Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

NC NAACP to facilitate absentee voting in hurricane-impacted counties; State Board still assessing impacts

The North Carolina NAACP announced Monday that it would facilitate providing absentee ballot applications to registered voters in Hurricane Florence-impacted counties.

“It is imperative that while our communities struggle to recover from the devastating flooding and other destruction from this storm, citizen’s right to vote should not be impaired,” said the Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman, President of the organization. “The NAACP has long advocated for the right to vote and we know from the experience of Hurricane Matthew in 2016 that flood-impacted areas had depressed voter turnout.”

The counties hit hardest by Hurricane Florence have some of the largest percentages of African-American and Latino populations in the state, according to a news release from the NAACP.

The State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement was conducting preliminary assessments of storm damage Monday, reaching out to all 100 county board of elections directors for updates on conditions on the ground.

“As you probably know, flooding is expected to get worse in some areas before it gets better,” said spokesman Pat Gannon in an email.

State Board Executive Director Kim Westbrook Strach also sent a letter Monday to all five political party directors to help address upcoming challenges as a result of the hurricane.

“Our thoughts are with so many affected by Hurricane Florence across our state,” the letter states. “Like you, we are closely monitoring the evolving situation as we work to guarantee the continuity of elections administration through this period of disruption. As party leaders, you are often first to hear of disruptions affecting particular communities. We want to partner with you to address challenges that may impact critical components of election administration and deadlines over the coming weeks.”

Most county boards of elections have been and will continue to send absentee ballots to military and overseas voters who have requested them, according to the State Board. Its office is stepping in to send out ballots for several counties that are unable to do so because their operations are affected by flooding, power and internet outages or inaccessible due to the storm.

“We are assessing emergency options, and our team is committed to assisting county boards and voters in the affected areas,” Strach said.

Lenoir County was one of the hardest hit areas by Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and is again facing widespread flooding after Hurricane Florence. It is too early to tell how county voting will be affected from this weather event, but you can read more about how flooding affected early voting there in 2016 here.

The NAACP is planning to try and offset early voting issues by encouraging absentee voting. According to the State Board, any registered North Carolina voter can request an absentee ballot by mail, and no excuse is needed to vote by absentee.

“To request an absentee ballot, complete the North Carolina Absentee Ballot Request Form,” according to the State Board. “The Absentee Ballot Request Form may only be signed by the voter or a voter’s near relative or legal guardian. According to the law, a ‘near relative’ can be any of the following: spouse, sibling, parent, grandparent, child, grandchild, mother-in-law, father-in-law, daughter-in-law, son-in-law, stepparent, or stepchild of the voter. A completed Absentee Ballot Request Form may be scanned and emailed, faxed, or mailed to the county board of elections.”

Anyone not registered to vote at their current address may send in their updated voter registration form along with the absentee ballot application, but that must be done by Friday, October 12 — the last day to register by mail to vote in the November 6 election this year.

Spearman said the absentee ballot campaign is keeping with the organization’s commitment to civic engagement.

The State Board is also reminding voters that they can vote by mail (with no excuse needed); vote early in person from Oct. 17 through Nov. 3; vote on Election Day, November 6. The regular voter registration deadline is 5 p.m. October 12. Eligible individuals may also register during the early voting period.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Unplugged power supply to blame for missing special session audio from House chamber

It took Legislative Services Officer Paul Coble more than a month to mail NC Policy Watch one email from July accounting for missing House chamber audio from the special session in which lawmakers retroactively changed judicial filing rules.

“So, not cut wire,” the email from July 25 states. “A power supply was unplugged that is used for the recording PC and the assistive listening devices — that is how this works.”

The email is referring to a House audio chamber recording of debate from the July 24 special legislative session. NC Policy Watch inquired about the missing audio in early August while working on a story about Senate Bill 3, a measure that retroactively mandated judicial candidates be associated with their preferred political party for at least 90 days prior to filing for office.

Policy Watch was told by legislative staff during an early August phone call that there had been a “glitch” in the system and they may not be able to recover the audio recording. They claimed at the time to not know exactly what happened. The Senate chamber audio, on the other hand, was successfully recorded.

No further details at the time were offered so a public records request was sent Aug. 3 to Coble asking for “all emails, text messages and any and all other documentation or materials to, from and between all legislative staff, legislators and legislative assistants that refers to any audio recording or the a/v system that records audio from the House floor debate on July 24, 2018.”

