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Who derailed Dionne Delli-Gatti’s confirmation as DEQ Secretary? No one wants to own it.

Dionne Delli-Gatti at her legislative committee confirmation hearing on April 27. (Screenshot from livestream)

Dionne Delli-Gatti waited outside the gallery entrance of the Senate Chamber Thursday afternoon to learn whether she would still have a job by the end of the day. 

She carried a keychain that her 8-year-old son had given her earlier this year after Gov. Roy Cooper nominated her to lead the NC Department of Environmental Quality, one of the state’s most complex agencies. 

The keychain read “No. 1 Secretary.”

But her position as the first woman to lead the department was in doubt. On Wednesday, the Senate Agriculture, Energy and Environment committee had voted down her nomination, a move without modern precedent. Since 2016, when Republican legislators passed a law requiring the Senate to confirm the governor’s nominees, the chamber has done so for 16 consecutive cabinet-level positions — until now.

At both that committee hearing and during Thursday’s Senate floor debate, Republican Sens. Paul Newton and Chuck Edwards led the charge against her nomination. They claimed Delli-Gatti was “disqualified” because she “couldn’t articulate the governor’s energy policy” and wasn’t familiar with the details of the MVP Southgate natural gas pipeline project. 

To Democratic lawmakers, that felt like a stretch.

“I urge you to reject this disingenuous process and stand up for what is right,” said Sen. DeAndrea Salvador, a Mecklenburg County Democrat during the full Senate debate. “Ousting a qualified woman from a position she already holds — something else is going on. It doesn’t add up.”

Why Delli-Gatti attracted the ire of the Republican leadership is unknown. Her initial confirmation hearing happened on April 27, and there were no followup meetings. Senate Democrats have said publicly they were blindsided by the news that Delli-Gatti’s confirmation was in doubt.

Two weeks ago, the Senate Energy Committee, with Newton again running the show, received testimony from Duke Energy, Dominion Energy and the American Petroleum Institute about what they view as North Carolina’s need for more natural gas pipelines. Transco is the main provider but if a cyberattack or other disaster should shut down that line, it could create an energy emergency in North Carolina, they testified.

Oddly, Delli-Gatti “wasn’t invited to participate” in that hearing, as Sen. Michael Garrett, a Guilford County Democrat pointed out during the Senate debate.

“When you vote today you are voting to fire a female veteran and the first woman to lead this department and by all standards is eminently qualified,” Garrett said.

And the reason Delli-Gatti didn’t “articulate the governor’s energy position,” said Sen. Julie Mayfield, a Buncombe County Democrat, is because Cooper has not articulated it himself.

“If the governor has not expressed a position on natural gas, is it fair to expect her to know what that position is, given that it doesn’t exist?” Mayfield said.

Chief Deputy Secretary John Nicholson is the new interim secretary for the NC Department of Environmental Quality.

Over the last day, Democrats have engaged in amateur sleuthing to flush out who had tanked the governor’s choice. Shortly after Wednesday’s committee vote recommending against her confirmation, Duke Energy released a statement supporting Delli-Gatti. By evening, Dominion Energy had done the same. 

Legislative sources told Policy Watch that the NC Chamber of Commerce, Smithfield Foods and the NC Pork Council were not responsible for the confirmation derailment.

That left few options: Either another powerful natural gas company put its invisible finger on the scale or Sen. Newton and several of his colleagues had gone rogue, as one source told Policy Watch, “to send a message.”

Theresa Kostrzewa, a lobbyist for EquiTrans Midstream, a major partner in the MVP Southgate project, told Policy Watch that the company did not oppose the nomination. “They were shocked,” Kostrzewa said of her clients. (She also represents Smithfield Foods; the company did not oppose the nomination, either, she said.) Read more

House Bill 500 would fund levees, buyouts in some flood-prone areas of NC

Seven Springs in Wayne County is on the banks of the Neuse River. The slashed blue lines represent a floodway, which encompasses the Whitehall Cemetery. The solid blue color indicates areas that are in the 100-year flood plain, meaning in any given year the chances of a major flood event are 1%. Yellow areas represent the 500-year flood plain, equivalent to a 0.2% chance. However, as climate change contributes to stronger storms, these metrics are becoming outdated. (Map: www.flood.nc.gov)

Main Street in Seven Springs, a tiny town in Wayne County, sits squarely within harm’s way. Sandwiched between a bluff and the Neuse River, the entire town lies within the highest-risk flood zones, according to state and federal maps, and risks being swept away altogether during the next major hurricane.

The town would get a new $5.2 million levee, under legislation discussed in the House Environment Committee Tuesday afternoon. House Bill 500, the Disaster Relief and Mitigation Act of 2021 would allocate $200 million for various projects to make communities more resilient against hurricane and severe storm damage.

