Environment

Oil and gas commission will meet (for real) on Thursday — oddly, at the same time as the Energy Policy Council

The oil and gas commission will meet Thursday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at 2420 Tramway Road in Sanford.

The state Oil and Gas Commission, whose previous meeting derailed because it was illegally convened, is scheduled to meet Thursday in Sanford. However, there remain some statutory questions about who called the meeting and if they did so in writing, as required.

The meeting will be held at the McSwain Education & Agricultural Center, 2420 Tramway Road, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Since there is no chairman, state statute requires five commission members to request the meeting in writing. Jim Womack, the controversial former chair who originally called the illegal meeting, told Policy Watch via email that seven of the nine members asked for the meeting to be held at the particular time and date. He did not respond to the question as to if it was submitted in writing. The NC Secretary of State’s Office, which lists public meetings on its website, has not returned calls requesting that information.

The timing of the meeting is also curious. The full Environmental Management Commission holds its day-long regularly scheduled meeting on Thursday, as does the Coastal Resources Commission. The state Energy Policy Council also convenes at 10:30. These meetings are scheduled from two months to one year in advance.

Because of these scheduling conflicts, the NC Department of Environmental Quality could be unable to send a representative to Sanford, said spokeswoman Bridget Munger.

The oil and gas commission is expected to elect officers and to discuss complaints filed by companies that want to frack for natural gas in Lee and Chatham counties. Both counties have enacted a temporary moratorium on fracking. One of the complainants, Orus Patterson, president of the “local geological service company and potential petroleum industry operator,” claims that the moratoriums usurp state authority and “interfere with my ability to complete proposed activities, including developmental work necessary to secure drilling permits in these areas.”

The red dots indicate the oil and gas wells that have been drilled in North Carolina from 1925 to 1998. None of these wells is associated with fracking. (Map: NC DEQ)

Environment

Worried about environmental damage, Pleasant Garden residents gear up to fight a proposed granite mine

 

Gerald Hall, known as the Egg Man, lives in Pleasant Garden. His farm would abut the proposed granite quarry. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Gerald Hall stood in his farm field, where the collards nearly reached his knees. On about three and a half acres between them, Hall and one of his brothers grow myriad greens, like Swiss chard and kale, and in the summer, warm-weather crops, such as tomatoes and peppers, all headed to restaurant and local groceries, including Deep Roots co-op in nearby Greensboro.

Hall, known around these parts as the Egg Man, also raises laying hens, whose eggs he packages by hand and then sells wholesale or by the dozen from a small shed a few steps from his house.

“I used to work in paving,” Hall said of his former job as asphalt manager for the City of Greensboro. “In the summer, we’d work all night. And the trucks would be hauling rock and asphalt all night long.”

Just when Hall thought he had left behind the stench of asphalt for the fresh country air, now he and his neighbors are battling a proposed granite quarry, that, if built, would abut his family’s 80-year-old farm in Pleasant Garden. Just 100 feet from Hall’s property, the trucks would fill their beds with rock that earlier had been blasted from an open pit in the earth, then haul it away — at times, all night long.

Tonight the Guilford County Commissioners are scheduled to vote on a rezone of more than 350 acres that was originally zoned to be a clay mine. But the hometown company, Boren Brick, never so much as took a steam shovel to the dirt. Instead, the company went out of business, and sold the land to Lehigh Hanson aggregate, a large subsidiary of a German company that owns hundreds of mines and quarries nationwide and 11 in North Carolina.

More than 2,000 people, including the mayor of Pleasant Garden, Carla Strickland, oppose the rezone, which would allow Lehigh to mine granite. Unlike clay, mining hard rock requires blasting. And blasting invites a host of potential environmental problems that could harm the quality of life of residents of rural Pleasant Garden. And there is a very real possibility that in the future, an asphalt or concrete plant could be built on an unused section of the Lehigh property.

There’s another complication to this story that started 80 miles away, in the stale halls of the General Assembly. This session, lawmakers passed House Bill 56. A grab-bag of environmental laws, the bill contains a controversial section that sharply limits public input once state environmental officials issue a mining or landfill permit. These permits are known as “life-of-site.” These permits are valid for as long as a company wants to keep blasting, keep digging, keep the trucks running all night long.

