Commentary, Environment, public health

Duke University is killing regional light rail, while air pollution from cars kills people.

Archival photo of the Personal Rapid Transit, a tram line at Duke Medical Center, from Duke Today. The PRT operated from 1979 to 2009.

The irony is not lost on me, or many people, that the heart of the Duke Medical Center district — a congested stretch of Erwin Road, between Fulton and Trent streets — is hazardous to public health.

Put aside for the moment, the imminent physical peril that threatens bicyclists on those thoroughfares or pedestrians attempting to cross the streets, even if the walk sign assures them it’s safe to do so. The longer-term damage stems from the thousands of cars that pass by, that stack up 10 deep at the stoplights, that circle the dizzying mazes inside parking garages in search of a free space, that idle at valet parking or patient drop-off.

Air pollution from those thousands of tailpipes contribute to some of the very diseases and disorders that Duke doctors, nurses and researchers are trying to cure: asthma, heart disease, cancer, reduced lung function and premature death. MIT researchers estimated that in 2005 air pollution-related mortality shortened the average victim’s lifespan by 12 years.

There is a partial solution to this air pollution problem, or there was. Go Triangle’s 18-mile light rail line connecting NC Central University to downtown Durham, Duke University, Duke Medical Center, Chapel Hill and UNC Hospitals was supposed to dislodge people from their polluting cars and move them en masse to major education and employment centers with a lighter carbon footprint.

Now, though, Duke University, which for years supported the light-rail project, has suddenly refused to sign a cooperative agreement with GoTriangle that would allow the line to be built. Duke had planned to donate land for the rail line — in fact, the project aligns with university’s own climate change goals — but now university president Vincent Price is backing out.

In a letter to GoTriangle, Price cites as reasons construction vibrations and traffic disruptions, electrical frequency interference and possible power outages. (This is some weak sauce. Hospitals in major cities, like Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, connect to rail lines and subways.)

Here’s another example of why this rationale is disingenuous. Duke University and its Medical Center operated a rail line for 30 years. The cars rode on a “cushion of air” and were “propelled forward with the help of magnets.”
From a 2017 article in Duke Today:

For almost three decades, Personal Rapid Transit whisked patients, staff and visitors between the expanding hospital’s facilities at Duke South, Duke North and Parking Garage No. 2. It was taken out of service in 2009 and most of it was demolished to make way for the Duke Cancer Center and Duke Medicine Pavilion.

Surely the rail line’s demolition, in tandem with the construction and expansion of the Medical Center caused vibrations. Did new utility lines have to be run? Why yes.  And what of the magnets? Were MRI machines going haywire? Apparently not.

Mass transit is also key to offsetting the global damage from climate change. Transportation accounts for nearly a third of greenhouse gas emissions in North Carolina, according to the state’s recently published GHG inventory. Since the Trump administration is proposing to relax vehicle emissions standards, North Carolina’s decrease in tailpipe emissions — 12 percent from 2007 to 2015 — is in jeopardy.

Duke University’s own Climate Action Plan, published last November, advocates for enhanced public transit access, including “regional light rail, efficient bus routes, etc. that connect employees to Duke University.”

Nothing short of becoming its own city seems to align with Duke’s vision of civic duty. The university already strong-armed Durham into changing the route of the Bull City Connector, a free campus-to-downtown bus that ran every 15 to 20 minutes. The service was especially popular among low-income Durham residents — and moderate-income townies like myself.

But Duke argued that the timetable was insufficient for its employees and students. Thus, the university demanded that the BCC save time by bypassing the main transit center, the hub where people could transfer to the fare-free system. Durham caved to that demand, over much opposition from the Black community and its allies. Yet even that major route alteration didn’t satisfy Duke. The university withdrew funding for the route, and now it’s in jeopardy. And it still doesn’t stop at the main transit center.

