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Task force recommends new environmental justice positions at four key state agencies

The task force was named after celebrated North Carolina civil rights activist Andrea Harris, who died in May at age 72. (Photo: task force report)

One of the most striking disconnects between state agencies occurred last year when the Department of Commerce announced at a legislative committee that it supported the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Meanwhile, the NC Department of Environmental Quality, although it ultimately approved the permits, was concerned about potential damage to the environment and the communities that lay in in the pipeline’s path.

Duke Energy and Dominion eventually killed the project; DEQ has since rejected permit applications for an unrelated Mountain Valley Pipeline Southgate proposal. But there has been a consistent lack of continuity among agencies in considering environmental and social justice implications of their projects.

In a report issued this week, a task force told the governor that permanent environmental justice and inclusion positions should be created at the departments of Commerce, Transportation, Natural and Cultural Resources, and the Office of Emergency Management.

The Department of Environmental Quality already has such a position.

If the four agencies create new positions, that would require funding, likely through the legislative budget process. Or an existing position could be converted or expanded to address environmental issues.

The group, officially named the Andrea Harris Social, Economic, Environmental and Health Equity Task Force, was created earlier this year by Gov. Roy Cooper to study how the COVID-19 pandemic is disproportionately harming communities of color. The task force spent the fall pinpointing how the state needed to advocate for and assist these North Carolinians. Among them were expanding rural broadband, job creation, health care and environmental justice.

Polluting industries commonly locate in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. And this pollution, particularly in the air, can cause or worsen respiratory illnesses. A Harvard study showed that exposure to fine particulate matter known as PM 2.5 increases the severity of COVID-19 symptoms and risk of death from the disease.

At dozens of public meetings about various environmental projects, community members have clamored for clean jobs rather than those created by polluting industries. The task force posed a similar question: Could we improve the economic development and health outcomes of a Tier 1 county without causing additional environmental burdens?

The four agencies that would create an EJ position routinely make decisions that can further burden these communities with pollution — or in some cases alleviate it.

For example, the Department of Transportation’s new toll road extension, I-540, routes through a low-income mobile home park.
Active Energy, a wood pellet plant in Robeson County, received a $500,000 building reuse grant from the Department of Commerce.

The Office of Emergency Management is key to helping these communities after a hurricane or flood; many of these neighborhoods are located in areas vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The Department of Natural and Cultural Resources is consulted when major projects route through Native American land; that agency is also over state parks and the Division of Land and Water Stewardship.

A second recommendation is for state officials to conduct an inventory of aging buildings — schools, senior centers and hospitals — that have radon, asbestos, mildew and mold contamination. Cleanup of those buildings could create jobs, the task force wrote.

Schools in Robeson and Edgecombe counties have been selected to test the proposal.

The “sick building” problem caused by legacy pollutants is due to delayed maintenance. “Nowhere is this problem more apparently than in NC’s public schools, especially those in hyper-segregated, concentrated poverty communities,” the presort reads. “Due to aging and poorly functioning HVAC systems, young people attending these schools are exposed to a host of chemical and biological contaminants that adversely affect their health and overall well-bing and their ability to learn.

“Reopening these schools amid the pandemic is likely to exacerbate the problem,” the report continues, “as buildings with poor ventilation, already a crucible for building-related diseases, can potentially become hotbeds for the spread of the coronavirus.”

The task force also recommended what is bound to be a heavy lift: that the legislature change statutes and rules to incorporate environmental justice into regulations. Since conservatives gained control of the General Assembly in 2011, environmental justice has been eroded, not strengthen, particularly in the annual Farm Acts.

“Legislation will be paramount to ensure our environmental justice ideals come to fruition,” the report reads.

The legislature convenes Jan. 13.

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