agriculture, Environment

Durham officials tighten loopholes on illegal dumping near Falls Lake, but enforcement remains lax

For a year, state officials have ordered Jim Puryear, the owner of 101 Southview Road in Durham, to plant vegetation on his land to curb erosion after an illegal dumping operation polluted a stream and wetlands near Falls Lake. This photo, taken Dec. 1, 2019, shows nothing has been planted. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Years of illegal dumping near Falls Lake finally prompted Durham County officials to strengthen rules on what constitutes “beneficial fill” — used to improve farmland — and what is merely trash disguised as dirt.

Durham County Commissioners last week approved changes to the Unified Development Ordinance that require more accountability from landowners who want to use beneficial fill. 

The commission passed the amendment by a 3-1 vote. James Hill voted no; Brenda Howerton was absent from the meeting.

Durham City Council had already approved the changes earlier in November. 

Durham County Commissioner Wendy Jacobs: “This is very serious.” (Photo: Durham County)

Landowners who want to use beneficial fill now have to apply to the county, said Ryan Eaves, Durham County’s Stormwater Control and Erosion manager. They must detail their proposed activity, including the source of the fill material, and how long the disposal will occur.

“Sedimentation sounds benign,” said Commissioner Ellen Reckhow. But when dirt accumulates in waterways it leads to more flooding. Contaminants can also hitchhike on the sediment particles, further polluting the waterways. 

“iI’s an environmental issue and a safety issue,” Reckhow said.

However, several people who live near the lake and the illegal dump sites objected to the amendments, saying they are still insufficient to protect the water supply for a half million people downstream and those on neighboring private drinking water wells.

“The proposed changes aren’t going to stop the environmental abuse,” Ruth McDaniel, a farmer and soil scientist who lives on Benny Ross Road, adjacent to a former illegal dump site, told the commission. “It’s are not the best that our community can produce, and I ask that changes not be enacted until there is more stakeholder input.”

State law defines beneficial fill as dirt, asphalt and concrete, whose purpose is “to improve land use potential or other approved beneficial reuses.” 

Dumping has occurred at these five addresses near Falls Lake. With the exception of 2817 Baptist Road, the other locations have been shut down by either county or state officials — or both. Russell Stoutt is responsible for the illegal dumping at Kingsmill Farm, Benny Ross Road and Southview Road, according to state and county documents.

But at least one illegal dumper has outmaneuvered county officials for three years. Policy Watch previously reported on three parcels — 550 Benny Ross Road, 101 Southview Road and 201 Southview Road — where hundreds tons of dirt infiltrated with trash and other unknown substances had been dumped under the guise of beneficial fill.

All of the sites lie within a half-mile of Falls Lake; the acreage is also veined with streams that flow into the drinking water reservoir.

Russell Stoutt owns the eight-acre Benny Ross Road property. The county and the NC Department of Environmental Quality together fined him nearly $100,000 for erosion and water quality violations. However, Stoutt has yet to pay the penalty, and the case is in litigation.

McDaniel told the commission that the county has not enforced existing regulations regarding illegal dumping. For example, after county officials ordered Stoutt to stop dumping on Benny Ross Road, he continued for another four months, McDaniel said. 

“We were calling for inspections because it hadn’t stopped,” she said. “Russell knows we’re watching him. It just starts somewhere else.”

After the county forced Stoutt to stop dumping on Benny Ross Road, he began hauling dirt and trash to the Southview Road parcels, which are owned by Jim Puryear of Wendell. Stoutt filled in parts of wetlands and streams that contribute to the environmental health of the Falls Lake watershed. 

Because property owners are responsible for activity on their land, Puryear was fined $22,000 by DEQ for the Southview Road violations. For nearly a year state officials have ordered Puryear to plant grass or other vegetation to keep the erosion in check. As of Dec. 1, there was none — just packed mud after a recent rain.

New language also limits the height of dirt stockpiles. At Benny Ross Road, Stoutt had piled dirt 40 feet high, with steep slopes that threatened to collapse.  Read more

Environment, News

New report makes it clear procrastination is no longer an option in addressing climate change

Policy Watch has written extensively this year about efforts by utility companies, elected officials and even coastal communities to address the growing threats posed by climate change.

But a new study released Tuesday from the United Nations suggests countries have not done nearly enough to lower global greenhouse gas emissions, and we all face dire consequences with further procrastination. Here’s more on the findings in the Washington Post:

Amid that growing pressure to act, Tuesday’s U.N. report offers a grim assessment of how off-track the world remains. Global temperatures are on pace to rise as much as 3.9 degrees Celsius (7 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century, according to the United Nations’ annual “emissions gap” report, which assesses the difference between the world’s current path and the changes needed to meet the goals of the 2015 Paris climate accord.

As part of that deal, world leaders agreed to hold warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius compared with preindustrial levels; the current trajectory is nearly twice that.

