Environment

Hitting the water on Memorial Day weekend? Sound Rivers tells you where contamination is.

The Upper Neuse River Basin includes Falls Lake, the Eno River and Lake Michie. (Map: Upper Neuse River Basin Association)

Sound Rivers, a nonprofit environmental group, launches its summer waterway testing in the Upper Neuse River watershed this weekend, and has found five sites with high levels of fecal bacteria.

The bacteria tested for — E.coli  — can be found in freshwater and indicates likely fecal contamination. If you ingest or touch the contaminated water, there is an increased risk of gastrointestinal illness and skin infections.

The sites showing high levels of bacteria above state and federal criteria are Hickory Hill Boat Launch, Anderson Point Park Canoe Launch, Buffaloe Road Canoe Launch, Milburnie Park Canoe Launch, and Poole Road.

Either avoid the area or use caution if you decide to visit. Keep water out of your eyes and nose, and wash your hands after you’ve touched it. This is especially important if  you have open cuts, scratches or wounds.

To find out more about water quality in your area, go to www.soundrivers.org/swimguide or text ‘SWIM’ to 33222 for weekly water quality updates.

Environment

NCDOT, Dominion excluded top Durham officials from discussions on proposed pipeline along American Tobacco Trail

The large green dot on the left panel shows the beginning of the proposed natural gas pipeline, along the American Tobacco Trail near Herndon Park on Scott King Road in Durham — roughly Mile Marker 10.25. The pipeline route, marked in red dots, would then continue another six miles to Morrisville Parkway in Cary, shown in green on the right panel — Mile Marker 16.

The NC Department of Transportation failed to inform top Durham officials of a controversial natural gas pipeline that would parallel part of the American Tobacco Trail, one of the city’s — and the region’s — most popular recreational areas.

Emails obtained by Policy Watch under the Public Records Act show that city officials were caught off guard by the news. They learned of the proposal nearly two weeks after the Board of Transportation conveyed a section of its right-of-way along the ATT to Dominion Energy.

The News & Observer first reported the board’s decision this week.

Dave Connelly, chairman of Durham’s Open Space and Trails Commission, alerted more than a half dozen county and city officials via email on May 19.

“This is the first I have heard about this. You?” wrote Durham Deputy City Manager Bo Ferguson that evening to City Manager Tom Bonfield.

“Complete news to me,” Bonfield replied a few minutes later.

DOT did not answer questions from Policy Watch about why it didn’t inform the local governments about the plan and who decided to pursue an agreement with Dominion.

Instead, a DOT spokesperson sent a statement:

“Dominion Energy’s request to execute an easement agreement to utilize the NC Rail corridor along the American Tobacco Trail for a natural gas pipeline is being re-evaluated by executive leadership at this time.”

“A review of the history of this proposal, as well as an assessment of all community engagement, will be conducted before NCDOT takes any action to move forward with the proposal as offered, require adjustments or changes, or to deny the request.”

After years of negotiations and permitting processes, the first three miles of the American Tobacco Trail opened in June 2000. It starts in downtown Durham and follows an old railroad corridor owned by NCDOT.

The ATT has been extended several times and now runs 22 miles south through Chatham and Wake counties. It attracts tens of thousands of bicyclists, runners and hikers each year. The ATT is also part of the 3,000-mile East Coast Greenway system.

On May 7, the Board of Transportation agreed during a public meeting to a $3 million deal between Dominion and NCDOT  for the utility to build a 12-inch diameter pipeline beneath an easement along a portion of the right-of-way.

Though the item was included in the board agenda, it wasn’t obvious. The one-paragraph mention occurred on page 17 of “Item R, Right of Way Resolutions and Ordinances.”

Although the entire 13-mile route hasn’t been finalized, the proposed six-mile portion along the ATT would from start at Scott King Road, near Herndon Park in Durham, and run south through Chatham and Wake counties to Morrisville Parkway in Cary.

