Environment, Legislature

Cooper signs order to combat climate change, commits to clean energy economy for NC

With historic storms lashing the state, Governor Roy Cooper says North Carolina must do more combat climate change and take steps that will lessen the impact of future natural disasters.

Cooper took the first step Monday in signing an executive order that calls on the State of North Carolina to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 40% below 2005 levels by 2025. The administration  will also take steps to support clean energy businesses moving forward.

Additionally the governor’s order also directs the following actions:

  • The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) will develop a North Carolina Clean Energy Plan to encourage the use of clean energy, including wind, solar, energy efficiency, and energy storage.
  • The North Carolina Department of Transportation will develop a plan to accelerate the use of zero-emission vehicles across state government. Cabinet agencies will prioritize the use of ZEVs for trips that can reasonably be made with a ZEV.
  • DEQ will help cabinet agencies improve their energy efficiency and publicly report utility consumption.
  • The North Carolina Department of Commerce will support the expansion of clean energy businesses and service providers, clean technology investment, and companies with a commitment to procuring renewable energy.

All cabinet agencies will integrate climate mitigation and resiliency planning into their policies, programs and operations.

Monday’s announcement received quick praise from the environmental community:

“While the Trump administration denies and withdraws, North Carolina has joined many other states and the rest of the world in taking on the crisis of climate change,” said Derb Carter, director of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s North Carolina offices. “We commend Governor Cooper for his leadership in confronting the biggest environmental challenge we face. Moving swiftly to clean sources of energy, smarter transportation and development, and enhanced natural defenses will build a stronger and more resilient North Carolina while growing our economy.”

“Governor Cooper’s executive order further advances North Carolina’s reputation as a clean energy leader. We look forward to working with him – and with our local leaders, businesses and farmers – to accelerate progress toward these goals.”  – Hawley Truax, EDF Southeast Regional Director

The solar farm at Cary’s SAS Institute served as the backdrop for today’s announcement.

Learn more by reading the full executive order below:

EO80- NC’s Commitment to Address Climate Change & Transition to a Clean Energy Economy

agriculture, Environment

This Week in Pollution: Smithfield eligible for big bailout, could cover lagoons, plus a scientific squabble over GenX

Sweet and sour pork: The world’s largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods is eligible for a portion of the Trump administration’s $12 billion bailout to help farmers who’ve been harmed by retaliatory tariffs by the Chinese. Yet, Smithfield is owned by Chinese company the WH Group. So … does that mean the Chinese are being paid by the US to retaliate against the US?

The Washington Post reported the story on Tuesday, noting that Smithfield/WH Group hasn’t decided whether to accept the corporate welfare, uh, I mean payments. The newspaper also quoted the USDA as saying it “could not police whether money will eventually filter to the Chinese.”

If Smithfield does accept the cash, perhaps the company could upgrade the antiquated waste management systems at its North Carolina operations?

Update: On Thursday evening, Smithfield announced it plans to covert its existing open-waste lagoons to covered “digesters,” which will capture biogas, over the next 10 years. In turn, that energy will be transported to central processing facilities to be converted into renewable natural gas (RNG) in North Carolina, Missouri, and Utah. This is part of the company’s “manure-to-energy” projects, according to the press release, which will span across 90 percent of Smithfield’s hog finishing spaces in North Carolina and Utah, and nearly all Smithfield’s hog finishing spaces in Missouri.

Conflicts of interest: An NC State professor paid by Chemours lambasted the state Science Advisory Board and public health officials over their report on GenX levels in drinking water, accusing them of “including speculative and inflammatory statements inappropriate for a science-based document.”

Toxicology professor Damien Shea submitted 27 pages of comments to the board, arguing that rat studies indicate the health advisory goal of 140 parts per trillion in drinking water is scientifically unfounded. Instead, the threshold should be 70,000 ppt, Shea wrote.

The report “provides absolutely no basis for making this conclusion,” and contained critical errors, Shea wrote. It is a “superficial review of the data and analysis provided to [the board] by DHHS.”

After nearly a year of evaluating the available science — and noting the conspicuous lack of it — the 16-member SAB agreed with the Department of Health and Human Services that 140 parts per trillion of GenX in drinking water is an acceptable provisional health goal. However, the board intentionally didn’t use the word “safe,” because, they said, “there’s not a bright line.” Instead the board worded its conclusion to say “no adverse non-cancer health effects” are expected.

As Policy Watch reported earlier this year, Shea issued a paper criticizing state regulators’ groundwater standard of 10 parts per trillion for GenX as “too stringent.” Chemours then used Shea’s conclusions to argue that the NC Department of Environmental Quality should relax the limit to 70,000 ppt.

