Environment

Sampling shows PFAS, GenX in groundwater wells in New Hanover County; contaminants not detected in drinking water

The area shaded in brown indicates the Castle-Hayne aquifer, which includes parts of New Hanover County. (Map: USGS)

State environmental regulators are sampling groundwater from monitoring wells in northern New Hanover County after perfluorinated compounds, including GenX, were detected in six of 25 wells that supply the Richardson water treatment plant.

However, the compounds were not detected in finished drinking water.

The plant, operated by the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, provides drinking water to several communities, including Murrayville, Wrightsboro, and parts of Castle Hayne and Odgen. The source of this public water supply is groundwater tapped from the Castle Hayne and PeeDee aquifers.

While most of the utility’s water treatment plants withdraw from the river, the Richardson plant uses groundwater.

In all, 12 types of PFAS were detected, although not every type was found in every well.

Tests of well water showed levels ranging from 25 ppt to 65 ppt for all PFAS; another well, intended only as an emergency source for the Sweeney plant, contained concentrations of PFAS at 180 ppt. That well is not operating.

No PFAS have been detected in finished drinking water from the Richardson plant during March testing, the utility said. In April, only a trace amount, 0.6 parts per trillion, was detected in one sample, according to the utility.

“We share their concerns, but one data set does not sufficiently help us understand the cause or source of the contamination. DEQ plans to sample areas of concern and expedite testing results,” DEQ Communications Director Megan Thorpe said in a prepared statement.

DEQ said it will conduct its own sampling, but it could take several weeks to receive the results.

The EPA has yet to regulate PFAS or GenX. The state health department has set an unenforceable advisory goal of 140 ppt in drinking water. As part of a consent order, the state Department of Environmental Quality requires Chemours, which had been discharging PFAS into the Cape Fear River for decades, to pay for filter options for owners of private wells where the compounds have been detected above 10 ppt for one, or 70 ppt collectively.

The original source of the widespread PFAS contamination in the Lower Cape Fear River Basin is the Chemours plant, 100 miles upstream. Private drinking water wells around the plant, as well as public drinking water supplies downstream have been polluted from the facility’s discharge.

It’s possible that at least part of the aquifer beneath New Hanover County is now contaminated. In 2017, the utility had pumped water from the Sweeney water treatment plant into an aquifer storage well to keep finished drinking water that could be used during times of high demand. However, the utility suspended the project after it learned that it had unknowingly contaminated the aquifer well because water from the Sweeney plant was contaminated with GenX and other PFAS from Chemours.

The utility found the most recent contamination after sampling the wells to determine how PFAS might move through groundwater near the aquifer storage well. The utility said it is unclear if that well is the source of the other contaminated groundwater wells. Those wells are two to three miles away, and groundwater migrates only about 15 feet a year, at least in the coastal area of New Hanover County.

Speed of groundwater migration can depend on rock and soil types. The Castle Hayne Aquifer is composed of “carbonate rocks,” common in coastal environments, according to the US Geological Survey. The slightly acidic groundwater can carve tunnels in the rock that can be tens of feet wide and even thousands of feet long. Water then moves through these underground networks, although it can’t penetrate undissolved rock.

The Pee Dee Aquifer is made up of fine- to medium-grain sand and black clay.

The finished drinking water from these aquifers is not contaminated, likely because the Richardson plant uses an advanced membrane treatment system, which can remove PFAS, including GenX.

However, the contamination doesn’t end there. The material caught by the membrane filters, known as “concentrate,” is discharged into the Intracoastal Waterway.

Education, News

NC teacher explains, defends teacher walkouts at national education event

Durham teacher Dov Rosenberg acquitted himself well this week at a national conference for education writers in Baltimore.

Rosenberg was part of panel selected by the Education Writers Association to discuss teacher walkouts.

He explained why thousands of North Carolina teachers, parents and others took over the streets of Raleigh on May 1 to demand lawmakers adequately fund public schools.