Policy Watch received a package today from Coble via U.S. Mail with one responsive email on a thumb drive and a letter dated Sept. 12 noting that it cost taxpayers $105.15 to fulfill the request.

The single email dated July 25 — prior to Policy Watch’s phone call — includes an “internal write-up” about the missing audio.

“It appears that a test of the recording computer was done at approximately 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday,” it states. “I do not know if it was listened to. Audio testing of the FTR (For the Record) software had been done on Thursday, July 19, during cabling operations. The power supply must have been knocked [loose] or removed from the plug after this.”

The audio, had it been properly recorded, would have been of the floor debate over SB3. It is now marked “audio incomplete” on the legislative website and is the only date listed this year that wasn’t properly recorded.

Lawmakers appeared to target state Supreme Court candidate Chris Anglin with SB3 — he changed his Democratic voter registration to Republican on June 7 and is challenging Republican incumbent Justice Barbara Jackson and Democratic candidate Anita Earls. The bill, though, affected a total of four judicial candidates, including Anglin.

A court has since issued a preliminary injunction blocking the measure, which means each of the affected candidates will still appear on the ballot with the party they were registered with at the time of filing.

Read the full email from Coble’s response below.

House Audio 07 24 18 by NC Policy Watch on Scribd

Environment

Two breaches in Sutton coal ash landfill, plus flooding at three inactive ash basins at Lee plant

Portion of a slope collapsed at the Sutton coal ash landfill, the result of flooding. (Photos: Courtesy Kemp Burdette, Cape Fear Riverkeeper)

Rising rivers and historic flooding are hampering the state and Duke Energy from fully assessing the extent of the damage to coal ash landfills and basins in eastern North Carolina, but there are reports of breaches at the Sutton plant in Wilmington and flooding at HF Lee in Goldsboro.

Cape Fear Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette told Policy Watch that he saw two breaches at the Sutton plant’s coal ash landfill, one about 30 feet wide and the other roughly 50 feet. He also described water pouring through a berm. “After 90 minutes, the contents had been emptied out,” he said. “It was a lot of water.”

Duke Energy spokeswoman Erin Culbert said that area is a designated spot between landfill cells where rain flowing on the top  is released and discharged into a sediment basin. She added that the storm water from this area has not come into contact with coal ash.

It’s still unclear if the ash has reached Sutton Lake or the Cape Fear River. “We’ll be able to do a more thorough evaluation once flooding subsides,” Culbert said, and the utility “will make the needed repairs once the storm passes and conditions are safe to do,” Culbert said.

Another view of a breach at the Sutton plant in WIlmington.

State environmental officials are also sending inspectors to the site once it is safe. Riverkeepers are also monitoring the area, both in boats and from the air.

The new landfill is under construction, and when complete, will hold 5 million tons of coal ash in three cells. As sections are completed capped and closed, Culbert said, “these kinds of events will be much less likely to occur.”

Wilmington has received 2 feet of rain over the past five days; the city is largely cut off from the rest of the state by flooding.

In Goldsboro, where the Neuse River is expected to crest at near-historic levels, the active ash basin at HF Lee “is performing well,” Culbert said, but the three inactive ash basins have had flooding. They are low-lying basins in a wooded area, and likewise took on water during Hurricane Matthew. During that 2016 storm, the Neuse River topped out at 29.7 feet, a record. Current forecasts from the National Weather Service predict it will crest at 27.1 feet by Tuesday.

“Past similar experience in Hurricane Matthew shows only a small amount of ash would be displaced with no measurable environmental effect,” Culbert said.

However, after Matthew, old stormwater containing ash entered with the river. Subsequent Duke sampling showed that levels of copper were elevated above water quality standard of 2.7 parts per billion. There were small increases in arsenic levels, but below drinking water standards.

Also during Hurricane Matthew, the inactive basins released coal ash — state regulators estimated the amount would fill the bed of a pickup truck — and cenospheres. Duke and DEQ both maintained that cenospheres, hollow balls of silicone and aluminum, are inert. However, these hollow balls can also contain arsenic and other heavy metals that are also present in fly ash.

“To say that there ‘will be no measurable effect’ does a disservice to all North Carolinians. It’s just plain wrong,” countered Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Matthew Starr. He rode in boat on the Neuse after Hurricane Matthew  and scooped up ash and cenospheres from the river. “It was like a winter wonderland.”

