Commentary, Defending Democracy, Education, Environment, Legislature, News, Voting

The week’s top stories on NC Policy Watch

1. Lack of support for power-grabbing amendments speaks volumes

There are a lot of strange – even downright bizarre – aspects to the ongoing effort by North Carolina Republican legislators to pass a slate of six constitutional amendments during this fall’s election.

There is, for instance, the absurd dearth of process that accompanied the approval of the amendments during the final harried days of the 2018 legislative session. Ideally, constitutional amendments are accompanied by weeks, or even months, of debate, multiple public hearings, lengthy oral testimony and written analyses from academics and other experts, detailed findings from study commissions and extended opportunities for the public at-large and various interest groups to weigh in.

This year, however, few, if any, of those things were present. Instead, lawmakers rammed through all six amendments during the final week of June. Two of the amendments were then actually rewritten in a single day at the end of August – just a handful of days prior to the distribution of absentee ballots. [Read more…]

2. PFAS, but not GenX, found in blood of residents living near Chemours plant

Four types of fluorinated compounds were detected in blood samples of all 30 people tested who live near the Chemours plant, although none of the compounds was GenX, the NC Department of Health and Human Services announced today.

In July, DHHS, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Cumberland County Health Department tested for 17 types of fluorinated compounds in the blood and urine of 30 people living near the facility, which abuts the Bladen-Cumberland county line.

All of the people who voluntarily participated in the program use well water for their household needs. Many of the private wells, plus rainwater, lakes, soil, groundwater and even honey have tested positive for fluorinated compounds. [Read more…]

**Bonus read: Last chance for the red wolf? Advocates ask federal judge to intervene to preserve endangered species

3. Questions linger about victims’ rights constitutional amendment, big budget campaign

Early voting started Wednesday, which means North Carolinians will finally get to decide on six proposed constitutional amendments, including one that would bolster crime victims’ rights.

At first glance, voting on an amendment to enhance victims’ rights may seem like a no-brainer, but like many issues, it’s not so black and white. Supporters of the amendment say victims need teeth in the law to assert their rights. Opponents say victims’ rights already are enshrined in the constitution and enhancing them should be done by statute, not by an experimental amendment. [Read more…]

**Bonus read: 3-judge panel rules Board of Elections, Ethics Enforcement structure unconstitutional

4. Battle looms as state officials propose takeover of Goldsboro elementary school

If North Carolina goes forward with the recommendation to allow a private charter operator to take control of a Goldsboro elementary school, they should expect a stubborn resistance, the school’s principal told Policy Watch Wednesday.

“You’re bringing in outside people, but Wayne County is a unique district,” said Carver Heights Elementary Principal Cortrina Smith. “You are going to consistently receive pushback, because we don’t know you, but you’re in my house and you’re trying to tell us what to do. You don’t know my kids, you don’t know my community.”

Smith is in her third year as principal at the struggling Goldsboro school, which serves a predominantly poor population in eastern North Carolina. But if the State Board of Education approves the so-called Innovative School District’s (ISD) recommendation this week to turn over operations and leadership in the elementary to a yet-to-be-named private operator, the school may see many of its teachers and administrators, including Smith, scuttled in the next year. [Read more…]

**Bonus read: NC’s latest school takeover experiment will deny Goldsboro students the education they deserve

5. Eastern North Carolina residents press for a just hurricane recovery

As lawmakers gathered Monday to approve funding for Hurricane Florence relief, residents and community leaders from Eastern North Carolina came together outside the General Assembly.

They told their personal recovery stories and encouraged lawmakers to put recovery money – and their political power – where it’s most needed.

The Just Florence Recovery Collective represents more than 25 community organizations and dozens of impacted residents. Its goal: to shed a light on racial and class disparities that have made storm damage worse and recovery slower in North Carolina’s poorest and encourage those in power to reverse the trend and make those communities whole.

Bobby Jones of the Down East Coal Ash Coalition came from Goldsboro where, he said, “part of our community has been used as a dumping ground for Duke Energy’s 6 million tons of poisonous coal ash.” [Read more…]

**Bonus read: Legislature, Cooper make headway on hurricane recovery, but vexing longer-term issues loom

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Join us October 30th for the latest polling and prognostications from PPP’s Tom Jensen

The 2018 election is headed into the homestretch and early voting is already underway. Join us as we learn the details of where things stand and what the political world is likely to look like on November 7 with one of America’s premier pollsters, Tom Jensen of Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling.

Tom Jensen has been the Director of Public Policy Polling since 2007. During that time he has overseen thousands of polling projects, covering everything from Presidential and Senate races to County Commissioner and School Board races all over the country. He is the voice behind PPP’s popular Twitter account, which has more than 100,000 followers.

