Environment, Legislature

Senators trade barbs over funding bill directing DEQ to spend $2.4 million on “busy work”

The Senate bill requires the Department of Environmental Quality to review 43 years’
worth of wastewater discharge permits — starting before Secretary Michael Regan was born.
(Photo: NC DEQ)

At a public forum earlier this month, a man from Bladen County asked state environmental and health officials a direct and desperate question: “Are we guinea pigs?” he pleaded. “I don’t want to die from GenX.”

One could not blame him, his neighbors and the thousands of residents downstream in Brunswick and New Hanover counties for wondering if they are also subjects of a political experiment.

Many lawmakers have underscored the “urgency” of dealing with an aptly described “public health crisis.” However, in terms of concrete legislation, the intent behind — and effectiveness of —  the bills to address the crisis are more akin to extinguishing a five-alarm fire, one glass of water at a time.

The latest glass of water arrived in the form of a Senate bill, publicly unveiled at 10:45 Tuesday evening and discussed at yesterday’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee meeting. It is a proposed substitute for the House version, which appropriated $2.3 million to the NC Department of Environmental Quality in part, to buy a high-resolution mass spectrometer to specifically sample and analyze drinking and surface water for emerging contaminants. There were other bureaucratic requirements, too, but the guts of the House bill was the directive that DEQ use the money and the machine to figure out what’s in the water and how to remove it.

The Senate version, though, dilutes its House counterpart. It rehashes work that’s already in progress and requires state officials to perform bureaucratic tasks torn from the pages of a Franz Kafka novel.

Yes, DEQ would receive $2.4 million. But that money, as Sen. Angela Bryant, a Democrat representing six eastern counties, noted angrily at a committee meeting yesterday is for “busy work.”

If the bill becomes law, DEQ will indeed be busy: Reviewing the last 43 years of its federal wastewater permit program — known as NPDES — which is delegated to the states to administer. Forty-three years of the federal program covers eight presidential terms, 19 EPA administrators and varying rules depending on who was in charge and the state of science at the time.

Forty-three years ago, DEQ Secretary Michael Regan, 41, had not been born.

Sen. Mike Lee, a Republican representing New Hanover County:
“I’m sorry if this schedule is too aggressive for you.”
(Photo: NCGA)

Sen. Mike Lee, a New Hanover Republican, bristled at the term “busywork.” “The contaminants have been going into the Cape Fear River for 38 years,” he said. “What are the requirements for permit disclosures? What are the processes for developing standards? Is the process thorough and timely? If those have changed over time we need to know.”

DEQ’s permit backlog — 40 percent of them are overdue for review — is well-documented. The filing and organizational systems are also outdated. And it’s true that these problems need fixed. But the bill essentially tells DEQ to pour its glass of water on a detached garage instead of the house.

“It’s a bait and switch,” Bryant remarked. “It looks like we’re funding DEQ when we’re doing nothing”

Unlike the House version, the Senate excludes the Secretaries’ Science Advisory Board — renowned scientists, including several from the UNC System, who have been working on the issue and meeting publicly since the fall. Instead, the bill redirects $2 million to the NC Policy Collaboratory, a UNC think tank created by the GOP, to essentially assemble a similar team in consultation with the state health department.

This $2 million provision, Lee said, “is a backstop plan” in the event EPA labs can no longer handle the work.

Under the original legislation creating the Collaboratory, the $2 million would have been appropriated only if the group raised matching funds. Now the money is available without that requirement. The Collaboratory’s research director is Jeffrey Warren, former policy advisor to Sen. Phil Berger.

Sen. Angela Bryant: “This is a bait and switch. It looks like
we’re funding DEQ when we’re doing nothing.” (Photo: NCGA)

Sen. Berger claimed last month that DEQ has free access to of high-resolution mass spectrometers  — necessary to detecting known and unknown emerging contaminants. That’s not true. Now the Senate bill directs the Collaboratory to use its windfall on researching within the UNC system the availability of this expensive, highly sensitive equipment. and connecting those researchers with DEQ. But Brad Ives, the Collaboratory’s director, acknowledged that gaining access to the equipment in the middle of an academic year — when researchers and students are engrossed in their own work — could be challenging.

Sen. Mike Woodard, a Democrat representing Durham, Caswell and Person counties, stippled Lee with questions, leading to several sharp exchanges.

