Commentary, Environment, News

The week’s Top Stories on Policy Watch

1. PW exclusive: Moore County locates new elementary school near pollution, hazardous waste sites in Aberdeen

Racial, economic composition of school raises environmental justice concerns  

On the edge of Aberdeen lay a lovely tract of land that was easy to miss while speeding down Highway 5. Stippled with young to middle-aged pine trees, it historically had been used for timbering, but now the landowner, BVM Properties, was ready to sell.

Where BVM saw an opportunity to offload land, which some who knew the town’s history viewed as undesirable, Moore County School District officials envisioned possibility: The 22 acres would accommodate a new and larger elementary school for Aberdeen kids. It would be filled with light and equipped with modern technology, and plenty of outdoor space where its 800 children in Pre-K through fifth grade could play. [Read more…]

===

2. The case of the vanishing budget: How N.C.’s secretive budget “process” is bad for the public good

If, in this precise moment, you’re wondering where North Carolina’s multi-billion dollar budget is, the same one that sets crucial policy and spending parameters for state agencies, that dictates classroom funding levels for 1.5 million schoolchildren, that sets pay levels for thousands of state employees, retirees and teachers, it’s in the same place it’s always been.

Not, I fear, in a public space – a mic’d up committee room or in a clerk’s trusty hands – it exists, without hyperbole, mostly in Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger’s brain.

And, to a lesser extent, in the care of the most powerful lawmakers atop a GOP-dominated House and Senate conference committee, a committee that, as of this moment, has yet to schedule a single public meeting, or a single hearing to listen to the public, in all its wild, untamed glory. [Read more…]

===

3. Refusal to close the Medicaid coverage gap echoes a dark era from the South’s past

 

In his recent “must read” book on the history of Jim Crow and how it shaped (and was itself shaped) by a typical town of the deep South (“Hattiesburg: An American City in Black and White,” Harvard University Press), UNC Chapel Hill historian Prof. William Sturkey provides numerous illuminating and, often, maddening details of the harsh realities of the racial apartheid that was conjured up and enforced by the white supremacists who dominated so much of southern society for so long.

There are the horrific stories of the lynchings and other murders carried out by white mobs. There are the stories of African-American residents who fled north when given a chance and of others who, despite the frequent terrors and indignities of Jim Crow, stayed, persevered and built lives for themselves and their families. There are the stories of white business leaders who, despite their commitment to segregation, helped inadvertently usher in change by embracing elements of modern capitalism and interstate commerce. And there are the stories of how the residents of segregated Black communities came to build their own vibrant institutions – many of which ultimately helped give rise to the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th Century.

About a third of the way through the book, however, Sturkey relates a truly remarkable and tragically telling anecdote from the Great Depression that rings eerily familiar in 2019.[Read more…]

===

4. Despite local opposition, N.C. charter board clears two new Wake County schools

The state Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB) on Monday unanimously stood by its approval of two charters in Wake County, despite public opposition from leaders in North Carolina’s largest school district.

CSAB members said Wake officials’ concerns about Wake County Preparatory Academy and North Raleigh Charter Academy reflect “philosophical” differences about the value of charters, rather than fear of school re-segregation or charter saturation.

Steven Walker, vice chairman of the CSAB, said Wake officials have taken the position that if “parents aren’t making the choice we like, maybe we shouldn’t let them have the choice.” [Read more…]

===

5. Sources link UNC-Vidant dispute to ongoing battles between Board of Governors and ECU

As lawmakers work to negotiate a final state budget by the end of the month, the ongoing conflict between Vidant Health and the UNC System continues to unfold through public jabs and in private mediation.

In the balance:

Tens of millions in Medicaid reimbursements to one of eastern North Carolina’s most vital hospital systems.

Vidant Medical Center’s status as East Carolina University’s teaching hospital.

And the direction — and independence — of the governing board of the hospital. [Read more…]

===

6. NC Sheriffs’ Association changes stance on anti-immigration bill to support harsher version


The North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association has backed down from its opposition of House Bill 370, an anti-immigration measure drummed up by Republican legislators who are using the Trump administration’s rhetoric to try and force law enforcement into working with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

A Senate Rules committee heard an updated version of HB 370 yesterday but did not vote on the measure. It was referred to the Senate Judiciary committee, and if it gets through there, it will be re-referred to Senate Rules.

