State climatologists: 2020 in NC was “a very strange year,” portends more climate change upheaval

 

The mountains were snow-deprived. The nights were sweaty and hot. And at times, it seemed the rain would never stop.

The year 2020 broke, or came close to breaking, several weather records in North Carolina, indicating that climate change is not a distant threat, but an immediate one, playing out in real time.

  • 2020 was the second-wettest on record, even though only one hurricane, Isaias, made landfall.
  • The year tied 2017 for the third-warmest, not because of a streak of 100-degree days, but because the nights were steamy. In terms of minimum temperatures, 2020 was the warmest since 1895, and the sixth consecutive year this record was broken.

“It was a very strange year,” said Assistant State Climatologist Corey Davis during yesterday’s virtual recap on 2020 climate trends. “It was warm and wet, but no one event stands out. It happened drop by drop, warm day by warm day.”

Hurricane Isaias, the only one of 30 named storms to make landfall in North Carolina last year, spawned an EF-3 tornado in Bertie County. But eight tropical storms and hurricanes that originated in the Gulf streamed northeast. These moisture bombs soaked North Carolina, causing landslides in the mountains and widespread flooding statewide.

Yet even without a tropical storm, on June 18 the Tar River in Rocky Mountain reached its third-highest crest, after records broken during Hurricanes Floyd and Matthew.

Warm air can hold more moisture, so these non-tropical deluges are becoming more common, said State Climatologist Kathie Dello. “We know North Carolina is getting warmer and wetter, ” Dello said. “We know something’s going on. There will be more 3-, 4-, 5-inch rain event days.”

There was other notable climate data from 2020:

  • The National Weather Service confirmed 48 tornadoes, including 16 on April 13, and one on Christmas Eve in Columbus County. The year 2020 ranked sixth since 1950 in number of twisters. Of the 48, nearly half developed from tropical systems.
  • And Boone received only 6.1 inches of snow, a fraction of the normal — 35.3 inches. Even Mount Mitchell, with an elevation of 6,684 feet, was shortchanged in the snow department: Only 64.2 inches, compared with the expected 92.3 inches.
  • Highlands, in Macon County, reported its wettest year on record — 136.5 inches — or 11 feet.
  • Seven of the warmest years on record in North Carolina have occurred since 2007.

The hot nights contributed to an overall temperature of 2 degrees Fahrenheit above normal, based on the average from 1981 to 2010. “This is a huge concern,” Dello said, adding that urban residents, people vulnerable to heat-related illness like those without air conditioning, the elderly, and outdoor workers, are particularly at risk.

If climate changes continues on its current trajectory, the average temperature in North Carolina could be 4 to 10 degrees warmer by the Year 2100.

“This is a different North Carolina than 30 years ago,” Dello said.

Sen. Berger announces appointments to Ag, Enviro committees, responsible for Farm Act, other key measures

Sen. Brent Jackson, a farmer, will co-chair that chamber’s Agriculture, Energy and Environment committee (Photo: NCGA)

Norm Sanderson, Brent Jackson and Chuck Edwards will lead the Senate Agriculture, Energy and Environment Committee this year, Sen. Pro Tem Phil Berger announced today.

The 14-member committee includes eight Republicans and six Democrats. The Farm Act, clean energy legislation, environmental bills and regulatory reform measures pass through this committee. For example, the committee took up part of a 2019 bill that would have allowed local governments to dump toxic electronics in landfills; it failed. While under GOP leadership, the committee has previously supported relaxing regulations on hog farms  and opposed oversight of the proliferation of poultry operations, most of which operate essentially unchecked.

Republicans: Lisa Stone Barnes, Jim Burgin, David Craven, Steve Jarvis, Tom McInnis, Paul Newton, Dean Proctor and Bob Steinburg

Democrats: Don Davis, Toby Fitch, Michael Garrett, Jeff Jackson, Natalie Murdock and DeAndrea Salvador

Berger also appointed members to the Appropriations on Agriculture, Environment, and Natural Resources, which oversees budget recommendations in those areas. That includes the NC Department of Environmental Quality, whose budget lawmakers have decimated over the past decade.

