Gov. Cooper executive order calls for deeper cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, focuses on environmental justice

Gov. Cooper signed Executive Order 246 today at NC A&T University (Screenshot: Governor’s Facebook page)

Gov. Roy Cooper signed an ambitious executive order today designed to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions statewide and to emphasize environmental justice in agency decisions, beyond the NC Department of Environmental Quality.

Executive Order 246 sets several targets to mitigate the damage of climate change, including the reduction of statewide greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% over 2005 levels by 2030; and net-zero emissions as soon as possible, no later than 2050.

The 50% reductions are in line with U.S. commitments under the international Paris Agreement.

“One of the main goals of my administration is to move us toward a clean energy economy to fight the existential threat of climate change and to create good paying jobs,” Cooper said at the signing ceremony at NC A&T University in Greensboro. “We know that climate change has caused more severe storms and often the effects of these storms hurt most the people who can afford it the least.”

The new goals build on a previous executive order, known as EO 80, that the governor signed in the fall of 2018. That document set a goal of a 40% reduction in statewide greenhouse gas emissions over 2005 levels, and 80,000 registered zero-emissions vehicles by 2025.

Executive Order 218, signed last June, advances North Carolina’s offshore wind energy.

The state’s progress toward the 2018 goals will likely be revealed in an updated state greenhouse gas inventory that the NC Department of Environmental Quality must release by Jan. 31.

Environmental justice composes a significant portion of the executive order. Each cabinet agency “shall identify” and environmental justice and equity lead to serve as a point person for those initiatives. These include sharing data and activities, as well as agency decisions that could significantly affect communities of color and underserved areas.

“For too long, our low- and moderate-income communities, communities of color and indigenous communities have been disproportionately impacted by pollution and climate change,” Cooper said, adding that his order “prioritizes funding” to mitigate the harm of climate change in these areas.

NC DEQ Secretary Elizabeth Biser: “What’s good for the environment is also good for our economy.”

These interagency communications, both internally and with the public, are important. In some cases, an agency, such as the Department of Transportation or the Department of Commerce approves projects with environmental justice ramifications.

For example, DOT’s 540 toll road extension in Wake County runs through a portion of a low-income mobile home community. And the Commerce Department has the power to grant incentives to polluting businesses and industries; Active Energy, a proposed but as yet operational wood pellet plant was awarded $500,000 in building reuse funds, even though the facility’s emissions would create air pollution. That money has yet to be distributed because the status of the plant is in limbo.

The executive order sets several additional deadlines:

  • Each agency also must develop a public participation plan for underserved neighborhoods and communities of color by
    June 1.
  • The state’s “Deep Decarbonization Pathways Analysis” will evaluates potential ways to reduce emissions to achieve the 2050 net-zero goal and any interim targets. The Pathways Analysis shall be completed for the state Climate Change Interagency Council to submit to the governor by Jan. 7, 2023.
  • DOT, DEQ, the Commerce Department, and other relevant agencies, shall develop a North Carolina Clean Transportation Plan for the Climate Council to submit to the governor by April 2023.

DEQ Secretary Elizabeth Biser said the governor’s order provides economic, environmental and public health benefits. The order contains measures to ensure that “those benefits reach every community as we advance climate and energy goals,” Biser said.

James Johnson, chairman of the Secretaries’ Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board: “In several important ways this executive order casts new  light on environmental inequities and imposes greater accountability on the state to address inequity.”

Environmental advocates quickly commented on today’s order:

“Gov. Cooper’s Executive Order No. 246 offers a robust, sensible roadmap for combating climate change that will help steer North Carolina toward a cleaner, carbon-free future. The order also brings more needed attention to the issue of environmental justice and equity. The voices of impacted and underserved communities deserve to be given weight in the halls of power, and this order is a step in the right direction.” — Brian Buzby, executive director, NC Conservation Network

“The voices of communities disproportionately impacted by sources of pollution must be front and center on policy decisions affecting their health. We are hopeful that today’s action will begin that process. For far too long BIPOC communities have suffered from environmental racism, with heavy industrial activity and pollution clustered in their neighborhoods. This Executive Order will finally require all state agencies to listen to residents before, during, and after economic development decisions are made.” — Daisha Williams, environmental justice manager, CleanAIRE NC

