Colonial spill prompts bill that would require DEQ to study potential public health, environmental effects of gasoline pipelines

A map of the US showing the gas transmission and hazardous liquid pipelines; the Colonial Pipeline enters North Carolina near Charlotte and proceeds northeast through the Piedmont.

The Colonial Pipeline enters North Carolina south of Charlotte, represented by a red line on this map, and travels northeast through the western Piedmont before entering Virginia. (Map: National Pipeline Mapping System)

The NC Department of Environmental Quality would receive $200,000 to study the “condition, safety and environmental impact” of pipelines that transport petroleum through or within the state, according to a bill filed yesterday.

Democratic Sen. Natasha Marcus filed SB 459 in response to the nation’s largest gasoline spill in two decades, which occurred last August in Huntersville, part of the senator’s district. Colonial Pipeline is responsible for the incident, which released 1.2 million gallons of gasoline in the Oehler Nature Preserve and near several residential neighborhoods.

No drinking water wells have reportedly been affected, according to Colonial, but the groundwater is heavily contaminated with chemicals found in gasoline, such as benzene.

The pipeline is part of a 5,500-mile route that extends from Texas to New Jersey; it passes through several counties in southern and west-central North Carolina. The spill was Colonial’s 32nd in the state since 2000, according to federal safety records. The cleanup in Huntersville is ongoing, and will likely take years, if not decades.

Just last week the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued a Notice of Proposed Safety Order saying “conditions may exist on the Colonial Pipeline System that pose a pipeline integrity risk to public safety, property or the environment. The conditions that led to the failure potentially exist throughout the Colonial Pipeline system.”   

Sen. Natasha Marcus, a Democrat representing Huntersville. (Photo: NCGA)

Sen. Marcus said in a press release: “We cannot allow a tragic mess like this to happen again. Our state can and should monitor aging hazardous liquid pipelines, rather than rely solely on the pipeline company and the federal government to be our watchdogs. My bill calls on the NC DEQ to study what can be done at the state level to protect us in the future.”  

At the end of the two-year study DEQ would report its findings and recommendations to the Joint Legislative Commission on Energy Policy.

“This bill will give NC DEQ the resources it needs to look out for our health and safety in light of the risks posed by aging hazardous liquid pipelines.  For starters, I believe residents find it unacceptable that the state does not currently monitor such pipelines for leaks. We need to change that.” 

The NC Utilities Commission has a Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Section that inspects and monitors natural gas pipeline systems operating in North Carolina. However, the section’s authority doesn’t extend to petroleum pipelines.

 

Biden opens up eligibility for COVID-19 vaccines, as infections surge in some states

Vaccinations open to all North Carolina adults on Wednesday, supply may soon exceed demand

North Carolinians stymied by the lack of COVID vaccines a few weeks ago will soon find that’s no longer a problem.

Starting this Wednesday the vaccine will be available to anyone 16 years and older who wants to get vaccinated.

So far 5.2 million vaccines have been administered across our state with 39% of all adults now partially vaccinated, and 26% of adults fully vaccinated.

Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen

Hospitalization numbers and the percent of positive COVID tests have been level over the past few weeks, but every day matters moving forward, according to Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen.

“We are making positive progress, but our work is not done yet,” said Cohen in Tuesday’s press briefing.

Dr. Cohen noted that new cases are cropping up in younger people, who are less vaccinated at this point.

“This virus is circulating among those that are not vaccinated, and that’s why we need to make sure we are keeping up our guard,” Cohen cautioned.

“Remember not only is this virus still circulating, but we are seeing changes in the virus itself, that makes it more contagious.”

Plenty of supply

Governor Roy Cooper also acknowledged that the the state may soon be at a point where the availability of Pfizer, Moderna and the Johnson& Johnson vaccines exceeds the demand in the some parts of the state.

Gov. Roy Cooper

“Family doctors, ministers, public figures, friends and family members all need to play a role in getting as many people vaccinated as possible,” Cooper said. “We’re going to have plenty of supply. And we need to continue to push up the demand to get as many people vaccinated as possible”

Click here to find a vaccine location.

The push to vaccinate more North Carolinians comes as President Joe Biden announced on Tuesday that every American adult will be eligible to be vaccinated by April 19th.

That’s about two weeks ahead of the previously announced deadline of May 1st.

Vaccine passports still under review

On the issue of vaccine passports – digital proof of vaccination – the governor said the issue is still being reviewed by his administration.

“We are obviously collecting information about people’s vaccinations, so we can track to make sure they got their first shot and their second shot,” said Sec. Cohen.

“We just want to make sure people can access their own information, about that vaccine for whatever purpose they may need. So we are looking at different IT solutions to make that as easy as possible.”

