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.

Environment

After studying Sutton Lake, Duke University scientists say, “Impact of coal ash in environment far larger than previously thought”

A Duke University study released today suggests there have been “multiple unmonitored coal ash spills” in Sutton Lake, even before Hurricane Florence struck the coast last year.

Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, said the spills could have been caused by floods, accidental releases or past dumping practices.

As a result, levels of some metals in the lake could be toxic to fish and wildlife. “A coal ash spill is not a one-time contamination,” Vengosh said in a Duke University press release. “It builds up a legacy in the environment. Even if you close the site, the legacy and threat remain, as our research has revealed at Sutton Lake and other coal ash spill sites such as Kingston, Tennessee. Collectively, these findings imply that the distribution and impact of coal ash in the environment is far larger than previously thought.” 

Sutton Lake, which is in Wilmington, served as a cooling lake for Duke Energy’s coal-fired power plant from the 1970s to 2013. There are two unlined coal ash impoundments at the plant, which are being excavated, and one lined landfill, where much of the ash is being deposited.

“The levels of coal ash contaminants we detected in Sutton Lake’s sediments, including metals with known environmental impacts, are similar to or higher than what was found in stream sediments contaminated by the 2008 Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee, or the 2014 Dan River spill here in North Carolina,” Vengosh said.

The metals included arsenic and cadmium — both carcinogens — as well as selenium, copper, nickel, antimony, vanadium and thallium.

Duke Energy downplayed Vengosh’s findings as “nothing new.” “It is ludicrous to compare decades-old ash at the bottom of a manmade wastewater facility to anything found in conventional lakes and rivers,” Norton said. “This wastewater facility did exactly what it was designed to do, serve as a buffer between our former coal plant and the Cape Fear river to keep the public and environment safe.”

The Duke University team studied bottom sediments collected in October 2018 from seven sites in Sutton Lake and three in the adjacent Cape Fear River. They compared those sediments to samples collected from Sutton Lake in 2015, as well as Lake Waccamaw, which has never been a coal ash impoundment. Read more

Environment, News

Fish and Wildlife Service moves to protect two threatened NC species

Carolina madtom (Image: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

WASHINGTON — Two North Carolina aquatic animal species should be protected under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined.

The Carolina madtom, a small freshwater catfish, should be listed as endangered and an aquatic salamander species, the Neuse River waterdog, should be listed as threatened, according to the FWS. The proposal comes as the Trump administration has sought to cut funds available for Endangered Species Act listings.

The two species are endemic to North Carolina — they don’t live anywhere else in the world, said Raleigh-based FWS Field Supervisor Pete Benjamin.

Dams, polluted waters and invasive flathead catfish are among the factors reducing the Carolina madtom’s presence in its native Neuse River Basin. Researchers are breeding the fish in captivity in hopes of restoring the population, according to the FWS.

The proposed designations are based on findings by the Fish and Wildlife Service and North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission biologists. They reviewed extensive scientific information, Benjamin said, including habitat location and status, human-created threats and ongoing species conservation projects.

The FWS proposal, published last week in the Federal Register, would designate hundreds of miles of river as critical habitat for the two species. While that designation doesn’t establish a refuge or preserve for the species, it does prevent federal agencies from doing anything to place the species in jeopardy, including modifying or destroying the habitat.

Neuse River waterdog (Image: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

The public can comment on the proposed designations until July 22. After that, a final rule will be issued or the proposal will be withdrawn.

The Trump administration’s fiscal 2020 budget proposal includes $95 million for recovery of listed species, an increase of nearly $4 million from the fiscal 2019 enacted budget. But it would whittle funding to add wildlife and plants to the Endangered Species List to $11 million annually, a $7.7 million cut from the previous year, according to the administration’s 2020 budget request.

Congressional appropriators often disregard White House budget requests, and House lawmakers have said they plan to boost funding to protect endangered species. In March, North Carolina Rep. Alma Adams (D) joined other House Democrats asking appropriators to “support robust funding” for Endangered Species Act listings and recovery.

