agriculture

BREAKING: Billy Houston charged in hog lagoon testing case


The State Bureau of Investigation has charged Billy Houston of Duplin County with 28 counts of Obtaining Property by False Pretense for allegedly falsifying sampling results from hog lagoons.

Houston, 61, turned himself into the Duplin County magistrate’s office in Kenansville, according to the SBI. He was released on $140,000 unsecured bond, which does not require an upfront payment.

Obtaining Property by False Pretense for goods or services valued at less than $100,000 is a Class H felony. That is a low-level offense that can carry a punishment of probation or less than a year in jail.

Houston is scheduled to appear in Duplin County District Court Friday at 9:30 a.m.

As Policy Watch reported last month, Houston was a 35-year veteran of the Duplin County Soil and Water District who moonlighted as a private consultant for hog farms. It was in that side role — not as a county employee — that he supposedly visited 35 farms and sampled 55 lagoons in a single day.

The results of that sampling raised red flags at the Department of Agriculture laboratories because the levels of phosphorus, nitrogen and metals were similar across the lagoons.

“He was doing things he shouldn’t have been doing,” Franklin O. Williams, a Duplin County Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisor told state agriculture officials earlier this month. “He was cutting corners and being lazy.”

 

 

Environment

Go Backstage: How I got the Resource Institute story, plus a guide to documents for budding sleuths, citizen journalists

The story did not start with a tip. It began only with curiosity.

For kicks, one Friday afternoon I re-read the environmental portion of the state budget. On Page 132 of the 266-page document is Section 13.09, entitled “DEQ Grant-in-Aid.” The terminology sounds innocuous, as does the name “Resource Institute,” the organization benefitting from this “aid.”

Yet, the line item is hardly benign. The Winston-Salem nonprofit received $5 million in the state budget — an unprecedented gift, at least in modern times, to do .. well, no one’s really sure, but it has to do with sand and “emerging technologies” for North Carolina’s beaches.

Most of the well-known environmental organizations and fundraisers I spoke with had never heard of the group. Factor in the amount of money, especially considering the budget cuts exacted on the Department of Environmental Quality, the dearth of oversight, and the vague obligations that accompanied the windfall: The appropriation didn’t smell right.

So for the past three weeks, I spent more than 100 hours pouring through government, financial and scientific documents, drawing flow charts, filing public requests, talking to coastal officials. And no, sadly, I did not get to go to the beach.

The documents I used to build the foundation of the story are available to anyone, and most of them are free. The public has equal access to this information. For budding sleuths, here’s a primer on where to find it. Of course, interviews are vital to making sure the story is accurate and has the proper context. But the documents inform those interviews. Here we go!

First, I went to the Resource Institute’s website to learn about the group. Here I found the board and the principals of the organization, which helped later when I searched for their names in the campaign finance data.

I also searched LinkedIn to learn where the principals had previously worked and learned that Charles Anderson and Debbie Dodson are also real estate professionals working for the same company. Anderson also had a company Tidewater Development, which focuses on waterfront property. This indicated that Anderson has an interest in building on the coast. Nourishing beaches would help increase the value of desirable properties. I doublechecked this information at the Real Estate Commission’s licensing database.

Even though they don’t pay federal taxes, nonprofits are required to file documents called 990s with the IRS detailing their revenues, expenditures and other financial information, plus their board of directors, employees and if applicable, major contractors. That’s how I learned North State Environmental, Wildlands Engineering and several other firms had been paid by RI to do work.

After a while I had to resort to note cards spread on the floor to understand the myriad connections of power

It’s also where I learned that Pilot View RC&D had transferred money to the Resource Institute, which led me to Pilot View’s 990s. Here, I noticed that Pilot View and Resource Institute shared several board members and an office building. (I also consulted Google Street View, which showed a sign bearing both groups’ names at the same address.)

The website www.guidestar.org offers the 990s at no charge; the premium services gives you a bit more information, but I recommend the free version before spending $125 on data you might not need. The more expensive version did get me financial information back to 2008, which helps track the rise and fall of the organizations’ fortunes.