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This map shows the properties adjacent to the proposed mining operation. A2 is where the quarry would be sited. L and M are part of the 80-year-old farm belonging to the Hall family. N is Gerald and Mary Hall’s farm. AA, Z, X compose Heather Davis’s century-old farm. (Source: Guilford County; handwritten annotation Lisa Sorg)

“Somewhere back there is a big hunk of granite,” Heather Davis said, as we walked a muddy path through a forest owned by Lehigh Hanson. She knows these woods well, having played in them as a child. This land has a long history. Davis’s husband recently found a 1910 penny in the ground. Along the path, remnants of an abandoned home from the 1980s lie in ruins.

Davis’s family has farmed on Kearney Road for more than 100 years, qualifying it as a century farm. The family has been a careful steward of the property, installing a watering system to keep its beef cattle from polluting a creek that runs through the property. “It’s an environmental catastrophe.”

To the non-commercial eye, a piece of granite is merely an interesting rock. But to mining companies, it’s worth money, a commodity to be sold to builders of roads and makers of kitchen countertops. To get at the granite requires enormous force, like extracting a wisdom tooth embedded in the bone. Miners use dynamite to blast, which Toby Lee, general manager of Lehigh Hanson’s North Carolina operations, says “makes little rocks out of big rocks.”

Blasting and mining, though, can have environmental consequences. First, depending on the geology and topography of a region, the force of the dynamite can change the flow of groundwater. Groundwater that once flowed north to south might turn southeast. If you depend on groundwater for your drinking water well, that slight change in direction can mean the difference between Davis having water — or not.

In the process of mining and quarrying, excavators eventually dig deeply enough to hit the water table. The enormous pit fills with water, and to continue excavating, mining operators must “dewater.” The process is similar to a wet vac, but instead of slurping up a few gallons of water, it drinks the pit dry. That creates what’s known as a “cone of depression,” in the aquifer. The water from nearby private wells run dry, as well.

Documents filed with the rezoning application state that wells deeper than 300 feet should not lose water as a result of the mining. Davis’s well, the fourth they’ve had to drill, is shallow — 250 feet. It could go dry. A groundwater analysis conducted on behalf of Lehigh Hanson identified 84 wells on 300 parcels within a mile of the proposed quarry. The average depth is 200 feet.

Hall uses well water to irrigate his crops. “If I run out of water for any length of time, I’m done,” he said. “This is my only source of income.”

The effects on residents’ groundwater and drinking water are only estimates. According to the groundwater analysis, there could be unexpected complications once excavation begins. “Based on results of study and understanding of mine pit development,” the document reads, baseline monitoring of a few select private wells should also be considered in the event that actual conditions beneath the site are different than anticipated.” Read more

Environment

Paul Coble misses deadline to award contract for controversial wind energy/military maps,

(Illustration: Creative Commons)

Maps have rarely been the legislature’s forte. And now a controversial contract to map potential interference between wind farms and military training exercises won’t be awarded by the law’s deadline — today.

Paul Coble, director of the Legislative Services Office, is in charge of issuing the contract, worth $150,000, as laid out in House Bill 589. His assistant told Policy Watch today that the deal “is still being negotiated,” and that it’s uncertain when it will be finalized.

The fact that Coble, a conservative Republican and a former Raleigh mayor and Wake County Commissioner, unilaterally is doing the deal-making is itself is unusual, if not unprecedented. The Environmental Review Commission, composed of elected lawmakers, historically has been in charge of issuing and awarding requests for proposals.

The majority of House Bill 589 dealt with solar power, but at the last-minute, Sen. Harry Brown pushed through an 18-month wind energy moratorium, plus a mapping study illustrating any potential conflicts between military exercises and the turbines.

But even before the bill became law, environmental advocates and Democratic lawmakers argued that it was redundant. These maps have already been drawn by the US Department of Defense.

Rep. John Szoka, a Republican from Cumberland County, co-sponsored the solar portion of the bill. While imperfect, it does contain provisions that could help advance the installation and production of solar energy in North Carolina. Szoka told Policy Watch that he was unaware of the delay in awarding the contract. He said Coble had asked for his input on the RFP earlier this year, but that he had not been updated on the contract’s progress since.

Complicating matters further, when the RFP was issued in September, it exceeded the scope of the original legislation to include the military’s compatibility with solar and biomass facilities and electrical transmission towers.

Earlier this fall, Allison Eckley, communications manager for the NC Sustainable Energy Association, issued a statement saying the group was concerned about the change: “The 18-month wind moratorium and this new $150,000 study are another example of opponents attacking renewable energy projects and the private property rights of eastern North Carolinians.

Sen. Harry Brown, a longtime opponent of wind energy, said while the bill was being debated that the purpose of the hiatus is to allow the General Assembly “ample time to study the extent and scope of military operations in the state and to consider the impact of future wind energy facilities and energy infrastructure on military operations, training and readiness.”

