COVID-19, Environment

Long-term exposure to air pollution increases risk of death from COVID-19

Creative Commons

As the Trump administration relaxes several environmental regulations governing air pollution, scientists have learned that a person’s long-term exposure to microscopic air emissions — including those from power plants, wood pellet facilities, and quarries — is a risk factor for dying from COVID-19.

Harvard University researchers analyzed 17 years’ worth of data for 3,000 US counties, comprising 98% of the population, through April 4. The study concluded that even a small increase in long-term exposure to a type of pollutant known as PM2.5 “leads to a large increase in COVID-19 death rate — 20 times that observed for PM2.5 and mortality from all causes.”

PM2.5 is shorthand for invisible solid and liquid particles that are smaller than 2.5 microns; for comparison, a human hair is 30 microns.

Since PM2.5 is so tiny, it easily burrows deep into the lungs, where it can cause or contribute to premature death in people with heart or lung disease, non-fatal heart attacks, irregular heartbeats, aggravated asthma, decreased lung function, and increased respiratory symptoms such as inflammation, airway irritations, coughing, or difficulty breathing

Because PM2.5 exposure can weaken heart and lung function, it can also increase the severity of COVID-19 symptoms and the risk of death.

As of April 14, North Carolina has reported nearly 5,000 positive cases of COVID-19, 108 deaths and 333 current hospitalizations. However, because of testing limitations, those figures are an undercount.

Illustration EPA

The findings were consistent, even after researchers adjusted for population size, hospital beds, number of individuals tested, weather, and socioeconomic and behavioral variables including obesity and smoking.

“The study results underscore the importance of continuing to enforce existing air pollution regulations to protect human health both during and after the COVID-19 crisis,” the researchers concluded.

On March 26, the EPA announced it would relax monitoring requirements on industry because of the pandemic. Also in March, the Trump administration rolled back fuel efficiency standards for vehicles, which will result in more air pollution. During a media call, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said “benefits” of the weaker fuel efficiency standards “outweigh the costs,” because cars would be cheaper without additional emissions controls.

PM2.5 emissions in the ambient air are measured by their density and in micrograms per cubic meter. A cubic meter is the size of a box that is 3.5 feet high, wide and deep.

The EPA’s legal limit for PM2.5 emissions in ambient air is 12 mcg per cubic meter annually, and averaged over three years.

Daily averages, calculated over the same three-year period, can’t exceed 35 mcg per cubic meter.

In North Carolina, the 16 counties that monitor for PM2.5 in ambient air have not exceeded those thresholds since at 2013, according to state environmental data. (See tables below.)

However, even legal amounts of PM2.5 can contribute to the COVID-19 death rate. The Harvard researchers found that for all 3,000-plus counties in the US, the annual average micrograms per cubic meter was 8.4 to 9.5, well below the 12 set by the EPA.

And even an increase of 1 mcg/cubic meter, researchers found, is associated with a 15% increase in the COVID-19 death rate.

Nonetheless, the EPA announced today it would not change its legal limits.

In North Carolina, about a quarter of the 16 reporting counties had levels above 8.4 mcg per cubic meter, from 2015-2018, according to state data: Catawba, Davidson, Durham, Mecklenburg and Wake.

From 2013-2015, when there were more monitoring stations, 11 of 24 counties reported levels above 8.4 mcg/cubic meter: Catawba, Cumberland, Davidson, Forsyth, Guilford, McDowell, Mecklenburg, Wake and Wayne.

Nor is the state’s data comprehensive. For example, the EPA doesn’t require metropolitan statistical areas with fewer than 1 million people to monitor for PM2.5 air near roads.

Yet even heavily traveled areas can be exempt. The state’s Division of Air Quality doesn’t monitor for PM2.5 in the Burlington MSA, even though Interstate 85 runs through it. The division shut down that area’s PM2.5 monitor in 2015 because the EPA no longer required it.

And since the EPA thresholds are based on averages, these limits don’t account for hotspots.  In neighborhoods near industrial pollution sources, often communities of color, levels could be higher.

Industries are required to limit — but not eliminate — their PM2.5 emissions. For example, a state Division of Air Quality study of air near the Enviva wood pellets plant in Richmond County, near Hamlet, showed that industrial and traffic sources, and to a lesser extent, wildfires, emitted 746 tons of PM2.5 in 2014. The Enviva plant was projected to emit another 39 tons.

Statewide, in 2014, all reported sources of PM2.5 emitted nearly 80,000 tons into the air. These sources include the remaining few coal-fired power plants, wood pellet facilities, quarries, concrete plants, (many of which have been exempt from reporting since 2016, when new state rules were adopted), trains, cars and wildfires, including prescribed burns.

