HB2, News

Musicians discuss considerations behind cancelling, not cancelling shows in wake of House Bill 2


Illustration by Nelle Dunlap

There was a swift response from the arts community, and particularly musicians, after the passing of House Bill 2. Some artists and bands cancelled performances to send a message that the state government had crossed a line, while others used their show as an opportunity to condemn the bill’s discrimination.

Under the Radar published a story Tuesday about artists’ decisions on whether to play or not to play in North Carolina after HB2. You can read the full article here, but note the website contains graphic language.

Less than a month after the bill’s passage, Bruce Springsteen, Ringo Starr, Pearl Jam and Maroon 5 had cancelled upcoming concerts. A few days after the wave of announcements, the report states that Against Me! lead vocalist Laura Jane Grace, a transgender artist, announced the band would be going ahead with their scheduled May 15 show in Durham.

Pulling the plug on their show was not an option, they said, and they would use their performance as a protest against the law and an opportunity to start a dialog within the community. “Visibility is more important than ever,” Grace explained in an interview before the concert, then hit the stage and burned the birth certificate that the law now said was necessary to prove that one was using the correct bathroom.

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Governor blocks state elections board from hiring outside counsel in election lawsuit

In the midst of a controversial challenge to his loss in the Nov. 8 election, Gov. Pat McCrory has rejected a request from State Board of Elections to hire outside counsel in a lawsuit related to the election itself.

McCrory has for weeks refused to concede the election to his Democratic challenger, Attorney General Roy Cooper. Cooper bested McCrory in the statewide race by about 5,000 votes on election night and that lead has grown to more than 9,000 as absentee and provisional ballots have been counted.

As ballots continue to be tallied and final canvasses are completed around the state, Cooper is close to the 10,000 vote margin that would deny the McCrory campaign the right to a recount.

As Cooper’s lead has swelled, McCrory has spent the last three weeks mounting challenges and protests in more than half of the state’s 100 counties. Boards of election in those counties, all of whom have Republican majorities appointed by the governor, have rejected his assertions of fraud and mismanagement in the election.

Last week the governor’s campaign and N.C. GOP appealed to the state board of elections, which also has a GOP majority. They asked the state board to overrule the local ones and take authority in investigating and deciding the governor’s election claims. The board declined to do that, saying individual challenges to voters – many of which have proven to be without merit – did not constitute the sort of widespread fraud and failure of the election process the governor alleges.

Now the governor, fresh from that rejection, has denied the state board of elections the outside counsel it requested in defending against a lawsuit from the conservative Civitas Institute.

That suit casts doubt on the election results the governor is himself fighting, arguing that same-day registration votes should be held until the addresses are verified.

Policy Watch’s Melissa Broughton wrote last week of the suit:

Based on evidence cited in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals case, North Carolina State Conference of NAACP v. McCrory, Civitas estimates in the lawsuit that there will be 3,000 invalid same-day registration ballots included in the State Board’s certification of election results on Nov. 29.

There were 97,753 same-day registrants in North Carolina with the following political party breakdown: Democrats, 34,484; Republicans, 33,550; Libertarian, 857; and Unaffiliated, 28,862.

Elections officials across the state have observed that it will be all but mathematically impossible for McCrory to make up his deficit to Cooper in the vote tally. The governor’s continued challenges and refusal to concede have given rise to a theory that he wants to contest the election and force it to be decided by the N.C. General Assembly. The Republican supermajority in the legislature has sparred with both McCrory almost since the beginning of his term but have also had hostile relations with Cooper.

GOP leaders in the legislature have said they would rather not have the election decided there, but have not ruled it out.

The state board meets tomorrow to hear complaints from the McCrory campaign and the N.C. GOP regarding ballots in Durham County.

The first hearing in the federal lawsuit over same-day registration is Friday.


Roxboro residents: No coal ash in our holiday stocking


The house of David Farnam, who lives within a half-mile of Duke Energy's Roxboro plant. He is decorating his yard with Santas and snowmen.

David Farman lives down the road from Duke Energy’s Roxboro plant. He and his family — wife, daughter and two grandchildren — receive bottled water from the utility because their well could be contaminated.                                                                                                                       (Photo Lisa Sorg)

A week before Thanksgiving, with the temperature in the mid-60s, David Farman bedecked his yard with dozens of Christmas decorations: A small herd of lighted reindeer, a parade of Nativity scenes, a smattering of gift boxes, and a flotilla of inflatable Santas and snowmen.

