Environment

Feds want to know health effects of coatings used in Atlantic Coast Pipeline

Construction on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline had begun in Northampton County, but has now stopped while the courts resolve several federal lawsuits. There are also environmental and public health concerns about the coatings used to line the pipes. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Federal regulators have asked the owners of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to provide toxicological information about chemicals used to coat the inside of pipes, according to a letter dated July 3.

Under the name ACP, LLC, Dominion Energy and Duke Energy co-own the 600-mile pipeline, which, if built, would transport fracked natural gas from West Virginia through Virginia, eastern North Carolina and into South Carolina.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission requested the information from Dominion in response to comments from the Virginia Department of Health.

The 3M company manufactures the pipeline coatings under the name Scotchkote Fusion Bonded Epoxy Coatings and Scotchkote Liquid Epoxy Coatings. (3M also manufactured per fluorinated compounds, otherwise known as PFAS.)

Ingredients in the Fusion Bonded Epoxy made by 3M

Material Safety Data Sheets for the products show the fusion-bonded coating contains known carcinogens. Ingredients include Bisphenol-A, also known as BPA. Exposure to BPA has been linked to reproductive and developmental effects and an increased risk of diabetes.

Ingredients in the liquid epoxy can be toxic to internal organs and irritate the skin. The epoxy is suspected to cause cancer.

FERC is asking ACP, LLC to evaluate and report on the toxicity of the epoxies from “direct and indirect human contact, ingestion or inhalation.” Regulators also want to know if the epoxies, should they enter the environment, would threaten the air, soil, surface water and groundwater.

It’s unclear if the ACP will actually be built. Work has stopped along the route while lawsuits wend their way through the courts. And the cost, once estimated at $5.5 billion, has ballooned to at least $7.5 billion.



Environment, Legislature

Pork fattens the environmental budget while necessities get chopped

From the ‘New York World,” 1848

The NC Department of Environmental Quality can’t always get what it wants. It can’t even get what it needs.

DEQ had requested 37 new positions in the state environmental budget to address the crisis of perfluorinated compounds in drinking water supplies. The House tepidly responded with seven positions; the Senate, always financially brutal toward DEQ, eliminated the appropriation. The conference budget settled for just five additional full-time positions, but only two of them are devoted to PFAS sampling and analysis. The others are for permitting and administration.

DEQ Secretary Michael Regan criticized the conference budget, saying in a prepared statement that it “does not allow DEQ to keep pace with the demands of a growing economy or the critical water quality issues facing North Carolina. The lack of funding negatively impacts the communities dealing with PFAS contamination and aging water infrastructure. It asks them to go without necessary resources.”

A $2 million PFAS Recovery Fund initially was to be used to provide alternate water supplies to households whose drinking water had been contaminated by Chemours. But a consent order between Chemours, DEQ and Cape Fear River Watch requires the company to pay for and supply the water, either through filtration systems or connections to public supplies.

Freed up, those recovery funds could have been used to add staff in the Division of Water Resources for PFAS work. Instead, the conference budget divvies the money among several earmarks, including general wastewater and water projects for Benson (represented in the Senate by Republican Brent Jackson, an appropriations committee chairman) and Kenansville (also represented by Jackson and Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a Duplin County Republican who chairs appropriations in the House).

Neither town has documented PFAS contamination in its water supply.

Maysville does have a PFAS problem. The town would receive $500,000 to replace its only well, which has been contaminated with PFAS by firefighting foam. It’s unclear, though, if a new well is prudent. Granulated carbon filters can remove PFAS. And the Maysville well taps draws from the Castle Hayne aquifer; if the aquifer itself is contaminated, a new well might not consistently provide clean water.

Five towns with friends in high places secured earmarks, cutting in line to grab a slice of the way-too-small money pie for water and sewer improvements:

  • Four Oaks (again Sen. Jackson territory): $200,000
  • Wilson’s Mills (ditto, Jackson): $100,000
  • Salemburg (Jackson again delivers): $150,000
  • Midland (represented by Sen. Paul Newton, an appropriations subcommittee chair): $500,000
  • Bethel (represented by Democrat Don Davis, who’s on two appropriations committees): $150,000

The State Water Infrastructure Authority estimates at least $17 billion in improvements are needed in North Carolina over the next 20 years. Since the needs are so great and so numerous, the infrastructure authority accepts grant applications from municipalities and then scores them before awarding any money — independent of the state budget earmarks.

