EPA asks for feedback on shipping waste to Sampson County, then admits it’s been doing just that — since 2017.

Sampson County Commission Thaddeus Godwin (front) is concerned about the effects of the landfill on the community. The Rev. Jimmy Melvin, with his hand raised, has long advocated for environmental protection in the county. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

The stench punched them in the face. People scurried across the parking lot of the Snow Hill Missionary Baptist Church, trying to escape the clammy miasma that had descended over the neighborhood.

“It’s the landfill,” neighbors told the newcomers. “Some days we can’t even sit on our front porch.”

The Sampson County landfill, operated by GFL, is the largest in the state. It ranks second in methane emissions in the U.S. and first in North Carolina for vinyl chloride. But most of the time, it just stinks.

On a recent Saturday, about 40 county residents had assembled at the church to hear from the EPA and the Greenfield Environmental Multistate Trust about plans to transport non-hazardous waste from a Superfund site in Brunswick County to the landfill.

Several years ago, the Multistate Trust was appointed by a federal bankruptcy court to clean up the former Kerr-McGee property in Navassa, where improper handling and burial of creosote has contaminated the soil, a swamp and groundwater, as deep as 90 feet.

Last year residents successfully thwarted the EPA’s proposal to ship 140 truckloads – 2,800 cubic yards – of contaminated soil from a less polluted portion of the property to Sampson County. 

Now the EPA, in concert with the Multistate Trust and with input from state regulators, wants to send 3 tons of other types of waste from Kerr-McGee to the landfill: railroad ties, personal protective equipment and silt fencing.

“We know how overburdened this county is,” said Claire Woods, director of Environmental Justice Policies and Programs at the Multistate Trust. “We want to minimize the impacts.”

Claire Woods of the Greenfield Multistate Trust (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

But moments later, residents realized for the first time that the impacts had already been inflicted on the neighborhood.

Woods and the EPA acknowledged that since 2017, 20 tons of PPE, debris, sampling waste, grout and mud have been shipped 68 miles to the Sampson County landfill – which accepted it. 

Anger erupted from every corner of the room.

“But you’re telling us about it today.”

“Let’s call a thing a thing, this is a minority neighborhood and we’re guinea pigs.” 

“We can’t breathe.”

“We need restrictions and rules. We don’t know what we’re smelling.”

The state is not required to notify residents of what’s entering the landfill, said Sherri White-Willamson, director of the NC Environmental Justice Community Action Network, which was instrumental in fighting last year’s soil disposal plan.

In 1982 and 1983, Sampson County Commissioners assured Snow Hill residents the landfill would be innocuous, resident Eddie Williams said.

History has proved otherwise. 

“The air is bad,” Williams said. “It hurts people.”

(CleanAIRE NC recently received a $500,000 grant from the EPA to work with EJCAN and to establish a network of air quality monitors.)

Danielle Koonce, who grew up in Sampson County, said residents should demand to know what’s entering the landfill. “Black and Brown communities are overburdened,” she said. 

Many private drinking water wells have also been contaminated with nitrates, arsenic, and total coliform – an indicator of fecal bacteria. However, the exact sources are unknown: Numerous unlined dumps, including one adjacent to the existing lined landfill; land application of treated sewage, the proliferation of enormous poultry and hog farms.

Koonce recalled that a county commissioner once told her that water issues “were part of living in the rural South.”

Someone chimed in: “And you’re Black.”

Cooper launches Office of Violence Prevention as Republicans send gun reform bill to his desk

Gov. Roy Cooper

Last week Gov. Roy Cooper announced that he’d launch an Office of Violence Prevention, an initiative aimed at reducing violence and firearm misuse across North Carolina.

“All of us deserve to feel safe in our homes, our schools and our communities,” Cooper said in a statement. “This new office will help coordinate the efforts to reduce violent crime, tackle both intentional and careless gun injuries and deaths, and work to keep people safe.”

Cooper created the office via an executive order. That mandate lays out an array of stats justifying the office’s creation, including that an average of five North Carolinians die each day from gun violence, more than half of deaths caused by guns are suicides, and the presence of a firearm in an incident of domestic violence increases the risk of homicide by more than 500%. It also cites a national study finding that firearm deaths have overtaken car crashes as the leading cause of death for children.

Per Cooper’s order, the office will treat gun violence as a public health crisis, building a web of cooperation between local and state agencies to respond to violent crime and make communities safer across North Carolina. There will also be a Community Advisory Board, which will help develop the office’s strategic plan.

“Violence doesn’t just damage those who are directly impacted – it can be traumatic to the entire community,” Attorney General Josh Stein, who is also running for governor, said in a statement. “We can help break these devastating cycles of violence by investing in our communities, taking some common sense gun violence prevention measures, and strengthening partnerships between law enforcement and the people they serve.”

The Department of Public Safety has posted a job opening for an executive director on its website. The position pays between $85,000 and $121,507.

Cooper framed the office as part of his ongoing effort to reduce gun violence in North Carolina. He noted that he has vetoed bills that would weaken background checks required to buy firearms and has advocated for legislation to temporarily take guns away from people deemed by the courts to be a risk to themselves or others. That concept is one among many in gun reform bills floated by Democrats in the current legislative session, but those proposals have not advanced in the Republican-dominated legislature.

Republicans have sent their own “commonsense gun legislation” to Cooper’s desk, repealing a pistol permit required to buy a gun in North Carolina. Cooper has vetoed the proposal in the past, but Republicans might have the votes to overturn it this year thanks to gains they made in last year’s midterm elections.

Limits on foreign ownership of U.S. farmland gain support in Congress, despite skepticism

Weekend reads: GOP targets diversity efforts, State Supreme Court revisits 2 key rulings, and teachers a top priority in Cooper budget

In this issue:

1. General Assembly asking for info on DEI at UNC campuses as GOP targets diversity efforts

This week the N.C. General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Commission on Government Operations requested documents related to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA) training programs through the UNC System and all of its 17 campuses.