Register today for our next Crucial Conversation!

agriculture, Environment, Legislature

This Week in Pollution: PFAS in drinking water, Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s secret drilling fluids, plus hog farm odor complaints

Firefighting foam pours from a hose after a training exercise. (Photo: US Department of Defense)

It costs the City of Greensboro, make that the ratepayers, $9,000 a month, plus $1,000 a day, for a treatment system to reduce and remove per- and poly-fluorinated compounds — PFAS — from the drinking water.

Firefighting foam used in training exercises at Piedmond Triad International Airport is one likely source of the contamination. Foam leaves the runways and tarmacs, then enters Horsebend Creek, which drains north into lakes supplying the city’s water.

Storm water runoff from airports (which could also contain contaminants like jet fuel, oils and other petroleum products) is A-OK by the legislature. In 2017, lawmakers tucked a provision into Senate Bill 8 directing DEQ and local government to give airports a pass on runoff from runways, taxiways, and “any other areas” that flows into grass buffers, shoulders and swales.

Greensboro has learned the hard — and expensive — way that grass isn’t a proven PFAS removal system.

Ten years ago, water entering the city’s treatment plant rarely exceeded the EPA’s health advisory goal of 200 parts per trillion. But since the federal agency lowered the threshold to 70 ppt (for individual compounds or a combination), Greensboro has been forced to rent activated carbon technology to limit the levels in water flowing from hundreds of thousands of taps.

If the EPA further reduces the goal to the single digits, which is possible if not likely, “we’ll need to remove it all,” Mike Borchers, assistant director of the city’s Division of Water Resources said at a drinking water forum sponsored by the Cape Fear River Assembly.

A $30 million upgrade to the water treatment system will help keep the concentrations in check, but stemming the source is the more obvious — and cheaper — solution.

Is my water safe? “That’s not a simple answer,” Rebecca Sadosky, NC DEQ’s drinking water protection program coordinator, told the forum attendees. “There have always been things in the drinking water.”

Hardly heartwarming, but the fact is that safe water doesn’t equal risk-free water. As detection technology improves, scientists and regulators are finding unforeseen contaminants, such 1,4 dioxane and GenX and other fluorinated compounds in our water supplies.

In addition to the pesky problem of plastic, bottled water isn’t necessarily better. The water could be sourced from another public system, which might have its own treatment issues. Bottled water isn’t regulated by the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Act, but rather the FDA. Heads up, La Croix fans: Sparkling water is regulated as a soft drink.

University scientists from throughout the state will sample 190 surface water intakes at public water systems, plus groundwater wells serving another 158 municipalities, as part of the NC Policy Collaboratory’s PFAS project.

Funded by a $5 million appropriation by the legislature, the project also includes studying the vulnerability of private wells to PFAS and developing treatment technologies to remove the compounds. Other science teams will analyze air emissions and atmospheric deposition of the compounds, such as Gen X.

The Collaboratory is required to file quarterly progress reports with the Environmental Review Commission. The first one was published on Oct. 1.

Air emissions are one source of drinking water contamination for residents living near the Chemours plant on the Bladen-Cumberland county line. Compounds leave the plant’s smokestacks and then fall to the ground, seeping into private water supplies.

So it’s not surprising that four types of PFAS (but not Gen X) were found in the blood of all 30 people who volunteered for a test conducted by the NC Department of Health and Human Services, Policy Watch reported this week. These residents live near the Chemours plant and depend on well water. 

Waterways in North Carolina can’t get a break. Some ingredients in drilling fluids and additives used for construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline are deemed “trade secrets.” Unless Dominion and Duke Energy decide you’re on a need-to-know-basis, it’s impossible to (legally) know what’s in them.

They call it an inadvertent return. Most people would call it a toxic spill. (Photo: Atlantic Coast Pipeline federal filings)

When these drilling fluids, also known as “mud,” spill — and they do spill — it is known in Orwellian terms as “an inadvertent return.” The Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC’s own federal filings say that if this ahem, return “occurs in a waterbody it will be more difficult to contain because the fluid will be dispersed into the water and carried downstream.”

From water to air: At a recent meeting of the Environmental Management Commission, member Marion Deerhake asked DEQ staff to supply statistics on odor complaints from industrialized hog farms, back to 2000 when the agency began collecting the data.

DEQ is still digging up numbers from early years of the program, but from 2012 to 2017, there were a total of 34.

Here are the statistics by year:

  • 2012             11
  • 2013               5
  • 2014               4
  • 2015               2
  • 2016               3
  • 2017               9

Judging from testimony in the three hog nuisance trials, many, if not most people don’t know how to file a complaint or whom to complain to. Start with Debra Watts, supervisor of DEQ’s Animal Feeding Operations branch: 919-707-3670 or debra.watts@ncdenr.gov .

