Environment

New wood pellet plant proposed for Lumberton, area already home to multiple pollution sources

Photo of wood pellets

Trees are ground into wood pellets, which are then shipped to the United Kingdom, where they are burned for fuel, emitting carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into the air. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Note: There have been questions about the difference between company’s projected tonnage of 400,000 tons per year by 2021 and the amount listed in the article. The 39,420 figure came from the best official source I had at the time. The draft air permit is not yet posted on the Division of Air Quality’s website, so the final amount is not yet public.

Active Energy Group, a publicly traded British company, has applied to the state Division of Air Quality to build and operate a wood pellet plant in Lumberton, raising environmental justice issues for the largely Native American community.

If approved, the facility would annually produce 39,420 oven-dried tons of wood pellets, sourced from forests in North Carolina and the Southeast, at a plant located at 1885 Alamac Road. From there, the pellets would be shipped to the United Kingdom and Europe, where they would be burned instead of coal. Even though wood pellets generate large amounts of carbon dioxide when burned, Europe and the UK are using them ostensibly to help attain their renewable energy goals.

The Active Energy plant in Lumberton is near several pollution sources. NC Department of Environmental Quality’s Community Mapping Tool lists at least a dozen:

  • The Town of Lumberton’s solid waste landfill;
  • Two inactive hazardous waste sites;
  • Three above-ground storage tank incidents;
  • Two closed coal ash structural fill sites;
  • One unlined landfill;
  • Duke Energy’s former Weatherspoon plant, where the coal ash is being excavated;
  • A brownfields site, where solvents had been detected in the groundwater;
  • And a NC Renewable Power plant, a major pollutant source that burns poultry litter and wood waste; DAQ recently cited the facility for three exceedances of nitrogen oxide in 2018.

Other polluting facilities in Robeson County include the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and a related compressor station, as well as a liquified natural gas plant operated by Piedmont Natural Gas.

According to federal data 1,633 people live within the census tract of the proposed wood pellet facility. Two-thirds of the population is non-white; nearly a third are below the federal poverty line. The area also has higher rates of heart disease, stroke and hospitalizations from asthma than the state average.

The wood pellet industry has framed the fuel source as “renewable.” However, as Policy Watch has previously reported, the science shows that every step of wood pellet production carries significant environmental and climate consequences.

When trees are timbered from North Carolina forests, they exhale carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change, into the air. Replanting cannot keep pace with the timbering in terms of the carbon dioxide balance. Once abroad, when wood pellets are burned, they produce more carbon dioxide than coal, further contributing to climate change. In turn, those changes cause extreme weather, like Hurricane Florence, which devastated eastern and southeastern North Carolina in 2016 and 2018.

In fact, Hurricane Matthew in 2016 reportedly compelled Alamac American Knits to close its facility the following year. Ironically, Active Energy, bought the Alamac Knits building,  the Laurinburg Exchange reported in April 2019.

The EPA has also sacrificed science on wood pellets and instead caved into industry pressure, according to former EPA Science Advisory Board member and Duke University Professor Bill Schlesinger. He discussed on his blog that as a SAB subcommittee deliberated wood-as-renewable-energy, then-EPA administrator Scott Pruitt announced  that the agency considered woody biomass to be carbon neutral. “He had ignored the SAB process and what the SAB might have reported from a scientific analysis of the issue,” Schlesinger wrote. “I can’t say there is evidence that politics were involved—such as lobbying by the forest products industry—but it sure looked like it. Make America Great Again by harvesting trees.”

A separate company Enviva already operates four facilities in North Carolina, all of them in or near communities of color or low-income neighborhoods: Garysburg, Hamlet, Faison and Ahoskie.

The Active Energy facility would use its proprietary CoalSwitch technology. According to the company website, CoalSwitch treats the wood to remove most of the soluble mineral contaminants, lowering its production costs but still producing “top shelf products that command a substantial premium over other biomass-derived products.”

A public meeting hosted by DAQ is tentatively scheduled for Monday, March 16, 2020 at the Bill Sapp Recreation Center, 1100 N. Cedar St., Lumberton, at 6 pm.

Education

The nation’s public schools remain segregated more than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education

It’s been more than six decades since the Supreme Court declared “separate but unequal” schools unconstitutional.

But despite the 1954 landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, the nation’s schools remain heavily segregated by race and ethnicity, according to an instructive brief published by Economic Policy Institute (EPI) to highlight education issues for Blach History Month.

Read EPI’s brief here.

EPI used data from the National Center for Education Statistics’ National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to inform its research on school segregation and student performance.

The data showed that only one in eight white students, about 12.9 percent, attend a school where Black, Hispanic, Asian or American Indians students are the majority. Meanwhile, nearly seven in 10 black children, 69.2 percent, attend schools where children of color are the majority.