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The table below shows the levels of PM2.5 in the ambient air, by reporting county. The units are in micrograms per cubic meter.

The EPA’s threshold for the three-year, annual weighted mean is 12 mcg/cubic meter; for the 98th percentile, it is 35 mcg/cubic meter. Asterisks indicate that the county was not required to report that year. Source: NC DEQ’s Division of Air Quality

CountyAverage 3-year, annual weighted mean, 2016-2018Average 3-year 98th percentile, 2016-2018Average 3-year, annual weighted mean, 2015-2017Average 3-year
98th percentile, 2015-2017
Average 3-year, annual weighted mean, 2013-2015Average 3-year 98th percentile, 2013-2015
Alamance****8.116
Buncombe7.1227.4237.715
Caswell****8.818
Catawba8.6208.7208.9 18
Cumberland8.1188.3178.5 16
Davidson8.7198.4199.2 23
Duplin****7.315
Durham8.6188.8198.3 18
Forsyth7.5167.6168.5 19
Guilford7.8168.2168.4 19
Haywood****8.2 18
Jackson7.828**7.3 15
Johnston7.8157.4157.3 16
Martin****6.9 14
McDowell****8.4 16
Mecklenburg8.5188.7189.0 18
Mitchell7.0217.520**
Montgomery6.3146.5158.0 15
New Hanover4.8135.7146.5 14
Pitt6.6136.9147.3 15
Rowan****8.7 17
Swain8.3258.1257.6 18
Wake7.7158.81810.7 22
Watauga****6.7 15
Wayne****8.9 18
agriculture, Courts & the Law, Environment

NC Supreme Court rules in favor of attorney general in Smithfield case, deals setback to conservatives

The North Carolina Supreme Court delivered a blow to conservatives today, ruling that the attorney general’s office is within its authority to allocate environmental grants from the historic Smithfield Foods agreement.

In its decision, the Supreme Court reversed the state appellate court’s ruling against the attorney general’s office. It returned the case to the appeal court for any outstanding issues unrelated to today’s decision.

The case, New Hanover County Board of Education vs. Josh Stein, began more than three years ago when Francis X. DeLuca, the former director of conservative think tank the Civitas Institute, sued the attorney general’s office, then occupied by Roy Cooper.

The Smithfield agreement was a deal brokered in 2000 among then-attorney general Mike Easley, the pork producer and its subsidiaries to compensate for the environmental damage caused by industrialized hog farms.

DeLuca had argued that the $50 million, payable to the state by pork producer Smithfield Foods over 25 years was not a voluntary contribution, but actually a civil penalty. Instead of the attorney general disbursing the Smithfield funds to environmental nonprofits, cities and other eligible groups, as laid out in the agreement, that money should have been reallocated to school districts, DeLuca argued.

Under state law, civil penalties and forfeitures are allocated to school districts in the counties where the offenses occurred.

The fact that DeLuca brought the suit, in effect advocating for public schools, is a smokescreen. The Civitas Institute has long criticized the public school system, favoring instead charter schools, the privatization of education and further cuts to public education. Instead, the lawsuit was really about eliminating funding for environmental groups and projects.

However, an appeals court found that DeLuca did not have standing to sue, and the New Hanover County Board of Education became the plaintiff.

From 1995 to 2000 waste lagoons, not all of them Smithfield’s, “had spilled millions of gallons of waste into North Carolina waterways,” according to court documents, “contaminating surface waters and killing aquatic life, while seepage from waste lagoons impacted groundwater supplies.”

Under the terms of the 2000 agreement, Smithfield pays $1 per hog it owns in North Carolina each year, up to $2 million annually, roughly equivalent to $50 million. The agreement is valid through 2025.

Of the voluntary funds, about $15 million is to be spent on developing “environmentally superior” waste management systems, although Smithfield has not made any meaningful progress toward those solutions.

The payments, testified several officials in affidavits, were not intended as penalties for wrongdoing, but rather “voluntary contributions” that the corporation paid in order to burnish its image by “working toward better waste management solutions.”

In fact, as the Supreme Court pointed out, state environmental regulators continued to penalize Smithfield after the agreement was signed. According to court documents, Christine Lawson, program manager for the Department of Environmental Quality’s Animal Feeding Operations Program, provided an affidavit listing approximately 19 civil penalties against Smithfield and its subsidiaries during the year preceding the execution of the agreement and the year following the execution of the agreement.

According to Lawson, “almost half of those penalties were assessed after the execution of the agreement and were based upon notices of violation that had been issued prior to the agreement’s execution.”

