agriculture, Environment

This Week in Pollution: coal ash, hog lagoons and a wayward EPA

Rainfall from Hurricane Florence overlaid with the locations of industrialized livestock operations. (Map: Environmental Working Group)

Good morning, before I delve into the weekly recap of Contamination’s Greatest Hits, I want to tell you what I just heard at the NC Chamber of Commerce’s Agri-Business conference this morning.

Ray Starling, who used to be with the NC Department of Agriculture, is now chief of staff at the USDA. One day, Starling said, he was in the Oval Office visiting with President Trump. “On the president’s desk was a box made of wood with the presidential seal on one side and it had a red button. The president pushes the red button. I thought the floor was going to open up in front of me and I would fall through it. I was fairly certain some country had been blown off the map.”

Instead, Starling said, “moments later a man entered the Oval Office carrying a silver platter” with a Diet Coke for the president.

And now you know.

First up, a perennial favorite since 2014: Coal ash. Sampling by Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Matthew Starr near the inactive coal ash basins at the HF Lee plant, showed arsenic levels in the Neuse River, the drinking water source for Goldsboro, at 186 parts per million, far above the drinking water standard of 10 ppm. Near the Sutton plant, whose lake drains into the beleaguered Cape Fear River, also a major drinking water supply, the results were an off-the-charts 710 ppm.

Meanwhile, Duke Energy and the NC Department of Environmental Quality each did its own testing near both HF Lee and Sutton. DEQ found elevated levels of copper near Sutton, but both the agency’s and the utility’s samples indicated arsenic contamination was below drinking water standards there and at HF Lee.

How can these results be so contradictory — one set menacing and the other hunky-dory? Well, the variations can hinge on several factors: where and when the samples were taken, and how far into the water column — in other words, how deep the samplers plunged the bottle. Sediment, aka dirt in the riverbed, would be even more telling, because the contaminants might have nestled there. But sediment rarely stays put. Boats, storms, wind can all stir it up, sending contamination downstream.

DEQ and Duke, and the riverkeepers, will continue to monitor potential contamination in the rivers.

Speaking of coal, the EPA (rechristened for the purposes of this column as Experiencing Peak Apocalypse) plans to roll back mercury emissions rules for coal-fired power plants. Mercury, also known in 14th-century parlance as quicksilver, is not an element to be messed with. (Nonetheless, in eighth-grade science class, we entertained ourselves by goosing globules of it on our desks. This occurred in the dark ages of 1978, when trepanation may have still been in vogue in my small town.)

Historically, coal-fired power plants have been major emitters of mercury. When the mercury falls back to the Earth and enters water, it converts to methylmercury. Fish take up methylmercury, and when people eat fish, they also get a dose. Mercury can harm the nervous system, including that of a developing fetus, which is why pregnant women are advised to restrict their intake of certain mercury-prone species, such as tuna. There are fish advisories for mercury contamination in waterways throughout North Carolina for everyone.

Who thinks weakening mercury rules is a good idea? The New York Times breaks down the issue, but essentially the EPA, led by former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, reasons that the cost to industry to adhere to the rule is greater than the public health costs if the rule is rolled back. I’d like to see the math on that, right after I cough up this lung. Nonetheless, the score is Industry 1, Health Benefits 0.

Also lurking in the post-Hurricane Florence waters of eastern North Carolina is millions of gallons of hog and poultry waste. Policy Watch reported this week on the many farms that still lie within the 100-year flood plain. The.Waterkeeper Alliance and the Environmental Working Group released a set of maps overlapping historic rainfall amounts with the density of these industrialized operations. The EWG’s spatial analysis concluded that “there are 926  concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, housing more than 3.8 million hogs and 578 poultry CAFOs holding an estimated 35 million fowl in areas where the National Weather Service said flooding was ‘occurring or imminent’ after Florence.”

Hog farms often receive the most attention, unlike poultry farms, which escape necessary scrutiny because they are virtually unregulated. These farms that use “dry litter” (which no longer stays dry in a flood) aren’t required to have a permit. We don’t know where they are or who might have complained about them.

