Environment

The State of the Environment: Good, bad and meh

Like a box of Cracker Jack, there is a surprise inside the North Carolina Conservation Network’s State of the Environment report: While North Carolina is failing to reach some basic environmental benchmarks, it is meeting others — despite a legislature that has at times been hellbent on favoring polluters over people.

The NCCN, a nonprofit that collaborates with more than 100 environmental and social justice groups statewide, released its first State of the Environment yesterday.

Based on 116 data sets, it’s a thorough assessment of the health of the state’s residents and ecosystems. The report also sets goals and priorities for the state at a pivotal moment in climate history. International scientists have given the world until 2030 to keep global temperatures in check or risk the precipitous and cataclysmic effects of climate change.

The report’s goals are simple, among them: Ensure we have safe and affordable drinking water. Maintain the health and resilience of our coastal habitats and estuaries. Require agribusinesses to be good neighbors. Eliminate racial health disparities and environmental injustices. Prevent “forever chemicals,” like perfluorinated compounds (PFAS) from entering the environment.

“We believe that a great majority of North Carolinians across the ideological spectrum would agree that each of the goals is desirable,” reads the executive summary. “… However, the goals and indicators leave aside the question of what policy interventions are needed … or whether government has a role in addressing a trend at all.”

Over the past 10 years in particular, though, state and local officials have been responsible for enacting policies that have contributed to sprawl, habitat loss, pollution and racial injustice.

Eighty-one percent of North Carolinians commute to work alone, the report states, and transportation is a main driver of greenhouse gases. Nonetheless, the state Department of Transportation and local officials in southern Wake County have pressed on with the proposed Complete 540 toll road, yet another mega-highway that would add congestion to arterial streets and roads, as well as spurring suburban and exurban sprawl. It’s on legal hold, though, thanks to several species of endangered and freshwater mussels that live along the route. (Thank you, Atlantic pigtoe.)

Hate sprawl? Thank the Atlantic Pigtoe mussel, a threatened species, for temporarily halting the Complete 540 toll road. (Photo US Fish & Wildlife Service)

Living shorelines better protect the coast from floods and erosion than hardened structures, such as terminal groins. But each year, a bill emerges from the legislature to allow yet another groin to be built.

Twenty percent of homes in coastal counties lie within a 500-year flood plains, the report goes on. The 500-year flood plain used to be considered a safe place to build, being that there was only a 0.5 percent chance of an inundation. Now we’ve seen three hurricanes since 2016 that drowned areas thought to be on higher ground. In other wordsd, 500 is the new 100.

On average, Black and Native Americans in North Carolina die at a younger age than whites, the report says. They are also more likely to live near hazardous waste sites, industrialized livestock operations and sources of air pollution, such as factories and highways.

Nonetheless, lawmakers have consistently passed Right to Farm Acts that all but prohibit neighbors of mega-hog farms from suing corporate giants Murphy-Brown and Prestage for nuisance.

Some conservative lawmakers seem intent on subverting the progress the state has made. They have introduced bills that are a sharp rebuke to Gov. Roy Cooper’s Executive Order 80, a clean energy mandate — among them, repealing the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard, penalizing drivers of electric cars and hybrids with high registration fees, and  banning wind farms within 100 miles of the coast.

The impenetrable Senate Bill 559, written by Duke Energy, would likely hike customers’ electric bills by allowing the utility to deploy “alternate rate mechanisms.” That’s jargon for allowing Duke to set a base rate for multiple years and during that time, to avoid the requirement of a public rate case hearing.

These potential increases would further hurt low-income residents, especially those living at or below the federal poverty threshold. State of the Environment reports that these households spend at least 18 percent of their income on energy.

Now the surprise: some state and local officials have passed rules and laws to undo the damage. The NC Department of Environmental Quality is requiring Duke Energy to excavate its remaining unlined coal ash pits. The department has also worked with the Environmental Management Commission to establish rules regarding the toxic air pollutant methyl bromide.