“We are excited that Gov. Cooper is continuing to lead our state on a just transition toward a clean energy and clean transportation economy. ‘Just’ is the key word here. This new executive order not only ramps up this transition for all North Carolinians but puts a focus on ensuring justice and equity for the communities most impacted by pollution and climate change, namely communities of color.” — Montravias King, Clean Energy Campaigns director, NC League of Conservation Voters

“For too long, conversations regarding equity and climate have been siloed, when in reality these issues deeply intersect as historically marginalized communities bear the disproportionate burden of pollution and are on the frontlines of increasingly damaging climate impacts. EO246 sets the stage to consider these issues in tandem, which is essential to making meaningful progress towards a more equitable, climate-safe future.” — David Kelly, North Carolina state director, Environmental Defense Fund

“For years, we’ve been advocating that the Cooper administration expand its focus on climate change to include the transportation sector, which is quickly becoming the number one source for heat-trapping emissions in North Carolina. We welcome the governor taking this step and look forward to working with the administration to create a meaningful clean transportation plan that sets out wide-ranging strategies to reduce emissions, and to do so equitably.” — Mary Maclean Asbill, director of the Southern Environmental Law Center‘s North Carolina office

“Since transportation emissions are the nation’s top contributor to climate change, we’re very pleased that the executive order sets up a pathway to decarbonize North Carolina’s transportation sector. This executive order answers the need to move beyond fossil-fueled transportation.” — Cynthia Satterfield, state director of the NC Sierra Club

At nearly 600 acres, Pilot Mountain wildfire triggers air quality alert near Winston-Salem, statewide burn ban

At least 15% of one of the state’s most popular parks, Pilot Mountain, has burned in a wildfire, according to state and federal data, and the blaze is still not under control. The fire has consumed more than 570 of the park’s 3,872 acres.

Smoke drifted over US 421 in Winston-Salem Monday afternoon, blown in from fire, which is less than 30 miles north of the city. Extremely fine particulate matter known as PM 2.5 prompted the EPA to issue a a Code Red air quality alert for Surry, Yadkin, western Forsyth, northeastern Iredell, and Davie counties. Code Red means air quality is unhealthy, not only for people with heart or lung disease, but even low-risk groups. The EPA advises people to reduce the time spent outdoors and to avoid strenuous activities, like running.

Red represents areas where air quality is considered unhealthy for both low-risk and at-risk people. Orange designates areas where the air is unhealthy for people with heart or lung disease, including asthma. Yellow shows where air quality is moderate. (Map: AirNow.gov)

Other nearby counties were under a Code Orange, meaning air quality is unhealthy for sensitive people.

The incident at Pilot Mountain in Surry County, is known as the Grindstone fire. Human activity caused the incident, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, although it’s unclear whether it was accidental or intentional.

A campfire started a second blaze, at Sauratown Mountain, in Stokes County, which has charred 40 acres. The NC Forest Service reports that 95% of that fire is under control. Federal data show the cost of extinguishing the fire has exceeded nearly $278,000.

These fires are just two of the 697 reported in November, according to the NC Forest Service — 50 of them on Monday alone. More than 1,600 acres on private and state-owned land have burned.

Extremely dry as well as windy conditions have prompted the NC Forest Service to issue a statewide burn ban, which prohibits all open burning. Violators can be fined $100 plus $183 court costs. Any person responsible for setting a fire may be liable for any expenses related to extinguishing the fire.

More than three-quarters of North Carolina have been classified as abnormally dry or in a moderate drought, according to the state drought monitor. Stokes and Surry counties are listed as abnormally dry, but new data will be released Wednesday morning.

The number of fires this year — 2,801, with nearly 8,500 acres burned– has already exceeded the total for 2020. Last year, the NC Forest Service reported 2,302 fires and 7,829 acres.

These are the locations of all reported wildfires as of Nov. 30. Brown signifies fires that have been contained; the rest are listed as either active or reported. (Map: NC Forest Service)

 

 

Another sewage and water crisis in Currituck County; state files notice of contempt to private utility

Not water, but sewage: A photograph of a roadside swale, or ditch, taken in October in Eagle Creek. Sewage is spilling from the metal pit and flowing toward the swale. Residents have been dealing with sewage backing up into their homes for more than 14 months, most recently over the weekend and just days before the Thanksgiving holiday. (Courtesy photo from Eagle Creek resident)

Raw sewage is again backing up into homes in the Eagle Creek community, while the private utility’s equipment failure has also prompted a water conservation advisory.