Afterward, DEQ required Duke to submit a plan of action, including additional sampling and removal of the cenospheres from nearby wetlands. HF Lee is also on the list of plants where the ash basins will be excavated and the material placed in lined landfills.

 

 

Commentary

Former prosecutor: Kavanaugh vote must be delayed while sexual assault claim is investigated

We know that the natural disaster that continues to grip North Carolina remains at the front of everyone’s mind, but for those who have a few minutes for other matters, please take a look at the op-ed authored by former federal law clerk, prosecutor and author David Lat for the New York Times entitled “Delay the Vote — for Kavanaugh, for His Accuser and for the Court: Christine Blasey Ford deserves to be heard. And the judge deserves a chance to clear his name.”

At issue, of course, is the recent revelation by a woman who says she was the object of an attempted sexual assault by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and another man at a party in the in the 1980’s. Here’s Lat:

“Her disturbing claims deserve further investigation by the Senate Judiciary Committee, even if it means delaying his confirmation vote. A delay wouldn’t just be for her sake, but for the sake of Judge Kavanaugh and the Supreme Court itself.”

After explaining how Ms. Ford has come forward to provide details of the event and that some have argued that, based on Kavanaugh’s denials, the confirmation vote should proceed, Lat says this:

“I respectfully disagree. The confirmation should be delayed until there is a full investigation, followed by Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, into Ms. Ford’s accusations.

She passed a polygraph test administered by a former F.B.I. agent, and her therapist provided The Washington Post with notes reflecting that Ms. Ford described the alleged incident in 2012. But her case is far from ironclad.

For example, she can’t remember or remains uncertain about many key details (including the year of the alleged incident); she told nobody contemporaneously (unlike many other alleged victims of sexual assault); and both Mr. Kavanaugh and his friend deny it. There is, as far as we know, no physical evidence. It’s a true “she said, he said” — or, rather, “they said,” since two people deny this incident ever happened.

But Ms. Ford should at least be heard, and not just because the #MeToo movement has made the importance of hearing out victims of alleged sexual misconduct even more obvious than it already was. The alleged perpetrator and witness should be heard from as well, and everyone involved should be placed under oath and subjected to aggressive questioning. (At least three Republican senators — Jeff Flake of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Bob Corker of Tennessee — have expressed interest in hearing more about Ms. Ford’s account, but there’s no consensus yet on the preferred process.)…

The way in which Ms. Ford’s allegations came to light was, to put it charitably, deeply unfortunate. These claims should have been thoroughly and discreetly investigated weeks ago, by nonpartisan F.B.I. agents and bipartisan Senate investigators, in a way that protected Christine Ford’s privacy and Brett Kavanaugh’s good name. But here we are.

It is quite possible — or even likely — that hearings won’t prevent Brett Kavanaugh from being confirmed given the equivocal evidence against him and, perhaps even more important, the number of Republicans and red-state Democrats in the Senate. But due process, which ought to matter when it comes to filling the critical seat on the highest court in the land, calls for nothing less.”

Environment

DEQ: Chemours says it shut down operations before Hurricane Florence; inspections to follow

 

The Chemours plant sits on 2,150 acres near the Cumberland/Bladen county line. The Cape Fear River lies adjacent to plant property, shown here on the far right of the screen. (Google maps, satellite view)

The Chemours plant, responsible for discharging GenX and other fluorinated compounds into the Cape Fear River for at least 30 years, reportedly suspended its operations before Hurricane Florence hit, according to state environmental regulators.

The facility hugs the Cape Fear River near the Cumberland-Bladen county line. North of the plant in Fayetteville, the river is currently at 40.59 feet, according to the National Weather Service, 5 feet above flood state.

The river is expected to reach 62.3 feet by Tuesday, which would exceed peak levels during Hurricane Matthew — 58 feet. the record is 68 feet.

Concerns about further degradation of the river and nearby private drinking water wells focus on the heavily contaminated soils and groundwater at the plant site. Rain and flooding could wash the compounds into the river and onto neighboring properties.

DEQ spokeswoman Bridget Munger said if conditions are safe enough for travel tomorrow, staff from the Division of Water Resources will conduct a site visit and restart sampling the discharge. The sampling equipment was turned off ahead of the storm, Munger said, to avoid damaging or losing the equipment.

However, considering that the river is forecast to rise for at least the next day, the site inspection could be delayed.