Of the seven cities and counties that received infrastructure earmarks in the state budget, only two — Maysville and Sampson County — received funding approval from the Water Infrastructure Authority last fall, according to DEQ documents. Bethel received a small grant for “assessment.” The other four towns didn’t even apply.

Another year, another earmark for the Charlotte Motor Speedway, which is in the pole position to receive as much as $2 million from the pot of money to clean up old dumps, known as pre-1983 landfills because they were built before that year, when liners began to be required. There are more than 800 sites statewide with unlined landfills, none of them apparently with as much cachet as CMS. [Update: A reader noted that this is not new money.
However, the provision does change the required match from 2:1 two private dollars for every one State dollar to 1:1, still a great deal for CMS.]

This is the second consecutive such appropriation for CMS. The infield sits atop one part of a landfill, which extends beyond the gates. The landfill was built in 1980 and closed in 1992, although dumping reportedly occurred there since the 1940s. Groundwater monitoring from 2018 showed spikes of barium, cobalt, benzenes, nickel, toluene, and acetone — all of which can cause health problems and in some cases, cancer.

Budget-writers also inserted a controversial provision to delay by a year the implementation of the general swine, cattle and some poultry operating permits. The new regulations, announced by DEQ after several months of public comment, are scheduled to go into effect on Oct. 1.

This language essentially uses a legislative cudgel to hammer a judicial challenge to the new rules. The Farm Bureau filed a contested case hearing with the Administrative Office of the Courts, alleging DEQ overstepped its authority. The state Board of Agriculture recently voted to support the Farm Bureau’s litigation.

And this week, the NC Environmental Justice Network intervened in the case, arguing the opposite viewpoint: The rules aren’t strong enough.

University Energy Centers, perennially positioned beneath the guillotine, would receive no money, according to the conference budget. The House had funded NC State ($400,000), NC A&T ($200,000) and Appalachian State ($200,000); the Senate, again, excised the funding, and none of it was restored.

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Environment, Legislature

After coastal towns complain about Resource Institute, lawmakers could rescind its $5 million windfall

The Atlantic Reefmaker is a wave-breaking technology used in inlets, but not oceanfronts. After receiving $5 million from the legislature last year, the Resource Institute proposed using the technology — sold by one of its primary contractors — for hurricane resilience. North Topsail Beach, Surf City and Topsail Beach officials have objected to both the Reefmaker and the Resource Institute, the latter of which they say has little expertise in coastal projects. (Photo: Atlantic Reefmaker)

[Update: On Tuesday afternoon the Senate passed this bill, the bulk of which deals with veterans’ memorial funds, but includes language to revoke funding for the Resource Institute beach projects. The measure now goes to Gov. Roy Cooper.]

One year you have $5 million, the next year — poof — it’s gone.

Funding for the politically connected Resource Institute is on the brink of being eliminated in Senate Bill 95 after several coastal towns complained to lawmakers that the Winston-Salem nonprofit didn’t have the expertise to tackle hurricane resilience and recovery projects.

If the bill becomes law, the money would be divided equally among Topsail Beach, North Topsail Beach and Surf City for hurricane recovery projects.

Squeak Smith, chairman of the Resource Institute board of directors, told Policy Watch he is waiting for the final bill language to determine the next steps.

The Resource Institute, Smith said, “will continue to advocate for additional funding for the coastal communities to help address resiliency after future storm events. We are fully prepared and qualified to carry out projects in conjunction with future funding sources and communities wanting our assistance and services.”

The Senate was scheduled to vote on the bill last night, but the measure was pulled from the calendar and rescheduled for 4 p.m. today.

The $5 million appropriation for the Resource Institute originated in last year’s budget bill, ostensibly to work with coastal governments on alternatives to beach nourishment. But as Policy Watch reported at the time, the appropriation occurred after leadership at the Resource Institute, as well as several of its contractors, contributed more than $115,000 to key lawmakers. Later contributions increased that total to $150,000.

After Hurricane Florence hit the coast in September, a subsequent bill changed the funding purpose to storm recovery.