State lawmakers Pricey Harrison, Chuck McGrady, Vickie Sawyer, Harper Peterson, Billy Richardson and Kirk DeViere have all introduced bills to improve our environment. (Whether this bills will be exiled in committee is up to the House and Senate leadership.)

And the report lists pages of possible solutions to the state’s most pressing problems. Fund land conservation. Stop building in the flood plain. Incentivize reforestation. Update groundwater and surface water standards. Phase out the antiquated lagoon and sprayfield system for swine farms. Implement regulations on poultry. Prioritize environmental justice. Ban bee-killing pesticides. Reduce plastic pollution. (Perhaps reinstate the plastic bag ban along areas of the coast?)

NCCN’s authors acknowledge these solutions are “not at all policy-neutral,” and “reflect an agenda for action from across North Carolina’s conservation and environmental communities.”

“It outlines an array of policy interventions that, if adopted, will improve North Carolina’s economy, environment, public health and resilience.”

Which beggars the question: Why are lawmakers incapable of doing this?

 

Environment

In Iredell County, tests show high percentage of wells contain Chromimum 6

More than three-quarters of private drinking water wells tested in Iredell County had levels of Chromium 6 above the state health screening level, but the source of the compound is unknown.

Scientists from UNC Chapel Hill and Virginia Tech, who conducted the sampling, announced the results at a community meeting in Mooresville Thursday night. The researchers tested the well water for several chemicals and compounds, including lead, vanadium, cadmium, nickel and copper.

Of the 786 household wells, 79 percent had Chromium 6 above 0.07 parts per billion. That is the health screening level set by the NC Department of Health and Human Services at which the lifetime risk of developing cancer is 1 in 1 million. There is no EPA standard for Chromium 6.

The average level detected in Iredell County was an 0.84 ppb –12 times higher than the health screening level.

Chromium 6 is commonly found in well water at various levels. However, the Iredell County percentage is higher than in other locations that have been studied. By comparison, a previous DHHS survey of 192 wells in North Carolina showed that 58 percent had levels above the health screening level.

Kelsey Pieper, the Virginia Tech scientist who co-led the project, said compared to sampling conducted in other parts of the US, the levels “don’t appear unusually high.”

Scientists also tested the wells for vanadium, another chemical found in coal ash. More than 85 percent of Iredell County wells had levels above 0.3 ppb, the state’s interim maximum concentration for groundwater. The average was 4.2 ppb, with a maximum of 39.4 ppb.

Pieper said these levels are similar to those found in studies of school water outside of North Carolina.

Wilson Mize, an environmental health specialist with DHHS, said filters will remove Chromium 6, vanadium. lead and other chemicals from drinking water. The filters should be NSF-certified, Mize said, and can be installed on single faucets or in whole-house systems. Alternately, flushing the faucets for five minutes can also remove lead and copper that settles overnight in the pipes.

Some homes also tested above EPA standards for several other chemicals:

  • Copper, 10.8 percent
  • Lead, 7.5 percent
  • Cadmium, 0.4 percent
  • Nickel, 15 percent

The high percentage of wells with nickel could be due to plumbing changes in those homes. Many homeowners are switching out their lead pipes for those made of copper and nickel.

Duke Energy’s coal-fired Marshall Steam Station is about 10 miles west of Mooresville. While Chromium 6 and vanadium are often found in coal ash, they are also naturally occurring.

The well testing occurred earlier this year after Pieper received a grant from the EPA and the National Science Foundation to study the effects of hurricane flooding on private water supplies. The cost of the sampling and analysis was $350,000.

Pieper and UNC scientist Andrew George also conducted well water sampling in Robeson and Chatham counties. The Robeson results were announced in January; Chatham’s are due later this spring.

Environment, Legislature

State lawmakers ask FERC to stop work on Atlantic Coast Pipeline, reassess need

Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford

More than 20 Democratic legislators, led by Rep. Pricey Harrison of Guilford County, sent a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission asking it to issue a stop work order on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline while it reassess the need for the $7.8 billion project. The letter, dated April 12, also asks FERC to suspend the Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity, a requirement for energy projects, during the reassessment.