The Secretary of State has a corporation search feature, which can also be used to find nonprofits. You can also search by company official, which further confirmed connections between Resource Institute, Pilot View and a lesser-known group Enviro Impact. I also searched for all of the associated contractors — pulled from the 990s — which gave me a lot more names for my files.

I visited all of the contractors’ websites and wrote down the names of everyone listed as an employee. A source also helped me make the connection between North State Environmental and Atlantic Reef Maker, which cemented Resource Institute’s interest in coastal issues.

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Environment

BREAKING: Concerned about methyl bromide, DEQ puts log fumigation permits on hold

David Smith of Malec Brothers was pummeled with angry questions from community members at a public hearing in Delco in May. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

The NC Department of Environmental Quality today is recommending that the state regulate emissions of methyl bromide, a chemical used in log fumigation. As a result, DEQ has put on hold four pending air permit applications.

These include one from the Australian company, Malec Brothers, which requested to emit up to 140 tons of methyl bromide near the small communities of Delco and Riegelwood; and another by Royal Pest Solution, which proposed emitting a smaller amount, under 10 tons, in Scotland Neck, in Halifax County.The two others are Pinnacle World Trade in Williamston, in Martin County, and Renewable Green Inc. in South Mills, in Camden County.

DAQ has notified the five facilities that are operating that it will modify their permits after 60 days, the timeframe required by law. These are RLS Log Facility in Elizabethtown in Bladen County; Royal Pest Solutions in Chadbourn, in Columbus County; Royal Pest, which has two locations in Wilmington; and Flowers Timber in Seven Springs, in Wayne County.

“After additional review, we concluded a multi-faceted approach was vital to safeguard the public health and address the significant community concerns about these facilities,” said Mike Abraczinskas, Division of Air Quality director, in a prepared statement. “As more businesses seek to use methyl bromide at log fumigation sites in our state, the lack of specific federal or state regulatory measures for the use of this hazarous air pollutant creates a potential public health risk we must address.”

There is no federal guidance on methyl bromide emissions — which not only can harm human health, but also deplete the ozone layer — so DEQ is asking the Environmental Management Commission to develop a rule to require log fumigation operations to take appropriate measures to safeguard public health.

The Division of Air Quality will also ask the Secretaries’ Scientific Advisory Board to consider establishing an acceptable ambient level for methyl bromide and to designate it as a state Toxic Air Pollutant. These types of pollutants are known or suspected to cause cancer or other serious health effects, such as reproductive effects or birth defects, or adverse environmental effects, according to the EPA. They are more rigorously regulated.

Meanwhile, the Division of Air Quality intends to require permit holders to capture and control a minimum of 90 percent of methyl bromide emissions. DAQ’s research shows feasible capture and control technologies exist and should be included in all permit applications.

“After additional review, we concluded a multi-faceted approach was vital to safeguard the public health and address the significant community concerns about these facilities,” Abraczinskas said.

The Malec Brothers application drew significant outcry from Columbus County residents. The fumigation operation would have been just a mile from a school and would have been the state’s largest emitter of methyl bromide.

Royal Pest Solutions, which had proposed a smaller facility in Scotland Neck, had been penalized several times in Virginia for failing to adhere to environmental and safety regulations.

After public protests, Royal Pest withdrew its application for an operation in Wilmington.

Environment, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

FERC approves construction to begin in NC on Atlantic Coast Pipeline; status of $57.8 million fund still uncertain

The segments in red indicate where construction on the pipeline is to begin this year; construction is scheduled for 2019 along the segment in blue. (Map: Atlantic Coast Pipeline)

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is allowing construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to begin in North Carolina, according to a notice issued late yesterday.

But it’s unclear what this final approval means for the $57.8 million escrow fund agreed to by Gov. Roy Cooper and Dominion Energy and Duke Energy.

Construction had already begun on the compressor station near Pleasant Hill in Northampton County, as well as an office building and a metering and regulation station . The FERC notice now allows ACP, LLC, which is co-owned by Dominion Energy and Duke Energy, to start major excavation along most of the route.

Construction has been occurring in West Virginia for several months; however FERC has yet to give final approval for it to begin in Virginia.

