People of color, low-income residents more likely to be harmed by flooding, extreme temps related to climate change

Black people are 34% more likely to currently live in areas with the highest projected increases in childhood asthma diagnoses (Photo: EPA)

Vulnerable communities, particularly low-income and people of color — are more likely expected to suffer harmful health effects from climate change, according to a new peer-reviewed report released today by the EPA.

The report shows the degree to which four “socially vulnerable populations” — defined based on income, educational attainment, race and ethnicity, and age — might be more exposed to the highest impacts of climate change.

There are social, political and economic reasons underlying these vulnerabilities, as well as a legacy of racism. People of color were — and are — still often relegated to housing and land in flood-prone, less desirable areas.

These households are also located near industrial polluters, whose emissions can worsen asthma and cardiovascular disease. In urban areas, they often live in hotter neighborhoods that lack trees, parks and other amenities enjoyed by white and more affluent people.

The report analyzed several impacts of climate change on these environmental communities: extreme temperatures and their effects on health and labor; air quality and health; coastal and inland flooding and health; and coastal flooding and traffic. Because of data limitations, only the Lower 48 states were included in the analysis, the EPA wrote. Hawai’i and Alaska will be included in future reports.

As a benchmark researchers used a 3.6-degree Fahrenheit increase in global temperatures, relative to the years 1986 to 2005. This is equivalent to 2 degrees Celsius. Under different carbon emissions scenarios, the Earth expected to cross that temperature threshold between 2040 and 2055.

  • Black individuals are projected to face more severe effects of climate change for all the impacts analyzed in this report, compared to all other demographic groups. With a benchmark increase in temperatures of 2 degrees Celsius — Black people are 34% more likely to currently live in areas with the highest projected increases in childhood asthma diagnoses. This rises to 41% under 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit, or 4 degrees Celsius of global warming.
    Black people are 40% more likely to currently live in areas with the highest projected increases in extreme temperature-related deaths. This rises to 59% under the 7.2 degree threshold.
  • Since Latinos often work in weather-exposed industries, such as construction and agriculture, they are especially vulnerable to the effects of extreme temperatures. With the benchmark increase in global warming, Latino individuals are 43% more likely to currently live in areas with the highest projected reductions in labor hours due to extreme temperatures. With regards to transportation, Latinos are about 50% more likely to currently live in areas with the highest estimated increases in traffic delays due to increases in coastal flooding.
  • American Indian and Alaska Native individuals are 48% more likely than people of other races and ethnicities to currently live in areas where the highest percentage of land is projected to be inundated due to sea level rise. American Indian and Alaska Native individuals are also 37% more likely to live in areas with the highest projected labor hour losses in weather- exposed industries due to climate-driven increases in high-temperature days.
  • Asian individuals are 23% more likely than non- Asian individuals to currently live in coastal areas with the highest projected increases in traffic delays from climate-driven changes in high-tide flooding.

The South is projected to experience higher increases in childhood asthma diagnoses as a result of poor air quality exacerbated by climate change, the report said. Two North Carolina cities included in the analysis, Greensboro and Charlotte, are expected to see higher rates of death because of extreme temperatures, even at a lower increase of 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

The NC cities included in this analysis are Greensboro and Charlotte   Source: EPA

“The impacts of climate change that we are feeling today, from extreme heat to flooding to severe storms, are expected to get worse, and people least able to prepare and cope are disproportionately exposed,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. “This report punctuates the urgency of equitable action on climate change. With this level of science and data, we can more effectively center EPA’s mission on achieving environmental justice for all.”

Chemours cited for violation over failure to rein in GenX emissions

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality today cited Chemours with a Notice of Violation for exceeding the facility-wide GenX annual air emissions limit as laid out a 2019 Special Order By Consent.

Under the stringent emissions requirements in the facility’s air permit, Chemours emit no more than 23.027 pounds per year of GenX, a type of toxic perfluorinated compound, also known as PFAS. This limit equates to a 99% percent reduction from GenX emissions in 2017.

