Environment

A second natural gas pipeline proposed for NC would run through Rockingham, Alamance counties

This is a developing story and will be updated this afternoon.

An extension of the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline has been proposed for North Carolina, potentially opening the door for fracking operations in Rockingham County.

Known as MVP Southgate, the 300-mile pipeline would extend from Pittsylvania County, Va., into Rockingham and Alamance counties.

Once in North Carolina, the pipeline would route for about 50 miles: east of Eden, north of Reidsville and then into Alamance County, near Graham and I-40.

The routing is ominous because western Rockingham County is one of the areas of the state eyed for fracking. Rockingham County, along with Stokes County, sit atop the Triassic Rift Basin, thought to be a source of methane.

Coincidentally, the state’s Oil and Gas Commission recently reconvened after being on hiatus for several years. Headed by Jim Womack, an avid fracking proponent from Lee County, the commission is expected to restart the interest in natural gas exploration in North Carolina. Chatham and Lee county governments both have established moratoria on fracking; earlier this year, Womack said the oil and gas commission would challenge those moratoria.

Like the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which is running through 160 miles in eastern North Carolina, the MVP starts at a fracked gas facility in West Virginia and routes through Virginia.

MVP is owned by a conglomerate: EQT Midstream Partners, NextEra Energy, Inc., Consolidated Edison, Inc., WGL Holdings, Inc., and RGC Resources.  PSNC Energy, which serves North Carolina, has committed to using the gas should the Southgate portion be built.

Since the Southgate portion of the MVP was not in the original proposal to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the extension would need its approval.

Commentary

Great news from Charlotte on guns, housing

There are two important pieces of good news emanating from the Queen City today:

Number One is Mayor Vi Lyles’ announcement, according to the Charlotte Observer that “she plans to seek $50 million in affordable housing bonds in the fall, more than tripling the amount of local money available for low-income housing.” This is from the Observer article:

“The city’s Housing Trust Fund, which largely subsidizes construction of housing for low-income renters by private developers, is funded by $15 million worth of voter-approved bonds every two years. Advocates have called that level inadequate, especially in the face of rapidly rising rents and home prices….

Average rents have jumped 36 percent in Charlotte over the past five years, rising from $842 to $1,142 this year. For-sale housing has seen an almost identical escalation, with the median price rising to $235,000 in March….

Affordable housing advocates have been pushing for the higher Housing Trust Fund level for months, and speakers at Monday’s City Council meeting held signs and talked about their struggles with finding a place they can afford in Charlotte.”

Number Two was an unrelated, but equally encouraging development in the corporate world. Bank of America has announced that it will stop financing the manufacture of military-style weapons for civilian use. This is also an article in USA Today:

Bank of America will stop lending to business clients that manufacture military-style weapons for civilian use, becoming the latest U.S. financial institution to break ties with gunmakers following the mass shooting massacre at a Florida high school.

‘We want to contribute in any way we can to reduce these mass shootings,’ Anne Finucane, vice chairman of the Charlotte, N.C.-based banking giant, said during a Bloomberg TV interview on Tuesday….

Bank of America, the nation’s second-largest bank by assets, started the process of cutting ties with makers of military-style weapons for average Americans after the Feb. 14 mass shooting in which 17 people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

The massacre has renewed nationwide calls for tighter gun control, demands that have been opposed by the National Rifle Association and other organizations citing constitutional protection for the right to bear arms.

Citigroup announced new gun-related restrictions on its business partners in March, requiring them to bar firearm sales to customers under age 21, as well as those who have not passed a background check.

The New York-based bank said it is also barring clients from selling high-capacity ammunition magazines and so-called bump stocks that enable more rapid firing.

Amalgamated Bank announced similar restrictions last week, saying it would not invest any of its own assets “in companies that manufacture or distribute firearms, weaponry or ammunition.” The bank also said it would work with industry peers to seek “responsible practices” from gun manufacturers and distributors.

Commentary

Another experienced voice demands reform of North Carolina’s broken bail system

In case you missed it this morning, former News & Observer columnist-turned-lawyer Ruth Sheehan is back writing occasional essays for the paper. In today’s entry, Sheehan nails a topic that’s been the subject of numerous articles by Policy Watch investigative reporter Joe Killian in recent weeks: North Carolina’s dysfunctional and unjust bail system for people accused of criminal conduct. As Sheehan rightfully notes in explaining the case of a low-income single mom who North Carolina keeps in jail because she can’t come up with the cash to make bail on misdemeanor charge of driving with a revoked license, the system as it’s presently constituted is benefiting no one except the predatory bail bonds industry, Here’s the conclusion to “Save money. Stop jailing people who don’t need to be in jail”:

“Now some of you may argue that folks like this young mother deserve what they get. Drive without a license, you’re a danger to the rest of us. Miss your day in court? You ought to get thrown in jail.

