Environment

With DEQ’s Community Mapping System, learn where polluters locate in neighborhoods of color

The proposed methyl bromide site would have added a major pollution source to the small towns of Acme and Delco. DEQ’s Community Mapping System provides data on polluting facilities, as well as demographic and health information. (Source: DEQ Community Mapping System)

Comment period on the mapping system ends Wednesday, July 10.

When Columbus County officials decided in 2018 to allow the Australian company Malec Brothers to emit 140 tons of toxic methyl bromide into the air at its log fumigation facility, they did not have the benefit of an environmental justice map.

They might not have known that the small towns of Acme and Delco, which are 50 percent communities of color, were already disproportionately burdened with several hazardous waste areas, Superfund sites and air pollution. A map, linked to several environmental and health databases, could have changed their mind.

There were no guarantees the planning board and commissioners would have consulted such a map, but the residents of Acme-Delco likely would have done so. And armed with that information, residents could have fought the facility from the get-go. As it turns out, under intense public pressure Malec Brothers decided not to use methyl bromide at its facility — but for residents of this small town, the fight, albeit successful, was time-consuming and stressful.

The NC Department of Environmental Quality has released an early version of its Community Mapping System, an interactive tool that allows users to easily view and analyze environmental, racial, ethnic and health data.

DEQ Secretary Michael Regan told Policy Watch that developers, city planners and businesses can use the mapping tool to determine siting; the public can use it to advocate for or against a plan — and to watchdog a project.

“These conversations should be occurring before the planning process,” Regan said, “to avoid the battle at the end of the permitting.”

The mapping tool is the result of a 2017 federal Civil Rights settlement between DEQ and neighbors of industrialized hog operations in eastern North Carolina. It expands on the EPA’s Environmental Justice Screening tool with  additional layers of information, such as health statistics and air, water and waste permitting.

“We wanted to have all of the information in an aggregated fashion,” Regan said, adding that the public and government officials — long before DEQ even gets involved — can ask important questions: “Does this make sense? Is this a good idea?”

This map of East Durham, which is predominantly Black, shows the dozens of pollution sources in the area. Clicking on the small crosses brings up a community demographics box; it also contains a link to more environmental justice information. (Map: DEQ Community Mapping System)

The map website features a user guide. The legend lists icons for different types of pollution sources, including hazardous waste sites, areas contaminated with dry cleaning solvents, old and currently operating landfills, and industrialized swine, cattle and select poultry operations. Click on an icon and see a link to public documents about the site, which are kept on the DEQ website.

You can get a summary of all the polluters by type, as well as set a radius for all contamination sources within a certain distance. Click on a neighborhood on the map and you’ll see a pop-up window with demographic data, as well as health and illness statistics.

 

Because of data gaps, two Superfund sites are missing from the map of Aberdeen. The sites, former pesticide dumps, lie just north and south of the new elementary school. The majority of the students who will attend the school are Black, Latinx or low-income. (Map: DEQ Community Mapping System)

The system has a few shortcomings:

  • The pollution locations are derived from documents and databases that could be incomplete. Policy Watch recently reported on an elementary school under construction in Aberdeen that lies within a mile of several pollution sources, including four former pesticides dumps, which are Superfund sites. However, only the main contaminated site appears on the map, not the satellite Superfund areas where additional dumping occurred.
  • Large poultry operations that use the “dry litter” method of waste disposal are not listed. Because state law doesn’t require these facilities to have a permit, DEQ doesn’t know where they are located. (During this legislative session, Sen. Harper Peterson and other Democratic lawmakers have tried to insert language into the Farm Act to study the potential environmental and health effects of these operations. Sen. Brent Jackson put the kibosh on any such transparency. )
  • The health and income data is compiled by census tract, not census block. This is important because tracts are much larger than blocks. For example, the presence of more affluent, white neighborhoods — unlikely to be located near major polluters — could obscure the effects of the contamination on people of color who live within the same large tract. Compiling key data by small census block could give a truer picture of who lives closest to the pollution sources and how their health might be affected.

The mapping tool is useful for broadly understanding the pollution sources within a community and who lives nearby. But maps are merely representations. Nothing substitutes for “ground truth” — visiting a neighborhood, talking with residents, and seeing, smelling, and hearing what they are exposed to every day.

The comment period ends Wednesday, July 10. There are several ways to send comments:

Courts & the Law, News

Senators push through victim rights bill not ready for passage to ‘keep it moving’

The North Carolina Senate rules committee unanimously pushed through a victims’ rights bill Monday acknowledging that it wasn’t ready to become law and still needed a lot of work.

