Environment, Legislature

Sen. Cook complains about politics trumping science, then votes for leachate bill, backed by no science

Photograph of Senator Bill Cook of coastal North Carolina

Sen. Bill Cook, who represents eight coastal counties, said politics, not science, is influencing the Marine Fisheries Commission. (Photo: NC General Assembly)

The Senate agriculture and environment committee introduced a blizzard of last-minute, controversial amendments to a bill this morning — including one that state regulators had not even reviewed.

The NC Department of Environmental Quality “still has issues with” the Senate version of House Bill 56, said Andy Miller, DEQ’s legislative director.

One Senate amendment would strike language requiring facilities to notify the public whenever any amount of untreated wastewater is spilled into lakes, rivers and streams. Current law requires notice when the amount is 1,000 gallons. The amendment essentially maintains existing law.

Why are there changes to revert it back?” asked Democratic Sen. Angela Bryant, one of the few committee members who publicly quizzes the bill sponsors for explanations.

“Well, this goes on daily at municipal wastewater plants, at Duke Energy,” replied Sen. Andy Wells. “We know it’s going on.”

(Real Facts NC has video footage of this discussion.)

Arguably, it is not widely known how much untreated wastewater is discharged into surface waters and who is responsible for it.

Miller of DEQ could not comment to lawmakers about the amendment because, he said, “We’ve not been able to review it.”

Skeptical: Sen. Angela Bryant, a Democrat from northeastern North Carolina

Another amendment would reduce the number of seats on the Marine Fisheries Commission from nine to seven. The governor would still have the power to appoint the members, but like Republicans’ attempts to shrink the Court of Appeals and other governmental bodies they disagree with, this decrease is not as benign as it seems.

“In the last few years, most people believe the Marine Fisheries Commission has gotten out of control,” said Sen. Bill Cook, not defining “most people.” “They’re not basing decisions on science, but politics. Maybe this will encourage the commission to make better decisions.”

If that’s truly the case, then changing the statute to add scientists to the commission could solve the problem. Currently, there is only one: Mike Wicker, a biologist with the US Fish & Wildlife Service. His term expires on June 30, although Gov. Cooper could reappoint him.

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Environment

Rep. Dixon keeps hammering on leachate aerosolization, blames opponents for “trashy misinformation”

An illustration from the patent for a leachate aerosolization system

WasteExpo 2017, held earlier this month in New Orleans, is like the World’s Fair for landfill owners, trash haulers, recyclers and scientists, whose fields require them to study how to neutralize and contain what we discard and excrete.

The three-day extravaganza featured a leachate management summit. Sponsored by the Raleigh-based Environmental Research & Education Foundation, which funds and directs scientific research on waste management practices, the summit devoted a full day to the challenges and technologies in dealing with leachate.

However, leachate aerosolization, a current obsession of Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a Republican from Duplin County, did not appear on the agenda of one of the waste industry’s premier events. That’s because leachate aerosolization has little traction outside the halls of the legislature.

“The only place I have heard the term ‘aerosolization’ used is by Mr. Houston,” Bryan Staley, president and CEO of the Environmental Research & Education Foundation, told NCPW in an email.

Kelly Houston, a former lobbyist and Republican donor, and a small businessman from Cornelius, invented a leachate aerosolization system, the subject of House Bill 576, sponsored by Rep. Dixon.

Dixon spearheaded a spirited discussion of the technology at a Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources committee meeting last week. The committee is scheduled to vote on the bill at its Wednesday meeting, which begins at 9 am in Room 1027 of the Legislative Building. The bill has already passed the House.

As NCPW reported earlier this month, the theory behind the system, which Houston patented in 2015, is that leachate — essentially landfill juice — is pumped to a mobile sprayer that ambles over the top of a landfill. The larger particles — contaminants — will fall to the ground, ostensibly on top of the landfill, allegedly leaving uncontaminated, tiny particles to drift away.

“You have something nasty like leachate,” Dixon, who had attended the committee meeting to explain the bill in layperson’s terms. “You suck the nasty water up, run it through the system that accumulates the bad stuff. As the water is sprayed the bad stuff falls back where it started.”

Dixon blamed opponents of the method for “spreading trashy misinformation about the process.”

“Can you share evidence that came from DEQ or the technology itself that demonstrates it removes contaminants in the leachate?” said Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Wake County Democrat.

“There’s a multitude of data that goes very far back indicating that’s what happened. But I don’t have that data with me,” said Dixon, who, earlier in the month, claimed he had “10,000 pages” of evidence.

“DEQ does not have specific type of data that was asked about,” added Michael Scott, chief of DEQ’s Division of Waste Management.