Environment

PFAS, but not GenX, found in blood of residents living near Chemours plant

Jimmy Dew’s family owns Marshwood Lake, just northeast of the Chemours plant. He spoke earlier this year at a public information session in Bladen County. His family’s well has been contaminated with fluorinated compounds. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

Four types of fluorinated compounds were detected in blood samples of all 30 people tested who live near the Chemours plant, although none of the compounds was GenX, the NC Department of Health and Human Services announced today.

In July, DHHS, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Cumberland County Health Department tested for 17 types of fluorinated compounds in the blood and urine of 30 people living near the facility, which abuts the Bladen-Cumberland county line.

All of the people who voluntarily participated in the program use well water for their household needs. Many of the private wells, plus rainwater, lakes, soil, groundwater and even honey have tested positive for fluorinated compounds.

All study participants had some level of PFHxS in their blood. It is often found in carpet and firefighting foam.  

Also detected in all blood samples, the compounds n-PFOA, n-PFOS, and Sm-PFOS are variations of C8. It is used to make non-stick coatings, including Teflon, and can be found in fast food wrappers, pizza boxes, and microwave popcorn bags.

Although manufacturers like DuPont have phased out their use of C8 — replacing it with GenX — the compound persists for years in the human body and the environment. C8 is classified as “likely carcinogenic,” which means they can cause cancer. However, not everyone who is exposed to these compounds develops cancer. The compounds can also cause low birth weight, high cholesterol, a depressed immune system, reproductive and developmental problems, and thyroid and hormonal disorders.

C8 is the compound that triggered the class-action lawsuit by residents who drank well water contaminated by discharge from the DuPont plant in Parkersburg, WV. DuPont paid $670 million to settle the litigation.

The median detection levels of PFHxS and n-PFOS in the 30 North Carolina residents were higher than that of the US population. Median is the midpoint between the lowest and highest readings.

The highest level of PFHxS in blood among study participants was 6.7 parts per billion. By comparison, 95 percent the US population tested has levels of 5.6 ppb or below, according to 2013-14 data from the CDC.

Similarly, the highest level of n-PFOS among the study participants was 34.6 parts per billion. In the general US population, it was 14 ppb. People who drank from wells near the Parkersburg, WV, plant had median levels of 38 ppb.

Other findings included:

  • Nine of 17 fluorinated compounds were found in the blood of at least one of the participants. The other eight were not detected at all.
  • Only one fluorinated compound was found in urine, and that was at the lowest detectable level.

The sample size was small because the CDC could not test more people. Each household could have a limit of one adult and one child from 12 to 17 years old. No infants, toddlers or young children were tested.

The Environmental Protection Agency was expected to release its guidance on groundwater cleanup of fluorinated compounds, as well as human health toxicity values and a PFAS management plan as soon as last month. An EPA spokesperson told Policy Watch that the agency “continues to work toward releasing the toxicity values in the coming weeks, the groundwater cleanup values and management plan this year.”

 
Environment, News

Lawmakers expected to approve nearly $800 million in hurricane relief

House Speaker Tim Moore (L) and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger (R)

North Carolina state lawmakers are expected to speedily approve almost $800 million in hurricane relief this week, legislators announced over the weekend.

The news follows Gov. Roy Cooper’s call last week for the state to open up its pocketbook and spend from its $2 billion “rainy-day fund” after Hurricane Florence battered the state last month.

From WRAL’s report Monday morning:

When lawmakers gather Monday afternoon, they plan to approve nearly $800 million in Hurricane Florence relief funding, legislative leaders said over the weekend.

Gov. Roy Cooper had asked for $1.5 billion in state funding for the storm recovery, with $750 million of that upfront and approved during this week’s special legislative session.

Lawmakers noted that the administration’s needs estimates were preliminary, based largely on computer modeling of the storm damage as opposed to in-person analysis. Leadership said in a news release that they want to keep “maximum flexibility” as more information comes in, and that their initial appropriation would total $794 million.

“Some assessed needs may shift considerably over time as federal aid becomes clearer and damage assessments continue,” Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore said in a joint statement. “Education needs, for example, are particularly preliminary.”

Leadership did not release a breakdown of how the money would be spent. More details should be available when the House and Senate appropriations committees go into joint session at 4 p.m.

The initial recovery package may be completely approved by Monday night. Most of the funding will come from the state’s $2 billion “rainy day” reserve fund and will not require a tax increase.

Billions more will likely flow from the federal government and from private insurance claims tied to the storm and the subsequent flooding, which was historic in much of southeastern North Carolina. Private groups are working to help repair homes as well. Many people, though, will likely never be made whole.

House Appropriations Chairman Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, said in the weekend release that school repairs will be the top priority in the state’s package, along with cleanup, road and local infrastructure repairs and fully funding the state’s match for federal recovery dollars.