In March, Chemours filed a quarterly report showing the company had complied with emissions limits, releasing just over 22 pounds of GenX on a rolling 12-month basis. However, Division of Air Quality officials found that the methodology Chemours had used to calculate the emissions was “inappropriate,” according to a letter sent to the company.

When Chemours recalculated the emissions, it found that as of June 30, it had actually released 32.024 pounds of GenX — a 40% overage. The figures are based on rolling 12-month totals for March, April, May and June.

Division of Air Quality officials also determined that the exceedances stemmed from the improper operation and maintenance of a carbon adsorber, equipment that is supposed to capture GenX.

In response, Chemours requested a meeting with division officials to discuss the preferred methodologies and compliance measures.

The Notice of Violation issued today requires Chemours to submit a written response to DAQ by Sept. 10, including a timeline of events leading to the exceedance and a detailed plan of action for compliance.

Although the department did not fine Chemours today, it could still do so. Earlier this year, DEQ fined the company $200,000 related to PFAS and water quality violations.

Democratic state lawmakers ask FERC to temporarily stop MVP Southgate from using eminent domain — commission agrees

The proposed MVP Southgate route (Map: MVP Southgate website)

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has agreed to suspend MVP Southgate’s ability to use eminent domain for its natural gas pipeline project in North Carolina, at least temporarily, according to public documents.

The 75-mile MVP Southgate project would start in Virginia, where it would connect with the main MVP pipeline, and enter North Carolina in Eden, in Rockingham County. From there, it would travel southeast through Alamance County, ending near the Haw River.

Construction has not begun on the project. A year ago, the NC Department of Environmental Quality denied its water quality permit application; the project also faces several court challenges. Opponents have requested that FERC hold a rehearing on the Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity, which the commission granted last year.

MVP Southgate has petitioned FERC to deny the requests for a rehearing. FERC has yet to rule on the matter.

Despite these uncertainties, in January, MVP Southgate began eminent domain proceedings against more than 100 private landowners in Alamance and Rockingham counties in North Carolina and in Pittsylvania County in Virginia. In Alamance County alone, 38 property owners could each lose up to 10 acres of land, according to a letter sent in February from Democratic State Rep. Ricky Hurtado. Hurtado’s district includes part of Alamance County.

Alamance County Commissioners unanimously voted in 2018 to oppose the project over concerns about potential harm to the Haw River, drinking water, erosion, public safety and property values.

Today, FERC Chairman Richard Glick responded to lawmakers saying the stay is in effect. Glick referred to a recent order, issued in May, that prohibits the commission from approving construction activities while it considers requests for a rehearing. The stay is limited to 90 days.

The main MVP pipeline in West Virginia and Virginia is years behind schedule and billions over budget. It has been delayed by hundreds of permit violations and successful legal challenges. Without the main line, the Southgate project would not have a connection point.

Fifteen Democratic state lawmakers, including Hurtado, had asked FERC for the stay: Reps. Gale Adcock, Kelly Alexander Jr, John Autry, Amber Baker, Cynthia Ball, susan Fisher, Pricey Harrison, Zack Hawkins, Rachel Hunt, Verla Insko, Graig Meyer and Marcia Morey; and in the Senate, Michael Garrett and Wiley Nickel.

House environmental budget appropriates money for flood control … then rolls back flood control protections

High water during Hurricane Florence

Update: The House amended the budget Wednesday night to strip the isolated wetlands language from the bill.

The House released its $25.7 billion budget proposal this week, and unlike previous legislative sessions when lawmakers held a veto-proof majority, there are no dire cuts to the Department of Environmental Quality. (Considering past slashes to DEQ’s budget, there’s little left to trim.)

That said, the DEQ portion of the budget is not completely benign. It contains some regulatory rollbacks that work at cross purposes to the appropriations.

The Senate has already passed its version, and the two chambers will have to compromise on a final version before it goes to the governor.