“My concern is you’re putting more delays in there and not achieving your goal,” of cleaning up the drinking water, Woodward said. “How does DEQ implement this bill? It’s not getting to the point of it.”

“I live in Wilmington, I drink the water,” Lee replied. “It’s not political. This is about getting the best people. But this can’t be resolved in one day in one session. I’m sorry if that schedule is too aggressive for you.”

Lee proposed a politically untenable challenge: “If you think $2.4 million is too much, then run an amendment and cut it.”

Funding — who gets it and for what — has dogged the legislature since last summer when Gov. Roy Cooper initially proposed $2.3 million for DEQ and DHHS to address the GenX issue. Since then the General Assembly passed an anemic bill to instead fund work by UNC Wilmington and the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, the results of which not addressed the urgency of the problem.

The House unanimously passed a $2.3 million funding bill last month, largely seen as indicating at least some progress toward legitimately addressing the contamination. The Senate refused to take up the bill and went home, only to re-emerge with its committee substitute.

“Are you hearing from your constituents there is some mistrust in the legislature?” Bryant asked Lee. “In this process, we’re crippling the role of DEQ. That’s the subtext of the agenda. That’s what I’m hearing.”

“This problem spans all of the administrations. This is the best plan we can have moving forward,” Lee replied, shortly before the committee voted to send it to appropriations with a favorable report. “Constituents mistrust everybody.”

Even the guinea pigs.

Environment, Legislature

Senate Ag, Natural Resources Committee recommending $2.4 million for DEQ to address emerging contaminants

Red areas contain levels of GenX above 140 parts per trillion, the state’s provisional
health goal, in drinking water. Yellow signifies levels under 140 ppt, but still detectable.
Green is non-detect. (Map: DEQ)

The Senate, under scrutiny for failing to even confer or debate a GenX bill that unanimously passed the House, has now come up with its own version, including substantive changes.

The proposed committee substitute will be introduced at the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee tomorrow at 5 p.m. in Room 1127/1028 of the Legislative Building.

The Senate is proposing several revisions to House Bill 189, including $2.4 million in one-time money for NC Department of Environmental Quality to address GenX and other emerging contaminants in drinking water. The money comes from the unappropriated balance in the General Fund.

The Senate version also includes up to $2 million for the NC Collaboratory, split between Fiscal Years 2017–2018 and 2018–2019. The Collaboratory would use the money to hire faculty, which, with DEQ, could use high-resolution mass spectrometers within the UNC system to research these contaminants and methods of removing them from drinking water.

That money is being siphoned from a special appropriations fund within the Office of State Budget and Management, and allocated to the UNC Chapel Hill Board of Trustees for use as matching funds by the Collaboratory.

Senators have consistently stated that DEQ has access to this specialized equipment throughout the UNC system and doesn’t need money to buy one for the agency. However, as Policy Watch reported last month, there are still fees — some of them steep — to access the equipment, and university researchers receive priority to use it. This portion of the bill appears to help alleviate the equipment access problem by bringing universities in to collaborate with DEQ.

The Department of Health and Human Services receives no extra money under the bill. Instead, DHHS is directed to work with the federal authorities and the NC Collaboratory, which will provide entrée to UNC System faculty, on the health goals for GenX and similar compounds in drinking water.

The House version of HB 189 directed DEQ to undertake several studies, including the effectiveness of its wastewater discharge permitting program. The Senate takes that directive further, requiring DEQ to study the permitting program’s effectiveness  since 1975, when the EPA delegated authority to the state to manage it. A report is due June 1.

DEQ also must cooperate with the EPA in an audit of that process, known as NPEDS permitting. The EPA already audits various DEQ operations. The two bills are listed below, annotated with their major differences. The House unanimously passed its version of HB 189 last month, but the Senate adjourned without taking it up.

Senate Version of HB 189 by Lisa Sorg on Scribd

House Version of HB 189 by Lisa Sorg on Scribd

Environment, Legislature

Science says burning wood pellets is a bad idea; you’ll likely hear the opposite argument at the legislature tomorrow

Photo of wood pellets

Trees are ground into wood pellets, which are then shipped to the United Kingdom,
where they are burned for fuel. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Hunt Forest Resources, based in Youngsville, just north of Raleigh, will thin and burn, replant and spray, harvest and haul your hardwoods and pines, as the company’s website says, “to maximize your profits” and “provide you peace of mind that your timberland is appreciating.”