Chemours, the company responsible for widespread GenX contamination, paid Shea for that paper, as well as his most recent work criticizing the drinking water standard. However, in both cases, he noted that the work was “solely” his own.

Board chairman Jamie Bartram, a professor and founding director of the Water Institute at UNC Chapel Hill, said the group had been “diligent in reflecting on and reviewing” Shea’s critiques. “I didn’t find any that weren’t considered carefully.”

Community members whose drinking water has been contaminated with GenX also criticized the 140 ppt benchmark — for being too lenient, Residents advocated for 10 ppt, the same concentration as the state’s groundwater standard, especially since most of the private wells contain many types of fluorinated compounds.

Mike Watters, who lives in Gray’s Creek near the Chemours plant in Bladen County, wrote that “DEQ just keeps kicking the can down the road at the expense of residents near the facility.” Watters and dozens of other residents demanded that the Department of Environmental Quality wield its legal authority to bring Chemours to heel — which state environmental officials have been slow to do.

Gone to waste: Flooding from Hurricane Florence contributed to sewage and wastewater spills totaling more than 67 million gallons, according to recent DEQ figures. Bypasses of wastewater treatment plants — at various stages of disinfection — accounted for 37.1 million gallons, with raw sewage spills composing 26.7 million gallons.

The wastewater treatment plant breaches included both public and privately owned systems, such as Aqua North Carolina, Mt. Olive Pickle company and Archer Daniels Midland. The sewage spills, known in wastewater lingo as SSOs (sanitary sewer overflows), involved at least a half-dozen public utilities that are on the state’s “unit assistance list.” These utilities often don’t have enough customer revenue to maintain or upgrade their aging systems.

For example, Cerro Gordo, population 200, in Columbus County, has only 11 sewer customers. (The town’s system did not have a spill during the hurricane.) If Cerro Gordo were to pay for its vital sewer upgrades without any grants or other financial assistance, according to figurers from the State Infrastructure Authority, its customers would pay — wait for it — $1,300 a month..

The median household income in Cerro Gordo is $36,875 a year; the sewer bill alone would eat up 42 percent of their paycheck.



Former EPA Science Advisory Board member and Duke professor reveals how the agency ignored science to favor wood-pellet industry

Bill Schlesinger recently left the EPA’s Science Advisory Board after six years. The Trump administration, he says, dismissed the expertise of the board and its subcommittees. (Photo: Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies)

Judging from an Oct. 23 blog post, Bill Schlesinger left the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, if not disgusted, at least dismayed.

The former dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, Schlesinger recently rotated off the board after six years. During that time, the SAB devolved from advising EPA administrators on the thorniest environmental issues of the modern era to, under Trump and his industry-beholden appointees, shaking their fists at clouds. “Since the advent of the current administration, science has been ignored and marginalized,” Schlesinger wrote on his Citizen Scientist blog. “The SAB seems an annoyance, and new procedures are proposed to circumvent its use of the best scientific expertise and published science on important and relevant issues.”

Among those issues is whether to classify burning “woody biomass,” aka trees, as “carbon neutral.” Enviva, which operates three wood pellet plants in North Carolina — with a fourth pending —  chops up North Carolina timber, including hardwoods, into material that looks like dog kibble. The company then ships the pellets to the United Kingdom, where they are burned instead of coal. This is the UK’s way of meeting its “renewable energy” goals, but in fact, burning wood releases as much, if not more, carbon dioxide, a major contributor to climate change, into the atmosphere than coal. And when trees are cut, they release more. Even when the trees are replanted, it takes decades for them to absorb as much carbon as their ancestors.

Schlesinger is a former biogeochemistry professor whose recent work focuses on understanding how trees and soil influence atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. “Some of the issues concern the age of the existing trees that are harvested and how long it takes regrowing biomass to reaccumulate the carbon,” Schlesinger wrote. “It is also important to consider whether the biomass considered includes only the stands that are harvested or the larger balance of carbon on the entire landscape, which may be affected by many other factors.”

As a Science Advisory Board subcommittee deliberated wood-as-renewable-energy, then-EPA administrator Scott Pruitt announced in April that the agency considered woody biomass to be carbon neutral. “He had ignored the SAB process and what the SAB might have reported from a scientific analysis of the issue,” Schlesinger wrote. “I can’t say there is evidence that politics were involved—such as lobbying by the forest products industry—but it sure looked like it. Make America Great Again by harvesting trees.”