The budget funds five new full-time positions — $487,000 per year — for an emerging compounds unit to address PFAS and 1,4-Dioxane contamination. The Senate budget allocated money for 10.

Regardless of income, residents whose private drinking water wells are contaminated with PFAS can apply for a grant from the Bernard Allen Memorial Drinking Water Fund. The fund typically is reserved for low-wealth households, but in cases of PFAS contamination, the income limitation is lifted.

Left hand, meet right hand: Lawmakers appropriated a lot of money for resilience and flood control while relaxing and eliminating rules that would help with resilience and flood control.

DEQ would receive $1.45 million in one-time money for coastal resiliency grants and temporary coastal resilience planners, plus $98,000 for a new permanent resilience coordinator, and $5 million in non-recurring funds for a pilot project in the flood-prone Stoney Creek area of Goldsboro. The Department of Natural, Economic and Cultural Resources would get $20 million in non-recurring funds for floodplain grants.

This funding is necessary to help the state adapt to the vicissitudes of climate change, but buried halfway through one budget document is a provision that would prohibit local governments from enacting stormwater ordinances that are stronger than the state or federal rules. Ditto for riparian buffers, which keep development from sensitive areas near waterways, usually 50 to 100 feet away, depending on the river basin. Both stormwater ordinances and riparian buffers help with flood control.

Nor would the state require a permit for “activities” (read: filling) in isolated wetlands currently not protected by the federal Waters of the United States rule.

Wetlands are key to filtering pollutants and controlling flooding, which is why they have been legally protected.

Since there are no maps that identify these wetlands — known as “non-jurisdictional” — it’s impossible to predict what projects could affect these wetlands, according to a DEQ presentation last month to the Environmental Management Commission. However, the Division of Water Resources estimated 99 isolated wetlands would be unprotected. Data gathered by a non-governmental organization indicated that more than 900,000 acres of wetlands in just two river basins could be non-jurisdictional, according to the presentation.

WOTUS, as it’s known for short, is under revision by the EPA and the US Army Corps of Engineers, so certain isolated wetlands could be protected in the future, but that would be too late for the ones filled in.

Another tool for flood control: dams. Yet the budget would strip DEQ’s ability to classify a dam as high hazard if a private engineer determines it doesn’t merit that designation. DEQ would have to defer to the engineer’s opinion for dams less than 20 feet tall and that can hold up to 653,400 cubic feet — or 4.8 million gallons — of water.

According to the state’s dam inventory, 789 dams fit that height and capacity criteria. Of those, 152 are currently classified as high hazard.

Department of Health and Human Services

Not in the DEQ budget, but potentially related, DHHS would receive $150,000 in one-time money for an Huntersville ocular melanoma study. Twenty-two people have been diagnosed with this rare cancer since 2009, most of them young women. The majority of people diagnosed with ocular melanoma are men over 50.

This study would follow up on a 2017  investigation, in which DHHS gave a $100,000 grant to the Town of Huntersville, to try to determine if there is an environmental link to the disease in the area.

Another $150 million in the DHHS budget would go toward removing lead and asbestos in schools, child care facilities and residential housing. Lead, often present in older plumbing and paint, is a neurotoxin; children who are exposed to lead and have high levels of it in their blood can suffer irreversible neurological damage. Asbestos exposure can cause cancer and other debilitating or fatal respiratory diseases.

5 takeaways from today’s hearing on the energy bill

Shearon Harris Nuclear Plant, near New Hill in southwestern Wake County (Photo: Duke Energy)

A Senate committee today took public comment on the unpopular energy legislation, House Bill 951, which still faces staunch opposition from nearly everyone but Duke Energy and the NC Chamber of Commerce.

1) In addition to environmental advocates, like the Sierra Club, large industrial customers are united against the bill: Nutrien, a large fertilizer company; several textile companies, and the NC Manufacturers’ Alliance. “If I had two hours, I could tell you just how much industrial customers dislike the bill,” said Alliance President Preston Howard.

