Environment, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

Gov. Cooper’s office: Lawmakers have “imperiled” pipeline agreement by reallocating funds

At a public hearing in Garysburg, Tom Betts, a supporter of the Atlantic Coast
Pipeline, echoed the utilities’ promises that the project will bring economic
development and jobs to eastern North Carolina. However, privately,
local economic developers were concerned those claims were overblown.
(Photo: Lisa Sorg)

In a letter to lawmakers today, Kristi Jones, chief of staff for Gov. Roy Cooper, implied that a $57.8 million mitigation fund for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline could be in jeopardy now that lawmakers have reallocated the money from its original purpose.

“It’s unclear if North Carolina will receive these funds, denying businesses and farms in eastern North Carolina access to natural gas and much-needed economic development,” read the letter, addressed to Republicans Sen. Bill Rabon and Rep. David Lewis.

Divided between Duke Energy and Dominion Energy, the money was to be used to offset environmental impacts from the pipeline’s construction, as well as economic development and renewable energy projects in the eight counties along the route: Northampton, Halifax, Nash, Wilson, Johnston, Cumberland, Sampson and Robeson.

But earlier this week, lawmakers passed House Bill 90, hodgepodge legislation that tied a critical class-size provision to the diversion of the mitigation funds to school districts in the affected counties. Gov. Cooper allowed the bill to become law without his signature.

Dominion Energy co-signed a memorandum of agreement with Cooper’s office; the utility could not immediately be reached for comment.

The fund, though, has been controversial among lawmakers and environmental advocates who view it as financial exchange for state approval of a key water quality permit. The fund would have been voluntary and non-binding. And even with financial help, it’s unlikely that industry in eastern North Carolina could afford the millions of dollars to hook onto the pipeline.

Nor are there assurances that the cost of the natural gas would be affordable, an important point since these counties are among the poorest in the state.

In the letter, Jones also explained the origin of the fund. The details confirm what pipeline opponents have been cautioning for the past 18 months: That despite the utilities’ and economic developers’ public claims, there was private concern that the economic prospects of the project was overblown.

It is also unclear, based on Jones’s letter, whether ratepayers or shareholders would cover the cost of the mitigation fund. If ratepayers were to bear the financial burden — in addition to the $5.5 billion cost of the project — that would further undermine the claim that the pipeline would help eastern North Carolina.

Jones wrote that discussions began in 2017  — although she does not say what month — when “eastern North Carolina economic developers and others expressed concerns about whether the pipeline would bring the economic growth it promised.”

Cooper and his administration were also concerned about the pipeline’s ability to revive eastern North Carolina’s economy as well as the environmental impacts to air, water and forests along the route, Jones wrote. She added that the fund was established independent of permit approvals by the NC Department of Environmental Quality.

The fund would have been administered by a third-party selected by the governor, although Jones wrote that Cooper would not decide what projects would be funded. Distribution of the money to environmental and economic projects would have been based on reviews of applications by “qualified government entities and nonprofits.”

Examples of those entities, Jones wrote, were the Rural Infrastructure Authority and the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, both of which currently award grants to similar types of projects. Jones told lawmakers that Cooper would have signed an executive order that would have made the fund subject to Public Records and Open Meetings Laws, as well as the State Ethics Act.

 

Kristi Jones/Roy Cooper letter by Lisa Sorg on Scribd

Environment, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

Another day, another violation for Chemours over GenX, PFOA contamination

The purple lines indicate Phase 4 of drinking water well testing near the Chemours Fayetteville
Works plant. DEQ is requiring the fourth phase because the agency has not yet found the
edge of the GenX contamination (Map: NCDEQ)

During a House floor debate last month on GenX legislation, Rep. Pat McElraft took an unusual stance: defending Chemours, the spin-off company of DuPont responsible for widespread pollution in drinking water and the Cape Fear River.

“Chemours is serious about cleaning up the contamination,” said McElraft, a Carteret County Republican. “Don’t blame Chemours totally. Maybe they made mistakes. They’re trying to do their best to do what’s right.”

There was no evidence to support that contention then, and there is even less now. DEQ released a letter today to Chemours detailing the company’s refusal to comply with the agency’s requests to control the release of perfluorinated and polyfluorinated compounds from its Fayetteville Works plant.

After groundwater tests on and near the Chemours plant showed high levels of PFOAs and PFOSs, DEQ sent the company a letter on Dec. 15, 2017, demanding that it implement “interim” measures to control the sources of contamination and stop the discharge. The company was also required to identify and address any hazards that occurred because of the contamination.