Republicans: Chairmen Norman Sanderson, Todd Johnson and Chuck Edwards; members Lisa Stone Barnes, Tom McInnis and Paul Newton,

Democrats: Natasha Marcus, Julie Mayfield, Mujtaba Mohammed, and DeAndrea Salvador

DEQ approves air permit for Align RNG biogas facility, but hog farms will need approvals

 

The blue circles represent farms closes to the pipeline route, represented by the orange line; however, these farms have not been confirmed as participating in the project. The black circles show the location of confirmed farms. (Base map and pipeline route, November 2019: Land Management Group, submitted to the US Army Corps of Engineers; farm locations based on DEQ mapping tool and documents, and USACE filings)

The NC Department of Environmental Quality has approved a controversial air permit for a proposed biogas gathering and processing facility in Turkey, on the Sampson and Duplin county line. However, the Align RNG facility, co-owned by Smithfield Foods and Dominion Energy, will not process biogas until the participating hog farms receive the required permits, DEQ announced today.

Key details of the $30 million proposal, billed as the largest swine waste-to-energy project in North Carolina, have been kept secret, even from state regulators. Although capturing methane, a potent greenhouse gas and driver of climate change, is important, the Align RNG project is not completely “clean.” A central gas collection facility on the Duplin-Sampson county line would emit more than 60 tons of pollution each year, according to documents submitted to the Division of Air Quality.

Nineteen farms, only four of which have been named, would each cover one of their lagoons and install an anaerobic digester to capture the methane, then funnel the gas to a 30-mile long pipeline to the Align RNG station. The gas would be conditioned at the station to be injected into an existing Piedmont Energy natural gas pipeline. While some methane will be captured from the farms, they would still use open lagoons to contain excess waste and would use spray it on their fields, as they have done for decades.

According to a DEQ press release, the air permit contains additional requirements, based on public comments;

  • Hourly monitoring of the tail gas flow and hydrogen sulfide concentration entering the “iron sponge” sulfur removal control device
  • Daily record-keeping of the sulfur dioxide emissions from the flares
  • An increased frequency of the analysis of the hydrogen sulfide concentration entering the facility to a monthly basis to account for potential seasonal variations
  • Specifies the maximum biogas flow limit for the facility
  • Requires an inspection, maintenance, and calibration plan for the facility’s air pollution control equipment and monitors to be submitted to DAQ for approval.

Any swine farm choosing to participate in the biogas project is required to submit a permit application to the Division of Water Resources. “DWR will thoroughly review each application for permit modification on a case-by-case basis and the issuance of this air permit does not indicate the outcome of the DWR permit processes.”

The Southern Environmental Law Center issued a statement Jan. 7 opposing DEQ’s approval:

“We are disappointed in DEQ’s decision to issue an air permit for Smithfield and Dominion’s biogas facility without considering the cumulative harm of this project to our air and water and nearby communities that are disproportionately Black and Brown,” said attorney Blakely Hildebrand. “Moreover, DEQ issued this permit without complete information from Smithfield and Dominion as to what their industrial project entails. We hope DEQ will listen to community members later this month at its hearing on water permits for just four of the 19 industrial-scale hog operations that are part of this biogas project.”

The Southern Environmental Law Center submitted comments on the draft permit to DEQ that are available at https://www.southernenvironment.org/uploads/words_docs/2020-11-20_-_SELC_Align_RNG_Updated_Permit_Comments_and_Exhibits_1-10.pdf

On Jan. 26, the Division of Water Resources will hold a public meeting on the four swine farms that are seeking modifications to their operating permits in order to participate in the Align RNG project. DWR is also currently accepting comment on those proposed permit modifications.  Additional information on how to participate in the meeting and register to speak is available here https://deq.nc.gov/news/events/swine-biogas-public-meeting.

Toothpaste goes back in the tube: Duke, Dominion propose restoration plan for former Atlantic Coast Pipeline route

Portions of Donovan McLaurin’s property in Cumberland County, near Wade, had been excavated and clearcut to make way for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

Environmental restoration along the route of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is scheduled to begin this year, including in North Carolina, according to federal filings by the utilities.

Although Duke and Dominion canceled the $8 billion natural gas project last summer, contractors for the utilities had timbered and excavated public and private land along portions of the 600-mile route, even leaving pipeline segments on farm fields.