“Where schools are underfunded, it hurts families of color especially,” Rosenberg said. “That’s why we’re out in the streets because we want to see an adequate amount of support given to all of our public schools.”

Durham teacher Dov Rosenberg, (Right), talks about the North Carolina teacher walkout during the Education Writers Association’s national conference in Baltimore this week.

Rosenberg’s comments came as he pushed back against panelists who questioned the wisdom of forcing school districts to close for a day.

Shavar Jeffries, national president of Democrats for Education Reform, an organization that supports more charter schools, argued that students of colors cannot afford to miss school.

Jeffries said walking out should be the “last option” for educators.

Rosenberg said the walkout was the last resort for North Carolina teachers.

“We have to use what power we have, and the most power we have is our labor,” Rosenberg said. “We are furious that our students are forced to learn in the miserable conditions we are required to work.”

During another conference session, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy Devos was also critical of teacher walkouts.

“I think it’s important that adults have adult disagreements on adult time, and that they not ultimately hurt kids in the process,” DeVos said. “I think too often they’re doing so by walking out of classrooms and having arguments in the way that they are.”

Devos also used the discussion to take a shot a Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

“I think great teachers, perhaps, should be making at least half as much as what Randi Weingarten does at $500,000 a year,” Devos said.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Three-judge appellate panel considering how much right public has to instruct NC lawmakers

What does the constitutional right for North Carolinians to instruct their representatives mean?

That was the question a three-judge panel at the state Court of Appeals mulled over Thursday morning in Common Cause v. Forest, a challenge to the 2016 special legislative session in which two bills were passed that fundamentally changed the balance of power between governmental branches.

Burton Craige argued on behalf of the plaintiffs, Common Cause and 10 North Carolina citizens. He said that lawmakers provided no notice about the special session, suspended the majority of legislative rules and buried the substantive legislation by filing 26 other bills at the same time.

“They knew for months in advance what they were going to do,” Craige said. “They planned for it and they deliberately withheld it from the public and other legislators.”

He pushed for the court to craft a rule requiring notice for special legislative sessions and a reasonable opportunity for members of the public to communicate with their representatives.

Judge Richard Dietz, who is a registered Republican, asked Craige a lot of questions and played devil’s advocate during his argument. He said there wasn’t really any guidance when it came to the constitutional right to instruct, so the court would have to create precedent if it stepped into the challenge and overturned the lower court’s ruling for the defendants.

“Why couldn’t people call on legislators to call another special session and undo it?” he asked. “One of the unique features of legislating is that you can undo what you’ve done.”

He also indicated that the legislative process is always confusing and asked what made the special session different from a regular session committee meeting in which a complicated amendment might be added without notice.

Craige told him regular sessions were planned and people have ample notice to mobilize and lobby and participate in the process — special sessions, he added, have their own constitutional significance. He said the challenge for the court would be to reconcile the right of lawmakers to call a special session and the right of the people to instruct their representatives about legislation.

He addressed the court’s concerns about establishing a timeline for the right to instruct to the right to procedural due process. That right does not give “x period of time” but the courts established what it meant.

“If these facts don’t violate the right to instruct, what facts do?” he asked. “[The court] must give meaning to those rules.”

Dietz asked the attorney for the state, Matt Tulchin, a similar question during his argument. He asked him what his example would be of a situation that violates the right to instruct.

Tulchin told him it would be more generalized — if legislation couldn’t be made public prior to its enactment or if lawmakers prohibited lobbying or the public’s opportunity to communicate altogether with them.

He said the right to instruct hasn’t been used in the country in over 100 years because it’s a different time now than when it was created. We live in a 24/7 news cycle and communication and travel to the capital is easier, he said, adding that just because the right is in the constitution doesn’t mean it is what the plaintiffs want it to mean.

“That would render a lot of legislation unconstitutional,” he warned of the judges imposing a time-frame for public notification.

Tulchin said that the public did have time to communicate with lawmakers during the 2016 legislative session and that the media reported on the substantive bills before they were introduced. He also said there was nothing preventing citizens from communicating with lawmakers after a bill passed.