Instead, Duke started a shuttle service — wait for it — with a stop next to the transit center that runs nearly the identical route as the BCC. But you must have a Duke ID to board the cocoon. Unencumbered by the hoi polloi, riders can be whisked to their destinations on a cushion of airs, propelled not forward, but backward — to a regressive, shortsighted, punitive transit policy. It’s bad not just for the patients, students and workers at Duke, but also the residents of Durham, and ultimately, the planet.

Environment, News

Environmental advocates running ads in NC urging Tillis to oppose Trump’s EPA nominee

Andrew Wheeler

The Sierra Club announced Wednesday that it began running Facebook ads encouraging Tillis to vote against the confirmation of Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist and a former staffer to the Senate’s leading climate change skeptic, Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe.

Wheeler — who has been EPA’s acting administrator since former administrator Scott Pruitt resigned last year amid a flurry of ethics investigations — is expected to easily win confirmation in the GOP-led Senate.

Melinda Pierce, federal policy director at the Sierra Club, accused Wheeler of bending “to the demands of big polluters” at the helm of the EPA.

“With Wheeler leading the EPA we’ll see more rollbacks of vital safeguards, more pollution, more asthma attacks, and more hospital stays,” she added. “Any Senator who votes for Andrew Wheeler is voting to endanger their constituents with toxic mercury, PFAS contamination, and dangerous carbon pollution.”

Tillis voted to confirm Wheeler as EPA deputy administrator in 2018, and he isn’t expected to break ranks with his party to oppose Wheeler. Tillis did distance himself from the president this week, writing in an op-ed that he plans to support a resolution that would terminate Trump’s emergency declaration, which seeks to circumvent Congress to fund the construction of a wall along the southern U.S. border.

The Sierra Club is also running ads targeting Republican Sens. Cory Gardner in Colorado, Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, Susan Collins in Maine and Lamar Alexander in Tennessee.

Click here to learn more about the Sierra Club’s North Carolina chapter.

Environment, Legislature

Factchecking Rep. Jimmy Dixon on water contamination (spoiler alert: he wasn’t spot on)

Rep. Jimmy Dixon

Rarely one to let the truth get in the way of a snappy quip, Rep. Jimmy Dixon is 0 for 1 in the factchecking department today.

During this morning’s meeting of the Joint Appropriations Committee on Agriculture and Natural and Economic Resources, Rep. Dixon responded to a question from newly elected Sen. Harper Peterson about water contamination from Hurricane Florence.

“Dilution is the solution to pollution,” Dixon, a Duplin County Republican, said, using one of his favorite phrases. “The [NC Policy] Collaboratory tested the water and found nothing.”

Peterson, a New Hanover County Democrat, asked Dixon for more information. Dixon told him to contact the Collaboratory for the results.

The problem is the results aren’t public yet, said Angela Harris, an NC State University scientist involved in sampling surface water after the storm. She told Policy Watch, “I won’t be able to share [them] at this time.”

Policy Watch checked with the Collaboratory leadership, who said they haven’t seen the results, either.

As for drinking water, UNC and Virginia Tech scientists sampled 62 private drinking water wells in Robeson County after Hurricane Florence. These scientists publicly released their results last month. No E. Coli, a harmful bacteria, was detected, but total coliform was found in more than a quarter of the wells. Total coliform is generally a harmless bacteria, but its presence indicates other contaminants from surface water — like flood waters — might have entered the well.

As Dixon noted, it’s likely the trillions of gallons of water that fell on Eastern North Carolina would have diluted some of the pollution in surface waters. But to declare that the Collaboratory “found nothing” is premature. We don’t know yet.

Environment

15 years ago, a DEQ employee spoke up about groundwater contamination at DuPont. And nothing happened.

Tom McKinney, who was an inspector with the Division of Air Quality in 2004. (Photo courtesy McKinney’s website)

(Scroll down to read details of the consent order.)

For state regulators, a 46-page consent order marks the end of a decades’- long shell game that Chemours/DuPont played with the Department of Environmental Quality over the company’s secret discharges and emissions of GenX and other perfluorinated compounds.