Changes to the bill were made after some lawmakers agreed to work with the Sheriffs’ Association and they crafted an alternative to the initial proposal, which would have punished law enforcement that didn’t honor ICE detainer requests with a hefty fine.[Read more…]

===

7. Catch-up on our latest Apple podcasts hosted by Policy Watch Director Rob Schofield. 

===

8. Weekly Editorial Cartoon:

By John Cole

Environment

DEQ denies water quality permit for MVP Southgate natural gas pipeline

A final route has not been announced, but the green line shows the general area where the MVP Southgate natural gas pipeline would traverse. It would enter North Carolina near Eden, then travel roughly 46 miles through Alamance and Rockingham counties, ending near Haw River. (Map: MVP Southgate)

The Mountain Valley Pipeline Southgate project encountered another setback this week, when the NC Department of Environmental Quality rejected a key water quality permit, a federal requirement for the plan to continue.

Although DEQ had repeatedly asked for information for more than six months, MVP Southgate hadn’t provided a full accounting of stream crossings and other impacts on waterways to the department. Without the additional information, DEQ couldn’t evaluate the application before a federal deadline, according to a letter from Linda Culpepper, director of the Division of Water Resources.

MVP Southgate has known of the federal timetable since March, when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission publicly announced it would issue a proposed route and a draft environmental impact assessment next month.

MVP may re-apply to the division, but not until after federal regulators release their information. An MVP spokesperson said its project team intends to resubmit the application after FERC’s announcement. “The MVP Southgate project team has worked diligently to provide NC DEQ with comprehensive and updated information about the proposed route in accordance with federal regulations.”

Opponents of the project were relieved about the delay. “This is a win for landowners, tourists and farmers, as well as for water quality and the environment as a whole,” said Steven Pulliam with community group Good Stewards of Rockingham. “Numerous streams and wetlands would be crossed along Southgate’s path which also passes dangerously close to homes and private wells. MVP has been unable to demonstrate proper execution of these crossings on its uncompleted and ever-inflating 300-mile mainline project.”

The MVP project is owned by EQM Midstream Partners, a publicly traded company based in Pennsylvania. The main portion of the pipeline begins at a fracked gas operation in West Virginia and runs through central Virginia. The southern extension would start in Chatham, Va., enter North Carolina in Eden. The pipeline, 24 inches in diameter, would then travel 46 miles through Rockingham and Alamance counties, ending near I-85/I-40 in Haw River.

Early drafts of the route show the the pipeline could crisscross North Carolina waterways, including the Dan River and tributaries to the Haw River, more than 80 times. Over a third of the route is forested.

MVP Southgate filed for a water quality permit on Nov. 30, 2018. In early January, DEQ asked for more information, and the next month, MVP replied that it was still evaluating prospective routes and would provide updated list of impacts “at a later date.” MVP also told DEQ that it would file a final plan for all proposed “permanent fills of aquatic resources” in North Carolina once it had finished the surveys and finalized the project design.

In late March, DEQ again returned the application as incomplete.

“This may seem like just an administrative decision, but it shows just how hard the pipeline company wants to rush this project by trying to get a state permit that has to be grounded in information that’s not even out yet,” said Ridge Graham, North Carolina Field Coordinator with Appalachian Voices.

MVP had estimated it would start construction early next year; given the inevitable delays and probable legal challenges, that timetable looks unlikely.

“We’re encouraged to see that NC DEQ is not going to rubber stamp this project, even as the company is rushing to get permits approved without adequate documentation,” said Emily Sutton, the Haw Riverkeeper, with the Haw River Assembly. “This project puts our streams and drinking water at risk, and is not needed to meet our energy needs in North Carolina.”

As Policy Watch previously reported, last November DEQ Assistant Secretary Sheila Holman submitted a formal comment to FERC questioning the need for the pipeline. In that eight-page correspondence, Holman wrote that MVP’s predictions of a gas shortage were not factually supported: “We remain unconvinced the Southgate project is necessary.”

Environment

Chatham County testing shows elevated levels of Chromium 6 in 100+ wells

More than half the drinking water wells tested in Chatham County contained levels of contaminants associated with coal ash that were above the state’s health advisory goal, according to researchers from UNC and Virginia Tech.

Earlier this spring, researchers tested water from 242 private wells; 51 percent had elevated levels of Chromium 6 and 84 percent had high levels of vanadium. The state health goal for Chromium 6, also known as hexavalent chromium, is 0.07 parts per billion. Among the wells tested, the average concentration for Chromium 6 was 0.14 ppb — twice the health goal –and the maximum detected reached 3.25 ppb.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has linked Chromium 6 to cancer, respiratory illness, and liver and kidney disorders.

For vanadium, the state has set an interim standard of 0.3 parts per billion. The average among the tested wells was 1.4 ppb — five times the health goal — and the maxiumum was 20.8 ppb.