On the issue of hog farms, the Waterkeeper Alliance is suing the EPA over exemptions bestowed upon these industrialized  operations. Unlike many other polluting industries, these farms aren’t required to inform state and local officials about dangerous levels of pollutants that could be emanating from the operations.. For many industries, these disclosures are required under the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act. However, the Fair Agricultural Reporting Method Act gives the livestock industries a pass on reporting air emissions — ammonia, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter — that can exacerbate respiratory illness of those living near the farms.

Living near these concentrated animal feeding operations might shorten your lifespan, according to a September article published by Duke University scientist Julia Kravchenko and four of her colleagues in the NC Medical Journal.

The study concluded that North Carolina communities located near hog CAFOs “had higher all-cause and infant mortality, mortality due to anemia, kidney disease, tuberculosis, septicemia, and higher hospital admissions/emergency room visits of low-birth weight infants.”

The study doesn’t go so far as to establish causality with exposures from hog CAFOs, but the authors write that future studies are needed to “determine factors that influence these outcomes, as well as the need to improve screening and diagnostic strategies for these diseases in North Carolina communities adjacent to hog CAFOs.”

Given these findings, it was disheartening to hear Dennis Kelly of Syngenta tell the agribusiness crowd this morning that one of the greatest concerns of farmers is “security — knowing you won’t be sued. That you have the right to farm according to normal agriculture practices.”

Somebody, please push the red button. No, the other one, where I get to fall through the floor.

Commentary

Attorney/CPA authors best tax policy op-ed of the week

Be sure to check out attorney/CPA Richard Nordan’s outstanding op-ed critiquing the proposed state income tax cap that will appear on the fall ballot in today’s edition of Raleigh’s News & Observer. In “Reject the NC tax cap. It will hurt government and most taxpayers.” Nordan first blasts the two infamous experiments with similar caps (California’s ill-fated Proposition 13 and Colorado’s disastrous “TABOR” amendment).

He then goes on to say this:

“These constitutional tax caps deprive elected officials of the flexibility they need to answer the crises of the day. The caps also deprive future electorates from expressing their collective philosophy through the election process.

Moreover, by zeroing in on the income tax, this constitutional amendment would guarantee that if increased revenues are needed in the future, the legislature would be looking at the sales tax or property tax to make up the difference.

From the standpoint of the citizens, the property tax is the most blunt form of taxation. Most people will owe the total annual tax liability even if they got sick or lost their job. This is not a supple form of taxation.

The sales tax is regressive. Its burden grows heavier the lower your income.

The income tax, on the other hand, does change with your financial circumstances.. If you lost your job due to illness, were laid off or took time off to care for a child or aging parent, your income and hence your tax liability will go down.

From the standpoint of the state, this constitutional amendment will make it harder for future sessions of the legislature to grapple with the fiscal and economic conditions of the day or natural disasters, tying their hands to our collective state of mind in 2018.

From the standpoint of the citizen/taxpayer, this amendment makes it more likely that state and local governments will rely upon sales taxes and property taxes if increased revenues are needed in the future. These forms of taxation are less sensitive to the current income of the taxpayer.

The tax cap amendment is a lose-lose proposition for the government and the taxpayer and should be rejected.”

Amen.

Education, Higher Ed, NC Budget and Tax Center

North Carolina’s cuts to higher education are shortchanging future generations

North Carolina’s inadequate public investment in higher education over the last decade has contributed to rising tuition prices, often leaving students with little choice but to take on more debt or give up on their dreams of going to college. The problem is especially serious for Black, Latinx, and low-income students.

North Carolina is one of 45 states that spent less per student in the 2018 school year than in 2008 – even as the economy and state budgets have returned to pre-recession levels, according to Unkept Promises: State Cuts to Higher Education Threaten Access and Equity, a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).

2008 – 2018 Cuts to Higher Education Funding (adjusted for inflation):

  • North Carolina Average: 18.6 percent per student or $2,357 per student
  • S. Average: 16 percent per student or $1,502 per student

Cuts to higher education have helped drive up the cost of attending public colleges and universities. Between 2008 and 2018, the average tuition at public four-year institutions in North Carolina grew by 45% or $2,293– outpacing the national average growth of 36 percent.

Americans’ slow income growth has worsened the situation. While the average tuition bill increased by 36 percent between 2008 and 2018, median incomes grew by just over 2 percent. Nationally, the average tuition at a four-year public college accounted for 16.5 percent of median household income in 2017, up from 14 percent in 2008.