“We’re just kind of trying to keep it moving so we can make the deadline of the constitution,” said Sen. Warren Daniel (R-Avery, Burke, Caldwell).

He was referring to Senate Bill 682, a measure that would implement the crime victims amendment otherwise known as Marsy’s Law. Lawmakers have had since January to pass such a bill, but SB 682 wasn’t introduced until last week. It has to be passed by Aug. 31, when the amendment becomes effective.

The bill currently requires that victims of certain crimes be given notice of all criminal court proceedings, grants them a constitutional right to address the court at those proceedings and creates a process for victims who are unhappy with their cases to submit a complaint to district attorneys and then to the court if necessary.

Warren, a bill sponsor, said its current form was not fully supported by victims rights advocates, the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts or the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys. He added that they’ve all submitted amendments and that lawmakers were working to make the bill better.

Peg Dorer, Director of the Conference of District Attorneys, estimated about two weeks ago that it would cost approximately $10 million over a period of years to implement Marsy’s Law.

SB 682 does not contain a fiscal note. There is also no money in the General Assembly’s proposed budget to implement the amendment. Dorer said there is a grant for 150 victim service coordinators but that money would run out over a couple years.

The biggest changes the amendment will require, she said are twofold: “(1) it will substantially increase the number of crimes that will require victims’ rights in that it adds all felony property crimes, and (2) the constitutional amendment allows for a victim to assert their rights. We do not know how that process will work and what will be the ramifications if their rights are not met appropriately.”

“District Attorneys will continue to serve victims, as we do now, to the best of out abilities,” she said in an email. “However, without the necessary resources, we are concerned that not all victims will receive the appropriate notices.”

Other than some back-and-forth about the short “time fuse” lawmakers are working with to implement Marsy’s Law, there was no substantive discussion about SB 682. It was passed through the committee unanimously on a voice vote.

GOP lawmakers pushed hard in the fall to get the Marsy’s Law constitutional amendment on the ballot. Supporters of the amendment said victims needed teeth in the law to assert their rights. Opponents said victims’ rights already were enshrined in the constitution and enhancing them should be done by statute, not by an experimental amendment.

The Marsy’s Law campaign in North Carolina spent nearing $8 million to push for passage of the amendment. It passed with 62 percent of the vote.

News, Trump Administration

Public comments still being accepted on Trump proposal that would leave 55,000 citizens without a home

On May 10, 2019, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development published a proposed rule affecting “mixed-status families” in public housing.

“Mixed-status families” are those with members eligible for public assistance and ineligible based on their immigration status. The current rule states that these families are permitted to live in public housing, but the ineligible family members would have to “pay their own way,” out-of-pocket, and would not receive personal federal assistance.

Crucially, not every immigrant who is ineligible for public housing is necessarily undocumented. Immigrants can have legal status and still be ineligible for public housing.

As we reported earlier, the new HUD rule states that every member of a family would have to be eligible in order to live in public housing.

According to data from HUD, an estimated 25,000 families would be forced to make the choice between breaking up their family and becoming homeless. It is estimated that 55,000 U.S. citizen children around the country would lose their subsidized housing as a result of this rule.

The rule would also require residents under 62 years of age to have their immigration status verified through the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements or SAVE Program. Families with members judged to be ineligible through this program would be evicted from their housing within 18 months.

The proposed rule is not yet in effect. It is open for public comment until tomorrow, July 9. HUD is accepting comments here.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Common Cause NC will consider dropping lawsuit after lawmakers pass ‘gold-standard’ redistricting reform

If Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) and other GOP legislative leaders want Common Cause NC to drop its partisan gerrymandering lawsuit, they’re going to have to enact redistricting reform first.

“If Republican legislative leaders had enacted real redistricting reform — like they repeatedly called for and sponsored when Democrats were in power — litigation would never have been necessary,” said Executive Director Bob Phillips. “Instead, they have blocked reform and engaged in blatant partisan gerrymandering of our state’s voting districts.”

The organization sent a news release to media Monday morning responding to Lewis’ formal call last week for them to drop the lawsuit in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to stay out of federal partisan gerrymandering claims.

Lewis incorrectly told reporters at a press conference that the high court’s opinion set a precedent that courts could not weigh in on partisan gerrymandering — it’s up to lawmakers to regulate redistricting. The opinion, however, acknowledges states’ efforts in the battle against partisan gerrymandering and specifically mentions a Florida state Supreme Court opinion.