The Smithfield contributions go into an escrow account managed by PNC Bank. Each year, as part of the Environmental Enhancement Program, the attorney general’s office solicits proposals and then awards funding to groups working on environmental projects that would improve water quality in the state. Nonprofits, government agencies and other groups can apply for the grants, which max out at $500,000.

While the applications are reviewed by a panel of representatives for state agencies, universities and environmental nonprofits, the attorney general has the sole authority to award choose the recipients and award the money.

The attorney general’s office has awarded $24 million to grant recipients since the fund’s inception. It recently solicited another round of applications.

Wake County Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway originally ruled in favor of the attorney general’s office. The New Hanover Board of Education appealed the decision, and the state appellate court was split on the matter, which automatically sent the case to the NC Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Justice Sam Ervin IV wrote the opinion for the majority of the court; Judge Paul Newby wrote the dissent.

Sound Rivers and the NC Coastal Federation intervened on behalf of the attorney general’s office. They were represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center. The New Hanover County school board was represented by former Republican legislator, attorney Paul Stam.

COVID-19, Environment

Polluters get a pass from EPA during pandemic

Andrew Wheeler, EPA photo by Eric Vance

Under pressure from industry, the EPA announced yesterday that it will not fine polluters who violate the law by failing to monitor their emissions and discharges during the COVID-19 pandemic. The policy suspending civil penalties is temporary, said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler in a press release. It is retroactive to March 13.

The range of industries eligible for this temporary pass is vast, including many that operate in North Carolina, such as electric utilities, plastics and textile manufacturers, asphalt plants, and waste incinerators.

The EPA’s order states that “in general the agency does not expect to seek penalties for violations of routine compliance monitoring, integrity testing, sampling, laboratory analysis, training, and reporting or certification obligations in situations where the E.P.A. agrees that Covid-19 was the cause of the noncompliance and the entity provides supporting documentation to the E.P.A. upon request.”

According to the EPA’s press release, the agency expects regulated facilities to comply with the law, “where reasonably practicable, “and to return to compliance “as quickly as possible.”

Neither of those terms is defined in the policy announcement.

To skirt the penalties, facilities must “document decisions made to prevent or mitigate noncompliance and demonstrate how the noncompliance was caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“EPA is committed to protecting human health and the environment, but recognizes challenges resulting from efforts to protect workers and the public from COVID-19 may directly impact the ability of regulated facilities to meet all federal regulatory requirements,” Wheeler wrote. “This temporary policy is designed to provide enforcement discretion under the current, extraordinary conditions, while ensuring facility operations continue to protect human health and the environment.”

The agency said public water systems should continue to operate normally, including routine sampling, “to continue to ensure the safety of our drinking water supplies.” Public water suppliers are required to regularly monitor for some contaminants, such as lead, copper and disinfection byproducts, that latter of which have been linked to cancer. These utilities must report results to both federal and state authorities.

The policy does not provide exempt polluters that intentionally violate the law, Wheeler wrote. Nor does the policy apply to pesticide imports, enforcement of Superfund sites or the disposal of regulated hazardous waste.

In its response to the pandemic, the EPA has been inconsistent in its leniency, particularly for public comment. Chris Frey is an NC State University environmental engineer professor who served on the agency’s Science Advisory Board from 2012 to 2018. He noted on Twitter that the EPA has refused to extend its 30-day public comment deadline on a controversial rule to limit the use of human health data in its environmental decisions.

Scientists and public health advocates have pleaded with the agency to extend the comment period, but the EPA has refused to do so.

COVID-19, Environment

Here’s another unexpected fallout from COVID-19: More trash, recyclables and tighter restrictions on disposal

The broken coffee pot. The mound of take-out containers. The lawn chair with the missing leg.

As more North Carolinians are forced to stay at home to prevent the spread of COVID-19, they are also generating more household trash and recycling. But some cities and counties are changing or suspending some types of disposal services, particularly at convenience centers.

The City of Durham  has closed its convenience center on Club Boulevard, which accepts trash, recyclables, e-waste, appliances, tires, textiles and household hazardous waste, to the public, except for large commercial accounts.

Curbside collection for trash, yard waste and bulky items are not affected by the closure.

However, the city has implemented a change to cardboard collection. Because of COVID-19 and guidance from the National Institutes of Health, Durham city residents can no longer request pick-up of large amounts of cardboard, known as “special call-in” service. All cardboard must fit inside the blue recycling bins.

The new coronavirus “is stable” on cardboard for up to 24 hours, according to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated “there is likely very low risk of spread from products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient temperatures,” it is possible that cardboard recently left at the curb could transmit the disease. Sanitation workers would have to pick up that material since it is not in a bin.