Exposure to vanadium can result in anemia, neurological effects and high blood pressure.

Researchers released the sampling results Friday evening at a community meeting in Moncure.

Chromium 6 and vanadium are found in coal ash, but they are also naturally occurring. Moncure has a nearly 100-year history with and coal ash and Duke Energy. The utility operated the Cape Fear coal-fired power plant in Moncure from 1923 to 2011; the plant has been demolished.

However, Duke recently received an air permit from the Department of Environmental Quality for a beneficiation plant at the Cape Fear site to convert fly ash for use in cement. Although the facility will have pollution controls, it still will emit thousands of pounds of arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, sulfuric acid and other hazardous and toxic chemicals into the air each year.

The utility also stores coal ash from its Sutton plant in Wilmington in a lined impoundment at the Brickhaven Mine, also in Moncure.

Researchers are now mapping the wells and their proximity to potential pollution sources.

About 10 percent of the wells contained high levels of lead, including one with 1,326 parts per billion. Although there is no safe level for lead, the EPA has set a maximum contaminant level of 15 ppb. High lead levels can be caused by old household plumbing.

Similarly, elevated copper concentrations, which affected about 36 wells, can be the result of pipes. When water is naturally acidic, it can eat away at the copper, which in turn leaches into the drinking water.

UNC and Virginia Tech have also tested wells in Iredell and Robeson counties.

Researchers tested 786 wells in Iredell County, where Duke operates the Marshall Steam plant on the shores of Lake Norman. Seventy-nine percent of which had levels of Chromium 6 above the health advisory goal. Of 62 Robeson County wells, 23 percent had elevated levels of the compound. Duke Energy operated the Weatherspoon plan in Lumberton until 2011.

UNC researcher Andrew George will present the Chatham County findings at a second community meeting, Tuesday from 6 to 7 p.m. at Central Carolina Community College, Multipurpose Room, Building 42, 764 West St., Pittsboro.

Environment

Settlement agreements require Enviva to install more stringent air pollution controls on wood pellet plants in Richmond, Sampson counties

Photo of wood pellets

Trees are ground into wood pellets, which are then shipped to the United Kingdom, where they are burned for fuel. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Enviva, the world’s largest manufacturer of wood pellet fuel, will install more stringent air pollution controls at two of its plants, as part of settlement agreements with the state and environmental groups.

In the first settlement agreement, Clean Air Carolina had challenged the air permit for the Hamlet plant in Richmond County that was approved by NC Department of Environmental Quality earlier this year. In court documents, Clean Air Carolina alleged that the Division of Air Quality had violated state and federal law in classifying the plant, which is under construction, as a minor source of air pollution. The environmental group, based in Charlotte, also argued that DAQ arbitrarily relied on emission estimates in Enviva’s air permit application.

As a result, Enviva would have been allowed to emit greater amounts of volatile organic compounds, as well as hazardous air pollutants, formaldehyde and methanol into the air.

Although DEQ and Enviva denied Clean Air Carolina allegations, the three parties reached a settlement agreement. The agreement requires Enviva to add air pollution controls to reduce emissions and adhere to legal limits on them. Enviva also agreed to additional record keeping and reporting conditions.

Clean Air Carolina was represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Environmental Integrity Project.

Last November concerned citizens, as well as Enviva supporters, filled an auditorium at Richmond Community College to comment on the proposed facility in Hamlet. “I ask you, DEQ,” said Daniel Parkhurst, policy manager for Clean Air Carolina, at the time, “to put the health of the families and children first.”

Within the last decade, there has been a spike in hazardous and toxic air emissions Richmond County: From roughly 100,000 pounds (50 tons) in 2010 to nearly 400,000 pounds (200 tons) in 2016, according to DEQ figures.

State regulators said the increase is occurring in part, because of ammonia emissions from natural gas plants owned by Duke Energy and by the NC Electric Membership Corporation. Other sources, such as factories, are also contributing to air pollution.

“Residents of Richmond County already face some of the worst health outcomes in our state,” said June Blotnick, executive director of Clean Air Carolina. “The new air pollution controls required by this settlement will decrease hazardous air pollutants and VOC emissions, reducing two additional threats to the communities’ health.”

More than a quarter of Richmond County residents live at or below the federal poverty threshold, compared to the state average of 17.8 percent. According to DEQ’s Environmental Justice Mapping Tool, in Richmond County rates of heart disease, stroke, infant deaths, child mortality, and cancer are all higher than the state average.