Approximately 500 species are waiting for approval to be added to the endangered and threatened lists. While the budget cuts aren’t fatal impediments, they do slow the listing process, in some cases causing a two-year process to take a decade or more.

Occasionally, a species will become extinct during the extended decision period, said Center for Biological Diversity lobbyist Brett Hartl.

The Trump administration is “sort of gaming the system, slow-walking it” purposefully, he said.

Even if the process becomes more difficult, Hartl said, getting species on the list is still worth the effort because it creates prohibitions and mandates that keep both individuals and federal agencies from taking or harming it.

It also “empowers ordinary people to protect the environment,” giving them the right to bring a lawsuit against anyone they observe harming a protected species, he said. “Those things happen even if the budget is hamstrung.”

Alexis Shanes is a reporter with the Medill News Service and the Newsroom network, of which Policy Watch is a member.

agriculture, Environment, Legislature

The Farm Act, state budget are “erecting a fortress for the hog industry”

Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Duplin, Johnston, Sampson: “I don’t like the term CAFO. It has negative connotations.”

Disclosure: The NC Justice Center filed a brief in support of plaintiffs suing Smithfield/Murphy-Brown for nuisance. NC Policy Watch is a project of the Justice Center, but had no role in the decision to file the brief nor its contents. In order to maintain its editorial independence, Policy Watch has not read the brief and has not communicated with anyone at the Justice Center about it.

Although the bulk of the 2019 Farm Act deals with the regulation of hemp — which Sen. Brent Jackson calls, without irony, a “budding” industry — there are more than 25 sections in the bill, many of them controversial.

As Policy Watch reported this morning, one section would dismantle portions of the Public Records law to shield swine farms from scrutiny. Records generated “by or for” the state and county Soil and Water Conservation Districts would be exempt from the statute. The Department of Agriculture and bill proponents contend this provision provides consistency with federal law, which keeps certain individual farm records confidential.

“It merely mirrors federal law,” said Sen. Brent Jackson, a Republican representing three major hog-producing counties.

But Ryke Longest, director of the Duke University Environmental Policy Clinic, told Policy Watch that is not true. Federal exemptions apply “only to federal records for federal programs. State cost-share records are not exempt. This law change would cover all documents related to the state cost-share program, whether submitted by private parties or the soil and water conservation district.”

At the committee meeting, Jackson said the “parties that need to see the records” could do so.

“Who are the parties? Who makes that decision?” asked Sen. Mike Woodard, a Democrat representing Durham, Granville and Person counties.

“The regulatory agencies would have access,” Jackson said. “It would be under the purview of the Department of Agriculture.”

“What’s to hide?” asked Sen. Harper Peterson, a New Hanover County Democrat.

No one answered the question.

Sen. Harper Peterson, a New Hanover County Democrat: “What is there to hide?”

Peterson questioned the exemption for swine farms that store manure for biogas from odor rules. The Environmental Management Commission and DEQ began rulemaking nearly a year ago, a common timeline for the complex process.

“The EMC was making rules more stringent than they should have been,” Jackson replied.

“Do we have a copy of their recommendations?” Peterson asked.

“They’ve been dragging their feet,” Jackson replied.

After a year of rulemaking — a common amount of time for the EMC — the public comment period on the odor rules ended May 14.

The Senate ANER committee is expected to vote on the bill next Wednesday.


CAFO — a four-letter word?

Semantics occasionally creep into legislative committee meetings. Several lawmakers, Rep. Jimmy Dixon among them, dislike the use of “farm” to describe solar and wind energy installations. (Merriam-Webster: pronounced färm, from Middle English, “a tract of land devoted to agricultural purposes; an area containing a number of similar structures or objects, such as radio antennas or storage tanks.”)

Today, the term “CAFOs” — short for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations — was disparaged.

“They’re not CAFOs. They are family farms,” Sen. Brent Jackson said. “The term ‘CAFO’ has a negative connotation.”