Make America Great Again by harvesting trees. Click To Tweet

Last week, shortly before the SAB finalized its scientific analysis, the EPA released the Trump administration’s alternative to the Clean Power Plan, Schlesinger wrote, again stating that burning wood for energy qualified as carbon-neutral. “My point here is that decisions are being made, not on the basis of a thoughtful and deliberative evaluation of the science, but on the ideological beliefs of the current administration in Washington, perhaps with the help of corporate influence.”

Since 2012, when Schlesinger joined the SAB under the Obama administration, he has seen the group of esteemed, respected scientists become marginalized. The number of requests for guidance “dropped dramatically,” Schlesinger wrote, “as did the number of times we actually met to conduct business.”

Wait until the nightmare is over Click To Tweet

“I have a dark message for other academic scientists who might think of serving on the SAB,” he continued. “… Unfortunately, the SAB is no place to serve if you value your time and potential contributions to protecting the environment of our nation. Wait until the nightmare is over.”

agriculture, Environment

Prepare for a Texas duel as Smithfield hires new, and yes, out-of-state lawyer for upcoming hog nuisance trial

Two men argued at a Stand for Farm Families rally earlier this summer in Raleigh. The man on the left opposed factory farms, while the man on the right attended the event in support of hog farmers. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Over the summer, as Murphy-Brown lost three historic nuisance lawsuits in which juries penalized them more than a half-billion dollars, the hog industry and its surrogates changed tactics. If they could not win before a judge and jury, they would do so in the legislature and in the court of public opinion. At choreographed rallies, at press conferences, on the House and Senate floor, they threw red meat — or being pork, white meat — to their base to rally them against people suing industrialized swine farms for nuisance. The charge: Out-of-state trial lawyers have invaded North Carolina to ruin family farmers.

“We need to change the statutes and stop [the trial lawyers] from spreading like cancer in the country,” said US Sen. Thom Tillis at a National Agriculture Roundtable earlier this fall. One of his main campaign contributors is McGuireWoods, the firm that had been unsuccessfully defending Murphy-Brown, a Smithfield subsidiary, in the nuisance suits. “I hope we can put them out of a job.”

Now the world’s largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods has hired one of those out-of-state trial lawyers to defend it in the next hog nuisance case. Robert Thackston, a partner at Hawkins, Parnell Thackston & Young in Dallas, will square off against Michael Kaeske, the plaintiffs’ attorney, who is also from Dallas. Kaeske was hired by Salisbury firm Wallace & Graham to be the lead attorney at trial.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin Nov. 13 in US District Court in Raleigh. Judge David Faber, from the Southern District of West Virginia, will hear the case. Senior Judge Earl Britt, 86, presided over the first three cases.

A graduate of UNC law school, Thackston has represented plaintiffs, including landowners whose property was affected by a nearby nuisance, as well as defendants against those very types of claims, according the firm’s website. He has defended manufacturers who made products with ingredients like benzene, dioxin, PCBs and asbestos. (Thackston also gave a presentation, “Defending Retailers in Asbestos Litigation,” in 2003.)

Coincidentally, asbestos is how Kaekse made his name: by representing plaintiffs with mesothelioma, a fatal type of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.

In the hog cases, McGuireWoods and Wallace & Graham, including Kaeske, spent the fall in mediation, hoping to avert the need for more trials. Those proceedings are confidential, but nonetheless, the fourth case, Gillis v. Murphy-Brown, will proceed in November. It is one more than 20 still pending before the court.

Gillis v. Murphy-Brown, which involves a farm raising 7,184 hogs in Sampson County, is different from the previous lawsuits, with potentially more at stake for the company. In all of the litigation, Murphy-Brown has been the defendant, not the individual farmer. Because the company owns the hogs and strictly dictates every aspect of farm’s operations, it is responsible for paying any punitive and compensatory damages related to odor and flies from open-pit hog lagoons and sprayfields that the juries have deemed a nuisance to the neighbors.

The individual farmers, contracted with Murphy-Brown, are penalized, but not by the jury; the company, instead of upgrading the waste systems and thus eliminating the nuisance, “depopulates” the farm. It chooses to remove the pigs and the primary source of the farmers’ livelihood. Without disclosing the nuances of these agreements, Murphy-Brown and the NC Pork Council have portrayed the lawsuits as an assault on small family farmers.

In the Gillis case, Smithfield not only owns the hogs but also the farm itself. There is no “family farmer” to shield the company from responsibility or to appear at rallies on its behalf.