Earlier this year, North Topsail Beach officials successfully lobbied their legislator, Sen. Harry Brown, a Republican from Onslow County, to redirect $1.6 million to them. According to emails obtained under the Public Records Act, North Topsail Mayor Dan Tuman also objected to the Resource Institute’s 12 percent administrative fee.

“$600K to folks who don’t do or know anything, who will insert meaningless pet projects that they promote for consideration …” Tuman wrote. The pet project he referred to is the Atlantic Reefmaker, a wave attenuator that has been used in inlets but not ocean fronts. One of the Resource Institute’s contractors, North State Environmental, markets, sells and installs the technology.

Subsequently, Topsail Beach and Surf City officials asked another lawmaker, Sen. Bill Rabon, who represents four coastal counties, to divert the remaining money to them.

The Resource Institute also received scrutiny in March from the legislative Program Evaluation Division. Similar to the federal Government Accountability Office, the PED analyzes and investigates the effectiveness of state programs. The PED found that the Resource Institute had duplicated more than 50 invoices to the Clean Water Management Trust Fund and the NC Department of Environmental Quality. The duplication resulted in a $20,000 overpayment to the Resource Institute for stream restoration in the western part of the state.

The Clean Water Management Trust Fund administers grants for the streams program.

In 2013, the Resource Institute, with the backing of the US Department of Agriculture, pitched the idea of a Western Stream Restoration program to former lawmaker Mitch Gillespie, then the assistant secretary of the environment. Since then 96 percent of the funding — $8.16 million — has been awarded to the Resource Institute. Of the 67 grants, the group received 65 of them.

Environment, Legislature

House Finance green-lights Duke Energy ratemaking bill; would allow utility to increase annual profits

Rep. David Lewis is running the bill in the House. (Photo: NCGA)

A controversial bill that would allow Duke Energy to increase its annual profits through alternative methods of ratemaking cleared another hurdle today, despite opponents’ objections.

The House Finance Committee introduced an amended version of Senate Bill 559 to ostensibly appease the state’s industrial and retail customers, such as Walmart. But the bill still sounded several alarms among lawmakers who view part of it as a gift to the energy industry.

Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican who is running the bill in the House, said this section of the bill “has been misunderstood from the get-go. Modern needs and modern challenges require modern tools. … We need to start talking about what our power situation is going to look like in 2025, ’30 and ’50.”

The measure would allow utilities, primarily Duke, to apply for “multi-year” rate plans that the would provide flexibility for the utility. Under these plans, a variation of which are used in 35 other states, the Utilities Commission could — but is not required to — grant periodic rate changes for as long as three years without holding traditional base-rate hearings. Those hearings are lengthy quasi-judicial proceedings during which the utility, the public staff and ratepayers testify under oath about the effects of a proposed rate increase. The bill language would allow Duke to sidestep that process in lieu of a 120-day public comment period. The company would have to file a public annual report. Base-rate cases would still provide for traditional public testimony.

The Utilities Commission also would have more time to rule on Duke’s ratemaking plan. The original bill set a nine-month limit; the new version extends it to a year.

Rep. Deb Butler, a New Hanover County Democrat on the Duke Energy ratemaking legislation: “The bill seems unilateral” — for Duke. (Photo: NCGA)

The banding portion of a multi-rate plan would allow the Utilities Commission to establish a return on investment — a profit — for the utility that acts as a midpoint; from there, the commission also would set a low- and high-end range — a band — for profitability. This provision would require Duke Energy to refund to customers any profits above 1.25 percent on its rate of return.

But Rep. Graig Meyer, an Orange County Democrat, noted if that provision were law today, Duke Energy could earn an extra $425 million over three years before issuing such a refund. If Duke earned below 1.25 percent, the Utilities Commission would hold a rate case to allow Duke Energy to recover its losses.

Peter Ledford, general counsel for NC Sustainable Energy Association, told the committee that his organization is concerned with the multi-year plan and the rate-banding. “If a new tax collected $140 million a year, it would draw extreme scrutiny.”

John Burnett, deputy general counsel for Duke Energy said he’s never known the commission to call in the utility “for over-earning.” He dismissed the suggestion that a utility can “manipulate” its rate of return.  The Utilities Commission bases the profitability rates on variations beyond the utility’s control, like weather, taxes and the number of customers. Burnett said customers would benefit from the bill, in part to “avoid expensive utility commission hearings.” (Duke often deploys an armada of paid attorneys to these hearings.)