The ACP’s primary owners are Dominion Energy and Duke Energy. If built, it would start at a fracked gas operation in West Virginia and route more than 600 miles through Virginia, eastern North Carolina and into South Carolina. The project, though has been stalled by successful legal challenges in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. It is nearly two years behind schedule and at least $2 billion over its initial budget.

The cost increase, the lawmakers wrote, “would be passed on to captive ratepayers.” Instead of developing renewable energy projects, the utilities focus on the ACP “would lock not just North Carolina but the entire Southeast region into decades of climate-disrupting fossil fuel use,” incompatible with the state’s climate goals established in Governor Roy Cooper’s Executive Order 80.

The letter notes says that the utilities have overstated the need for natural gas. Duke Energy’s latest Integrated Resource Plan, essentially an energy blueprint for the next 15 years, delays planned natural gas plants by five years, and its “first power plant that might need more gas supply is not proposed to begin operating until many years after the ACP is supposed to be in service.”

 

Lawmakers to FERC by Lisa Sorg on Scribd

The utilities’ and supporters’ rationale for building the ACP is that it would jumpstart the economy in eastern North Carolina. However, subsidiaries of Duke and Dominion are the main customers for the proposed ACP gas in North Carolina. The average cost for a manufacturing plant to connect to the ACP is at least $1 million.

Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers have introduced bills this session to thwart renewable energy in North Carolina, an apparent rebuke to Gov. Cooper’s climate goals. Sen. Harry Brown, a Republican from Onslow County, filed legislation that would ban wind energy projects within 100 miles of the coast, ostensibly to prevent them from interfering with military training exercises. However, at a committee meeting last week, the former head of the Defense Department’s Site Clearinghouse, which works with wind energy developers to avoid those impacts, said there have been no cases of wind farms interfering with military bases in the US.

Yesterday five Republicans co-sponsored House Bill 726, which would repeal the state’s Renewable Portfolio Energy Standard. Passed in 2007, the REPS was the first in the Southeast. It set legal benchmarks for utilities to provide, either through generation or purchase, a certain percentage of their energy from renewable sources. Currently, it is 10 percent. Duke Energy  previously told the utilities commission that it is meeting those goals.

Environment

Duke Energy to DEQ: See you in court

Duke Energy announced yesterday that it would appeal to the Administrative Office of the Courts the state’s order to excavate all of the coal ash from the utility’s nine remaining unlined pits, also known as basins.

In a prepared statement, Duke Energy spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said the order, which was issued on April 1, “would impose a financial burden on our customers and the economy of the Carolinas through the most expensive and disruptive closure option possible, despite that these basins are rated ‘low risk’ by NCDEQ.”

Duke has stated full excavation would add $4 billion to $5 billion to the existing $5.6 billion in costs to clean up all of its ash in the Carolinas — a number that, given the history of other utilities’ estimates for full excavation, could be inflated.

The nine basins are spread over six plants:

Belews Creek (Stokes County ) 1
Marshall (Catawba County) 1
Mayo (Person County) 1
Allen (Gaston County) 2
Roxboro  (Person County) 2
Cliffside/Rogers (Cleveland/Rutherford counties) 2

 

In 2016, under the a different administration of Gov. Pat McCrory and DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart, the state reclassified several of Duke Energy’s basins from high risk to intermediate risk, based on several factors, including groundwater flow. Low risk basins were not required to be cleaned up until 2029. Environmental groups immediate criticized the reclassification, charging politics, not science guided the reclassifications.

For the “low risk” basins, Duke had proposed to either cap the material in the unlined pits — or to develop a “hybrid” of excavation and cap-in-place. At public meetings across the state, residents demanded that DEQ force the utility to fully excavate all of the material and place it in a lined landfill.

In its order, DEQ said its science determined excavation was the clean up method that would be the most protective of health and the environment.

“The process by which NCDEQ arrived at its decision lacked full consideration of the science and engineering, and we will provide those details when we file an appeal before the North Carolina Office of Administrative Hearings in the near future” Sheehan said.

“DEQ stands by its assessment and conclusions that all coal ash in North Carolina must be excavated,” said Megan Thorpe, DEQ’s director of Public Affairs, in response.