The item is now expected to be discussed at the June 10 meeting of the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Dominion Energy spokeswoman Persida Montanez said in an email that the utility has been planning the project since late 2017. Details were included in a presentation prepared for PSNC, before the company was bought by Dominion nearly 18 months ago, in January 2019. Maps and illustrations in the presentation show one side of the trail would keep its existing 10-foot buffer, and beyond that a 30-foot wide clearing for the pipeline.

<a href=”https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/6921971/ATT-PSNC-GasPipeline.pdf”>ATT PSNC GasPipeline (PDF)</a>

<a href=”https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/6921971/ATT-PSNC-GasPipeline.txt”>ATT PSNC GasPipeline (Text)</a>

In its presentation, PSNC said it would replant native trees and shrubs that had been cleared, as well as repair trail damage caused by construction.

The utility stated that it investigated more than 20 other routes but they were unavailable. The original route was within the NCDOT right-of-way along Highway 751, but that route required several crossings of Jordan Lake and other US Army Corps of Engineers’ land. The majority of that property, PSNC said, “is not ‘pre-disturbed.'” Montanez said the utility is “studying different route options.”

These options include locations that would not involve an easement adjacent to the American Tobacco Trail, Montanez said. Dominion will collect data during the survey process “to help identify the optimal route,” she added. “The data includes but is not limited to, assessing construction feasibility, minimizing environmental and landowner impacts and using existing corridors where possible.”

“Our  goal is to select a route that minimizes impacts to the community,” Montanez said.

Policy Watch requested additional information on the 20 alternative routes, but Montanez did not provide it.

There is a financial incentive for DOT to accept the $3 million. The department estimated its budget will be short by $300 million for the fiscal year ending in June, because of effects from the COVID-19 pandemic. DOT’s budget hinges on gas taxes, car sales and registration fees; fewer people are driving during stay-at-home orders, which has cut into revenue.

The new pipeline is needed to provide natural gas service to existing and future customers due to the rapid development in the Triangle, according to the utility’s presentation. It would also allow the utility to “downgrade or reduce pressure” of the 73 miles of existing high pressure transmission pipelines in Orange, Chatham, Lee and Wake counties. “Reducing the pressure in these pipelines will reduce the internal stress levels of the pipes and significantly improve the overall safety,” according to the presentation.

Montanez did not directly answer a question from Policy Watch regarding any current safety issues with the existing pipeline. She reiterated points from the presentation that a new segment would “prolong their lifespan, enhancing reliability and safety in accordance with state and federal regulations.”

Otherwise, the utility would have to implement “significant pipeline integrity measures” that would be required to meet federal safety regulations, according to the presentation. To do this on existing pipelines would require replacing thousands of existing pipelines and fittings, “many of which are located along or under existing roadways such as US 15-501” and in towns throughout the Triangle.

The utility would also have to install above-ground facilities to regularly inspect the lines, “thereby impacting private property owned and the general public every seven years at a minimum,” according to the presentation.

Rumors about the project started in mid-May, after the board approved the agreement with Dominion. Dale McKeel, Durham’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, heard that it had been on board’s agenda. McKeel contacted Chris Snow, director of Wake County’s Parks, Recreation & Open Space, on May 14, asking if he had information. “We’ve been inquiring about this off and on, and I was not aware this was up for consideration with NCDOT,” Snow wrote to McKeel.

McKeel is also on the staff of the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization, which oversees transportation strategies in those cities. Oddly, the MPO held its regularly scheduled meeting on May 13, at which five NCDOT officials provided progress reports on its projects, according to the agenda. None of those progress reports mentions the pipeline project.

Valerie Jordan represents DOT Division 5, which includes Durham and Raleigh, on the DOT board. She could not be reached for comment.

Most of the Durham portion of the ATT lies within the county’s jurisdiction. Durham City-County Planning Director Patrick Young said no one in that joint office was notified by DOT. The route would cross Panther Creek, which feeds Cary Park Lake, and Northeast Creek, which flows into Jordan Lake. Since Northeast Creek is a “navigable water,” as defined by federal law, the project could require several permits. That creek is already designated as impaired by state and federal officials because of high levels of fecal coliform bacteria; sampling also has showed elevated concentrations of copper, cadmium and nickel.