A month later Chemours responded, but failed to detail how it was stemming the discharge or controlling the sources, DEQ said. As a result, the agency is now requiring “immediate” measures to stop and clean up the pollutants. That includes excavating contaminated areas, cleaning potentially contaminated equipment, and reducing or eliminating air emissions that are contributing to the groundwater problems. Chemours has until Feb. 26 to tell DEQ what the company has done — and will continue to do — to meet the requirements.

DEQ could fine Chemours for failing to comply by the deadline.

DEQ scientists theorize that chemicals leaving the plant’s smokestacks are reacting with water — via rain or wet ground — and transforming into GenX. The contaminated water then drains into the soil and eventually pollutes the groundwater. That groundwater in turn, feeds private drinking water wells of households near the plant.

Chemours received permission yesterday from the Division of Air Quality to install a trial system to remove PFASs and PFOAs from air emissions. Any pollution captured by the filtration system must disposed offsite.

As for House Bill 189, the Senate failed to vote on it. Instead, senators rewrote the legislation, redirecting key funding for DEQ away from addressing the contamination. Instead, the agency would have to spend upward of $1.5 million on bureaucracy, including analyzing the last 43 years’ worth of wastewater discharge permits.

The House failed to vote on the Senate version this week, sending the bill to its River Quality Committee. That committee is scheduled to meet Wednesday, Feb. 21, at 9:30 a.m. in Room 643 of the Legislative Office Building.

Gov. Roy Cooper released a statement today expressing his ire for GOP lawmakers who “have gone home without doing anything to protect clean drinking water for North Carolina families.

“State environmental experts continue to hold Chemours accountable and are using all available resources to track the spread of GenX, and the latest notice of violation announced today shows the urgency. People in the Cape Fear region have a right to be angry that legislative leaders have failed to do their duty and give state scientists the tools they need to deal with GenX and other emerging contaminants.”

Environment, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

“Frankenstein’s monster”: House Bill 90 heads to governor’s desk

Note: NC Policy Watch education reporter Billy Ball is blogging about the class-size portion of the bill. 

Over the past week, House Bill 90, originally titled “NC Truth in Education,” earned a new nickname: Frankenstein’s monster.

The difference between the literary Frankenstein’s monster and the legislative one is that the former had translucent skin that, as Mary Shelley wrote, “barely disguised the workings of the arteries and muscles underneath.” The latter had no such transparency. In fact, fashioned behind closed doors, the clunky legislation fused class-size requirements, changes to elections and ethics boards, and a rebuke of the governor’s deal over the Atlantic Coast Pipeline into a form likely unrecognizable even to its creators.

Nonetheless, the House passed the bill this morning 104-12. One Republican, Hugh Blackwell of Burke County,  joined 11 Democrats in voting against it. Last Friday, the Senate passed it 37-5.

Attached at the last minute, the environmental portion of the legislation reallocates $57.8 million from a mitigation fund related to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. In late January, Gov. Roy Cooper announced he had brokered a  deal with Dominion Energy, co-owner of the controversial project with Duke Energy, to create the fund. Its purpose is to offset the pipeline’s many environmental impacts, jumpstart economic development in eastern North Carolina, as well as create renewable energy projects. Now, the bill requires the money to be used instead for local school districts in the eight counties along the pipeline’s 160-mile route through eastern North Carolina.

“That money could be used for natural gas distribution lines and creating jobs,” said Rep. Darren Jackson, a Wake County Democrat who voted against the bill. “Now we’re killing jobs” in rural North Carolina.

It’s also possible that by diverting money to the eight school districts  (the complex formula to calculate the amounts should be an Algebra test question)  that lawmakers could justify cutting education funding in the future. That could backfire because the deal between the state and Dominion is not binding. Since it’s voluntary, Jackson noted, “they can walk away without putting any money into the fund.”

Last week, Sen. Erica Smith, a Democrat representing Northampton County, where the pipeline will enter the state, said it was “unfair” to tie the fund to a much-needed class-size fix. Smith compared the trade-off to “keeping your arm but losing your leg.”

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Environment, Governor Roy Cooper

DEQ approves two more permits for Atlantic Coast Pipeline; protests scheduled for tomorrow

Tree-cutting can begin along the northern part of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline route in North Carolina now that state officials have approved a permit for that segment. The NC Department of Environmental Quality today approved the erosion and sedimentation permit for Northampton, Halifax, Nash, Wilson and Johnston counties. The agency also green-lighted a general construction stormwater permit.

The Division of Energy, Mineral and Land Resources issued two post-construction stormwater permits for areas of Nash and Cumberland counties, as well.

Earlier this week, DEQ okayed a key water quality permit, setting the stage for the final approvals. There is one permit yet to be cleared: an individual stormwater permit for a contractors’ work yard in Cumberland County.