Duke Energy’s claims that full excavation would impose “financial burdens” on its customers and the economy. It’s likely that the state Utilities Commission would pass along some of the costs to ratepayers, but the commission told Duke in the last rate case that it would evaluate those on a “case-by-case” basis. Duke gave no rationale for its claim that full excavation would harm  the economies of North and South Carolina. There is no evidence that full excavation has had similar effects in other states where that method has been used.

Frank Holleman is a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. The SELC successfully sued the utility to force it to fully excavate its ash at the other eight plants in North Carolina. “Duke Energy’s refusal to accept responsibility for cleaning up its dangerous coal ash pits is a slap in the face to the communities in North Carolina living with the pollution from Duke’s leaking, unlined pits,” Holleman said in a prepared statement. “Duke Energy’s decision to fight these cleanups ignores the science confirming that its sites have been polluting our water for decades and will continue to do so for centuries. And it places the public and our rivers and lakes at continued risk of another coal ash catastrophe from the next hurricane or structural failure.”

Environment

Scientists update lawmakers on PFAS research, including presence of compounds in food

Lee Ferguson of Duke University, a co-researcher on PFAs and PFOAs in drinking water in the Triangle. (Photo: Duke University)

In the freezer at Lee Ferguson’s lab at Duke University, there is an Antarctic ice core with layers of the Earth’s atmospheric history trapped inside. Ferguson plans to melt the top portion, then test the water to see if perfluorinated compounds are present. If the melt water tests positive, we’ll know that PFAS has reached one of the most remote places on Earth.

If no PFAS are detected, then life in Antarctica is looking better by the day.

At the House Environment Committee meeting yesterday, lawmakers received an update from the NC Policy Collaboratory about its NC PFAST Network. More than a dozen university scientists are studying the presence, health effects and potential removal treatments of emerging compounds, including GenX, throughout North Carolina.

“This is the largest-scale monitoring team for emerging compounds in the country,” Ferguson said. “We hope it serves as a model for studying emerging compounds and legacy contaminants. You can see the tempo of this research accelerating.”

Scientists are sampling 158 wells and 190 surface water intakes for more than 50 PFAS compounds, as well as what’s called “non-targeted analysis” — searching for unknown compounds, said Wanda Bodnar, assistant professor of environmental sciences and engineering at UNC.

Other scientists in the NC PFAST Network are studying the compounds in landfill leachate, air and food crops. Bondar told Rep. Pricey Harrison that team members also plan to look at the potential health effects of interactions of different compounds.

UNC Assistant Professor Wanda Bodnar (Photo: UNC Chapel Hill)

Exposure to PFAS has been linked to testicular and kidney cancer, thyroid and reproductive disorders, and a depressed immune system. Although the chemical industry maintains that GenX is less toxic than the compounds it replaced —  PFOA and PFOS — East Carolina University scientist Jamie Dewitt said that might not be true. “What we see is that GenX and PFAS have the same health effects and act in similar ways. GenX might be even more toxic on liver.”

A study of children in the Faroe Islands, located between Iceland and Norway, found they had a diminished response to vaccines, possibly because of exposure to PFAS. Although the Faroe Islands are remote, its residents are exposed to the compounds through pilot whales, an important food source for them.

UNC scientist Rebecca Fry is conducting a study of pregnant women who are at risk of pre-term delivery. The women are voluntarily allowing their blood and urine to be tested before and after their babies are born. Researchers also will test umbilical cord blood and placentas to determine if PFAS are transmitted in utero, and if so, to what degree.

Policy Collaboratory Research Director Jeffrey Warren called the effort “Herculean.” Lawmakers funded the PFAS project with a $5 million appropriation; the collaboratory has also raised sufficient matching funds to meet a $3.5 million challenge grant.

House Bill 661, co-sponsored by Rep. John Fraley, a Republican from Iredell County, and Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat, would appropriate another round of $5 million funding to the Policy Collaboratory to continue its research.

The appropriation would also help match other money. “There’s an enormous amount of federal funds for this,” Warren said. “PFAS is the thing.”