Had the ACP been built, it would have routed through more than 160 miles of eastern North Carolina, including tribal lands and communities of color. Policy Watch reported last year that areas of Northampton, Halifax, Nash and Cumberland counties had been carved up and clear cut to make way for the project.

The plan includes major restoration on land for the now-defunct compressor station in Northampton County, near the Virginia state line. The plan includes filling trenches and excavated areas, removing storage containers and trailers, as well as spreading topsoil, seed and mulch on some areas. Pipe that has been installed, such as under the Tar River in Nash County, will be left in place because “there would be more environmental disturbance if we were to remove the pipe,” a Duke Energy spokesperson told Policy Watch last summer.

A letter from the utilities to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said that installed pipe will be abandoned in place; some easement agreements on private land will need modified to allow for the pipe to remain.  Felled trees could be left in place or removed, depending on the level of disturbance to habitats.

The Smithfield metering and regulation station would be left as-is because it had been fully built out. (Photo: FERC filings)

A metering and regulation station in Smithfield would be left as is; the site was fully built out. In Fayetteville, that infrastructure had not yet been installed but the land had been prepped for construction with timber mats — essentially a path of cut logs — and fencing. Both will be removed. Topsoil, seed and mulch will be spread on the right-of-way where the pipeline would have been installed. The proposed Pembroke site in Robeson County had the least amount of disturbance, an only a silt fence needs removed.

Restoration plans will be submitted to the NC Department of Environmental Quality in late May, while the US Fish and Wildlife Service weighs in on a biological assessment.

If the plan proceeds as scheduled, clean up and restoration will begin in November and continue through April 2022. The disrupted areas will be seeded and mulched in 2022, with monitoring and maintenance occurring from December 2021 through June of 2023.

FERC is reviewing the utilities’ proposal and could be finished as early as mid-February; the US Army Corps of Engineers must also issue any permits for activities that would affect waterways and wetlands.

Breaking: DEQ’s Michael Regan is Biden’s nominee for EPA administrator

NC Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan is the President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for EPA administrator, according to multiple news sources.

Policy Watch reported yesterday that Regan was the leading contender for the job. A Goldsboro native, Regan has been DEQ secretary since 2017; he was appointed by Gov. Roy Cooper.

A DEQ spokesperson could not be reached for comment.

Regan worked at the EPA for nine years in the late ’90s and mid-’00s before joining the Environmental Defense Fund.

EDF issued this statement from Hawley Truax, Southeast Regional Director of Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). Regan previous served as EDF’s Southeast regional director.

Secretary Regan has led a complex state agency with a positive spirit and a steady hand for the past four years. He’s been a collaborative, energizing force, putting into action his core belief that when you make decisions with input from a diverse group of stakeholders your outcomes are better and more durable because of it.

During Secretary Regan’s tenure at North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, the state launched its most ambitious clean energy and climate resilience plans. Thanks to Michael’s leadership and his belief that science drives sound decision-making, we are positioned to make meaningful progress on reducing carbon emissions and securing a healthier, safer and more equitable future for our state.

As an environmental advocate working in North Carolina, I am sorry to lose Michael Regan as the Secretary of our Department of Environmental Quality, but he is an outstanding leader who will be an asset to the Biden administration. I wish him the best.

Dan Crawford, director of Governmental Relations, NC League of Conservation Voters, also issued a statement:

“With Michael Regan, President-elect Biden continues adding to his historically qualified and diverse Cabinet, replacing a fossil fuel industry puppet with an experienced EPA air quality scientist, just as Gov. Cooper did when he put Regan in charge of our DEQ four years ago. Regan has gone to bat for North Carolinians against polluters, and now the rest of the country will get to benefit from his leadership. North Carolina’s loss will be America’s gain.”

Environmental justice advocates were mixed about his nomination. Many supported his ascension to the nation’s highest environmental post because of his work on the coal ash cleanup, climate change, and his opposition to offshore drilling; others said he had failed to address the PFAS contamination in drinking water, air pollution sources in communities of color, and the agency’s permitting of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which Duke and Dominion later halted.

However, the NC Black Alliance, which includes environmental justice leaders, supported the nomination. “We respect the voices in the environmental justice community who dissent with these views. However we hope to convey our belief that Secretary Regan would be an immensely qualified nominee to lead the EPA.”