Environment

DEQ: Initial test results show arsenic below drinking water standards in Neuse River near HF Lee plant

Photo: NC Department of Environmental Quality

The Department of Environmental Quality says its first round of sampling showed arsenic concentrations in the Neuse River were below drinking water standards.

The agency released the initial test results last night. On Sept. 23, environmental officials took samples from three locations: upstream and downstream of the HF Lee plant and near a railroad trestle at the Neuse River. Flooding from Hurricane Florence had inundated the inactive coal ash basins, which are covered in trees and other vegetation, washing coal ash byproducts into the river and its tributaries.

Arsenic levels were 2 parts per million, below the drinking water standard of 10 ppm. Concentrations of barium, mercury, selenium, nickel and mercury were also below those limits.

The results are similar to Duke Energy’s tests, which indicated arsenic peaking at 1.7 ppm. The utility conducted its testing from Sept. 19 to 22.

However, both results sharply contrast with those conducted by the Waterkeeper Alliance, which collected samples from different locations than the state and the utility. It sampled water on Sept. 19 from near the inactive coal basins, which indicated arsenic concentrations were all above the 10 parts per million maximum allowable concentration for drinking water supplies, peaking at 186 ppm. There were also elevated levels of vanadium and strontium, although there is no federal drinking water standard for those chemicals.

agriculture, Environment

After Hurricane Florence, state to restart its buyout program for hog farms in the flood plain

A hog lagoon is flooded after Hurricane Florence. Forty-six lagoons in eastern North Carolina were flooded, discharged wastewater or sustained structural damage. At least another 60 nearly flooded, according to reports from the farmers to state environmental officials. This photo was taken on Sept. 17, 2018. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Note: This is the first in a series of posts this week about the swine farm buyout program, which will culminate in a larger story Thursday morning. The coverage will include maps of more than a dozen counties and the locations of their flood plains and hog farms. Today’s installment gives readers a brief background on the program, which started in 1999, but has not been funded since 2007.

After 11 years and two major hurricanes, the state is resurrecting its chronically underfunded swine farm buyout program, which pays farmers to close their hog operations that are located in the 100-year flood plain.

An NC Department of Agriculture spokesperson told Policy Watch the agency plans to open the next round of applications later this week. The buyout funds are used to close lagoons, decommission farms, purchase swine production and development rights, and establish conservation easements in areas prone to flooding. The program is voluntary and intended to reduce environmental damage, particularly to waterways, from inundated lagoons. The farmers can still plant row crops on that land or raise livestock on pasture.

The program launched in 1999 after a trifecta of hurricanes — Dennis, Floyd and Irene — pummeled North Carolina. Since then, the Clean Water Management Trust Fund has allocated a total of $18.7 million in grants in four rounds of buyouts: 1999, 2001, 2004 and 2007.

The federal government chipped in another $941,000.

Scroll down for a spreadsheet of the funding totals per county.

But no state funding has been available for buyouts since 2007. Since then, two major hurricanes and eight minor hurricanes or tropical storms have flooded parts of eastern North Carolina. And last month, 46 lagoons in eastern North Carolina were flooded, discharged wastewater into adjacent land or streams, or sustained structural damage as the result of Hurricane Florence. At least another 60 nearly overtopped, according to reports from the farmers to state environmental officials.

In April, the federal government awarded the state agriculture department nearly $2.5 million for the fifth round of buyouts. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler secured another $2.5 million in state funds, bringing the total to $5 million.

 

However, that money doesn’t go as far as it used to. For example, in 2001, the state spent $5.4 million to buy out 20 farms. In 2007, though, the state spent nearly $2.5 million for just four farms. The increase in purchase prices is due in part to the price per pound of live hogs, which nearly doubled between 1999 and 2007.

Even with $18.7 million, the state still can’t meet the demand for the program, according to a 2016 presentation given to the legislature by David Williams, deputy director of the state Division of Soil and Water Conservation, shortly after Hurricane Matthew. The program has accepted just a third of the 138 producers who submitted applications — 43.