Opponents continue to protest DEQ’s approval of the $5.5 billion project, co-owned by Duke Energy and Dominion Energy. “The acknowledged political pressure by Duke and Dominion Energy to gain approval for the ACP has been unrelenting and our governor and other officials finally yielded under their weight.”

Tomorrow, landowners and citizens from impacted communities along North Carolina’s route will protest and hold a people’s hearing beginning at 9:30 a.m., at the Church of the Good Shepherd, 125 Hillsborough St., Raleigh.

Environment, Governor Roy Cooper

Duke Energy, ready to build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, goes to the top: Gov. Cooper

(Map: NC DEQ)

This post has been updated to include comment from Duke Energy.

Anxious to begin cutting trees and clearing land to build the North Carolina portion of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, Duke Energy has approached Gov. Roy Cooper’s office about the status of its permits, Policy Watch has confirmed.

However, the utility did not use litigation as a cudgel to expedite the permitting process, as has been rumored, according to Ken Eudy, senior advisor to Gov. Cooper.

Eudy acknowledged that the utility has “asked about the permits,” but that Duke did not threaten to sue. Duke Energy did not respond to an email asking about possible litigation. (Update: In an email, Tammie McGee of Duke Energy Corporate Relations did not answer questions regarding litigation or the content of the utility’s discussion with Gov. Cooper’s office. She did issue this statement:

“We have been working constructively with North Carolina and state agencies for the past three and a half years on one of the most thorough environmental reviews of any infrastructure project in state history. In many cases, we’ve gone above and beyond regulatory requirements and adopted some of the most protective measures ever used by the industry. We fully expect to continue to work constructively to the benefit of North Carolinians.”

Duke Energy, along with Dominion Energy, are the principals in ACP, LLC, which owns the 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The route starts in West Virginia, where tree-cutting has already occurred, and continues through Virginia before entering North Carolina in Northampton County. From there, the natural gas pipeline continues 160 miles through seven more counties: Halifax,, Nash, Wilson, Johnston, Cumberland, Sampson and Robeson.

Environmentally sensitive areas, including major rivers and wetlands, lie along the route. The pipeline also presents environmental justice issues. It would travel through many low-income areas and communities of color, including American Indian.

ACP, LLC contends the pipeline is necessary to meet the energy demands of eastern North Carolina and to spur economic development. However, those forecasts are speculative. Most of the natural gas will go directly to Duke’s own power plants. Dominion has hinted that the pipeline would not stop in North Carolina, as originally planned, but move through South Carolina toward the coast. From there, the gas could be shipped elsewhere.

Since last fall, the NC Department of Environmental Quality has asked for more detail at least 10 times in permit applications filed by the utility. Now with a February deadline looming, the agency is running out of time.

Jamie Kritzer, DEQ communications director, said the permit is “under review.” He said he didn’t know of any legal overtures from ACP, nor did he have a timeline of when to expect an announcement about the 401 permit. On Jan. 4, DEQ disapproved ACP’s erosion and sedimentation application for the northern portion of the route, but the utilities can submit a revised plan. Permit applications for air, stormwater and 401 water quality are in some stage of review.

But the 401 permit is the linchpin; if DEQ approves that application, then the agency will likely approve the others.

Regardless of DEQ’s decision, lawsuits are likely. If DEQ denies the permit, then Atlantic Coast Pipeline, LLC, could sue, alleging the permit was improperly denied for reasons beyond the scope of the Clean Water Act.

If the agency approves the permit, then environmental groups and property owners could go to court. Many property owners along the route have complained both at public forums and privately that they have felt strong-armed by the company hired to negotiate a price for their land. If these landowners can prove they were coerced or were low-balled on the fair market value of their property, they could also have a case.

The Southern Environmental Law Center has repeatedly sued Duke over its coal ash cleanup and closure plans. Before the firm would file suit over DEQ’s permit decisions, said Kathleen Sullivan, senior program communications manager, “we would have to see what was in the permit language.”

West Virginia and Virginia have already approved key permits. ACP, LLC has begun cutting trees for a portion of its Virginia route. According to the ACP website, trees are scheduled to be cut down along parts of the Northampton County route, beginning in March.

Environmental groups are looking to the governor to oppose the ACP, much as he has done with the threat of offshore drilling. “We’ve seen the governor acknowledge the threat of offshore drilling to coastal communities, that oil and gas spills would be deterimental,” said Amy Adams, North Carolina program manager for Appalachian Voices. “Yet we have not heard him any stance on the water quality threat the ACP poses to our inland communities.”