The request, according to a Tuesday letter from Derrick Welch, director of Senate Majority Staff Government Operations, is part of the commission’s “inquiry into university employee training programs administered through the UNC System or its member universities.” [Read more…]

2. State House committee advances latest version of anti-Critical Race Theory legislation

Republicans defend bill as promoting equality, while Democrats forecast chilling impact on honest classroom discussions

Rep. Ken Fontenot, a Wilson County Republican, vigorously defended House Bill 187 this week, contending that the bill restricting how educators teach about race, gender and sexuality, would prevent educators from teaching racially divisive doctrines.

Fontenot, who is Black, noted that HB 187, which is innocuously titled “Equality in Education” would prevent North Carolina educators from teaching Critical Race Theory (CRT). [Read more…]

3. Déjà vu: NC Supreme Court rehears arguments in voter ID case

For the second time in two days, the Republican-majority high court rehears arguments in a case decided by a Democratic majority just months ago

The North Carolina Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday on whether a voter ID law passed in 2018 was intended to discriminate against prospective voters of color.

The high court issued a ruling in the case just three months ago, under a previous Democratic majority. That court ruled the voter ID bill was unconstitutional because lawmakers enacted the legislation “with an impermissible intent to discriminate against African American voters in violation of the North Carolina Constitution.” [Read more...]

4. State Supreme Court revisits redistricting rulings it issued in just months ago

A Democratic court majority struck down maps as unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders, but a new GOP majority has been asked to do an about-face.

State Republican legislators Tuesday brought their argument that courts cannot bar partisan redistricting to a friendlier state Supreme Court than the one that ruled against them last year.

If Republican legislators secure all they want from the high court, they will be able to redraw state House and Senate districts, in addition to congressional voting districts, for the 2024 election without concern that state courts will find them unconstitutionally partisan.[Read more…]

5. North Carolina’s maternal mortality rate increased sharply during the pandemic, according to newly released data

The death rate in in North Carolina for women within 42 days of giving birth doubled from 2019 to 2021, according to CDC data released by the investigative news organization MuckRock.

The death rate in 2019 was 22 per 100,000 births. The next year, the rate per 100,000 births increased to 29 then spiked to 44 in 2021.

“It’s a huge jump, especially in such a short period of time,” said Keisha Bentley-Edwards, a Duke University researcher who studies health equity. Black women continued to be more likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related causes.[Read more…]

Bonus read: NC maternal death rate exceeds national rate

6. House committee advances bill to erase language in law describing minor offenses that lead to school suspensions

A bill stripping language from current law that provides examples of student conduct that’s not serious enough for suspension or expulsion received a favorable hearing Tuesday before the House Standing Committee on Education – K-12.

House Bill 188 removes from state law the use of inappropriate or disrespectful language, noncompliance with a staff directive, dress code violations and minor physical altercations that do not involve weapons or injury as misconduct that is not serious enough to warrant lengthy suspensions or expulsions. [Read more…]

7. NC Gov. Cooper presents budget proposal with 18% average raises for teachers

Gov. Roy Cooper released his proposed $32.9 billion state budget that includes hefty raisesforteachers that he said would raise average teacher salaries to No.1 in the Southeast.

Teachers and principals would see average salary increases of 18% over two years under the plan Cooper presented Wednesday. His budget also restores master’s pay for teachers and includes retention bonuses.[Read more…]

8. Gov. Cooper asks for 23% increase in DEQ budget to help cash-strapped agency

The NC Department of Environmental Quality is the Oliver Twist of state government, approaching the legislature, its empty bowl extended, and pleading: “Please sir, I want some more.”

Over the past 10 years state lawmakers have been notoriously stingy in its appropriations to the department. They have flaunted their distaste of environmental regulation, not only by introducing bills to hamper such efforts, but also by starving the agency, which has subsisted on the financial version of gruel. [Read more…]

9. EPA proposes new rule to crack down on PFAS, forever chemicals in our water

The EPA today announced its proposed maximum contaminant levels — MCLs — for six types of toxic PFAS in drinking water and acknowledged that no amount of these compounds is safe.

“EPA anticipates if fully implemented the rule will prevent tens of thousands of serious PFAS-attributable illnesses or deaths,” the agency wrote in a slide presentation obtained by Policy Watch. [Read more…]

10. ‘Good, serious ideas’: Commission on university governance talks transparency, amplifying student voices

Should students and faculty have more prominent voices on boards of trustees at UNC System schools? Should the system’s board of governors elect members geographically, be more transparent and open to public input? And would any of these suggestions matter to a Republican dominated legislature resistant to such changes?

These were a few of the questions members of the Governor’s Commission on the Governance of Public Universities in North Carolina tackled in its third public listening session on Monday. The session, held at the Charlotte Area Chamber of Commerce, drew a sparse but vocal crowd — typical of the listening sessions held so far.[Read more…]

11. A terrible bet: North Carolina should not cave in to the sports gambling onslaught

North Carolina elected leaders have enacted several ineffective and misleading laws over the years, but when it comes to undermining public confidence in government and taking advantage of vulnerable people, the badly misnamed “education lottery” has to be near the bottom of any “worst of” list.

The lottery – which became law in 2005 after surviving some close and sketchy votes in the General Assembly – was sold to lawmakers and the public as harmless entertainment that would provide a magical boon to the state’s public schools. Indeed, lottery ads still promote this fiction.

But it never was such a thing.[Read more…]

12. Weekly Radio Interviews and Daily Audio Commentaries:

As opioids overdose deaths keep rising, report urges lawmakers to develop new approaches