The applications are ranked based on several criteria: the facility’s history of flooding, distance to a water supply or high-quality waters, structural condition of the lagoons and the elevation of the hog barns and lagoon dikes to the 100-year flood plain.

A 100-year flood plain is defined as an area that has a 1 percent chance each year of major flooding in any given year. A 500-year flood plain is where the annual chances are 0.2 percent.

In the table below, farms that received payments spread over multiple years were counted only once, as were their hogs and acreage. The data was current as of 2016, when this update was presented to the legislature. Farms whose payments were split over two rounds of funding were counted only once.

CountyNo. of FarmsNo. of HogsAcres in EasementBid
Beaufort612,382
316$4.6 million
Craven11,20025$205,703
Duplin712,120278$2.1 million
Edgecombe34,225106$553,900
Gates11206$75,000
Halifax22,00045$810,000
Hyde385052$1.17 million
Jones13,16333$598,583
Onslow13,67225$554,800
Pender1505$96,500
Perquimans32,825138$545,000
Pitt24,33020$2 million
Robeson19020$162,601
Tyrrell34,091101$779,376
Washington34,10095$587,327
Total3855,2181,265$14.7 million
Environment

Riverkeepers find high levels of arsenic in Neuse; Duke Energy says groups is using hurricane to “advance extreme agenda”

The Waterkeeper Alliance today announced results of four samples from the Neuse River showing high levels of arsenic in surface water near Duke Energy’s HF Lee plant. The samples were collected on Sept. 19 from areas near the utility’s inactive coal ash basins, which were flooded during Hurricane Florence.

According to Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Matthew Starr, who boated to the basins, he collected four samples — three water and one soil — upstream of the City of Goldsboro’s water supply intake. The arsenic concentrations were all above the 10 parts per million maximum allowable concentration for drinking water supplies, peaking at 186 ppm.

Levels of strontium ranged from 22.3 to 1,300 ppt. There is no federal drinking water standard for strontium. Currently EPA uses a one-day health advisory level of 25 ppm.

Vanadium concentrations peaked at 102 ppm. The EPA has not set a standard for the chemical in drinking water.

The testing detected hexavalent chromium in only one sample, at 0.58 ppm.

“It is very troubling that these ash ponds continue to release toxic pollution that harms aquatic life,” said Donna Lisenby, Waterkeeper Alliance’s manager of global advocacy.

The NC Department of Environmental Quality has conducted its own sampling, but those results have yet to be released. Those regarding the Lee plant are expected this afternoon, according to a DEQ spokesperson.

Duke Energy released results of its testing, conducted Sept. 18 through 22, that indicated arsenic levels peaking at only 1.7 ppm. However, these samples were not taken at the inactive coal ash basins, but rather both upstream and downstream of the plant, the latter being at Stevens Mill bridge down from the cooling pond.

Duke Energy spokesperson Erin Culbert said the utility’s test results “continue to show very little difference between the quality upstream of the HF Lee Plant and downstream of the plant. The Neuse River meets all surface water standards that the state has established for protecting health and the environment.”

Culbert accused the Waterkeeper Alliance of using the hurricane “to advance their extreme agenda to excavate all coal ash basins. That would burden North Carolinians with the most expensive, most disruptive plan that can do more harm to the environment than good. They wish to excavate all ash, with no viable solution on where it would go, while we believe science and engineering should inform site-specific plans.”

Culbert said the waterkeepers “likely tested cenospheres,” hollow balls of coal ash byproducts that contain aluminum, silica, arsenic and lead. Starr said he did not collect cenospheres and the highest levels of arsenic were in water.

Environmental advocates and community members have demanded that Duke excavate all of its ash basins. However, the utility plans to cap the ash in lined landfills onsite at five plants: Belews Creek, Cliffside, Roxboro, Mayo and Marshall.