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Environment, Legislature

House bill would ban sale, production of PFAS in North Carolina

(Illustration: EnviroScience Inc.)

Companies could no longer manufacture PFAS, also known as perfluorinated compounds, in North Carolina under a new proposal, House Bill 1109.

If enacted into law, the measure would also prohibit the export of the toxic compounds, “except for products specifically authorized or required to contain PFAS under federal law.”

The bill was introduced May 14; it has eight co-sponsors, all Democrats: Pricey Harrison, John Autry, Alison Dahle, Susan Fisher, Marcia Morey, Deb Butler, Zack Hawkins and Raymond Smith.

There are 5,000 types of PFAS. Most are used in, or byproducts of, the manufacture of dozens of waterproof and stain-resistant consumer goods, such as clothing, cookware, pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags, and more.

Of the few types of PFAS that scientists have studied, all have been linked to various health problems in humans, including several cancers, thyroid disorders, low birth weight, high blood pressure during pregnancy, ulcerative colitis and high cholesterol.

The compounds are widespread in the environment, especially rivers, lakes groundwater and drinking water supplies. They are often referred to as “forever chemicals” because they take decades to degrade.

The bill would allow DEQ to assess civil penalties of $5,000 to $25,000 for the first offense, and $10,000 for subsequent offenses. The maximum penalty for one month is $200,000.

It also would appropriate $100,000 in one-time money for additional monitoring and enforcement.

Several of the same sponsors also introduced two additional PFAS-related measures:

  • HB 1108 would require any company that discharges PFAS into the waterways to disclose the types, amounts and concentrations in order to receive a permit from the NC Department of Environmental Quality.

The same information would be required of wastewater treatment plants, both public and private, that receive discharges from industry. Those plants would have to remove the PFAS before discharging or require the industrial source to do so.

Among the other provisions are requirements for DEQ to study PFAS in landfill leachate and in biosolids that are applied to land.

PFAS enter landfills when contaminated consumer goods are thrown away. Leachate is liquid from the garbage that is captured in tanks beneath the landfill.

Biosolids are generated from wastewater treatment plants and used to fertilize agricultural fields. However, when it rains runoff from those fields can send PFAS into the groundwater and surface water. From there, the compounds can enter the drinking water supply.

In addition to the $5 million to DEQ for water quality monitoring, the State Water Infrastructure Authority would receive $80,000,000 in one-time money to issue matching grants to water systems to build or improve their  drinking water treatment systems to “substantially reduce public exposure to detectable PFAS.”

  • HB 1110 would require two state agencies to study the various effects of the compounds on human health and wildlife. DEQ  would be required to create an inventory of direct and indirect discharges of PFAS into surface water, air, groundwater and soil.

The Office of Management and Budget would calculate costs to local and state governments, several of which have had to spend millions of dollars to upgrade their drinking water treatment systems to reduce PFAS levels; those expenses are then passed on to ratepayers.

The NC Policy Collaboratory would also be charged with studying the future costs of removing or reducing the contaminant loads.

The bill would appropriate $600,000 for the studies.

Environment

Scientists update lawmakers on PFAS research, including presence of compounds in food

Lee Ferguson of Duke University, a co-researcher on PFAs and PFOAs in drinking water in the Triangle. (Photo: Duke University)

In the freezer at Lee Ferguson’s lab at Duke University, there is an Antarctic ice core with layers of the Earth’s atmospheric history trapped inside. Ferguson plans to melt the top portion, then test the water to see if perfluorinated compounds are present. If the melt water tests positive, we’ll know that PFAS has reached one of the most remote places on Earth.

If no PFAS are detected, then life in Antarctica is looking better by the day.

At the House Environment Committee meeting yesterday, lawmakers received an update from the NC Policy Collaboratory about its NC PFAST Network. More than a dozen university scientists are studying the presence, health effects and potential removal treatments of emerging compounds, including GenX, throughout North Carolina.

“This is the largest-scale monitoring team for emerging compounds in the country,” Ferguson said. “We hope it serves as a model for studying emerging compounds and legacy contaminants. You can see the tempo of this research accelerating.”

Scientists are sampling 158 wells and 190 surface water intakes for more than 50 PFAS compounds, as well as what’s called “non-targeted analysis” — searching for unknown compounds, said Wanda Bodnar, assistant professor of environmental sciences and engineering at UNC.

Other scientists in the NC PFAST Network are studying the compounds in landfill leachate, air and food crops. Bondar told Rep. Pricey Harrison that team members also plan to look at the potential health effects of interactions of different compounds.

