Environment

Trump administration narrows clean water protections, NC wetlands likely to suffer

A restored stream in Forest Hills Park in Durham, conducted under the state’s mitigation program. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

In case you missed it on Thursday, the Environmental Protection Agency finalized a new rule that environmentalists say will gut long-established clean water protections.

Announced at a national home builders show in Las Vegas, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the Navigable Waters Protection Rule delivers on President Trump’s promise of a revised definition for “waters of the United States” and results in economic growth.

But as Policy Watch’s Lisa Sorg first reported last September, this rule change could hold dire consequences for North Carolina:

In North Carolina, wetlands cover 5.7 million acres of land, about 17 percent of the state. Most of the wetlands are in eastern North Carolina, where they provide crucial flood protection and wildlife habitat. In addition, 51,000 miles of streams — equivalent to two trips around the equator — are at risk from the WOTUS rollback. Some parts of the state, Gisler said, could lose protections for 50 percent of their streams.

Even with Clean Water Act protections, North Carolina’s waters are still polluted: from coal ash pits, chemicals, hog waste, raw sewage — 85 million gallons of which spilled into the state’s waterways last year. Repealing the federal protections would likely despoil the water quality we do have.

“We could see dramatic increases in number of streams plowed over, developed, paved,” if the repeal withstands legal challenges, said Geoff Gisler, attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “There’s going to be a visible and noticeable difference in the quality of our waters.”

And while the change is clearly intended to benefit developers and industry, the Southern Environmental Law Center notes:

…. the overwhelming majority of the 626,075 public comments EPA received weighed in against the proposed rule. The list of Americans from across the country that the rule drew criticism or concern from is long: floodplain and wetland managers, state wildlife agencies and international councils, state environmental agencies, associations representing family commercial fishing businesses, several fly-fishing-related businesses, river guides and paddling outfitters, outdoor apparel company Patagonia, outdoor recreational enthusiasts represented by several organizations, 59 craft breweries, 12 scientific societies that represent more than 200,000 scientists, numerous associations representing public and children’s health advocates, cities and counties, small and family farmers, environmental law professors, faith organizations, and conservation organizations too numerous to count.

So what’s next? According to Politico, you can expect a deluge of new lawsuits:

Legal experts say the Trump rule is likely to be placed on hold by federal courts in at least some states, if not nationwide, as the litigation works its way through the courts. In the meantime. developers and other industries will have to decide how much of a risk they’re willing to take.

For more, read Sorg’s full story: How a Trump attack on the federal “Waters of the United States” rule imperils the waters of North Carolina.

Environment

Fence at Umstead would be “permanent eyesore,” says NC Parks to RDU Airport Authority

The proposed fence would abut parts of the Reedy Creek Multi-Use Trail, shown at the bottom of the map. Airport officials contend the fence is necessary to keep trespassers off nearby RDU property — land that has been leased to a quarry company for a controversial stone mine. (Map: NC Parks)

The RDU Airport Authority today delayed a vote on an 8-foot high, 8.3-mile fence that would cut through parts of Umstead Park, after meeting with state parks officials who have serious reservations about the project.

The Authority has proposed building the security fence, which would be topped with three rows of barbed wire.

It would abut parts of the Reedy Creek Multi-Use Trail, bisecting it in two places. The trail  is used by tens of thousands of hikers, cyclists and equestrians every year. The fence’s purpose is to keep trespassers off airport property, which intersects with the park.

Bill Sandifer, the Authority’s chief operating officer, told the board that the airport would be seeking a “compromise” to the fence.

“There’s more conversation to be had,” Sandifer said. “We’re taking a short pause. But the fence isn’t going away. We have needs on that side of the airport.”

However, the fence is clearly unpopular not only with park lovers — Umstead is one of the state’s most popular park destinations — but also state officials, who were frank about their opposition to the project.

In a letter dated Jan. 15, D. Reid Wilson, chief deputy secretary of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, which is over the parks system, told the Airport Authority that the proposed fence would create “a permanent eyesore and marring the look and ‘feel’ of the park.”