Earlier this week, two university scientists criticized Duke’s sampling in a story published in The News & Observer,stating that testing river sediment would reveal a more accurate extent of contamination.

As the utility did after Hurricane Matthew two years ago, it will monitor water quality both in the Cape Fear and the Neuse for at least several months.

 

 

Commentary, Environment, Legislature, News, Special Session

The week’s top stories on Policy Watch

1. Coal ash flowing like pudding in Neuse River near Duke’s Goldsboro power plant
Matthew Starr had paddled only a half mile of a stretch of Neuse River near Duke Energy’s HF Lee plant in Goldsboro when he saw initial signs that something had gone very wrong.

“There was exposed coal ash on trees, floating in the river, on the road,” said Starr, the Upper Neuse Riverkeeper. “There was coal ash lying the ground. We scooped it up out of the water.”

Flooding from Hurricane Florence had drowned two inactive coal ash basins in five feet of water. The active basins, according to state regulators, were structurally sound, but the Half Mile Branch Creek, according to images published by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), was flowing through the inactive basin complex, which is covered in trees and other vegetation.[Read more…]

2. Tillis, Burr and other Kavanaugh supporters must cling to one or more of four very troubling beliefs
The sordid saga of Judge Brett Kavanaugh and his nomination to serve a lifetime appointment on the United States Supreme Court is quickly careering toward some sort of very explosive and disturbing conclusion. Either the conservative jurist will be confirmed despite repeated allegations of dishonesty and past incidents of sexual violence or his nomination will be withdrawn or rejected based on those same allegations. In either instance, it’s a sad and remarkable state of affairs.
It’s the sexual assault allegations that have really seized the news headlines in recent days. The first allegation involves Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a California college professor and clinical psychology instructor, who says that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a high school party more than 35 years ago while his buddy, Mark Judge, looked on. At last word, the Senate Judiciary Committee was scheduled to receive testimony from Ford later this week. [Read more…]

3. A word to the General Assembly: This time, keep the politics out of hurricane relief
“Both the House and the Senate, our hearts go out to all the folks that were affected by Hurricane Florence,” Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican, said Monday as a handful of GOP power-players visited a storm-wracked Wilmington.
Horn promised Senate and House leaders in the North Carolina General Assembly were toiling away behind the scenes on a relief package, one so badly-needed for portions of the state submerged by Hurricane Florence and its watery aftermath.

And top Republicans like House Majority Leader John Bell say the agenda will be limited when they return next week for an emergency session, with a focus on relief funding, teacher pay and the school calendar in districts shuttered by the storm. [Read more…]

4. A tale of two stories: price gouging in NC from consumers, business perspectives
For most, news of an impending hurricane means picking up some bread and an extra case of water, fueling up the gas tank and deciding whether to evacuate.

For some businesses though, that same news means dollar signs – it creates an opportunity to take advantage of desperate people planning for the worst.

The North Carolina Attorney General’s Office has received more than 700 reports of price gouging – a prosecutable crime – since Sept. 7, when Gov. Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency in anticipation of Hurricane Florence. [Read more…]

5. Update from Robeson County: Florence wreaks havoc on already struggling and neglected communities
Huge pools of standing flood water still surround houses in south Lumberton’s Turner Terrace neighborhood, drawing roving clouds of mosquitoes.

Downed power lines float in the deep brown pools and lay tangled in the many fallen trees.

The stench of sewage is oppressive.

Still, many of its residents want to come home.

Adrienne Kennedy’s family has lived in this lower income Black neighborhood for three generations. But like many of her neighbors, she had to leave after Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Flood damage and pervasive mold drove her and her two young sons to Fayetteville, where they still live as what she calls “climate refugees.” [Read more…]

6. Hurricane Florence is exposing North Carolina’s racial and geographic inequalities
Hurricane Florence tore through the Carolinas, leaving entire cities devastated, claiming dozens of lives, and doing what will likely be billions of dollars in damage. But this hurricane has exposed much more than tree roots and the foundations of homes — it has exposed the gross and growing inequality embedded in our state.