Should that pace continue, scientists say, the result could be widespread, catastrophic effects: Coral reefs, already dying in some places, would probably dissolve in increasingly acidic oceans. Some coastal cities, already wrestling with flooding, would be constantly inundated by rising seas. In much of the world, severe heat, already intense, could become unbearable.

Global greenhouse gas emissions must begin falling by 7.6 percent each year beginning 2020 — a rate currently nowhere in sight — to meet the most ambitious aims of the Paris climate accord, the report issued early Tuesday found. Its authors acknowledged that the findings are “bleak.” After all, the world has never demonstrated the ability to cut greenhouse gas emissions on such a scale.
AD

“Our collective failure to act early and hard on climate change means we now must deliver deep cuts to emissions,” Inger Andersen, executive director of the U.N. Environment Program, said in a statement announcing the findings. “We need to catch up on the years in which we procrastinated.”

The sobering report comes at a critical moment, when it remains unclear whether world leaders can summon the political will to take the ambitious action scientists say is essential. So far, the answer has been no.

Global emissions have risen about 1.5 percent annually on average over the past decade. In the coming decade, that trend must reverse — profoundly and rapidly — if world leaders are to limit the Earth’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) or even 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) compared with preindustrial levels, scientists say.

The world already has warmed more than 1 degree Celsius.

Tuesday’s report, which is viewed as the benchmark of the world’s progress in meeting its climate goals, underscores how the pledges that nations made years ago in Paris are woefully inadequate to achieving the goals of the accord. To hold warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, the authors found that countries would need to triple the ambition of their current promises. To hit the more ambitious target of no more than 1.5 degrees of warming, they found, nations would need to ramp up their pledges fivefold.

“Every year of delay beyond 2020 brings a need for faster cuts, which become increasingly expensive, unlikely and impractical,” the report states. “Delays will also quickly put the 1.5C goal out of reach.”

A Washington Post analysis this year found that roughly 20 percent of the world has already warmed to troubling levels. Slowing future warming will require monumental changes, such as phasing out gas-powered cars, halting the construction of coal-fired power plants and overhauling how humans grow food and manage land.

Click here to read the full article in the Post.

Click here to read the full annual Emissions Gap Report (or here for a shorter executive summary).

For more environmental reporting in North Carolina, please follow Lisa Sorg on Policy Watch.

Environment, News

Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles tells U.S. Congress: climate change ‘hits us at home’

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord made it even more important for U.S. cities to tackle climate change at the local level, Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles (pictured at left) testified on Capitol Hill Wednesday.

Climate change “really hits us at home,” she said before the U.S. House Appropriations Committee, where she testified about her city’s environmental sustainability efforts.

Those local actions became increasingly critical in light of the Trump’s decision to exit the landmark Paris agreement, she said.

“In Charlotte, when that happened, it just heightened our awareness and our need to move more aggressively towards our own plan and it is something that our citizens wanted us to do,” she said. “The impact of withdrawal made it actually more imperative at the local level for us to begin to do this work.”

The administration has long planned to exit the accord, but officially notified the international community earlier this month that it intends to withdraw. Critics of Trump’s move have called it short-sighted and warn that it will significantly hamper global efforts to combat climate change.

“American leadership, as in so many other areas, is absolutely essential, is not being provided, and the withdrawal from the Paris agreement, of course, is the most obvious indicator of that,” said former Obama administration Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who also testified at Wednesday’s hearing.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper announced in 2017 that the state would join others in committing to reduce their share of the greenhouse gas emissions targets laid out in the Paris climate deal. In 2018, Cooper signed an executive order that calls on the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 40% below 2005 levels by 2025.

Lyle said in her testimony that Charlotte supports that executive order. The city also supports Duke Energy’s goal of net-zero carbon by 2050.

“Achieving a low-carbon future for Charlotte will require a transformational change in the way we consume and generate energy and how we manage our waste stream,” she said. We know that this will be challenging and require new and innovative ideas, research, projects and collaborations. It will require government agencies, companies and organizations to look at their role, as well as residents to look at how they are using energy each day.”

She also stressed the importance of addressing greenhouse gas emissions from cars in an area that grew with a great deal of sprawl.

“If I could wave a magic wand in our city, I would actually reduce the number of cars that we have because traffic congestion means greenhouse gases and it means that we will have bad air for all of our children and that creates public health issues,” she said.

Robin Bravender is the Washington bureau chief of the States Newsroom network, of which NC Policy Watch is a member.

Environment, News

28 N.C. Superfund sites threatened by climate change — watchdog agency

WASHINGTON — Twenty-eight of the most contaminated sites in North Carolina are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, according to a new report from a government watchdog agency.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), an independent agency that works for the U.S. Congress, assessed how impacts of climate change — including flooding, storm surge, wildfires and sea level rise — might impact some of the most dangerous hazardous waste sites around the country. The agency looked at 1,336 “active” sites on U.S. EPA’s National Priorities List and 421 “deleted” sites where EPA had determined no further cleanup was needed.