The proposed fence also “would greatly harm a fundamental purpose of the park, namely to provide public access to a natural setting for people to enjoy nature and improve their physical and mental health,” Wilson wrote. It would also hurt water quality and wildlife habitats.

The fence would cross four large streams, 19 small streams and 29 temporary streams or ditches. “It would damage stream banks, wetlands, and water quality downstream in Umstead Park,” Wilson wrote. It would also “block movements of wildlife, effectively trapping them between airport fences.”

The proposed fence perimeter Map: RDU

To accommodate the fence, RDU would clear cut forested areas and ecological valuable understory for 15 feet on either side of the fence, for a total of 30 feet along the length of the barrier.

The fenced area is also part of a larger 105-acre tract the airport has leased to Wake Stone for a controversial quarry.

Sandifer has justified the need for the fence by saying trespassers are creating legal liabilities for the airport. In addition, Sandifer alleged that trespassers have damaged stream and riparian buffers — 16.5 miles, according to the airport. The airport’s engineering and environmental consultants estimated it would cost $50,000 to $100,000 to repair the damage.

Policy Watch has requested documents showing the extent of the damage and how the costs was calculated.

The Reedy Creek Trail predates the airport and has been part of Umstead Park for 85 years, said Umstead Coalition member Jean Spooner, who opposes the fence and the rock quarry that would be built adjacent to it. The airport over time has expanded its land holdings and infringed on the trail, not the other way around, Spooner said.

“Every park map since the airport was built shows that the trail goes into the airport property,” Spooner said. “We’ve had two major  projects to improve that trail. It’s no secret that it’s there. We didn’t move the trail.” 

Wilson wrote that it would be far too expensive for State Parks to move the Reedy Creek trail, but offered several alternatives to a fence for further discussion. These include hiring additional park rangers, at airport expense, although the cost, Wilson said, would be less than the $2 million to build a fence.

“We believe that enhanced law enforcement presence, coupled with strong public communication alerting bikers that citations will be issued to those illegally accessing RDU property, can serve as an effective deterrent,” Wilson wrote.

Wilson suggested the department could also work with RDU and state and federal agencies to buy or lease nearby 151-acre airport property, known as the “286 tract” and to add it to the park. Federal law prohibits RDU from selling the land that is used for aeronautical use, but it can lease it. RDU can sell property that is for non-aeronautical use.

Airport spokeswoman Crystal Feldman issued a statement saying RDU is seeking a third party to lease 151 acres of land for mountain biking – “a proposal originally included in RDU’s Vision 2040 master plan.”

The Airport Authority is already under public scrutiny for leasing other nearby land to a quarry company, and the fence has further soured some members of the public on the airport’s operations. “This degradation of the visitor experience would likely create among trail users an ongoing negative impression of the airport,” Wilson wrote.

This post has been updated to clarify that RDU can sell property that is for non-aeronautical use.

Environment

2019 warmest on record in North Carolina (and so far, 2020 is no slouch)

The average temperature in 2019 not only set a record as the warmest in North Carolina in more than 120 years years, but it blew that benchmark out of the water.

The statewide average temperature was 61.22 degrees, a full 2.7 degrees warmer than the average measured from 1901 to 2000, according to a blog post by state climatologist Kathie Dello and applied climatologist Corey Davis.

Last year North Carolina tied or broke 881 daily maximum temperature records, which was almost four times the number of broken or tied daily minimum records, the scientists reported.

May and September were among the top five warmest months, as was October. Remember October? Remember the sun searing your scalp at high noon? The Raleigh-Durham International Airport hit 100 degrees on Oct. 3, the first time the reporting station ever experienced its yearly high during that month, according to the National Weather Service..

So if it seems hotter to you, it’s not your imagination. In the past 30 years, North Carolina has recorded each of its five warmest years on record — 2019, 1990, 2017, 2016 and 1998 – along with 10 of its 30 warmest years.

None of those years were among North Carolina’s 30 coolest years on record.