EPI concluded that segregated schools can have profound, negative consequences for black children.

  • It depresses education outcomes for black students; as shown in this report, it lowers their standardized test scores.
  • It widens performance gaps between white and black students.
  • It reflects and bolsters segregation by economic status, with black students being more likely than white students to attend high-poverty schools.
  • It means that the promise of integration and equal opportunities for all black students remains an ideal rather than a reality.

Educational outcomes for black children improve when they attend racially and economically diverse schools, EPI said.

“When black students have the opportunity to attend schools with lower concentrations of poverty and larger shares of white students they perform better, on average, on standardized tests,” EPI concluded.

In North Carolina, several reports in recent years have shown that the state’s schools are becoming more racially and economically isolated. That’s due, in part, to the growth of charter schools but also because of school assignments plans, district borders, parental choice and demographic shifts, as noted by Public School First NC.

Read Public Schools First NC’s comprehensive report on school segregation here.

Also, read the seminal report on school segregration in North Carolina by Kris Nordstrom, a policy analyst with the N.C. Justice Center. Policy Watch is a project of the N.C. Justice Center.

Higher Ed, News

Silent Sam settlement scrapped — but questions remain

As Policy Watch reported yesterday, an Orange County Superior Court Judge effectively scrapped the UNC System’s controversial “Silent Sam” legal settlement with the NC Sons of Confederate Veterans Wednesday. The group will not keep the Confederate monument that was toppled by protesters in 2018 or the $2.5 million UNC had agreed to pay in a trust toward the statue’s care.

Judge Allen Baddour, who initially approved the deal and signed the consent order, found after further examination and argument that the Confederate group had no legal standing to sue in the first place. He voided the original order and dismissed the original lawsuit, which was constructed through collaboration by lawyers for UNC and the Confederate group to reach a pre-arranged settlement.

Baddour has given UNC’s lawyers until Monday to tell him whether they want his order to direct them on what to do with the statue itself. But he ordered the trust dissolved and money returned.

There are, however, some interesting and complicated questions remaining — and we heard them from readers on Twitter, Facebook and over e-mail in the wake of yesterday’s ruling.

While some things are still in flux, we can answer some of these questions here and now.

Read more

Commentary

It’s time for a higher minimum wage in North Carolina; activists to gather in Raleigh tonight

North Carolina workers need a raise. For 11 consecutive years, the cost of living (food, rent, education, childcare) has increased causing our minimum wage to decline in value by 24 percent. Now, a person working full-time while making $7.25 an hour lives thousands of dollars below the federal poverty threshold. A good job with fair wages is the right of all working people, and the time for change is long overdue.

More than two million people—nearly 1 in 3 workers—in North Carolina get paid poverty wages. They work without knowing how they’ll make rent or how they’ll support their children despite, in many cases, working for multi-billion-dollar corporations that can afford to pay them more. When a family of three would need to make $21.95 an hour to get by on a frugal budget without public assistance, we cannot accept the fabrication that life here is so cheap we can live on low wages; $15 is the actual minimum needed to cover the bare necessities.

A 2017 study by the Georgia Institute of Technology found that child-neglect reports fall when the minimum wage rises. In a 2020 study just published in the Journal of Epidemiology, researchers at Emory University found that minimum wage increases corresponded to drops in the suicide rate for those with a high school education or less. Raising the minimum wage doesn’t just improve lives; it saves them.

Overwhelming evidence shows increasing the minimum wage to $15 would not only drastically raise standards of living but would boost consumer demand, create more businesses, and accelerate job growth. It’s proven successful not just in major cities but in states such as Alaska, Missouri, and Rhode Island. The longer North Carolina goes without increasing the minimum wage, the further southern workers fall behind.

In short, everybody wins.

But even with mountains of evidence against them, greedy corporate executives have fought tooth-and-nail to keep wages as low as possible and consolidate as much wealth as possible for themselves while North Carolina’s working families struggle to keep a roof over their heads.

It’s these same billionaires who have done everything in their power to push back against the labor movement because they know that unions of working people have the power to hold them accountable.

That is why the demand of working people in the Fight for $15 is also a demand to be able to stand together in union and win better pay, benefits, and working conditions. When working people speak up together through the power of unions, they make progress that benefits everyone–white, black, and brown.

In 2019, we saw a year of undeniable momentum for collective action and negotiating. Public approval of unions reached a 50-year high, and strikes across the country resulted in lasting, long-term improvements to working conditions.

From CWA members at AT&T to UAW members at General Motors, half a million people walked a picket line in the past year, including thousands of workers here in North Carolina. As 2020 heats up, we will continue to take our pro-worker message across the state, holding forums like “$15 for NC: A People’s Hearing” on February 13th in Raleigh and working to elect more candidates who will champion the issues important to working families.