But even if you’re a rock-ribbed, lock-’em-up type – even if you don’t give two hoots about people like the young mother I’m talking about — the numbers just don’t make sense.

Mecklenburg County, with a grant from the MacArthur Foundation, has begun using an evidence-based system for determining in which cases a bond is needed to keep the community safe. If the defendant is not a risk to the community and likely to appear in court when required, he or she is released till the court date.

In its first year, Mecklenburg’s efforts resulted in more than a 10 percent decrease in the jail census – with no reported increased risk to the community. Sometimes the difference in a ‘failure to appear’ case is as simple as texting people reminders about their court dates. Mecklenburg, like Wake County, is also trying to connect more offenders with needed services in mental health and addiction.

In Mecklenburg it costs $166 a night to house someone at the county jail. In Wake County it costs just shy of $100.

So let’s do some math. Last week, there were 1,157 people – give or take — in our jail. If we took a page from Mecklenburg and reduced the population just 10 percent – or 115 people — at $100 a night, that’s a saving of $11,500 a day. That’s more than $4 million over the course of a year.

And for a young mother hauled in on a failure to appear, it’s a night at home with her kid.”

Click here to read the entire essay. And be sure to check NC Policy Watch tomorrow morning for another story from Killian on the bail system ion North Carolina.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

CANCELLED: Judicial redistricting, reform meeting re-set for end of month

If you were planning to delve back in to GOP lawmakers’ plans to redistrict the judiciary today, go ahead and cross it off your calendar.

The Joint Select Committee on Judicial Reform and Redistricting cancelled it’s 1 p.m. meeting today and rescheduled it for 9:30 a.m. Friday, April 27.

There’s no word on why the meeting was cancelled and the committee co-chairs — Representatives Justin Burr (R-Stanly, Montgomery) and David Lewis (R-Harnett) and Senators Dan Bishop (R-Mecklenburg), Warren Daniel (R-Burke, Cleveland) and Bill Rabon (Bladen) — never responded to an email asking why the meeting was scheduled in the first place.

The short legislative session this year starts May 16, and it is expected that lawmakers will vote on some sort of judicial reform, whether it be new judicial maps or a merit selection plan that would rid the state of judicial elections altogether.

Committee meetings are open to the public.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Trump nominates Charlotte attorney to federal judgeship in western NC

Ken Bell

President Donald Trump has nominated a former federal prosecutor and current Charlotte-area attorney to fill a judicial vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina.

Kenneth Bell is a partner at the Charlotte office of McGuireWoods, which has locations across the world. He practices in the area of government investigations and white collar litigation, according to his online profile.

“I am deeply honored that President Trump has nominated me to serve the people of the Western District of North Carolina, and I am grateful to Senators Burr and Tillis for recommending me to the president,” he said in an email Tuesday.

The judicial seat in the Western District became vacant at the end of August when Judge Richard Voorhees took senior status on the court, a form of semi-retirement.

Trump announced Bell’s nomination Tuesday:

If confirmed, Kenneth D. Bell of North Carolina will serve as a District Judge on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina. Ken Bell is a partner in the Charlotte office of McGuireWoods LLP, where he represents clients on a variety of matters involving white collar crimes and business-related investigations. For the past five and a half years, he has served as the Federal court-appointed receiver over the largest Ponzi scheme in history as measured by number of victims (more than 800,000). Prior to joining McGuireWoods, Mr. Bell was a partner at Hunton & Williams LLP and Mayer Brown LLP. Previously, he served for ten years as first assistant U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina, and for eight years as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina. In 2003, Mr. Bell received the Attorney General’s John Marshall Award for Trial of Litigation after securing the first conviction for material support to a terrorist organization against the leader of a Hezbollah cell operating in Charlotte. Mr. Bell earned his B.A. from Wake Forest University and his J.D. from the Wake Forest University School of Law.

Bell was the Republican Nominee in 1990 for the U.S. House of Representatives, North Carolina Fifth Congressional District. A 2015 Business NC article states he washed his hands of politics after losing that bid for office.

Most of the publicity about Bell, who grew up in Winston-Salem, centers on his work as a receiver in the ZeekRewards case, a defunct Ponzi scheme. As a receiver, Bell is tasked with marshaling and preserving ZeekRewards assets.

The Winston-Salem Journal reported in March that as of Dec. 31, Bell had recovered $371.2 million and disbursed $344.7 million to eligible victims in the ZeekRewards case.

This is Trump’s second federal judicial nominee to the North Carolina bench. He nominated Thomas Farr, a well-known Republican Party attorney, to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina — which has the nation’s longest running federal judicial vacancy.

Farr’s nomination has been vehemently opposed by Democrats and court advocates and is still pending.