The state’s timber industry, worth $11 billion according to sector figures, is not only lucrative but politically powerful –so much so that the science behind timbering is conveniently ignored.

Tomorrow, some of the industry’s most powerful players, including Hunt, will appear before the Joint Legislative Commission on Energy Policy. Lawmakers, including Republican co-chairs Rep. John Szoka and Sen. Paul Newton  are scheduled to hear a presentation tomorrow from Hunt and other timber industry representatives about the state’s market for timber and wood pellets as energy sources.

The wood pellet industry already has a foothold in North Caroina. Enviva has three plants in eastern North Carolina — Ahoskie, Faison and Garysburg — and is building a fourth in Dobbins Heights, a low-income, Black neighborhood near Hamlet. These pellets are then transported by rail to the Port of Wilmington for shipment to Europe.

Attendees will likely hear a lot of sunny pronouncements about replanting the forests, cutting trees as a method of “timber management” and other rationalizations for using wood for fuel.

But the science has shown that burning wood releases large amounts of carbon dioxide, in some cases more per unit of energy than coal. And carbon dioxide is a major contributor to climate change. In addition, trees store carbon dioxide; forests are known as “carbon sinks” because they retain it rather than releasing it into the atmosphere. But the very act of harvesting trees releases carbon, not just the burning of them.

Attendees tomorrow will likely hear that the industry uses predominantly waste wood and low-grade wood fiber to manufacture the pellets. But that’s not entirely true, either. With those sources nearly exhausted, industry has turned to whole trees, and not just softwoods, but also hardwoods, especially in North Carolina. These hardwood forests, some of them in sensitive wetlands, regenerate much more slowly.

As to be expected, the issue is underpinned by politics. One of tomorrow’s presenters, the NC Forestry Association, belongs to lobbying group NC Forever. As Policy Watch reported last month, NC Forever wrangles companies such as Smithfield Foods and Martin Marietta with trade groups and nonprofits, like Environmental Defense Fund and the NC Coastal Federation. NC Forever’s self-imposed charge is to advocate for funding for land conservation and water quality protection, the definitions of which are malleable in the hands of polluting industries.

And finally, if lawmakers craft wood-as-fuel legislation this year, House Bill 476 could show another aspect of its noxiousness. The bill, now law, received a lot of attention because it prohibited neighbors of hog farms from filing nuisance lawsuits for quality of life issues like noise and odor. But HB 476 places the same restrictions on neighbors of timber operations and wood pellet plants. That was not an accident.

Tomorrow’s meeting starts at 1 p.m. in Room 643; the audio is streamed.


Environment, Legislature

Four GOP senators send puzzling letter to EPA asking for audit of DEQ

Sen. Trudy Wade, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on NC River Water Quality,
attended a GenX presentation at the Sweeney Water Treatment Plant
in Wilmington last summer. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

While its House counterpart was holding hearings and hammering out legislation, the Senate Select Committee on River Quality has met one time. It has proposed not a single bill. Since Oct. 3, the committee has essentially disappeared.

Senate River Quality members, along with the rest of their Senate colleagues, then bailed on a vote to study the problem of GenX and emerging contaminants and to fund DEQ to do the work.

Now, four of the Senate committee members  — Trudy Wade, Andy Wells, Bill Rabon and Michael Lee — have sent a letter to the EPA Region 4 administrator asking that the federal government audit DEQ.

The Star-News of Wilmington first reported the contents of the letter, sent on Jan. 23.

The senators requested that the EPA review environmental officials’ handling of the NPDES program — federal wastewater discharge permits whose authority are delegated to the states. Under the guise of “assistance to North Carolina” the subtext of the two-page letter is that DEQ has independently decided, through rules and procedures, not to protect human health and the environment.

The senators posed several questions, some asking for federal guidance about emerging contaminants — guidance DEQ says the EPA is already providing. (DEQ Assistant Secretary Sheila Holman has debriefed the House River Quality Committee and the Environmental Review Commission on these discussions with the EPA. Wade chairs the Environmental Review Commission; Wells is a member.)