FERC’s approval would have also triggered the launch of a $57.8 million escrow account, under a controversial Memorandum of Understanding between Gov. Cooper and Dominion Energy, signed on Jan. 25. Under that voluntary agreement, Dominion and Duke were to deposit half that amount –$29 million — into the account upon receiving FERC’s final notice to proceed.

That money was to be used for environmental mitigation — even though those measures had been requirement in state environmental permits — renewable energy, and to enhance economic development in communities along the route. One of ACP, LLC’s  main talking points was that the pipeline itself would spark economic development. But many critics of the project noted that it would cost millions of dollars for industry to connect to the pipeline. This money would have presumably helped with those connection fees, although it’s unclear how and who would determine the recipients of the funds.

But the legislature passed a law earlier this year to negate the agreement. Instead, the money would go to school districts in counties along the route. However, since the MOU was voluntary and between the utilities and the governor, the new law jeopardized the fund. Duke Energy spokeswoman Tammie McGee said that details on the utilities’ disbursements are not yet fleshed out.

 

Environment

Trump Administration wants to roll back Endangered Species Act; many NC animals, fish, plants could become extinct

The endangered butterfly, Saint Francis’ satyr, lives in the Sandhill region of North Carolina (Photo: USFWS)

Saint Francis’ satyr, a delicate, small butterfly with a wingspan of just an inch and a half, lives in secret. Only one community of the endangered butterfly is known to exist in Cumberland and Hoke counties, where development and other human interventions have rendered it nearly extinct. It lives in an undisclosed location known only to researchers, federal wildlife officials say, to prevent poachers from wiping it out altogether.

The butterflies’ survival could become even more precarious if Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and the Trump administration succeed in rolling back key portions of the Endangered Species Act, a bedrock of environmental law.

Whether a pipeline project or a road, extra steps to comply with the ESA are more expensive. Industries have long complained about the additional costs and prohibitions required to comply with the act. Now that they have the sympathetic ear of Secretary Zinke, industries are getting the leniency they’ve asked for.

The proposed changes include weakening protections for threatened species — those ranked right below endangered — and allowing the government to weigh the cost to industry in determining whether a species should be saved. It also would be more difficult to add species to the endangered list.

According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, 42 species are endangered in North Carolina and 19 are threatened. These include, plants, mammals, fish, mussels, birds, insects, spiders, reptiles and amphibians.

Even under current law, a species’ survival is not guaranteed. For example, only 40 or so endangered red wolves remain in six counties in northeastern North Carolina — the only known wild population in the world. And yet, USFWS wants to further shrink the wolves’ habitat, in part caving to demands from area landowners who complain the animals encroach on their property.

The: Southern Environmental Law Center has sued USFWS over its plan to moving the remaining animals to federal lands in Dare County, an area that cannot support more than 15 wolves. Some would be captured and placed in zoos and nature centers, such as the Museum of Life and Science in Durham. Others would be allowed to die.

The administration’s proposed changes to the ESA also could strip the Neuse River waterdog, a salamander lives along the route of the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline, of future protections. The NC Wildlife Resources Commission designated the waterdog as a species of concern in 1990, and it is a candidate for the federal list. It can’t be captured or killed without a permit.

That rule forced Dominion Power and Duke Energy, co-owners of the ACP, to alter their construction plans in the Neuse and Tar river basins. They had proposed an “open-trench” method of crossing the Neuse River, which would have entailed stripping the stream banks of topsoil and trees, then excavating part of the riverbed to install the pipe. That extensive disruption likely would have killed some of the salamanders. (The ACP’s solution was to try to capture them and reintroduce them into their habitat later.)

Now ACP contractors are required to use a less invasive construction method. Although it won’t guarantee no riverdogs would be killed, it would lessen the chances.

The Complete 540 project, a proposed toll road in southern Wake County, would threaten the lives and habitats of the Atlantic sturgeon and the dwarf wedgemussel, both endangered, and the threatened yellow lance mussel. Last week, the SELC notified federal and state wildlife and transportation officials that it intends to sue them over violations of the act; these include the proposal to issue “incidental take permits” — legally killing a certain number of species — that could wipe out the mussels in North Carolina.

The proposed changes will be published on July 25 in the Federal Register for public comment. Comments must be received by Sept. 24.