The bills that were passed out of the session were Senate Bill 4, which changed the structure of state and county boards of elections and the State Ethics Commission, created partisan appellate judicial elections, and stripped the newly elected governor of the power to administer the Industrial Commission, and House Bill 17, which transferred power from the state Board of Education to the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

There has already been extensive litigation over the substance of those bills rather than the special session itself.

Craige asked the judges to read and re-read the affidavits of the North Carolina citizen plaintiffs as part of the case. They wrote about being actively engaged in the political process on a regular basis and historically participating in robust discussion with lawmakers.

“Those avenues were cut off,” he said of the 2016 special session. “Reasonable notice and opportunity to be heard — that’s what the legislature needs to provide its citizens.”

The judges are taking arguments under advisement to release an opinion at a later time. Dietz presided with Judge Hunter Murphy, another registered Republican, and Judge Allegra Collins, a registered Democrat.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Common Cause back in court tomorrow with challenge to 2016 ‘surprise’ special session

The North Carolina Court of Appeals will hear a challenge tomorrow to the 2016 “surprise” special legislative session.

The hearing, Common Cause v. Forest, will start at 9:30 a.m. at the Court of Appeals building at 1 West Morgan St., and is expected to last for an hour. The plaintiffs, Common Cause and 10 North Carolinians, lost the case in Superior Court in 2017 but appealed the decision.

Here’s background from the voting rights organization:

The plaintiffs in Common Cause v. Forest argue that legislative leaders violated the NC Constitution in December 2016 when, with no notice to the public, they called a special session to make sweeping changes to state government. Unlike each of the preceding 30 extra sessions, dating back to 1960, citizens were given no advance notice that the December 2016 Fourth Extra Session would be called, and no notice of the subjects it would address.

After convening that Fourth Extra Session in 2016, legislative leaders modified the rules of the House and Senate to speed up the legislative process and curtail participation in committee meetings, effectively eliminating debate and deliberation. The legislature passed the bills less than 48 hours after they were introduced.

In April 2017, Common Cause and 10 North Carolina citizens filed suit against the legislature’s surprise special session. At the heart of the challenge is a violation of citizens’ constitutional right to “instruct their representatives” – a right expressly guaranteed by Article I, Section 12 of the North Carolina Constitution.

The absence of public notice and wholesale changes to the legislative rules made it virtually impossible for North Carolina citizens to communicate with their representatives about the sweeping legislation proposed and enacted during the Fourth Extra Session, which included passage of these bills:

  • Senate Bill 4 changed the structure of state and county boards of elections and the State Ethics Commission, created partisan appellate judicial elections, and stripped the newly elected governor of the power to administer the Industrial Commission; and
  • House Bill 17 curtailed the governor’s appointive powers and transferred power from the State Board of Education to the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
News, What's Race Got To Do With It?

Pew Study: Americans value diversity, are also bothered by it

A fascinating — and in places troubling — new study was released today by the Pew Research Center.

The poll, which looked at Americans’ views on ethnic and racial diversity, found some interesting contradictions and divisions on the issue.

While majorities of white, black and Hispanic respondents  said they believe racial and ethnic diversity is very good for the country, the breakdown on how good is starkest when broken down by partisan affiliation and education level.

While 39 percent of those identifying as Republican or saying they lean that way think diversity is “very good” for the country, that number is 71 percent among self-identified Democrats or those who lean that way.

More striking, 41 percent of white respondents with a high school education or less said diversity is very good for the country while 69 percent of white respondents with a bachelor’s degree or higher said was.

While the study showed strong support for workplace diversity, 74 percent of respondents said employers shouldn’t take race or ethnicity into account in the application process in order to promote diversity.

The question that is likely to be talked about most: whether it would bother respondents to hear a language other than English in a public place.

While 34 percent of white respondents and 25 percent of black respondents said it would bother them “some” or “a lot,” among white Republicans it was 47 percent. For white Democrats, that number was 18 percent.

 

Read the full study with information about methodology here.