Environment, Legislature

Ethics complaint vs House Speaker Tim Moore alleges he sought preferential treatment from DEQ

N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore (Photo: NCGA)

Campaign for Accountability, a Washington, D.C., watchdog group, has filed an ethics complaint against House Speaker Tim Moore, alleging that in 2014 and 2015, he tried to receive preferential treatment from state environmental regulators.

In its letter to the state ethics commission, the group said that Moore allegedly violated state ethics law because he used his public position for financial benefit and that he did not avoid conflicts of interest.

Moore could not be immediately reached for comment.

According to emails included in the complaint by Campaign for Accountability, Moore, an executive in Southeast Land Holdings, LLC, asked the Underground Storage Tank division at the NC Department of Environmental Quality to waive penalties and grant extensions related to the removal of underground diesel tanks at a property the company owned in Siler City.

The purpose of the foot-dragging was to put the financial and liability onus for the environmental clean up on future property owners.

Southeast Land Holdings had purchased the 8.9-acre former poultry processing plant at a bankruptcy sale in November 2013, according to Chatham County land records. Southeast sold the property for $550,000 in September 2016.

From the chronology laid out in the emails, it appears that Southeast Land Holdings stonewalled for more than eight months on cleaning up the corroding tanks, one of which contained diesel about 5 inches deep.

When these tanks leak — and nearly all of them do — they can allow contaminants such as diesel and gasoline to enter the groundwater. Depending on the area, contaminated groundwater can then pollute drinking water wells or lakes and streams.

On Aug. 11 2014, the UST Division conducted an compliance inspection, based on a complaint from a neighbor of the property who said they smelled fumes. Ten days later, the UST Division issued Southeast a notice of violation, in part for failing to “permanently close two substandard UST systems.”

The next month, DEQ emails show that Moore requested a meeting with two people in UST Division, including its chief, as well as a waiver of late payment penalties totaling $2,520. DEQ granted the waiver, which is not unusual.

Art Barnhardt, the UST Section Chief, wrote to Moore, who had indicated to DEQ that a new property owner could use the tanks — effectively allowing Southeast to absolve itself of any responsibility for them.

“You indicated that perhaps the new owner could possibly continue to use the tanks … That does not appear to be a viable option in this case … It is doubtful a new owner would want to utilize a system of this age and status.”

In November 2014, DEQ gave Southeast a 30-day extension to close and remove the tanks.

However, by the following April, Southeast had still failed to hold up its end of the deal; Moore called UST Division asking for yet another extension “to find a buyer for the property.” Southeast did not remove the tanks as required, although it did pay tank fees.

In early May 2015 –18 months after Southeast purchased the property and nine since the notice of violation — the tanks still had not been closed.

“The LLC seems to have delayed the environmental assessment pending a sale of the property,” wrote Linda Culpepper, then DEQ’s director of waste management. “A pending sale should not delay an assessment.”

Then-Assistant DEQ Secretary Tom Reeder, who was copied on internal emails, appeared reluctant to let Moore and Southeast off the hook. Reeder directed Culpepper to “handle this case just like it would any other one with similar circumstances.”

Also in May 2015, Moore told DEQ that the diesel had been removed from the tanks. By cleaning out the tanks (but not removing them), Southeast became eligible for DEQ grants to help cover the cost.

Southeast said it had a prospective buyer that agreed to remove the tanks, prompting Moore to request yet another extension — 90 days. DEQ approved the extension.

That buyer fell through, but in September 2016, Southeast sold the property to Mountainaire Farms. And that fall, Southeast filed a claim with DEQ to recoup $22,4000 in clean up costs for the tanks.

 

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