Kevin Martin, executive director of the Carolina Utility Customers Association, has projected rate increases of up to 50% over a decade. Duke Energy disputes those figures, at least publicly. Martin submitted an email to lawmakers to support his projections. Policy Watch obtained an email exchange about rates between Duke Energy, CUCA and an energy consultant in which Laura Bateman of Duke, says “I think our totals tie; [it’s] just different timing of the investments.”Duke Energy spokeswoman Grace Trilling Rountree told Policy Watch the exchange addressed the utility’s Integrated Resource Plan, and was unrelated to the proposed legislation.

2) Natural gas and nukes made an appearance. The bill requires the Marshall Steam Station on Lake Norman to change over from coal to natural gas. The measure also leaves that option open for the Roxboro facility, which environmental groups fear could incentivize the construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline Southgate project — currently in limbo because the main line in West Virginia and Virginia is years behind schedule because of permit violations and successful court challenges.

An American Petroleum Institute representative extolled the virtues of natural gas, even though yesterday’s dire report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change urged nations to sharply curb their methane emissions. Natural gas operations are the primary source of methane because the pipelines, fracking wellheads and other infrastructure leaks the powerful greenhouse gas.

As for nuclear energy, the bill would allow Duke to incur up to $50 million in expenses — borne by the ratepayers — for an early site permit from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for siting of a small reactor at an undetermined location in North Carolina. Nuclear energy proponents, including Robert Hayes of NC State University’s Department of Nuclear Engineering, emphasized that per gigawatt, this energy source takes up less physical space than solar or wind. All the radioactive waste generated since the 1970s, Hayes said, could fit in a football field, 9 feet deep.

However, Chemical and Engineering News reported last year that there are scientific concerns about the integrity of casks and containers in which the waste is stored: “In some cases, the aging containers have already begun leaking their toxic contents.”

Also not mentioned: the amount of water nuclear plants need for cooling. From the Union of Concerned Scientists: “Nuclear power plants consume vast amounts of water during normal operation to absorb the waste heat left over after making electricity and also to cool the equipment and buildings used in generating that electricity.”

3) The NC Utilities Commission is popular. Not because everyone agrees with all of its decisions, but the commission is the only state regulatory body that can tell Duke what to do. Duke Energy enjoys a regulated monopoly, meaning that in exchange for being (nearly) the only game in town, they are subject to the commission’s rulings.

The bill would strip the commission of some of its authority, and in doing so, cut the public out of the decision-making process. Commission hearings are quasi-judicial proceedings, with sworn testimony and public comment. Fewer of those proceedings equals fewer opportunities for the public to be heard.

“The current decision-making process gives us a voice,” said a representative of Nutrien, a larger fertilizer company, with a phosphate mine in eastern North Carolina. “It’s critical that ratepayers participate in the process, and that is jeopardized in this legislation. Public input is essential to sound energy policy.”

4) Despite the scientific consensus and overwhelming evidence, climate change deniers still exist. Dave Burton of Cary opposed the bill because it declares a “war on coal” by phasing out that energy source. Burton, a climate change denier, touted the (false) benefits of coal and carbon dioxide, and (falsely) claimed CO2 is the reason widespread famine is rare. Burton was on the board of NC-20, a group of coastal real estate and government interests, behind the now-infamous sea level rise bill. In 2012, that bill restricted state and local governments in using only select historical data to predict sea level rise along the North Carolina coast. With a stroke of a pen, a 3-foot increase suddenly became just 8 inches.

Burton claims to be a reviewer of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, but that’s a low bar to clear. Most anyone can sign up to be a “reviewer,” which is not the same as being an author.

5) File under unintended consequences: When a large manufacturer closes or leaves North Carolina, that’s a loss in tax revenue. But small towns are harder hit by those losses. Without the manufacturer, the water and wastewater utilities also lose funds, but the costs of maintaining and upgrading the treatment systems, main lines, etc., remains the same.

What happens? The utilities can’t pay their bills or are forced to raise water and sewer rates on their customers. The utilities can become “distressed,” and risk being taken over by the state.