Lawmakers already approved $56 million in Florence recovery aid two weeks ago. That money was earmarked to pay teachers and other school staff whose schools were closed for an extended period and to provide initial matching funds for federal aid.

It remains to be seen how the dollars will be spent.

Cooper’s proposal considered not only the damage to homes and small businesses, but also pledged cash to reeling farmers, relocating homes in the state’s floodplains, and expanding a buyout program in order to move hog farm pits, one of multiple looming environmental concerns exacerbated by storm flooding.

There’s been no word that legislators intend to take up more divisive matters. Lawmakers were roundly criticized for their jabs at then-incoming Gov. Cooper in December 2016 as they convened to fund relief for Hurricane Matthew.

Look for updates from Policy Watch as lawmakers gather.

Environment

This Week in Pollution: Have you read ‘The Road’? 20-year climate change estimates suggest you should.

Holiday reading for your favorite nihilist

 

“Perhaps in the world’s destruction it would be possible at last to see how it was made.” — The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

Because holidays are supposed to be a joyous time spent with friends and family, I instead read The Road over Christmas in 2006. Between stringing lights and hanging cat stockings, I delved into a future ridden with cannibals and consumption, extinction and the apocalypse.

Not to be a Debbie Downer, but I thought of that book this week when, in addition to Hurricane Michael, its intensity as a near-Category 5  linked to climate change, the international science panel announced that by 2040 parts of the our warming planet (the only one we have, by the way) will likely be uninhabitable.

If fossil fuel emissions continue on their current trajectory, increased wildfires, droughts and floods will cause some species — such as the mass die-offs of coral reefs — to go extinct. Environmental refugees, displacement and poverty from climate change will irreversibly alter where and how we live.

This dystopic scenario, just 22 years away, can be blunted if countries rein in their carbon dioxide and methane emissions. But don’t count on America to be among those trying to preserve a livable future. The Trump administration is relaxing regulations on coal-fired power plants and vehicle emissions, both major sources of carbon dioxide.

Lost among all the hurricane coverage was the troubling development that the US Senate this week confirmed Jeffrey Bossert Clark, an attorney for BP Oil who has disputed the science of climate change, as the nation’s top environmental lawyer, according to Inside Climate News.

It could be worse. Jim Womack could be the nation’s top environmental lawyer. Instead, Womack, the chairman of the state’s Oil and Gas Commission, still wants the nine-member board to take that very, very expensive taxpayer-funded field trip to Pennsylvania to observe fracking operations. Because what could be more rewarding than scoring a front-row seat to climate change: watching fossil fuels be sucked from beneath the earth while leaking methane into the atmosphere? The commission meets Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. — four hours you’ll never get back — in the Ground Floor Hearing Room of the Archdale Building, on the north end of Halifax Mall.

Well, this is just offal: A rendering plant in Bertie County and the Smithfield hog slaughter plant in Bladen County made two national Top 10 list of processors discharging the most nitrogen into nearby waterways. Too much nitrogen in water contributes to algae growth, which can strain water treatment plants, kill fish and in some cases, be toxic.

Valley Proteins “processes” — grinds up, drains and heats — fat, bone and animal hides, which can be used to make bone meal or pet food. But converting the innards and skin releases wastewater containing nitrogen, an average of 1,429 pounds a day, into the Roanoke River.

As for the Smithfield, whose ginormous plant in Tar Heel is the largest such facility in the world, it discharges more than 1,700 pounds per day.

Both facilities have federal and state discharge permits.

Based in Washington, D.C., the Environmental Integrity Project analyzed federal and state data for plants throughout the US to find Clean Water Act violations and other illegal discharges. It is recommending that state and federal governments more closely regulate the slaughterhouse industry, stepping up enforcement, strengthening outdated EPA standards for water pollution, and tightening state pollution control permits to reduce discharges

What sucks more than sucking pests? The pesticides used to kill the sucking pests. Bayer CropScience, headquartered in RTP, wants to spray the pesticide flupyradifurone on North Carolina’s tobacco crop, even though the compound is known to hurt bees and freshwater mussels. The Center for Biological Diversity has asked the EPA to deny the request.

Flupyradifurone is supposed to be an alternative neonicotinoids, which have been linked to bee die-offs. Meanwhile, the aphids and other insects have grown resistant to the pesticide’s effects.

However, flupyradifurone is chemically similar to neonics, and it is acutely toxic to bees that ingest it.

Endangered freshwater mussel species that could be imperiled from the pesticide include the dwarf wedgemussel, which is found in Swift Creek. That mussel and its habitat are already under siege from urban runoff, and they face further jeopardy from the Complete 540 toll road proposed for southern Wake County. Federal wildlife officials have approved an environmental impact statement for the  multi-billion project, even though the mussels could be virtually wiped out in the wild.

“Suppose you were the last one left? Suppose you did that to yourself?” — The Road