He called on Common Cause and other plaintiffs in the state lawsuit to drop it and engage in conversation with legislators about reform.

Common Cause NC has been lobbying for redistricting reform for more than a decade — neither party has passed any measures to take on the issue of partisan gerrymandering. There are currently six redistricting reform bills pending at the legislature, none of which have been scheduled for even a hearing this session.

Phillips said in the Monday news release that if Lewis is sincere about pursuing redistricting reform, he can start with the 2009 ‘Horton Independent Redistricting Commission’ bill, which he, along with now House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, sponsored at the time. That bill called for adoption of a state constitutional amendment creating an independent citizens commission to draw North Carolina’s legislative and congressional districts free from partisan politics, with full transparency and robust public input.

“So, we call upon Rep. Lewis and his fellow Republican legislative leaders to enact a true citizens redistricting commission now, and only after passing into law a gold-standard model of reform would we consider his request,” Phillips said.

Lewis responded on Twitter that he had not received any communication or the press release from Common Cause.

“The only commission bill filed in the House would let Democrats pick roughly 2/3 of the commission,” he added. “Not a good basis for a conversation and far from a ‘gold-standard.'”

The Common Cause v. Lewis trial is set to start July 15. A pre-trial hearing is set for 10 a.m. Wednesday.

Environment

PFAS in garden compost: Comment now on proposed rules on how much, if any, contaminants this material should contain.

NC Policy Watch sampled sludge from the DAK Americas plant in Fayetteville, which was shipped to McGill Environmental, a composting facility in Sampson County. The sludge contained high levels of 1,4-Dioxane, but the compost did not. Policy Watch’s investigation prompted state regulators to test the compost for 1,4-Dioxane and other contaminants. Results showed the compost contained 20 types of perfluorinated compounds –PFAS. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

Compost is supposed to enrich your garden soil for a healthy summer bounty: tomatoes, peppers, green beans and melons. But some compost used on gardens and farms in North Carolina — and nationwide — contains perfluorinated compounds, or PFAS.

The state’s compost rules are up for re-adoption, but they don’t require compost — or the materials used to make it, known as feedstock — to be tested for these harmful contaminants. Exposure to PFAS has been linked to a variety of health disorders: a depressed immune response, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure during pregnancy — known as preeclampsia — hormonal disruption, developmental problems, and even cancer. Yet there is no state or federal standard for PFAS in compost and its feedstock.

However, the public can influence the final rule language, which must be approved by the Environmental Management Commission. A public hearing on the proposed compost rules is scheduled for Tuesday, July 16, at 6 p.m., at the NC Department of Environmental Quality, 217 W. Jones St. The public can also comment in writing. Contact Jessica Montie at jessica.montie@ncdenr.gov, 919-707-8247. The comment period ends Aug. 16.

Prompted by a Policy Watch investigation, earlier this year the NC Department of Environmental Quality tested compost from McGill Environmental, a large composting facility in Sampson County. Results showed that the compost contained 20 types of PFAS. The cumulative total for all 20 was 136.8 parts per trillion; four of the compounds had concentrations of at least 10 ppt. The state has advised that people shouldn’t drink water containing more than 10 ppt of any single PFAS.

One likely source of the PFAS in compost is sludge — wastewater residuals — which McGill receives from municipal and industrial treatment plants. The sludge is mixed with other materials, like peanut shells, animal waste and untreated wood, to make the compost. It’s likely that compost at other facilities also contains PFAS if it is made with sludge.

The question of PFAS in compost arose after Policy Watch published a two-part investigation in April about a different harmful compound. Policy Watch found sludge containing 1,4-Dioxane, a likely carcinogen, was being shipped from DAK Americas, a plastics plant in Fayetteville, to McGill Environmental. The compost itself didn’t contain the compound. 1,4-Dioxane clings to water; as the compost dried the compound could have evaporated. But McGill workers could be exposed to 1,4-Dioxane either by touching contaminated material or inhaling its vapors.

In May, Michael Scott, director of the Division of Waste Management, confirmed Policy Watch’s findings to the Environmental Management Commission. At that meeting, EMC members discussed the problem of 1,4-Dioxane and PFAS in compost but decided to wait until after the public comment period to consider adding testing requirements to the proposed rules. The EMC is expected to finalize the rules this fall.