UNC Assistant Professor Wanda Bodnar (Photo: UNC Chapel Hill)

Exposure to PFAS has been linked to testicular and kidney cancer, thyroid and reproductive disorders, and a depressed immune system. Although the chemical industry maintains that GenX is less toxic than the compounds it replaced —  PFOA and PFOS — East Carolina University scientist Jamie Dewitt said that might not be true. “What we see is that GenX and PFAS have the same health effects and act in similar ways. GenX might be even more toxic on liver.”

A study of children in the Faroe Islands, located between Iceland and Norway, found they had a diminished response to vaccines, possibly because of exposure to PFAS. Although the Faroe Islands are remote, its residents are exposed to the compounds through pilot whales, an important food source for them.

UNC scientist Rebecca Fry is conducting a study of pregnant women who are at risk of pre-term delivery. The women are voluntarily allowing their blood and urine to be tested before and after their babies are born. Researchers also will test umbilical cord blood and placentas to determine if PFAS are transmitted in utero, and if so, to what degree.

Policy Collaboratory Research Director Jeffrey Warren called the effort “Herculean.” Lawmakers funded the PFAS project with a $5 million appropriation; the collaboratory has also raised sufficient matching funds to meet a $3.5 million challenge grant.

House Bill 661, co-sponsored by Rep. John Fraley, a Republican from Iredell County, and Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat, would appropriate another round of $5 million funding to the Policy Collaboratory to continue its research.

The appropriation would also help match other money. “There’s an enormous amount of federal funds for this,” Warren said. “PFAS is the thing.”

 

Environment

Duke Energy asks DEQ for six-month extension to close coal impoundments at Sutton

During Hurricane Florence, flood waters from Sutton Lake in Wilmington surrounded Duke Energy’s natural gas plant there, forcing the utility to temporarily shut it down. The utility is citing the historic storm, plus Hurricane Matthew in 2016, as well as other factors, to its need for an extension to close the coal ash impoundments at the plant. (Photo: Duke Energy)

Citing two hurricanes, new and unexpected state requirements, and the challenges of removing the remnants of an old cypress forest in the bottom of a coal ash basin, Duke Energy has asked state environmental regulators for a deadline extension to excavate and close its impoundments at the Sutton plant in Wilmington.

In a 16-page letter to the NC Department of Environmental quality, the utility detailed the difficulties it has encountered over the past four years, as well as its measures to overcome them. If the extension is granted, the new date for closure would be February 2020, six months beyond the original deadline of August 2019.

The utility says it had crews working 20 hours a day, six days a week, in part to dredge the 760,000 cubic yards of material from the 1971 ash basin. Nonetheless, 240,000 cubic yards of dredge material remain, plus 987,500 cubic yards in 1984 basin.

The state’s Coal Ash Management Act allows the secretary of the environment to extend the closure deadline if compliance “can’t be achieved by application  best available technology found to economically reasonable at the time  and would produce serious hardship without equal or  greater benefits to the public.”

Beginning in 2014, Duke Energy transported by rail its first 2 million tons of ash to the Brickhaven mine in Chatham County for structural fill. (This was also controversial: Several citizens groups sued, claiming that new cells were being built to accommodate the ash, and those area should be subject to stricter solid waste permit requirements. The case is still in the courts.)

In 2015, Duke had planned to build a new onsite landfill for 5 million tons of ash from the impoundments, the utility said in its letter, estimating it could excavate 200,000 to 225,000 tons of ash per month, half of which would go to Brickhaven.

But in April 2016, DEQ announced a new policy to conduct an environmental justice review for each ash landfill, which set construction back six months. Nonetheless, Duke says it completed Cells 5 and 6 ahead of schedule, and received leachate permits for the landfill. But as more “air space” opened up in the landfill, it took on more rain, plus water draining from the ash itself. This increased. the amount of leachate from the landfill that needed to be treated.

New state rules requiring a 50-foot buffer on the basin dikes was also “unexpected,” the utility said, adding it could not excavate all of the ash from those dikes until the state approved their removal. That left 125,000 tons of ash, surrounded by water, in the buffer zone of the dikes. Duke then had to “excavate the material” in a less efficient manner.

And finally, last June, the dredgers encountered in the 1971 basin five acres of stumps from an old cypress forest. The debris clogged the machinery, setting the project back another three weeks.

The agency will hold a public meeting on Duke’s request on Jan. 14 at 6 p.m. at Cape Fear Community College, 502 N. Front St., in Wilmington. The public can also comment on the proposal through Feb. 4. Submit them by email to [email protected] Include the term “Sutton Variance Request” in the email’s subject line.