Meanwhile, Durham County has temporarily suspended bulky item disposal at its four convenience centers: Redwood, Parkwood, Rougemont and Bahama. The centers are used by residents who live in unincorporated parts of the county.

Bulky loads include large unbagged items such as furniture, debris from do-it-yourself projects, broken appliances, large toys, etc. Residents with bulky loads are encouraged to seek a private transfer station to dispose of items, according to a Durham County press release.

Durham County is reporting significant increases in waste at it convenience sites because “greater numbers of people are at home” to reduce the spread of COVID-19. “This is especially challenging as options to unload full dumpsters for the department are being reduced,” the county wrote in the release.

Durham ships its trash 90 miles to the Sampson County Landfill. This does not include hazardous waste, which must be deposited in a special landfill and is transferred out of state.

Durham County officials did not return an email seeking further information, such as tonnage.

Wake County solid waste officials have noticed more customers at the convenience centers, “possibly because people are home and doing their spring cleaning,” said John Hamlin, Wake County communications consultant. These centers  are at the South Wake Landfill and East Wake Transfer Station. The March tonnage figures won’t be available until early April, Hamlin said.

In addition, solid waste workers are staying 6 feet away from one another and are disinfecting surfaces to prevent the spread of COVID-19.  Residents should expect delays when dumping construction waste at Convenience Centers on the weekends, Hamlin said, because the county is “prioritizing household waste and recycling.” Updates are at posted on the county’s website.

The City of Raleigh has not received significantly more trash, but beginning Saturday, April 4, it will temporarily suspend collection of e-waste, yard waste, bulk items and other special load services, said city’s spokeswoman Julia Milstead, “so we can focus resources on garbage and maintaining public health and safety.”

There has been roughly a 10 percent increase in Greensboro, but no changes in service, according to solid waste officials. That city’s garbage is trucked to the Uwharrie Environmental Landfill in Mt. Gilead, about 70 miles south.

COVID-19, Environment, Trump Administration

Poll: North Carolinians say feds must address climate change, unhappy with Tillis

Sen. Thom Tillis has just a 31% job approval rating, according to a recent Public Policy Polling survey.

More than 60 percent of North Carolinians surveyed said they think elected leaders — particularly the federal government — must act urgently to protect communities from the worst impacts of climate change, according to poll results released today.

And two-thirds said they strongly or somewhat approve of Gov. Roy Cooper’s Clean Energy Plan. Surprisingly, 40 percent of Trump voters said they support the plan, evidence of “a bit more partisan crossover than in the past,” said Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling.

PPP conducted the survey last weekend on behalf of the NC League of Conservation Voters. It surveyed 781 North Carolinians. Half of the surveys were conducted by phone and the rest by text message. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.5%.

A third of respondents identified as Republicans, with 40% as Democrats and 27% independents. Three-quarters of those surveyed said they were white.

On nearly every climate-related question, respondents said they supported a transition to clean energy, as well as recognized the public health risks associated with climate change.

More than 60 percent of respondents said they were more likely to vote for a US Senate candidate who takes climate change seriously.

Sen. Thom Tillis’s record on climate change is inconsistent. In 2014, he said climate change was not “a fact,” and subsequently denied that humans’ reliance on greenhouse gas emissions was the main driver. Since then, he has acknowledged the science, but nonetheless urged President Trump to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.

Tillis’s job approval rating is just 31% among those polled, even lower than President Trump’s — 46%.

Gov. Cooper’s approval rating is 51%.

Dustin Ingalls, director of strategic communications for NCLCV compared the effects of the climate crisis on low-income residents and communities of color to those of the new coronavirus. “It’s impacting those communities first and worst,” Ingalls said. “They are exposed to more air pollution, which exacerbates health issues like asthma, making them more vulnerable to the coronavirus.”

The inadequate federal response to the pandemic bears hallmarks of its similar denials of climate change, Ingalls said.

“Like the climate crisis, the corona crisis has been made worse by a federal government which has defunded or eliminated response teams, rolled back regulations, ignored science and expert advice, treated it like a hoax, and jumped to action too late.”

Jensen said the coronavirus pandemic has heightened awareness of government’s role in protecting public health, including that related to climate change. Excessive heat, floods, hurricanes and insect-borne diseases are exacerbated by a warming planet — and the effects, while global, are felt locally.

“The overarching finding is that 61% of those polled think North Carolina leaders need to act urgently on climate change,” Jensen said. “North Carolina is so closely divided about a lot of things, it’s a pretty compelling poll finding.”

“The coronavirus has made voters more cognizant to be prepared for changes going on in the world,” Jensen went on. “It shows what happens when there’s an inability to prepare sufficiently. If you plan properly the effects don’t have to be as bad.”