Although the public thus far has been excluded from discussions about the project, the permitting process should provide those opportunities. The US Army Corps of Engineers would need to issue a permit, according to an email from Paul Kuhn, Cary’s facilities design and construction manager to Durham and Wake officials, “and that will require some sort of public input.”

The NC Department of Environmental Quality would have to issue permits as well, such as those for erosion and sedimentation control, stormwater and water quality, if the pipeline crosses creeks.

Emails among Cary, Durham and Wake County officials state that the easement agreement between Dominion and NCDOT has not yet been signed. To execute the agreement, Dominion will have to submit a set of plans, which also require the permits. “NCDOT doesn’t want to speak for Dominion, but are helping to facilitate the processes,” Kuhn wrote.

Montanez said the utility will decide on a final route within the next two months.

Environment

Feds drop criminal case involving Chemours, Clean Water Act

The Cape Fear River is contaminated GenX, which originates from the Chemours plant in northern Bladen County, 100 miles away. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Chemours will not be criminally charged in a Clean Water Act case involving its Fayetteville Works plant, according to the company and federal officials.

Don Connelly, spokesman  for US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina said the charges were dropped after a grand jury investigation. Since grand jury deliberations are confidential, the spokesman could not comment on or release documents related to the case.

Chemours noted the case had been dropped in its first-quarter Securities and Exchange Commission filings. The company “responded to grand jury subpoenas, produced witnesses before a grand jury and for interviews with government investigators and attorneys,” the filings read. then in March, the US Attorney notified the company that “after an extensive review of the law and all the facts, it declined to pursue any criminal action against Chemours and is closing its file.”

Corporations are seldom criminally penalized for environmental violations. (The most recent case in North Carolina was in 2015, when Duke Energy paid a $68 million criminal fine for the Dan River coal ash disaster.)

Not only are there few corporate criminal penalties, but the number of criminal investigations is also low. According to the EPA, it opened fewer than 200 criminal investigations last year. While up from the previous two years, that figure is still half of its peak of nearly 400 in 2009. The declines also occurred during the Obama administration.

In its annual report for 2019, the EPA doesn’t list the number of cases that were declined for prosecution. But data from the Transactional Records Access and Clearinghouse, at Syracuse University, shows that from 1986 to 2016, there was a consistent pattern of prosecutors declining to pursue criminal environmental violators.

(Graph: TRAC, Syracuse University)

It’s unclear what specific allegations prompted the Chemours case, but for decades, it and former parent company DuPont, discharged millions of gallons of wastewater contaminated with GenX, a type of perfluorinated compound, into the Cape Fear River.

GenX was supposed to be a less harmful replacement for PFOA and PFOS, which have been connected to serious human health effects, including several types of cancer, high blood pressure during pregnancy, low birth weight, ulcerative colitis and high cholesterol. But researchers have found GenX poses similar health risks

The river is a major drinking water supply for tens of thousands of residents in New Hanover and Brunswick counties, including Wilmington, where high levels of GenX were detected in treated tap water. Those levels have decreased since state environmental regulators required Chemours to stop its discharge or they would revoke its discharge permit. A consent order among the state, Cape Fear River Watch and Chemours established additional requirements to halt or decrease contaminant releases.

In its SEC filings, Chemours estimated it would cost roughly $200 million to clean up environment damage from the Fayetteville plant. But a full cleanup is likely impossible, at least from a technological standpoint. GenX and other types of perfluorinated compounds, collectively known as PFAS, persist in the environment for tens if, not hundreds of years, earning them the term, “forever chemicals.”

In its recent Corrective Action Plan filed with the NC Department of Environmental Quality, Chemours said it could not afford to remove the pollutants from the 70 square miles where the groundwater, drinking water and surface water are contaminated. DEQ, which received hundreds of public comments decrying the plan, deemed the company’s proposal inadequate and sent it back for revisions.