The trees are shedding their blossoms in Nash Square in downtown Raleigh, Jan. 14, 2020. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

2020 has started with 14 consecutive days of above-average temperatures/ These are occurring  not only during the day, but at night as well. The low on Jan. 13 at RDU was 64. The average: 31 degrees.

Weather Underground, which provides historical data from the National Weather Service, shows that the daily average temperature –add the high and the low and divide by 2 — has been off the charts. Just yesterday, the daily average was 64.64 degrees. The historical “normal”: 41.

Dello and Davis delivered more bad news about our changing climate: In North Carolina, the climate is projected to warm anywhere from 4 to 10 degrees by the end of the century.

“Benchmarks like this record don’t just make for coffee-shop small talk; they’re the evidence in the case pointing to this global phenomenon hitting us here in our backyard. These numbers and records have actual consequences and translate into impacts – to our people and our livelihoods,” they wrote.

Environment

US House passes bill regulating PFAS; Dan Bishop, Mark Meadows among the no votes

US Rep. Richard Hudson of Concord was among three Republicans who voted for the PFAS Action Act. He was a bill co-sponsor. (Official photo)

The US House this morning passed the PFAS Action Act, 247-159, which would strengthen the nearly non-existent regulations for toxic perfluorinated compounds. PFAS are widespread in the environment, particularly in groundwater, surface water and drinking water. The compounds are found throughout North Carolina, where it has contaminated drinking water.

The bill had bipartisan support among the North Carolina delegation. Democrats David Price, G.K. Butterfield and Alma Adams voted for the bill, as did Republicans George Holding, David Rouzer and Richard Hudson.

Hudson, who represents the Eighth Congressional District, successfully added two amendments to the bill, one that directs the EPA to investigate methods to prevent contamination by GenX of surface waters, including sources of drinking water; and another that makes communities impacted by GenX contamination  eligible for certain grants.

GenX is a type of perfluorinated compound.

“Until I know the science behind GenX, until I know exactly what safe levels and unsafe levels of exposure are, and until we can adequately clean up the exposure we’ve had in North Carolina, I am not going to be satisfied. While I understand it takes time to develop the scientific evidence to make these decisions, my neighbors are tired of waiting. We must act now,” Hudson wrote in a prepared statement.

Voting against the measure were Republicans Dan Bishop, Virginia Foxx, Greg Murphy, who is also a doctor; Mark Meadows, Tedd Budd and Patrick McHenry.

Rep. Mark Walker did not vote.

US Rep Dan Bishop was one of six Republicans who voted against the bill. Bishop represents the Ninth District, which includes parts of Cumberland and Bladen counties. Both those counties have PFAS contamination. (Official photo)

PFAS, of which there are thousands, are used in myriad products, including Teflon cookware, floor waxes, water- and stain-resistant upholstery and clothing, food packaging, and firefighting foams. Exposure to these compounds has been linked to several types of cancer, ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol, high blood pressure during pregnancy, low birth weight, and thyroid disorders.  

The bill is expansive. If it becomes law, it would enact regulations that the EPA so far as failed to do.

  • Designating PFAS has a hazardous substance, including hazardous air pollutants, which would make them subject to stronger regulations, including those regarding their storage and disposal;
  • Requiring the EPA to set enforceable drinking water standards; 
  • Requiring public water systems to test and monitor for the compounds (grants and other financial help would be available for cash-strapped or small systems);
  • Adding PFOA, PFAS, GenX and two other compounds to the Toxics Release Inventory (the TRI is a public database where companies report their discharges and emissions of certain chemicals);
  • Providing guidance on minimizing the use of firefighting foam; and
  • Expanding EPAs Safer Choice program to alert consumers to household products made with PFAS.

The measure now goes to the Senate. If it passes that chamber, President Trump could still veto it. Trump has threatened to veto a comprehensive national defense bill that contained PFAS provisions because he believes the cleanup levels are too onerous for the military to meet.