Enviva manufacturers wood pellets from trees, including hardwoods from bottomland forests. The company ships the pellets to the United Kingdom, where they are burned for fuel, instead of coal. However, burning wood pellets is not carbon neutral. There are multiple sources of carbon dioxide emissions from the wood pellet industry: When the trees are cut CO2 is released into the air; the transport of the trees and pellets by truck, rail and ship; the emissions from the factories themselves; and the release of CO2 when the pellets are burned for fuel.

The environmental damage also extends to the forests themselves. Although companies replant the trees, it is usually a monoculture of pine stands that does not support the biodiversity and habitats found in natural forests.

The second agreement involved Enviva’s wood pellet plant in Sampson County, near the towns of Faison and Clinton. In 2014 the Division of Air quality issued a permit to Enviva that did not require the company to control emissions from certain processes: pellet coolers and presses, and dry hammermills, which grind the pellets.

DAQ didn’t require emissions controls at the time because in its permit application, Enviva claimed they weren’t needed under the Clean Air Act.

However, in March of this year, DAQ determined that Enviva’s permit application was deficient. Specifically, DAQ determined the company’s analysis should have included emissions controls on the pellet coolers and presses. Although Enviva disputed DAQ’s assertion, in late May the state and the company reached a settlement agreement.

Within two years, the company is required to install and operate emissions controls on the pellet coolers and presses and dry hammer mills. In exchange, the state agreed not to pursue an enforcement action based its the March letter.

 

agriculture, Environment

FDA: GenX, 14 types of perfluorinated compounds found in produce grown within 10 miles of Chemours

Leafy greens collected at local farmers markets near Fayetteville contained elevated levels of GenX and other perfluorinated compounds, according to a recent FDA study.

The FDA shared the findings at an environmental conference in Finland, but not publicly in the US. The Environmental Defense Fund obtained photographs of the agency’s findings. The Environmental Working Group released them today.

Contacted by Policy Watch, an FDA spokesman shared the findings and said the agency is preparing to post the findings to a webpage. The FDA did not reply to a question as to why the results were not released earlier.

In October 2017, researchers tested for the presence of 16 PFAS in 91 food samples collected in the Mid-Atlantic region, including North Carolina, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware.

In a related study, in 2018 the FDA sampled leafy greens grown within 10 miles of a PFAS production facility. GenX was detected at 200 parts per trillion in produce grown within 10 miles of Chemours, according to the study. There is no regulatory standard for GenX, although state health officials have set an advisory goal of 140 ppt in drinking water.

Fourteen other types of PFAS were also detected in the produce, including PFOA, which was phased out in 2015. Levels of PFBA, used to make photographic film, reached nearly 600 ppt. The cumulative concentration of PFAS in the produce ranged from 1 ppt to more than 1,100 ppt.

The FDA noted that the levels were not likely a human health concern, but that foods grown near PFAS sources should be monitored.

The greens were collected before state regulators required Chemours to control its air emissions at the Fayetteville plant. The compounds leaving the stacks, mixing with rainwater and humidity, then falling to the earth, contaminating groundwater, private drinking water wells and food miles away.

As part of a consent order between Chemours and the NC Department of Environmental Quality, the company is installing thermal oxidizers to eliminate the emissions initially by 92 percent, and then by 99 percent by the end of this year.

In food samples collected in other states, PFAS was detected in 14 of the 91 samples collected and examined by the FDA, including PFOS in almost half of the meat and seafood products, PFPeA in chocolate milk and high levels in chocolate cake with icing, PFBA in pineapple, and PFHxS in sweet potato.

PFAS are used in the manufacture of nonstick cookware, plastic packaging, water-resistant fabrics and other consumer goods. The compounds have been linked to thyroid, reproductive, kidney, liver and developmental disorders, as well as some cancers. They are widespread in the environment, contaminating groundwater, drinking water, lakes, rivers, soil, compost and food. Despite the health effects of PFAS, the EPA has failed to regulate them.

Newer studies suggest that “short-chain” PFAS, like GenX, may also pose a risk to human health.  To study the effects of certain short-chain PFAS and their effects on human health, the FDA said it is collaborating with other federal health and environmental agencies “to determine appropriate next steps for the authorizations for the use of short-chain PFAS in food packaging.”

Along with concerned citizens and other environmental and public health advocates, the Environmental Working Group is asking lawmakers and regulators to designate PFAS as hazardous substances, not just individually but as a class.

EWG is also calling for expanded monitoring for PFAS in food, air, water and humans; ending the use of the compounds in packaging, food handling equipment and cookware; ending sewage sludge applications on farm fields when PFAS has been detected; updating EPA’s “sludge rule” to require testing; and quickly establish clean up standards in tap water and groundwater.