But CAFOs is correct. And while families might indeed own the land and owe the debt, the corporations own the animals and dictate the terms of their management.

First, the EPA defines AFOs as “agricultural enterprises where animals are kept and raised in confined situations. AFOs congregate animals, feed, manure and urine, dead animals, and production operations on a small land area. Feed is brought to the animals rather than the animals grazing or otherwise seeking feed in pastures, fields, or on rangeland.”

A CAFO is another EPA term for a large, concentrated AFO. “A CAFO is an AFO with more than 1000 animal units (an animal unit is defined as an animal equivalent of 1,000 pounds live weight and equates to 1,000 head of beef cattle, 700 dairy cows, 2500 swine weighing more than 55 pounds, 125,000 broiler chickens, or 82,000 laying hens or pullets) confined on site for more than 45 days during the year. Any AFO that discharges manure or wastewater into a natural or man-made ditch, stream or other waterway is defined as a CAFO, regardless of size.”


Buried in the budget, a regulatory rollback

One of the most controversial environmental provisions in the budget bill delays for one year the implementation of general permits for swine, cattle, and a small number of poultry facilities that use a wet litter method of manure management. The permits were to go into effect on Oct. 1.

They want corporate socialism but no public scrutiny Click To Tweet

DEQ held several public hearings on the draft permit, including a stakeholder meeting that included agriculture interests. Nonetheless, the Farm Bureau was displeased with the results and earlier this month filed suit in administrative court, alleging DEQ didn’t follow proper procedure in issuing the permit.

“After a lengthy and transparent process involving discussions with numerous stakeholders from all walks of life and a review of more than 6,500 public comments, DEQ revised three permits to provide more certainty to farmers and communities,” DEQ Secretary Michael Regan said in a press release. “The changes targeted by this budget provision are not new rules or regulations. They are part of the permit-writing process, which is well within DEQ’s authority.”

Some of the new permit requirements are more stringent than the previous version, issued in 2014, and resulted from a Title VI civil rights settlement between DEQ and neighbors of hog farms. The delay means farms would continue to operate under the old permits until the matter is settled.

These include  groundwater monitoring at farms within the 100-year flood plain; additional reporting and equipment maintenance requirements; reducing the time between a National Weather Service hurricane/tropical storm warning or flood watch and when a farm must stop spraying waste on its fields.

“Industry representatives fully participated in that process,” said the NC Environmental Justice Network in a prepared statement. The NCEJN is composed of several groups and individuals, many of whom live near industrialized hog operations. “Their effort now to extend the old permit is not about a flawed process. It is their attempt to circumvent the proper process because the industry didn’t get everything it wanted.”

The Pork Council did not answer emailed questions about the budget provision.

Will Hendrick, an attorney with the Waterkeeper Alliance, said that if the bill becomes law with this language, key groundwater quality monitoring would be delayed. “It would be a lost year of data,” Hendrick said, adding that the intention “is to increase the amount of information available to the public.”

The $450,000 appropriation for swine biogas projects also has raised concerns of environmental advocates. The money was transferred from the Agriculture Farmland Preservation Trust Fund, which helps sustain smaller farms. And while methane, including that emitted by livestock, is a potent greenhouse gas worth capturing, swine biogas programs could incentivize the construction of natural gas pipelines — which in turn, leak methane.

Michelle Nowlin, supervising attorney of the Duke University Environmental Law Clinic, told Policy Watch that the federal government has identified biogas as a conservation practice. “The conundrum is that federal energy policy is pushing technology that conflicts with state law,” said Nowlin, who recently wrote a chapter for a textbook on climate change and agricultural law.

Even with significant public subsidies, biogas operations don’t have to comply with odor rules and nuisance laws. And if the Farm Act passes with the Public Records exemptions intact, and the budget giveaways to the industrialized livestock industry stand, Nowlin said, “the overall legislative context is erecting a legal fortress to protect the hog industry. They want corporate socialism but no public scrutiny.”