For more than a decade, Farman has lived on this one acre lot in rural Person County, down Dunnaway Road from Duke Energy’s coal-fired power plant. Ironically, he doesn’t get his electricity from Duke, but he does receive bottled water from the utility for his family of five and his flock of pet birds.

His well could be contaminated with chemicals from coal ash — some 35 million tons — that is stored in two ash basins at the Roxboro plant. Some of the material is being excavated to an onsite lined landfill, but Duke wants to leave the rest of it in the basins  and de-water and cover it, a disposal method known as cap in place.

The utility submitted its closure plans to the EPA earlier this month, which is legally required under the federal Coal Combustion Residuals Rule. Duke defends cap in place as meeting federal and state environmental standards (which is accurate, although one could argue about their rigor). However, it’s also true since the basins would lack a bottom liner, contaminants could still leech into the groundwater.

Or, in the event of a flood, the force of the water could breach the basins and release the ash. Last month, flooding from Hurricane Matthew inundated one of the inactive coal basins, which released cenospheres — a byproduct of coal ash that can contain arsenic — into the Neuse River.

Duke justifies the cap in place method as “eliminating the need for new disposal locations” and “lowering emissions from trucks that would haul the ash away.” But new landfills and 1 million truck trips — the estimated number required to remove the ash from the Roxboro plant — would also be very expensive for the utility. Leaving the ash in place is the cheapest way out — for Duke.

Coal ash left in the ground is particularly ominous if the basins sit below the water table. And water issues recently mobilized more than 100 Person County residents to attend a hearing on Duke’s wastewater discharge permit issued by the NC Department of Environmental Quality. (The wastewater permit is a separate issue from the ash storage plan.)

Duke Energy's Mayo Plant looms in the distance over Mayo Lake, which is flanked by forest.

Duke Energy’s Mayo plant in Person County lies near Mayo Lake, popular among hikers, campers, boaters and fishers. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Coal-fired power plants use a lot of water — 70 billion to 180 billion gallons a year — to create steam for turning turbines and generating electricity. That’s why the Roxboro and Mayo plants are near Hyco and Mayo lakes. A portion of the water is also used for “scrubbing” — reducing the level of some contaminants from the coal — equipment cleaning, coal pile runoff, plus water from toilets and sinks inside the plants.

Each day, millions of gallons of wastewater, which is treated, but far from pristine, are discharged into the lakes — popular destinations for boating, swimming and fishing.

Hope Taylor, executive director of Clean Water for North Carolina, opposed the discharge permits in part because the state’s monitoring requirements are weak. For example, the permit would allow the utility to discharge as much as 2 million gallons of water per day from the top of the ash pond into Mayo Lake. Only weekly sampling would be required.

Taylor also said the monitoring would not include some contaminants, and others, such as hexavalent chromium, have no enforceable limits under the proposed permit. And  Duke could discharge contaminated wastewater into unpermitted groundwater seeps.

More than 1,000 homes also border the lakes, and there are stringent local restrictions on what can be built or installed on these lots. “It took five years for me to get a septic permit from the county,” said Harry Grubbs. “This is ridiculous. What happens if Duke decides to leave these plants. I’m fully against this. Anyone with any sense would be against it, too.”

Lisa Hughes lives near the Roxboro plant, although outside the half-mile radius where the state requires well testing. She had her well independently tested and the results prompted her to dig another well, this one 180 feet deep.

Likewise, Farman has little confidence that he could access uncontaminated groundwater at his house. “I could drill a new well, but how far would I have to go down?” he said.

A map showing the location of the coal ash ponds at the Mayo plant

Coal ash ponds at the Mayo plant (NC DEQ)

A map showing the location of coal ash ponds at the Roxboro plant

Coal ash ponds at the Roxboro plant (NC DEQ)

Roxboro and Mayo are among the remaining six coal ash sites in North Carolina that are still being litigated. The Southern Environmental Law Center, which represents several conservation groups, has settled with Duke or forced via court order more comprehensive cleanups at the other eight.

Senior Attorney Frank Holleman said there are still pending state court actions against Duke at the Mayo, Roxboro, Belew’s Creek, Rogers/Cliffside, Allen and Marshall sites.

In addition, a federal suit is pending, filed by SELC on behalf of the Roanoke River Basin Association, over wastewater discharges into Mayo Lake that could violate the Clean Water Act.