The governors of Florida and Texas have moved to ban such passports, preventing businesses from requiring their customers to show proof of vaccination.

Progress in slowing the spread of COVID: None of North Carolina’s counties are currently red. There are now 21 orange counties, 47 yellow counties, 31 light yellow counties, and 1 green county. In comparison, the previous report posted March 18, 2021 showed1 red county, 17 orange counties, and 82 yellow counties. (Source: DHHS)

Longtime Florida Democratic Congressman Alcee Hastings dies at 84

Democrats in the NC legislature decry racial health disparities in their renewed push for Medicaid expansion

Democrats in the legislature renewed their press for Medicaid expansion, saying a Tuesday news conference that getting more people insured will reduce racial health disparities and help the economy.

Sen. Mike Woodard, a Durham Democrat, said there are signs that Republicans in the legislature who have long opposed Medicaid expansion are willing to talk about it.

“I think there are glimmers of hope,” he said.  “I think there are frameworks for us to move forward.”

North Carolina is one of a dozen states that has not adopted Medicaid expansion as allowed under the Affordable Care Act.  Last session, Senate Republicans said they did not like an expansion-like proposal called Carolina Cares that House Republicans crafted. The Carolina Cares bill never got out of the House.

Expansion is a top priority for Gov. Roy Cooper, and he once again has included it in his budget proposal.

Estimates for how many more people in the state would be insured with expansion start at 500,000. Many are childless adults younger than 65.

The most recent federal relief package includes financial incentives for more states to expand Medicaid. North Carolina would see a net gain of $1.2 billion, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation estimate.

Senate leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican, told the Associated Press that the extra federal money is time limited and that coverage gaps could be addressed without “creating a whole new level of entitlement in the state of North Carolina.”

Senate Republicans this year have shown interest in allowing adults who use Medicaid to keep it under limited circumstances.

Three Republican senators, including Sen. Joyce Krawiec, one expansion’s fiercest opponents, are the main sponsors of a bill filed Monday that would allow women who use the government insurance program while they’re pregnant to keep the coverage for a year after giving birth rather than have it cut off after 60 days.

House Democrats, including Rep. Verla Insko of Chapel Hill, filed a similar bill last month.

The American Rescue Plan allows states to expand what’s called pregnancy Medicaid to 12 months postpartum.

Doctors, policy experts and others say that 60-day cut off doesn’t give some mothers time to have their postpartum medical visits or seek treatment for postpartum depression.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has made extending postpartum Medicaid coverage a priority, saying it will help reduce the rate of maternal deaths. Medicaid pays for more than half the births in North Carolina.

At their press conference, Democrats highlighted  the racial disparities in maternal and infant deaths to make their case for Medicaid expansion.

The latest state data, from 2019, shows that Black and Native American babies in North Carolina are more than 2.5 times more likely to die before their first birthdays than white infants.

“The longer we wait to expand Medicaid, the more babies we will see die unnecessarily, particularly Native American and African American babies,” said Rep. Charles Graham, a Democrat from Robeson County who is Lumbee.  “This is not acceptable.”

At 6.8 deaths per 1,000 births, North Carolina has the 12th highest infant mortality rate in the nation, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC reports  wide racial disparities in maternal mortality.

Black and Hispanic adults are more likely to fall into what’s called the coverage gap, where they make too much to qualify for Medicaid and too little to qualify for subsidized premiums in the health insurance marketplace, according a 2020 report from The Commonwealth Fund.

The same report said that states that expanded Medicaid had helped reduced the racial disparities in health care coverage so that Black residents in  states that expanded Medicaid were more likely to have health insurance coverage than white residents of  non-expansion states.

The uninsured rate in North Carolina varies wildly by race and ethnicity, said Sen. Natalie Murdock, a Durham Democrat. Nine percent of Asian -American residents are in the coverage gap she said, while 12% of Black residents and 31% of the Latinx population are in the gap.

At the press conference Insko said military veterans are among those who would benefit from Medicaid expansion.

“We should look at the broad picture of what we’re doing and who we’re hurting by not expanding Medicaid,” she said. “We’re hurting the uninsured, we’re hurting their families, we’re hurting the state because it increases the cost for everyone.”

Expanding Medicaid ensures that essential workers can live free of medical debt and fear, said Rick Glazier, executive director of the NC Justice Center. (NC Policy Watch is a Justice Center project.)

”Medicaid expansion is one of the best policy interventions the General Assembly can take to reduce health care disparities, and make sure communities of color can get the care they need particularly during a time when communities of color have borne the brunt of the COVID epidemic,” he said.