Last year the EPA also cited Chemours alleging that in 2017 it had violated the federal Toxic Substances Control Act. According to the citation, the company failed to report and report uses of certain PFAS — the commercial names are redacted — as well as control emissions and discharges of GenX.

That case has not yet been resolved. Chemours has denied the allegations. In the SEC filings, the company said “management does not believe that a [financial] loss is probable related to the matters in the Notice of Violation.”

However, Chemours still faces hundreds of civil lawsuits related GenX and PFAS, including several in North Carolina. In other states, Chemours also inherited litigation from DuPont in relation to allegations that former employees became sick because of benzene and asbestos exposures while working in the plants.

Chemours reported gross profits of $298 million for the first quarter of 2020, which ended in March. However, its comprehensive after-tax income showed a loss of $4 million.

agriculture, Environment

DEQ lists progress on environmental justice, swine farms; critics say enforcement essential

Map: DEQ

After initial results showed elevated levels of contaminants in Duplin County waterways commonly found at industrialized swine farms, the NC Department of Environmental Quality is continuing its water quality investigation to find the source.

Policy Watch previously reported that in the Stockinghead Creek watershed — with 40 industrialized hog farms permitted to grow 94,068 swine, another 1.3 million chickens and turkeys, plus cattle —contained fecal coliform levels well above state regulations.

High levels of nitrogen, phosphorus and ammonia were also detected, but there are no state or federal numeric standards for nitrogen, phosphorus and ammonia in surface water.

DEQ is working with academic researchers to identify genetic markers for feces, as well as molecular tracers for the sources of nitrogen.

The investigation is part of a civil rights settlement that went into effect in May 2018. Under the terms of the agreement, DEQ agreed to improve regulatory oversight and better protect neighboring communities form the health and environmental impacts of industrialized swine farms.

As a condition of the settlement, DEQ was also required to submit a report about its progress on fulfilling its environmental justice obligations.

The EPA has identified potential health hazards related to CAFOS, although it has said there is significant uncertainty associated with levels of exposure. Academic scientists have also found that residents of zip codes where there is a high density of CAFOS had shorter lifespans, although the researchers stopped short of establishing causality.

Naeema Muhammad, organizing director of the NC Environmental Justice Network, also sits on the state’s Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board. “While the improvements to the swine general permit are welcome and necessary, they still do not meaningfully address the equity issues that are at the center of the [civil rights] complaint, Muhammad said in a prepared statement.

“No matter how strong DEQ’s regulations or oversight,” Muhammad said, the open lagoon and sprayfield system —  causes a substantial part of the adverse effects on the health, well-being and environment of people living near operations covered by the General Permit. It must be replaced by the superior technologies that meet the 2007 statutory performance standards, which also apply to digesters and swine waste biogas projects.”

This month the agency also released a draft of a violation point system that can be used to better gauge farms’ compliance. Points are assigned based on negligence, willfulness and the danger posed by the violation. If a farm accumulates six points within a rolling five-year period, DEQ could revoke its permit.

DEQ also issued the first version of an anonymous complaint tool.  DEQ has begun publicly listing the number of odor complaints it receives, as well as the farms where inspectors determined there was a violation.

By allowing complaints to remain anonymous, people could feel more secure in reporting without fear of retaliation from the farmers. Several neighbors have said that farmers have tried to intimidate them, including one person who testified in a deposition that one farmer entered her mother’s home and shook the chair she was seated in and threatened her.

From November 2018 to April 2019, DEQ confirmed 62 complaints involving cattle, dairy, poultry and swine farms. (Most poultry farms aren’t required to have a permit because they use “dry” litter. However, these farms can still stink.) Inspectors issued warning letters, notices of deficiency and notices of violation related to the complaints. Farms are also provided with an “odor control checklist.”