But for some North Carolina residents who oppose the consent order, there is no closure. The remedies and penalties are inadequate, they say, for not only Chemours’ permanent damage to the environment, but also the lasting contamination in their drinking water, food supply, their bodies and those of their children.

“I feel that we are being discriminated against because we are small rural folk,” said Mike Watters, who lives in Gray’s Creek, near the Fayetteville Works plant. Many wells in that neighborhood have been contaminated with GenX and PFAS.

In many instances, Chemours hid information about what its Fayetteville Works plant was emitting and discharging into the air, groundwater and Cape Fear River. But there were also times when state regulators ignored warnings – from scientists and even an employee – about what Chemours/DuPont was up to.

It’s now widely known that in November 2016, NC State scientist Detlef Knappe advised the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority and 19 DEQ officials about the presence of GenX in the river and drinking water supply.

Those officials included former Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder, who served under Secretary Donald van der Vaart, and former Division of Water Resources Director Jay Zimmerman. Neither of them alerted incoming Secretary Michael Regan about the email. (Reeder went to work for Sen. Pro Tempore Phil Berger; Zimmerman is still with the agency but now supervises the regional offices.)

But until now it wasn’t well known that DEQ – then the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources – was aware as early as at least 2004 that DuPont had a problem containing its perfluorinated compounds – PFAS — at the Fayetteville Works plant.

According to notes from an agency pre-inspection conference dated that September, Mike Johnson, the facility’s environmental manager, told DENR inspector Tom McKinney that PFOA – also known as C8 – had been detected in one of the groundwater monitoring wells. C8 exposure has been linked to a variety of serious health problems, including  low birth weight, high cholesterol, a depressed immune system, reproductive and developmental problems, and thyroid and hormonal disorders. It is listed as a likely carcinogen.

McKinney was an inspector in the Division of Air Quality at the time. He left the agency in 2006, but later returned and now works in the Division of Water Resources.

“This is quite surprising since the [C8] plant only began operation in December 2002,” the notes read. “Mr. Johnson indicated that they do not understand why C8 was detected in their ground water” and he speculated that it might have been formed from a chemical reaction unrelated to the C8 process.

McKinney told Policy Watch that he notified his superiors in DAQ. Shortly afterward, he said, he was “excluded from all meetings and responsibilities” – including inspections — related to the Fayetteville Works plant. He said it was never clear why he was reassigned from the DuPont case, or who ordered it. McKinney said he doesn’t know what happened to the information he provided to his supervisors.

At the time, Keith Overcash was the director of Division of Air Quality. He left the agency in 2010 and now is vice president of Carolina DreamBuilds, which constructs log cabins. Overcash did not respond to a phone call seeking more information about the events.

William Ross Jr. was DENR secretary from 2001 to 2009, during the Gov. Mike Easley administration. Ross is now an environmental attorney and consultant at the Brooks Pierce law firm in Raleigh. He did not return an email seeking comment.

According to an online archive maintained by McKinney, DuPont Fayetteville Works had tested air emissions from the C8 plant. “There has been increasing concern during the past year that the spread of C8, in the environment around the plant may have resulted in part from plant emissions of C8 into air.”

In 2004, the EPA had not completed its review of C8, and didn’t regulate it as toxic or hazardous. But C8 wasn’t a complete unknown. In 2001, Ohio Valley residents sued DuPont in a class-action suit over C8 exposure from the company’s Parkersburg, WV, plant.

And in 2002, DuPont in Fayetteville began manufacturing C8 because the 3M company, under regulatory scrutiny, had phased it out. In the same year that McKinney learned of the groundwater contamination in Fayetteville, DuPont settled a $671 million class-action suit and agreed to provide alternate water and medical monitoring to thousands of residents in the Ohio Valley.