There are no environmental performance goals associated with the multi-year plans or the rate-banding. Rep. Deb Butler, a Democrat from New Hanover County, said other states incorporated such standards into these alternatives. “There are no increases in renewable energy, energy efficiencies or clean ups of environmental contamination,” Butler said. “The bill seems unilateral.”

Another contentious provision remained from the original Senate version. Duke Energy could file for alternative ratemaking and a traditional base-rate case at the same time. If the Utilities Commission rejects Duke’s proposal for the alternative version, the utility could withdraw it and merely settle for a base rate.

“We feel like the utilities have a guardrail,” said Sharon Miller, executive director of the Carolina Utility Customers Association, which represents the state’s manufacturers. “If you trust and acknowledge the Commission experts, why do the utilities need this” — the ability to withdraw their alternative plans.

Martin asked lawmakers to split the bill between the benign Section 1, which allows for bonds to pay for storm recovery costs and the second section, which she suggested should be sent to a study committee. “Part 2 cherry-picks a rate mechanism that benefits utilities,” Martin said. “There are no quantifiable customer benefits.”

The House Finance Committee voted 16-12 to send the bill with a favorable report to the Public Utilities Committee.

The Senate version of the bill was sponsored by Sens. Dan Blue, a Wake County Democrat, and Republicans Bill Rabon and Ralph Hise, who represent several coastal and mountain counties, respectively. It passed that chamber on May 2.

Note: The original version of this story incorrectly identified Sharon Miller of the Carolina Utility Customers Association as “Sharon Martin.” We regret the error.

Education, Environment

Kids’ brains can be damaged when schools are near factories, major pollution sources

Each blue dot represents a Toxics Release Inventory site. These facilities emit contaminants that can cause cancer and damage human health and the environment. There are 22,000 such sites in the US. (Source: ToxMap)

A study of Florida public schools, found that children who are exposed to air pollution are more likely to score lower on tests and to be suspended from school. In addition, a school’s overall accountability ranking is more likely to drop.

The findings were recently released in a peer-reviewed paper by researchers Claudia Persico of American University and Joanna Venator of the University of Wisconsin.

At least 200 million people in America — two-thirds of the population — live within three miles of a Toxics Release Inventory site. Of those, 59 million live within one mile. And 22 percent of all public schools are within one mile of a TRI facility, according to 2016 data.

There are roughly 22,000 TRI sites in the US, and many are located in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. These facilities emit thousands of types of contaminants, many of them unregulated.

Persico spoke about the research findings Monday night at NC State University. She said during certain times in children’s development — between birth and age 1, as well as in middle childhood, in grades 3 through 7 — the brain is especially vulnerable to the effects of contamination. At these ages, a child’s brain is forming new neural connections, known as neuroplasticity, that can determine learning ability, well as emotional behavior.

“These are bad times to be exposed to pollution,” Persico said.

However, the culture of high-stakes testing doesn’t account for environmental factors that can affect learning and overall school performance. Lead, mercury and other emissions from power plants and vehicle tailpipes might damage the brain, the paper said. Brain cells can die. Exposure to lead is especially problematic because nerve cells can be “demyelinated,” meaning the protective sheath is peeled away. (Multiple sclerosis is one of several diseases that result from demyelination.)

A separate study from 2017 found that students who take tests on days when there are high concentrations of air pollutants fare more poorly than when the air is cleaner.

Persico said that based on the Florida study, after a new TRI site opens, schools within one mile are more likely to have their school grades drop than comparison schools between one and two miles away within the same zip code. The effect, Persico said, is comparable to a 11 percentage-point increase in the proportion of disadvantaged students in a school. TRI site openings are associated with a higher likelihood of the school falling at least one grade-level, such as from a B to a C.

These findings could compel school districts that are near TRI sites to install and maintain air conditioning and filtration systems to purify  indoor air. The research could also guide local zoning and school siting decisions by keeping polluting industries as far away as possible from schools. “How does local environmental policy affect local education policy?” Persico said.

In many cases, it doesn’t. As Policy Watch reported last week, the Moore County School District is building a new elementary school for grades Pre-K through 5 within a mile of multiple pollution sources. Most of the children currently assigned to the school are economically disadvantaged and Black or Latinx.