeline promise that the project will create jobs and spark industry growth in economically distressed areas. However, no definitive data has been produced to prove that claim.

“The analysis should include a specific discussion of industries that need additional natural gas capacity to operate in North Carolina,” the letter went on.

Proponents and the utilities have also contended that as the population increases, there would be an insufficient supply of natural gas to meet demand. However, most of the natural gas transported by the ACP would be transported to the utilities to fuel their plants and dispatch the energy to the grid. Opponents have pointed out that there is no natural gas shortage, nor an indication of one in the future. Renewable sources, such as solar and wind, they say, could provide the energy.

The North Carolina portion of the 600-mile pipeline would begin in Pleasant Hill, in Northampton County, and is supposed to end in Prospect, in Robeson County. However, last month a Dominion Energy executive made off-hand public remarks implying that the ACP could continue into South Carolina. That apparently prompted DWR to ask the ACP to to explain their reasons for ending the pipeline in Prospect.

On Nov. 22, Prospect was the site of a leak from a Piedmont natural gas compressor station that emitted 1,500 pounds of natural gas into the air. Nearby residents told the Robesonian newspaper that they were awakened in the middle of the night by a noise that sounded like “a 747 taking off.”

ACP has submitted several other permit applications that are under review by respective divisions within the Department of Environmental Quality:

  • The Division of Air Quality is expected to decide on ACP’s permit for the Northampton County compressor station by Dec. 15.
  • Next week the Division of Energy, Mineral and Land Resources is scheduled to begin reviewing stormwater permit applications for portions of the route in Cumberland and Nash counties.
  • On the Nov. 6, the Division of Energy, Mineral and Land Resources disapproved of the project’s sediment and erosion control plans. ACP has since submitted additional information; review of the updated plans is nearly complete.

 

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