Gillis by Lisa Sorg on Scribd


Methyl bromide: So toxic that DEQ proposes first-ever cap on air levels

The proposed site of the log fumigation facility in Delco: The logs would be placed in shipping containers, gassed with methyl bromide to kill insects, and then transported to China. If the containers leak the chemical above a certain concentration, workers would use “sandbags, duct tape, etc.” to contain the errant emissions, according to the company’s air permit application. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Methyl bromide is invisible. A toxic air pollutant, it can’t be tasted or smelled. But when exposed to the gas, the body knows it has been violated.

Depending on the frequency and degree of the exposure to the compound, the lungs may fill with fluid or grow lesions. The kidneys, liver and esophagus can suffer. A developing fetus might fail to normally grow.

And the brain: Like a fortress, the brain contains cells to repel substances from entering the sensitive organ. But methyl bromide can breach what is known as the blood-brain barrier. It storms the gates, potentially leading to tremors and other neurological damage.

Despite methyl bromide’s proven toxicity, there are no North Carolina or federal regulations governing its concentrations in the ambient air. When state regulators compiled its list of regulated Toxic Air Pollutants in the late 1980s and early 1990s, NC Division of Air Quality Director Mike Abraczinskas said, “methyl bromide didn’t make the cut.”

Now an influx of air permit applications for the use of methyl bromide has prompted the NC Department of Environmental Quality to approach the Science Advisory Board for guidance on setting exposure limits to the gas. Although the compound has been banned internationally, primarily because it depletes the ozone layer, it’s still legal to use methyl bromide to kill pests in logs slated for export to many countries, including China.

Companies fill shipping containers with logs timbered from North Carolina forests, then pump methyl bromide inside. After 12 to 72 hours, workers open the container doors, releasing nearly all of the gas into the air; methyl bromide can travel miles both up into the atmosphere and across land.

DEQ is recommending a temporary draft rule setting a maximum level of 1 part per billion by volume (the unit of measurement used for gases), for chronic 24-hour exposure. DEQ used the only definitive EPA data, which is from the 1990s, to calculate the recommendation. Three other states used EPA’s figures in setting their standards.

What happens if my kid walks home from school everyday right when they open the doors & emit methyl bromide? Click To Tweet

If the Environmental Management Commission next month approves the temporary draft rule — and if it becomes final — North Carolina will be the 23rd state to adopt its own threshold.

A division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the ATSDR, published preliminary updated information this year, although it has not been finalized. In draft form, those conclusions mirror the EPA’s, said Sandy Mort, a DEQ environmental toxicologist.

Several SAB members said that while the science currently supports DEQ’s recommendation, many questions remain about its protectiveness. For example, some people have a genetic predisposition to methyl bromide’s effects because of the presence of an enzyme. Pregnant women and children are also at risk. One proposed facility near Delco and Riegelwood in Columbus County is only one mile from a school.

Workers at these facilities could also be at risk, said Woodhall Stopford, past director of the Occupational and Environmental Medicine Toxicology Program at Duke University. Although they are supposed to wear protective gear, including respirators, their exposure levels are still unclear.

The instrumentation at the facilities might not detect low but nonetheless toxic levels of methyl bromide. The facility operators told DEQ they do not keep records of ambient air levels, Abraczinskas said.

Technically, the Department of Labor, not DEQ, is responsible for environmental and health conditions inside the facilities’ property boundaries.

I suspect the board might like to look at workers,” said SAB Chairman Jaime Bartram.

And the 24-hour average exposure could fail to capture peak emissions, said NC State scientist Detlef Knappe. “What happens if my kid walks home from school every day at 3 p.m., right when they open the doors?”

The Division of Air Quality has placed pending air permit applications on hold, Abraczinskas said, “until we fill the regulatory void.”

  • Malec Brothers, an Australian company, has proposed a log fumigation facility near Delco and Riegelwood in Columbus County, which would emit 100 to 140 tons of methyl bromide a year.
  • Royal Pest Solutions, which has been fined for environmental violations in Georgia and Virginia, plans to build an operation in Scotland Neck in Halifax County, although it would emit less than 10 tons per year. Royal Pest Solutions is headquartered in Delaware.
  • Renewable Green in South Mills, in Camden County, would also emit less than 10 tons annually.
  • Pinnacle World Trade plans to operate in Williamston, in Martin County.

Five existing facilities, each of which emits less than 10 tons of methyl bromide per year, have been notified that their air permits will likely be amended: RLS Log in Elizabethtown, Royal Pest Solutions in Chadbourn, plus two facilities in Wilmington, and Flowers Timber in Seven Springs.