Nationwide, about 60% of those sites are located in places that might be impacted by the effects of climate change, the report found. GAO looked only at non-federal sites, which means the agency excluded the roughly 10% of Superfund sites owned or operated by the federal government.

In North Carolina, 28 of the 40 active and deleted sites surveyed and analyzed by GAO are in areas deemed vulnerable to wildfires, sea level rise, storm surge or flooding.

Those include the Aberdeen Pesticide Dumps site in Moore County, the Ram Leather Care site of a former dry-cleaning facility in Charlotte and the Wright Chemical Corp. site in Riegelwood. All three of those sites are in areas with high wildfire potential, according to GAO. The Wright Chemical Corp. is also at risk from sea level rise, storm surge and flooding.

GAO warned in its report that the impacts of climate change could pose risks to public health by spreading pollution from such sites. The agency pointed to the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in 2017, when an unprecedented amount of rainfall dumped on Houston, damaging Superfund sites and releasing toxic materials.

According to GAO, EPA’s strategic plan from 2018 to 2022 “does not include goals and objectives related to climate change or discuss strategies for addressing the impacts of climate change effects.” EPA officials interviewed by GAO said that the agency doesn’t always include climate change when it’s assessing risks at Superfund sites.

Under the Trump administration, the EPA has rolled back many of the Obama administration’s policies to address climate change by curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

The Trump EPA told GAO it believes the Superfund program adequately considers the risks of severe weather events.

Democratic lawmakers in the U.S. House and Senate sent a letter to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler on Monday expressing concern over GAO’s findings and over EPA’s response.

“We believe that EPA’s refusal to implement GAO’s recommendations could result in real harm to human health and the environment as the effects of climate change become more frequent and intense,” the lawmakers wrote. They asked EPA to answer a series of questions by next month about how it plans to address the risks climate change poses to Superfund sites.

Robin Bravender is the Washington bureau chief for the States Newsroom Network, of which NC Policy Watch is a member.

Environment

Because of PFAS contamination, Gray’s Creek Elementary to remain on bottled water

Inside the Sweeney water treatment plant at the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority. Although levels of GenX have decreased over the past two years since Chemours stopped discharging the compound into the Cape Fear River, water entering the plant is still contaminated with 1,4-Dioxane and PFAS from upstream industrial discharge. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

Students at Gray’s Creek Elementary School will remain on bottled water for at least another six months after recent tests showed drinking water wells contained perfluorinated compounds — PFAS — and GenX.

Chemours tested the drinking water well in late October at the request of the Cumberland County School system. Samples results show GenX levels of 6 parts per trillion and two individual PFAS levels of  34 ppt and 13 ppt.

DEQ has advised people not to drink water with PFAS levels of above 10 ppt for a single compound or a combined total of 70 ppt. The NC Department of Health and Human Services has set a health advisory goal of 140 ppt for GenX.

Exposure to PFAS and GenX have been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, high cholesterol, high blood pressure during pregnancy, thyroid disorders, low birth weight and other health problems.

Gray’s Creek enrolls more than 400 students in Pre-K through fifth grade; it lies five miles north of Chemours, in Hope Mills.

The school has been on bottled water since 2017, when GenX at levels of 5 ppt were initially detected in the drinking water wells.

A Chemours spokeswoman said the company is working with Cumberland County Schools and DEQ to quickly determine the most effective and feasible replacement drinking water system for Gray’s Creek Elementary School.

As part of a consent order with DEQ and Cape Fear River Watch, Chemours must provide and maintain permanent water systems to any public building, including schools, whose water is contaminated with GenX or PFAS. The most recent sampling results now require Chemours to provide a permanent alternate water system within six months. Until that time, the school will remain on bottled water, DEQ said.

Alderman Road Elementary School, which is located nearby was resampled in June 2019; results provided in September showed non-detection for GenX and other PFAS compounds, according to DEQ.

Downstream, some schools in New Hanover and Brunswick County are on public systems whose water is also contaminated. However, the consent order is limited to businesses, schools and homes that are on private drinking water wells; it does not apply to those on public systems.

Cape Fear Public Utility Authority tests from October showed total PFAS levels, including GenX, in treated water from the Sweeny plant at 330 ppt. Concentrations of 1,4-Dioxane, a likely human carcinogen, have decreased over the past three months, from 1.3 parts per billion in September, to 0.82 ppb last month. That is still above the EPA’s health goal of 0.35 ppb for drinking water.

At the Brunswick County Northwest Plant, sampling conducted in October showed GenX at levels of 14 ppt and 13.2 ppt. Testing detected 18 PFAS compounds at a total concentration of 390 ppt.

CFPUA and Brunswick County are suing Chemours in separate lawsuits.

This story has been corrected to say Chemours, not DEQ, tested the drinking water supply at Gray’s Creek Elementary.