Other questions could be answered through a simple Google search:

  • “Is there adequate public notice of the permitting process and access under federal law?”
    DEQ lays out the permitting process on its website, including the required 30-day public notice for new, renewed and major modifications. (Ironically, the 30-day notice is published in a local newspaper and online; Wade sponsored a bill last year to remove the local newspaper requirement for public notices.)
    Consult the EPA website or head over to the Cornell Law School, which lays out the notice requirements.
    Answer: DEQ complies.
  • “Are there improvements needed in DEQ’s internal review process of  permit applications that would lead to a more through and timely review of these applications?”
    Answer: Yes, but with context. DEQ has widely publicized its staff cuts — 70 positions in water quality lost over the past decade because of legislative budget slashing — that the agency says has led to a backlog of NPDES permits.
    EPA defines backlog as “permits administratively continued beyond their expiration date for 180 days or more” or facilities awaiting their “first NPDES permits for longer than 365 days after submitting an application.”  Chemours’s permit is among those that had expired and then been administratively continued.
    EPA has set a goal for all its regions and the states to be 90 percent current on their permits. For major permits, only nine states have hit that benchmark. North Carolina’s backlog is 66.8 percent, according to 2017 EPA figures. Eighteen states have a higher percentage of delinquent permit reviews; 31 are performing better than North Carolina.

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Environment, Legislature

Senate ghosts the House on GenX bill, leaving $2.3 million and DEQ directives in limbo

Rep. Ted Davis Jr., chairman of the House
Select Committee on River Water Quality
(Photo: NCGA)

On the House floor last night, Rep. Jimmy Dixon — a colorful Duplin County turkey farmer whose personality crosses an endearing grandpa with a shotgun-toting crank running kids off his lawn — reiterated a point he had made at least four times in two committees over the past two months: Environmental advocates had warned lawmakers and state environmental officials 10, 15 years ago that North Carolina’s water was in peril, but those admonitions “fell on deaf ears.”

Now, though, the deaf ears are mounted on the head of Senate.

A hard-fought measure, House Bill 189 would direct the Department of Environmental Quality to tackle the statewide problem of emerging chemical contaminants in surface, groundwater and drinking water. DEQ would do this by analyzing its permitting process, sharing data about emerging contaminants with other states and study statutory and reporting requirements.

Alone, these provisions are a start, but still not particularly impressive. But unlike other GOP-driven unfunded mandates, this bill is backed by money. Real money, by modern standards of GOP stinginess. The House Appropriations Committee unanimously approved $1.3 million in one-time funding, siphoned from an ill-advised and stalled project to chemically treat Jordan Lake. Plus another million to buy a high-resolution mass spectrometer, necessary for detecting unknown chemicals at extremely low levels, and to pay for the DEQ scientists to master it.

The bill, crafted in the House Select Committee on River Quality, did not originally contain funding. But the pleas from the public, DEQ and House Democrats, including Reps. Elmer Floyd of Cumberland County and Pricey Harrison of Guilford County, convinced committee co-chair Rep. Ted Davis Jr. to include it.

“I stand here today to compliment” Davis “on keeping his word on seeking funding. He went beyond where I thought we would be,” Floyd said on the House floor.

I'm dismayed by the lack of participation by the Senate Click To Tweet

“This funding is extremely satisfying to me. If this is done, House will be funding the entire amount requested by DEQ,” Davis said. “We will be doing what DEQ has asked us to do at this point.”

Lest everyone start feeling warm and fuzzy, the Senate, including Mike Lee and Bill Rabon, who represent contaminated areas of the Cape Fear River Basin, ghosted House lawmakers while they were debating and unanimously the bill. Having skeedaddled to parts unknown, the Senate did not vote on the measure, leaving it in limbo.

“I’m dismayed by the lack of participation by the Senate,” Harrison said.

Sen. Phil Berger, who opposes the House bill to address GenX contamination

An hour after the House vote, Sen. Phil Berger issued a statement claiming that “Senate Republicans have already shown we are serious about finding real solutions that will actually improve water quality in the Cape Fear River and hold violators accountable for dumping GenX into the region’s water supply.”

The House bill, Berger continued, “leaves North Carolina taxpayers holding the bag for expenditures that should be paid for by the company responsible for the pollution, fails to give DEQ authority to do anything they can’t already do, and authorizes the purchase of expensive equipment that the state can already access for free.”

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