“At one time Seven Springs had 200 residents,” said Republican Rep. John Bell, a bill co-sponsor, whose district includes Wayne County. “Now it has about 20. We need to help revive that town.”

Seven Springs has already moved offices for its first responders and emergency medical services to higher ground, Bell said.

Other areas in eastern and southeastern North Carolina would also receive funding improvements; the money would flow through the state Office of Resilience and Recovery.

Neuse River flood mitigation

$5.2 million for a Seven Springs levee
$5 million for Stoney Creek acquisition, also in Wayne County
$12 million for 301/railroad elevation
$10 million for buyouts

Lumber River flood mitigation

$18 million for channel widening
$5 million for Lumberton/CSX floodgates
$3.5 million for a Fairbluff levee
$10 million for buyouts

Rep. Edward Goodwin, a Republican who represents six northeastern counties — also flood-prone — asked Bell to consider spreading the largesse to other parts of the state.

“Is there any hope for us?” Goodwin said, referring to his district: Bertie, Camden, Chowan, Perquimans, Tyrrell, and Washington.

“Yes, I’d be happy to talk with you,” Bell replied.

The bill lacked some details, such as which channel would be widened and what properties would be eligible for buyouts. The money would allow local and state government to apply for federal grants.

The legislation will likely undergo several iterations before going to the full House. Its next step is House Appropriations.

You can plug in an address or city into www.flood.nc.gov and learn if that location is in a flood-prone zone.

 

Study: Socially vulnerable areas more likely to have natural gas transmission, gathering lines

 

The base map from the CDC shows the degree of social vulnerability by county. The dark blue areas are the most socially vulnerable and the light green is the least. The overlay of the red line represents the approximate route of the Mountain Valley Pipeline Southgate project. It would traverse two socially vulnerable counties — Rockingham and Alamance — as well as part of Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation tribal lands, north of Burlington.

Four academic researchers, including Ryan Emanuel and Louie Rivers III of NC State University, have found that of the 2,261 U.S. counties traversed by natural gas pipelines, counties with more socially vulnerable populations have significantly higher pipeline densities than those less socially vulnerable.

Their findings appeared last month in the academic journal GeoHealth.

Previous research has focused on the upstream and downstream effects of pipelines, such as fracking wellheads and power plants.

This is the first academic paper to analyze the potential health and environmental problems associated with what is known as “midstream” infrastructure — the transmission and gathering lines for natural gas.

“These results have implications for environmental justice,” the authors wrote, including burdens for Indigenous peoples. “… By considering the environmental justice implications of an entire pipeline network, decision-makers, researchers and others can gain a fuller understanding of the societal impacts of oil and gas flowing through the network.”

In North Carolina, the now-cancelled Atlantic Coast Pipeline would have crossed through tribal lands, including those of the Haliwa-Saponi and the Lumbee. Some Indigenous people oppose pipeline projects because of potential harm to ancestral territories that have cultural, historical or religious significance.

The Mountain Valley Pipeline Southgate project would travel more than 45 miles, entering near Eden, in Rockingham County, and ending in Haw River, in Alamance County.  The CDC’s Social Vulnerability Index measures a community’s ability to prepare for, deal with, and recover from natural disasters and environmental hazards, including pollution.

The Transco pipeline also carries natural gas through the western Piedmont. This map shows the location of the main line only, not spurs or gathering lines. (Source: Natural Gas Intelligence)

The NC Department of Environmental Quality denied a water quality permit for that project, which the pipeline owners have appealed.

By the numbers:

  • There are 320,000 miles — gathering and transmission pipelines in the U.S.
  • Of those miles, 173,000 are on land.
  • Nearly three-quarters of U.S. counties — 2,261 — are crossed by a pipeline.
  • On average, each county contains about 75 miles of pipeline.
  • 26 counties in the U.S. have at least 600 miles of pipeline

The authors note that “relationships between pipeline density and social vulnerability neither imply that vulnerable communities were targeted by pipeline developers nor that vulnerable communities sprang up near pipelines.”

However, the correlations do confirm that pipeline networks are not randomly distributed, the paper states. “Regardless of responsibility or intent, the disproportionately high density of natural gas pipelines in areas of high social vulnerability warrants further attention.”

The researchers note that federal environmental justice analyses are “frequently criticized as methodologically unsound, procedurally rote or ineffective at preventing or minimizing negative impacts disproportionately imposed on socially vulnerable populations.”

While these analyses use census data, they often fail to capture “ground truth,” which only visiting the communities and speaking with residents can provide.  This was a common complaint about the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s environmental justice analysis in regards to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which gave short-shrift to those concerns, as well as cumulative impacts from other pollution sources.

“A more complete view” of transmission systems is necessary, the researchers wrote, to inform regulators and policymakers about the systemic disparities within the entire energy network. This includes “the extent to which vulnerable rural communities subsidize this policy through inequitable exposure to environmental, health and other risks.”