Residents of the Currituck County neighborhood told Policy Watch via email today the entire neighborhood of 420 homes is without sewer service. Based in Virginia Beach, Va., Sandler Utilities owns the sewage system and the wastewater treatment plant to which it flows; Envirolink, a North Carolina company with a mixed track record, manages the system on Sandler’s behalf.

“We just had a major sewage overflow that came out our downstairs toilet into the hall, closets, den,” wrote one Eagle Creek resident.

Critical portions of the sewer infrastructure are overflowing, Stephanie Harlow, another resident, told Policy Watch. “It’s a freaking mess and nightmare.”

Mike Myers, president of Envirolink, did not return an email seeking comment.

However, an email to residents from Deborah Massey, Envirolink’s billing and customer service manager, stated that “crews worked through the night to start bringing system back on line. Techs are on-site continuing to work on bringing all lines up. An update will be sent out as soon as we can get a complete assessment of each pit with a timeline of complete service. We understand showers and laundry need to be completed but please conserve water as much as possible today.”

Eagle Creek is on a public water system, but when residents shower, wash dishes or flush the toilet, that sends wastewater into the sewer system, which then backs up and overflows.

Policy Watch reported on Nov. 10 that the neighborhood had been plagued by sewage issues from the failing sewage system for 14 months, including over Halloween.

Within the past 18 months, the NC Department of Environmental Quality has issued four Notices of Violation and fined Sandler more than $62,000 for water quality violations. Treated wastewater, also known as effluent, from the sewage treatment plant is sprayed on the Eagle Creek golf course to irrigate it. In October 2020, records show wastewater contained levels of fecal coliform bacteria more than 15 times legal limits. 

Water samples from a ditch on Eagleton Circle contained bacteria from fecal matter “that were too numerous to count,” according to court records. In January 2021, fecal coliform levels were 100 times higher than legally allowed, along with exceedances of nitrogen and ammonia. 

DEQ fined Sandler another $1,200 this year for failing to keep legally required sampling records.

A DEQ spokeswoman said the agency filed a notice of contempt to Sandler in Currituck County court on Nov. 16. The contempt notice is related to a consent judgment between DEQ and Sandler, effective last July. It notes that “the current state of the collection system presents an ongoing threat …” The judgment requires Sandler to submit written plans for system upgrades and operator training. It also requires Sandler to “maintain the collection system that prevents discharge of waste onto land or surface waters.”

Envirolink also has a checkered history. Although the company has not been cited by DEQ for any violations, many systems they manage have been. A review of DEQ enforcement records shows that at least 15 systems that Envirolink manages have racked up 90 violations since 2018. These violations accounted for more than $91,000 in fines.

Envirolink manages the public Moyock Regional Water System, which serves parts of Currituck County. That system accumulated 20 violations in 2018, before Envirolink took over. Since then, Moyock has totaled 23 violations since 2019 and received fines of more than $35,000.

Another resident posted on the community’s private Facebook page, “I really hope that they get this fixed soon with Thanksgiving just in a few days. We just had sewage spew all out of our shower. I really don’t want my family to have to smell sewage while eating their turkey dinner.”

Levels of 1,4-Dioxane above health advisory goal in untreated drinking water in Pittsboro

One sample of raw — or untreated — drinking water in Pittsboro contained levels of 1,4-Dioxane above the health advisory goal, and concentrations in treated water continue to rise, according to test results released late this afternoon by the town.

On Nov. 16, a sample of raw water contained 38.1 parts per billion of 1,4-Dioxane, a likely carcinogen. The EPA’s and the state’s health advisory goal is 35 ppb; that’s equivalent to a 1-in-10,000 excess cancer risk over a lifetime of exposure. That goal is not as protective as the surface water goal of 0.35 ppb, which represents a 1-in-1 million excess cancer risk.

Finished drinking water at the town’s treatment plant rose from 16.8 ppb to 21.3 ppb over just one day: Nov. 15-16. However, the town can instead use water in storage tanks, which have much lower concentrations, between 1 ppb to 4.6 ppb.

“Town staff remains concerned by the increase in 1,4-Dioxane levels seen in raw water samples,” Town Manager Chris Kennedy said in a press release, “and will continue to exert our energies toward manipulating our water operations in an effort to reduce the concentration levels in our water distribution lines.

The source of the 1,4-Dioxane is Greensboro’s TZ Osborne wastewater treatment plant, which on Nov. 3 illegally discharged high amounts of the compound — 767 ppb — into a tributary of the Haw River. The river serves as Pittsboro’s drinking water supply.