Environment

DEQ proposes permanent regulations for “forever chemicals” PFOA, PFOS

The Cape Fear River is contaminated with PFAS, some of it from groundwater seeps originating at the Chemours plant in north Bladen County. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

North Carolina could enact stronger environmental standards for one type of PFAS, also known as perfluorinated compounds, toxic chemicals that are widespread not only statewide but throughout the world.

The NC Department of Environmental Quality is proposing a maximum concentration of 0.07 parts per billion for PFOS and for PFOA, known as “forever chemicals” because they persist in the human body and the environment for decades.

They are used in myriad products, including Teflon cookware, floor waxes, water- and stain-resistant upholstery and clothing, food packaging, and firefighting foams.

Exposure to these compounds, of which there are thousands, has been linked to several types of cancer, ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol, high blood pressure during pregnancy, low birth weight, and thyroid disorders.

DEQ will discuss the proposed standard at a meeting of the Environmental Management Commission’s Groundwater and Waste Committee today at 3 p.m. The meeting will be held in the Ground Floor Hearing Room of the Archdale Building, 512 N. Salisbury St., in Raleigh. For those who can’t attend, audio of the meeting will be streamed.

PFOA and PFOS are just two of the 47 chemicals and compounds for which DEQ is recommending permanent groundwater standards. Others include strontium, beryllium and many herbicides and pesticides.

Most of these chemicals already have an Interim Maximum Allowable Concentration, but IMACs, as they’re called, are only temporary.

The distinction between an IMAC and a permanent groundwater standard is important. Although both are legally enforceable, the establishment of an IMAC requires no public input. Under state law, anyone can petition DEQ for an IMAC, which is set solely by the director of the Division of Water Resources.

The procedure for establishing a permanent groundwater standard is more formal. It requires approval by the Environmental Management Commission, a public comment period, public hearing, and fiscal analysis.

PFOA has an Interim Maximum Allowable Concentration of 2 ppb. The proposed new permanent standard of 0.07 ppb is stronger.

New toxicological information prompted the change, according to DEQ documents.

For PFOS, there is no IMAC, so it’s subject to a different state law. That law says any chemical that isn’t naturally occurring and doesn’t have an interim standard — such as PFOS —  can’t exceed the “Practical Quantitation Limit.”

This limit is not based on health risks or exposure, but rather, laboratory considerations. It is legally defined as “the lowest concentration that can be reliably achieved among laboratories within specified limits of precision and accuracy by a given analytical method during routine laboratory analysis.”

The Practical Quantitation Limit for PFOS is 0.002 ppb. The proposed groundwater standard is weaker.

Other states that have standards or guidance for PFOA and PFOS:

  • Connecticut set a “private well action level” at 0.07 ppb for either compound or the sum of both.
  • Minnesota established a “health-based value” of 0.035 ppb for PFOA and 0.027 ppb for PFOS
  • Vermont passed an enforceable standard of  0.02 ppb.

If the EMC ultimately approves these standards, the decision could affect the degree and cost of cleanup levels at and around the Chemours plant, where PFOA and PFOS, as well as other similar compounds persist in the groundwater and surface water.

A fiscal analysis provided by DEQ notes that the strengthening standards for PFOA “could potentially increase remediation costs” at sites where it is the primary contaminants. But those costs “would be either fully or partially offset by the potential savings” from a weaker standard for PFOS.

Last month, Chemours submitted to DEQ a proposed groundwater Corrective Action Plan to reduce the contamination at and around the plant. Under a Consent Order, the company must  Within the 119-page document, Chemours says that it cannot meet the Practical Quantitation Limit ,in part because given the current technology, it would cost billions of dollars to remediate such an extensive area of groundwater contamination — at least 70 square miles or the equivalent of three Chapel Hills.

Groundwater on plant property became contaminated primarily through leaks and spills; off-site, the contamination occurred through atmospheric deposition. Contaminants entered the air through the stacks, rode on the wind and fell to the surface where they entered the groundwater.

Next, the Groundwater and Waste Management Committee can send DEQ’s recommendations to the full Environmental Management Commission. In turn, the EMC can then hold public hearings and a formal public comment period as early as April.