The conditions we live and work under are set by those in power, and working people have the power to rewrite the rules by raising the minimum wage and protecting our freedom to join together. The Fight For $15 and a Union is a fight for a better future in the state we are proud to call our home.

MaryBe McMillan is the President of the North Carolina State AFL-CIO

Commentary, Legislature, News

Government watchdog claims in new filing that Phil Berger broke state law with Raleigh townhouse payments

Longtime NC government watchdog Bob Hall

Bob Hall—government watchdog, ex-political journalist, and, according to one ludicrous GOP aide, reputed “bottom feeder” and “scumbag”—is pacing outside of the high-rise, downtown Raleigh condominiums that Sen. Phil Berger haunts when he’s in town.

The building, which is several blocks from the state legislature, is fronted by a dress shop and brewery. This dusty intersection hums with construction as insectile cranes lug materials for nearby mixed-use developments.

Hall, sporting a shaggy, grey beard, doesn’t look so much like a scumbag, more like a modestly annoyed philosophy professor. In his hands, he holds an official complaint he filed this afternoon with the General Assembly’s Legislative Ethics Commission, alleging that Berger “unethically transferred” $73,500 of campaign donors’ money to himself when he used it to pay the mortgage on a recently-sold north Raleigh townhouse he co-owned with his wife.

There’s no podium today, very little press assemblage, no fanfare, just Hall making major claims against NC’s most influential state lawmaker, a Rockingham County Republican who holds a throttle-grip on the Senate and, indeed, virtually every piece of legislation with any hope of passing in North Carolina.

Hall raised similar questions in November with a complaint to the State Board of Elections, questioning the use of campaign dollars.

NC officials have used campaign cash to pay rent on their homes-away-from-home before, Hall says, but it’s not proper for Berger to spend donors’ money on a property he owns. “That’s an investment,” Hall told Policy Watch Wednesday.

“He’s the most powerful legislator in the state, if not the most powerful politician,” Hall said. “He’s setting an example, and it’s a bad one. He needs to be stopped.”

NC Sen. Phil Berger

According to the complaint, the Republican state lawmaker and his wife, Patricia Berger, bought the Yarborough Park Drive townhouse in May 2016 for $250,000, signing off on a mortgage loan worth almost $225,000. In June 2016, Berger’s attorney filed the articles of incorporation for YPD Properties, LLC with Berger its manager.

From August 2016 through December 2019—when the Bergers sold the townhouse—the lawmaker’s campaign sent monthly payments to YPD Properties, most of them characterized as rent. The payments totaled $73,500.  Last September, the Bergers purchased a space in this West North Street condo downtown.

In other words, Hall says, Sen. Berger used one hand to pay the other, pointing out the legislator lists himself as a “member/manager” paying taxes on his income from YPD Properties on his Statement of Economic Interest (SEI), an annual report intended to prevent potential conflicts of interest for public officials.

Berger’s office, which almost never responds to Policy Watch inquiries, did not answer Wednesday afternoon when asked for comment. However, in a November News & Observer report, an aide to Berger slammed Hall for the elections board complaint, characterizing the ex-head of Democracy NC, a non-partisan government reform organization, as a partisan. For reference’s sake, Hall’s work cratered ex-state House Speaker Jim Black, a Democrat, more than a decade ago over allegations of corruption.

Hall’s latest complaint, which was filed with the Legislative Ethics Committee—a bipartisan panel of Republicans and Democrats—says Berger violated state General Statute 138A-31, which states that a legislator “shall not knowingly use [his or her] public position in an official action or legislative action that will result in financial benefit” for the lawmaker or their family.

It cites Berger’s alleged “unethical and corrupt conduct … in manipulating submissions to the State Board of Elections in order to personally gain tens of thousands of dollars for himself.”

Hall is asking the legislative committee to censure Berger for his “use of public office for private gain.”

The complaint notes the Bergers sold the townhouse to T. Tate Apodaca, a lobbyist and son of former Republican state senator Tom Apodaca, although it points out the asking price was comparable to other sales in the development.

Hall goes on to list what he suggests may be a second violation of state law:

Because these cleverly manipulated “rent” payments provided Sen. Berger with $73,500 toward the $250,000 purchase price of the YPD townhouse, his actual cost was closer to $176,500. Consequently, when lobbyist Tate Apodaca paid $330,000 for the townhouse, he helped Sen. Berger reap a profit in excess of $150,000 ($330,000 minus $176,500), which is far above the $80,000 average market price increase from 2016 to 2019 for properties in that development – and, therefore, arguably a handsome gift from the lobbyist, in violation of NCGS 138A-32. While this conclusion may seem like a stretch of the law, it’s important for the Committee to recognize that the public perception of Sen. Berger’s profit-taking, with the help of a lobbyist, can harm the reputation of all legislators if corrective action is not taken.

Policy Watch will keep you apprised of the complaint as it proceeds.