“As an agency, we continue to be responsive to complaints, conducting inspections and taking enforcement actions when it is appropriate to do so,” Martin said.

For the latest reporting period, May 2019 through March 2020, DEQ investigators confirmed eight of 85 complaints. Six of them dealt with illegal discharges into waterways; two involved spraying waste on fields within four hours of a flood watch. The violators were issued with warnings, notices of deficiency or notices of violation, depending on the egregiousness of the offense.

For example, inspectors found a Duplin County swine farm co-owned by Terry Tate and AJ Linton was illegally discharging waste into Murphey’s Creek — a waterway in the Stockinghead Creek watershed that has high levels of pollution.

Roughly half of the recent cases dealt with hog farms or a combination of livestock operations — hog and poultry, for example, on the same property. Since lawmakers made the moratorium on new and expanded hog operations permanent in 2007, thousands of poultry farms have been built in the state; most poultry operations are “deemed permitted,” meaning they don’t need a permit.

Read more

Environment, Legislature

House bill would ban sale, production of PFAS in North Carolina

(Illustration: EnviroScience Inc.)

Companies could no longer manufacture PFAS, also known as perfluorinated compounds, in North Carolina under a new proposal, House Bill 1109.

If enacted into law, the measure would also prohibit the export of the toxic compounds, “except for products specifically authorized or required to contain PFAS under federal law.”

The bill was introduced May 14; it has eight co-sponsors, all Democrats: Pricey Harrison, John Autry, Alison Dahle, Susan Fisher, Marcia Morey, Deb Butler, Zack Hawkins and Raymond Smith.

There are 5,000 types of PFAS. Most are used in, or byproducts of, the manufacture of dozens of waterproof and stain-resistant consumer goods, such as clothing, cookware, pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags, and more.

Of the few types of PFAS that scientists have studied, all have been linked to various health problems in humans, including several cancers, thyroid disorders, low birth weight, high blood pressure during pregnancy, ulcerative colitis and high cholesterol.

The compounds are widespread in the environment, especially rivers, lakes groundwater and drinking water supplies. They are often referred to as “forever chemicals” because they take decades to degrade.

The bill would allow DEQ to assess civil penalties of $5,000 to $25,000 for the first offense, and $10,000 for subsequent offenses. The maximum penalty for one month is $200,000.

It also would appropriate $100,000 in one-time money for additional monitoring and enforcement.

Several of the same sponsors also introduced two additional PFAS-related measures:

  • HB 1108 would require any company that discharges PFAS into the waterways to disclose the types, amounts and concentrations in order to receive a permit from the NC Department of Environmental Quality.

The same information would be required of wastewater treatment plants, both public and private, that receive discharges from industry. Those plants would have to remove the PFAS before discharging or require the industrial source to do so.

Among the other provisions are requirements for DEQ to study PFAS in landfill leachate and in biosolids that are applied to land.

PFAS enter landfills when contaminated consumer goods are thrown away. Leachate is liquid from the garbage that is captured in tanks beneath the landfill.

Biosolids are generated from wastewater treatment plants and used to fertilize agricultural fields. However, when it rains runoff from those fields can send PFAS into the groundwater and surface water. From there, the compounds can enter the drinking water supply.

In addition to the $5 million to DEQ for water quality monitoring, the State Water Infrastructure Authority would receive $80,000,000 in one-time money to issue matching grants to water systems to build or improve their  drinking water treatment systems to “substantially reduce public exposure to detectable PFAS.”

  • HB 1110 would require two state agencies to study the various effects of the compounds on human health and wildlife. DEQ  would be required to create an inventory of direct and indirect discharges of PFAS into surface water, air, groundwater and soil.

The Office of Management and Budget would calculate costs to local and state governments, several of which have had to spend millions of dollars to upgrade their drinking water treatment systems to reduce PFAS levels; those expenses are then passed on to ratepayers.

The NC Policy Collaboratory would also be charged with studying the future costs of removing or reducing the contaminant loads.

The bill would appropriate $600,000 for the studies.