The pre-inspection notes also show that McKinney and Johnson discussed air emissions from wastewater from the production of Nafion.  Nafion byproducts also belong to a class of PFAS.  The byproducts – fluorocarbons – are “persistent chemicals that are not degraded by wastewater microorganisms and remain unchanged as they are discharged to the river.”

Last year, the state health department conducted a small study of 30 adults living hear the plant. C8 and other PFAS (but not GenX) were found in the blood of every participant – at levels higher than the median for the US population.

Meanwhile, NC State scientists conducted a larger study of 345 people, including 56 children, in Wilmington. Nafion byproduct 2, a type of PFAS, was detected in 99 percent of the samples. While PFOA blood levels have decreased in the general US population, that trend has not occurred in Wilmington. In general, PFOA blood levels were similar to those of the general population – from 20 years ago.

These compounds will long outlive the consent order.

Read more

Environment

Chemours, DEQ, Cape Fear River Watch hammer out final consent order on GenX, PFAS contamination

Pretty, but polluted with PFAS: The Cape Fear River (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

This is a developing story. Policy Watch has scheduled an interview with NC Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan later this afternoon. Look for additional coverage tomorrow.

After receiving 380 public comments on a proposed consent order with Chemours, state environmental regulators are asking a Bladen County judge to sign the final version of the document, which would put it into effect.

The consent order lays out several new requirements for Chemours to analyze monitor and report its emissions and discharges of GenX compounds and other per- and polyfluorinated compounds into the air and water, including the Cape Fear River. The document also requires the company to remove 99 percent of the contamination of the surface water and groundwater at an old outfall at the Fayetteville Works site.

Since drinking water has also been contaminated by GenX and PFAS emanating from the plant, Chemours is required to “provide effective systems to treat drinking water fountains and sinks in public buildings,” such as Gray’s Creek Elementary School. It also must “ensure that filtration systems are operating properly and are maintained for at least 20 years,” at the company’s expense.

Chemours has agreed to pay a $12 million penalty, plus $1 million in investigation costs.

Many people living near the Fayetteville Works facility as well as in Wilmington downstream, were unhappy with the draft consent order, including the comparatively small penalty amount for a company that generated $6.6 billion in revenue last year. They also were concerned that DuPont, which was the original polluter before it spun off Chemours, would escape liability. The final consent order clarifies that DuPont can be held liable for past offenses, and that it doesn’t insulate either company from third-party litigation. At least two lawsuits have been filed against the company, including one by the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority. CPFUA has asked to join fellow intervenor Cape Fear River Watch in the consent order, but so far that request is still pending.

Since November, when DEQ released the draft consent order the evening before Thanksgiving, the agency has incorporated some public feedback — 15 actions, total — into the final version. Now Chemours must notify downstream utilities of an “accelerated plan” to reduce PFAS contamination in the Cape Fear River. DEQ says it will consult with the utilities before any plan is approved. (See document below for a full list of the additions.)

<a href=”https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/5744802/Side-20by-20side.txt”>Side%20by%20side (Text)</a>

A draft air permit, currently up for public comment through Friday, would also be incorporated into the order. That requires Chemours to reduce GenX emissions by 99 percent and all PFAS by 99.99 percent by Dec. 31, 2019. The company is installing a $100 million thermal oxidizer and scrubber system to achieve those reductions. Over the past two months, Chemours has been scrutinized by the EPA for the company’s role in PFAS contamination. As Policy Watch reported in January, federal officials filed a temporary notice of objection to the company’s import of GenX compounds from its facility in Dordrecht, the Netherlands. And last week, the EPA cited the company with several notices of violation related to the reporting of PFAS discharges, emissions, imports and potential health effects of exposure. The EPA has yet to announce any financial penalty for those violations.

<a href=”https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/5744803/UNSIGNED-20Final-20Revised-20Proposed-20Consent.txt”>UNSIGNED%20Final%20Revised%20Proposed%20Consent%20Order%20with%20attachments (Text)</a>