Brown could not be reached today for comment.

But, as critics noted during committee and floor debates, the Department of Defense Siting Clearinghouse was created specifically to house documents and maps related to energy projects and the military. The clearinghouse’s library includes a map showing no conflicts with Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, while the area around Cherry Point is off-limits for wind projects and other tall structures.

The 18-month moratorium on new and expanded wind energy projects started retroactively, Jan. 1, 2017, and runs through Dec. 31, 2018.

According to the law, the mapping study is scheduled to be completed in May 2018. It’s unclear what the ramifications of further delays will be, especially if they postpone the final due date.

 

Environment, Trump Administration

EPA chief Scott Pruitt appoints Donald van der Vaart to revamped, anti-reg Science Advisory Board

Former  NC Secretary of the Environment Donald van der Vaart joins several anti-regulatory, pro-industry appointees to the EPA’s Science Advisory Board. (Photo: NC DEQ)

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt today is expected to appoint Donald van der Vaart, the former NC Secretary of the Environment, to a key panel charged with giving scientific advice to the agency’s leadership.

Van der Vaart is one of several new appointees to the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board; nearly all Pruitt’s picks have a history of opposing environmental regulation or have worked for corporations that have been regulated by the EPA.

Earlier this year, Pruitt jettisoned members of the SAB — many of them respected scientists — arguing that anyone who has received EPA funding should be excluded from the board. But Pruitt’s justification — that funding recipients would have a conflict of interest — disguised his true intent: To pack the SAB with yesmen and yeswomen, with their own set of ethical conflicts, who would embrace the task of relaxing or eliminating environmental regulations.

The Washington Post reported yesterday that the appointees represent “voices from regulated industries, academics and environmental regulators from conservative states, and researchers who have a history of critiquing the science and economics underpinning tighter environmental regulations.”

Van der Vaart fills that bill. Last November, he wrote a letter to President-elect Trump, advocating for a dismantling of the EPA. As DEQ Secretary, Van der Vaart publicly announced that the agency would become more “business-friendly,” which translated into more lenient permitting and enforcement. He joined several states’ environmental departments in suing the EPA over the Clean Power Plan and the Waters of the US rule.

He now works in DEQ’s Division of Air Quality, where he demoted himself to avoid being fired by the incoming administration.

Environment

Extremely high levels of GenX, other perfluorinated compounds within Chemours plant prompt another DEQ warning

Even though state environmental regulators two months ago urged Chemours to “reduce or eliminate” discharges of perfluorinated compounds into the Cape Fear River, test results released by the EPA today still show high levels of those chemicals in the wastewater produced inside the plant.

Although Chemours has stopped discharging these chemicals from some parts of the plant, it continues to discharge them from other manufacturing areas into the Cape Fear River.

According to state sampling conducted on Sept. 18 and analyzed by the EPA, GenX levels ranged from 265 parts per trillion to 8,860 ppt in the wastewater in the Fayetteville Works plant. It is not used for drinking, but Chemours does discharge it into the Cape Fear River, a drinking water supply for public utilities downstream.

The state health department has set a provisional health goal for drinking water of 140 ppt. Since July, when Chemours stemmed some of its discharge, drinking water coming from public utilities downstream has tested below that threshold.

Meanwhile, in the most recent round of testing, other perfluorinated compounds associated with the manufacture of Nafion ranged from non-detect to 34,800 parts per trillion.

Wastewater discharges of these compounds at this concentration are occurring is despite a letter sent Aug. 29 from state environmental officials to Chemours  urging the company to “explore any and all options to reduce or eliminate the release of these chemicals” until the state can review their toxicology and evaluate potential health effects.

It is unclear why NC Department of Environmental Quality continues to find releases of contaminants in various parts of the plant, when the agency has repeatedly asked the company to halt its discharge.

The August letter was prompted by a preliminary analysis conducted by the EPA in Research Triangle Park indicating that concentrations of two compounds — PFESAs or Nafion byproducts, for short — had not decreased since Chemours reportedly stopped discharging GenX into the Cape Fear River in July.

Based on the today’s findings, DEQ ordered Chemours to capture and divert the industrial process wastewater from all manufacturing areas so the wastewater can be taken out of state for incineration. Chemours will continue to capture and remove GenX from other areas inside the facility as it had been doing at DEQ’s request since last summer, the agency said.

These findings arrived shortly after DEQ said it would not suspend Chemours’ wastewater discharge permit; however, that permit is up for review, and the recent test results will likely factor into the terms of a renewal.