In North Carolina, the costs of a college education represents 14 percent of median household income for all North Carolina families, 19 percent of median household income for Black North Carolina families and 18 percent of median household income for Latinx North Carolina families. Read more

NC Budget and Tax Center

New analysis: NC is not creating enough middle class jobs

In case you missed it the latest installment in the N.C. Budget and Tax Center’s Prosperity Watch series, economist Patrick McHugh reported some new and frustrating (if not terribly surprising) data regarding North Carolina’s increasingly divided economy this week. Here’s the post:

Middle-income jobs are essential to the long term health of a state’s economy, and North Carolina has not generated nearly enough of these opportunities during the current growth period. The lack of middle-income jobs is a national problem, but it is particularly acute in North Carolina, a trend that threatens to drive an economically damaging wedge between highly paid professional employees and everyone else.

Three of the industries that have formed the traditional bedrock of middle-income employment in North Carolina have lagged behind the nation, and our region, since the economy officially exited the Great Recession in July of 2009. Construction jobs have grown by 16.4 percent over that period in North Carolina, well below the 22.6 percent expansion in the South Atlantic and 22.4 percent nationwide. Education and Health employment has grown by more than 20 percent nationally and in our region, but North Carolina has only posted a 13.9 percent jobs gain in these industries. Manufacturing has been slow to grow across the country with an increase of only 9 percent nationwide and 9.9 percent in the South Atlantic, but North Carolina’s 7.9 percent employment gain has been significantly below even those relatively meager job gains.

The lack of middle income job creation is leading to an increasingly divided employment market, with excellent opportunities for highly trained professionals but few options that actually pay a living wage for everyone else. Emblematic of this divide, the two industries that have seen the fastest growth in North Carolina are Professional and Business services, which saw employment grow by 41.3 percent since the start of the recovery, and Leisure and Hospitality, which expanded by 27.6 percent. Jobs in the first industry generally pay very well, offer substantial benefits, and create opportunities for career growth, while positions in the latter industry typically come with none of these desirable qualities.

If these trends continue, with most of the growth clustered at the very top and the very bottom of the employment ladder, it will become increasingly difficult for people to work their way up from entry-level positions into jobs that can support a family. That kind of divide is not only bad for the majority of people who would become trapped in low-paying jobs, it will harm overall growth as more people lack the opportunities to maximize the economic value of their skills and energy.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Report: Supreme Court races this year could see millions in dark money

The Supreme Court race in North Carolina is one of at least five the Brennan Center for Justice is keeping a close eye on for an influx of dark money.

The organization, a non-partisan public policy and law institute that focuses on the fundamental issues of democracy and justice, reported in mid-September that in the past two months, outside groups like the Judicial Crisis Network and the NRA spent more than $8 million to support or oppose Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.

With 29 states holding supreme court elections this November, they expect the same groups to turn their attention to state judicial races.

“Million-dollar outside spending, misleading attack ads and partisanship are fast becoming hallmarks of state judicial elections,” said Douglas Keith, counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “And these are just some of today’s threats to judicial independence. State legislatures are working to increase their control over, or their partisan advantage in state courts. The president has attacked judges. Now, national groups that conceal their donors will likely again pump millions into state supreme court races.”

The Brennan Center is tracking, analyzing and publishing data on television spending in the state campaigns leading up to the November 6 elections. Detailed ad data for individual candidates and groups, including spending estimates and storyboards provided by Kantar Media/CMAG, will be available on the Center’s Buying Time page.

Keith said this week that the Center had not yet seen any ads in North Carolina for the state Supreme Court race. It is expected to be a contentious race though, as there has already been litigation over one of the two Republican candidates — Chris Anglin.

Anglin changed his voter registration from Democratic to Republican before filing as a candidate. He is challenging Republican incumbent Barbara Jackson and Democrat Anita Earls. The judicial races are partisan this year.

The Brennan Center reported that North Carolina saw $5.4 million in spending the 2016 election of now Justice Mike Morgan, which shifted the court’s ideological balance to the left. $4.7 million of that spending was from outside groups that partially or completely conceal their donors.

Other states the organization is keeping a close eye on include Arkansas, Michigan and West Virginia.