The ultimate source of the 1,4-Dioxane is likely an industrial customer of Greensboro’s. The city has not publicly announced the responsible industry.

The EPA has yet to regulate 1,4-Dioxane in drinking water.

On Nov. 8 and 9, town officials found low levels of 1,4-Dioxane in the water supply and believed the slug of the compound had passed the raw water intake during a time of low demand.

But dry weather has slowed the water flow in the Haw, and several residents said at the time that levels in the town’s drinking water supply were low only because the slug had not arrived yet.

That turned out to be true.

When the most recent spill occurred, Greensboro had a goal of just 45 ppb in its discharge, according to a Special Order by Consent between the NC Department of Environmental Quality and the city. That order was the result of a major 1,4-Dioxane spill in 2019; a subsequent spill last year also violated the terms of the order.

The Haw River Assembly and Fayetteville Public Works, whose water supply is also degraded by these releases, legally challenged the order and asked for stronger environmental protections.

Today the Environmental Management Commission approved a settlement agreement that reduces the goal to 35 ppb in the first year, and 23 ppb by the third year of the order.

Greensboro must also sample its industrial sources, publicly post its sampling data and information about its investigation of pollution sources. It further requires Greensboro to sample downstream at Pittsboro’s drinking water intake on the Haw River and in Jordan Lake.

“The agreement puts Greensboro on the path to controlling its 1,4-dioxane pollution and protecting downstream communities, but it isn’t the last word,” said Geoff Gisler, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represented the Haw River Assembly and the City of Fayetteville. “We’ll monitor the sampling and watershed investigations secured as part of this settlement and ensure polluters are held accountable. We encourage DEQ to go beyond those investigations and act on Greensboro’s pending permit application to impose strict limits on 1,4-dioxane pollution to protect communities downstream over the long-term.”

“Without these legal challenges brought by Haw River Assembly and City of Fayetteville, the original order would have allowed Greensboro to continue polluting the Haw River with higher levels of 1,4-dioxane, and with much lower penalties for extraordinarily high discharges,” said Emily Sutton, the Haw Riverkeeper. “The monitoring required under this agreement will identify the industries responsible for these toxic discharges in Greensboro and put the responsibility of safe and clean water on polluters, instead of the downstream users.”

Active Energy’s wood pellet operation in Maine has failed; no word on fate of Lumberton plant

CoalSwitch pellets (Photo: Allenby Capital)

“An irreparable mechanical issue” has apparently doomed Active Energy Renewable Power’s “CoalSwitch” wood pellet operation in Maine, casting doubt on the company’s original plans to launch a similar plant in Lumberton, in Robeson County.

Asked about the ramifications for the company’s North Carolina plans, Brad Crone, spokesman for Active Energy, told Policy Watch that it has “no plans to respond or to make any comments to your questions.”

Six months ago, Active Energy moved its wood pellet operation to Maine for a trial operation, in hopes of collecting air and water quality data to satisfy changes it had requested for its air permit in North Carolina. The NC Department of Environmental Quality had issued a Notice of Violation to the company for constructing new equipment and changing the process design without state approval. The process change would have significantly increased toxic air emissions, DEQ said at the time. Active Energy denied that emissions would increase, but the documents submitted to the department contradict the company’s stance.

Although unable to get its air permit in North Carolina, Active Energy still had to meet a contractual deadline to deliver 900 to 1,000 tons of pellets to PacifiCorp, which plans to burn them at its Hunter Power Plant in Utah, according to company correspondence with investors. Active Energy piggybacked on an existing permit holder in Maine, Player Holdings, which makes fireplace logs, to produce the wood pellets. Player is also Active Energy’s engineering consultant in North Carolina.

Maine environmental officials issued a temporary authorization to Player Holdings to produce wood pellets. That authorization initially expired July 31 but was extended until Sept. 29. It “has not been extended,” according to emails from Eric Kennedy, director of licensing and compliance for the Maine Bureau of Air Quality.

Kennedy said in the email that Player Holdings told the bureau in August that the trial operation had stopped. It has not been restarted, Kennedy said, because of “an irreparable mechanical issue that stopped production associated with the trial operations.”

The operations shut down before Maine environmental officials conducted any of the required air emissions studies or tested water discharges associated with the wood pellet process, Kennedy said.

The data was key to Active Energy obtaining its revised air quality permit in North Carolina. Here, the Division of Air Quality had planned to use information from Maine to estimate emissions at the Lumberton facility. Read more