For years, eastern North Carolina has been home to some of the state’s most impoverished towns and communities. In 2016, 19 of the 20 poorest counties in the entire state were all located in the east. In addition to poverty, eastern North Carolina is also home to some of the state’s hungriest communities. In 2016, more than 300,000 people in the 18 counties declared disaster areas did not have enough food to eat each night. [Read more...]

Environment

Forests help control floods, reduce effects of climate change — unless they’re ground up and burned for fuel

At podium: Debra David of Dobbin Heights, near Hamlet, said today that her community is being disproportionately affected by a cluster of polluting industries, including an Enviva wood pellet plant. Right: Sen. Erica Smith, a Democrat representing six northeastern counties, including two where Enviva has also built facilities. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Forest protection advocates joined Democrats State Sen. Erica Smith and Rep. Cynthia Ball today in calling for stronger controls on the wood pellet industry in order to preserve the state’s timber stands and potentially blunt local effects of climate change.

The Enviva wood pellet plant in Garysburg uses the equivalent of 50 acres of forest per day, said Sen. Smith, and the air emissions from the facility are “concerning” many of her constituents. Enviva uses North Carolina and Virginia timber to produce wood pellets that are then shipped to the United Kingdom, where they are burned in lieu of coal.  Contrary to industry talking points, science shows wood is not a renewable energy source. The timbering and burning of wood releases carbon dioxide into the air; even when trees are replanted, it can take decades before they’re old enough to store significant amounts of carbon.

Hurricane Florence has brought climate change to our doorsteps,” said Danna Smith, executive director of the Dogwood Alliance. “The severity of storms and flooding are indeed due to climate change. Scientists say we must protect forests to avert climate change. Leaving forests in ground smartest thing we can do to protect community from extreme weather events.”

Forests help prevent or reduce flooding, such as what occurred during Hurricane Florence, because the soils beneath them tend to be relatively porous, according to “Forest and Floods,” published by the International Water Resources Association. Consequently, there is less runoff and erosion.

“This is not necessarily the case for plantation forests,” the article goes on, referring to replanted timber stands, “particularly where no natural understory of vegetation is main-tained or where management activities involving site preparation, cultivation, drainage, road construction, and logging may have detrimental effects.”

All four Enviva plants are located in or near low-income neighborhoods or communities of color. The company often uses the lure of jobs to convince local governments to allow it to locate in their towns and cities. For example, Richmond County allowed Enviva to build a plant in Hamlet, just north of the largely Black town of Dobbins Heights.

Debra David, who lives in Dobbins Heights, lamented that citizens couldn’t stop the plant. “We have to live with the negative impacts: air pollution, noise, truck traffic, loss of forests. We looked to elected officials and were disappointed. We want no further expansion of Enviva.”

Earlier this year, representatives from the timber sector spoke at a meeting of the Joint Energy Policy Committee to rally legislative support for the industry.

Chris Brown of the NC Forestry Association, which attended that meeting, did not return an email seeking comment on today’s press conference.

Many universities, such as NC State, have forestry programs that encourage “management” of woodlands. Prescribed burns, for example, can help reduce the chance of wildfires. But depending on the program, the curriculum can encourage timbering as a management tool.

Thomas Easley of the Yale School of Forestry said as academics, “we need to rethink how our forests are valued. They provide biodiversity and storm and flood protection. The way we treat our forests is the way we treat our people.”

Smith, a Democrat representing six counties in northeastern North Carolina, including Northampton and Hertford, where two Enviva wood pellet plants are located, said a bill could be introduced in the long legislative session to address the environmental and social justice issues presented by these industries.

“It doesn’t have to be an either or,” Sen. Smith said of the balance between economic development and environmental protection.

“We can’t log our way out of climate change,” said Danna Smith of Dogwood Alliance, “and we can’t log our way out of poverty.”