“The people of North Carolina have waited long enough for a cleanup,” said Dave Rogers,  state director of Environment North Carolina   representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, at the public hearing. “Removing coal ash from the Roxboro and Mayo plants is the only way to do it.”



New report: U.S. students trail their global peers in math, science

Students taking a test.

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There’s some good news and some not-so-good news coming from a new report ranking countries’ K-12 education efforts in math and science.

First, the good news: In math and science, United States students appear to be making strides, according to the Associated Press. Yet U.S. pupils continue to trail their peers, particularly children in East Asia and Russia.

From an AP report Tuesday:

Eighth graders in the United States improved their scores in math over the last four years on the global exam. Scores for science, however, were flat. In fourth grade, scores were unchanged in the math and science tests, according to results released Tuesday.

“The results do suggest a leveling out in the most recent cycle,” said Ina Mullis, an executive director of the TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center at Boston College, where researchers helped coordinate staff to administer the assessments. “One always prefers to see improvement, but holding ones’ own is preferable to declining.”

Singapore topped the rankings, taking first place in both grades for math and science on the tests, known as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS.

The United States placed 10th in fourth-grade science and in eighth-grade math. In eighth-grade science, the U.S. was in 11th place. It ranked 14th for fourth-grade math, just behind Portugal and Kazakhstan.

Globally, results from the 2015 exams showed achievement trends were up — with more countries registering increases than decreases in math and science for both grades. Gender gaps were another highlight. They have narrowed over the last 20 years, especially in science at the eighth-grade level.

“A lot of countries have been working hard to close that achievement gap, and have promoted girls’ interest and participation in science,” said Michael Martin, who runs the International Study Center with Mullis.

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NC teacher pens open letter to Burr re: Trump nominee for Education Secretary

NC Policy Watch friend and occasional contributor, Forsyth County public schoolteacher Stuart Egan, has authored another one of his fine open letters to a powerful politician about our public schools. The latest is a passionate plea directed to Senator Richard Burr regarding Donald Trump’s troubling plan to nominate Michigan Amway queen Betsy Devos as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education.

Senator Burr,

As the senior senator of our state embarking on your third term in office, your voice in the national arena carries both weight and experienced perspective. And while you and I share many differing opinions on issues that affect our country, I do believe that we share a passion to make sure that all students have access to a great public education.

In preparing to cast my vote this past election, I did review your website to glean your perspective on some issues that seemed to become lost in the national debate with what might be one of the more bombastic presidential elections in history. On your www.burrforsenate.com website, you posted on op-ed you wrote for the Fayetteville Observer entitled “Giving our children a better future.”

In it you made statements such as:

“Our children are the future of North Carolina, and they represent the best of us. I am proud to be an avid defender of North Carolina students in the Senate.”

“As a part of my commitment to defending North Carolina students, I was proud to offer an amendment to fix a long-standing inequality in education funding that has shortchanged North Carolina’s teachers, schools and low-income students for over 15 years.”

“My amendment makes sure that federal education funding meant for schools that serve kids from low-income families actually goes to those very schools.”

“This means that with more education dollars coming to North Carolina, we will have more teachers in North Carolina helping our students get a great education.”

“We have made great strides this Congress to deliver control of K-12 education back to local communities, while making sure limited federal education funding is going to the communities that need it the most. But making sure that our children are getting the best education possible is going to be an ongoing fight for North Carolina families in Washington. I’m pledging to continue fighting for North Carolina’s schools, teachers and students, because a brighter future for North Carolina students means a brighter future for North Carolina.”

What I sense in these words is a commitment to our public schools.

In fact, you are the son of a former public school teacher and a graduate of R.J. Reynolds High School in Winston-Salem. I teach at another school in Reynolds’s district, West Forsyth High School, and am proud to report that Reynolds still holds an incredible reputation as a historically effective institution and I know many of the fantastic teachers who work there.

However, we are experiencing in North Carolina a decline in teacher candidates. Why? Because public education is under attack. And when public education is under attack by “re-forming” efforts like vouchers and unregulated charter school growth then communities suffer. Your wife is a leading realtor in the Triad area. I feel very confident that she could tell you the effect that the public school system has on the “value” of property in our communities.

I say all of this because President-elect Trump has appointed a candidate to lead the nation’s public schools who very well may be the most unqualified individual to ever be considered for the position.

And you have the power to help keep that from happening.

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