Commentary, Environment, News

The week’s top stories on NC Policy Watch

1. North Carolina’s full-time part-time legislature

The North Carolina General Assembly adjourned its 2019 legislative session last week.

Sort of.

Lawmakers did head home, but unlike in years gone by when the end of the so-called legislative “long session” inaugurated a break that typically stretched to the following spring, the honorables have already announced that they will return next Wednesday, November 13, with a plan to take up redistricting legislation and, essentially, anything else that captures their fancy.

At the conclusion of that indeterminate gathering, they plan to return yet again in January for another session devoted to whatever matters suit the political needs of Senate and House Republican leaders.[Read more…]

Bonus read: Governor vetoes four bills, calls on legislators to stop shortchanging educators on pay

2. North Carolina lawmakers begin drawing new election maps…again

North Carolina lawmakers are drawing electoral maps for the second time this year – this time, they are tackling congressional districts.

A court ruled last week that the plaintiffs in a partisan gerrymandering lawsuit challenging the 2016 congressional map are likely to prevail on the merits of their case and enjoined lawmakers from moving forward with those districts in the 2020 election.

Lawmakers already redrew legislative districts because the court ruled in Common Cause v. Lewis that Republicans had an unconstitutionally unfair advantage that diluted Democratic votes. Appellate litigation is still pending in that case. [Read more…]

3. PW exclusive: Proposal for massive Caswell County granite mine fires up locals

Mine would cover 426 acres to depths as great as 550 feet, impact groundwater and, possibly, nearby drinking water sources

On the morning of Halloween, Randy Hester shifted the gears of his rugged pickup truck into four-wheel drive and headed down a knobby hill toward Roxboro Lake. Hester’s 200-acre farm, which abuts the shoreline, has been in his family for 10 generations, and he knows every fold and pleat in the landscape.

He stopped the truck, scaled a gate, traipsed through loose understory, and tiptoed across the muddy roof of a beaver lodge to the edge of the lake. Tornadoes were in the forecast. Already 80 degrees, the air near the ground felt as hot and thick as fondue. [Read more…]

4. Lawyer who obtained security video of ECU interim chancellor claimed to be working for legislative leaders

Peter Romary worked for UNC board member Tom Fetzer, but claimed connections to Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore

A Greenville lawyer claimed he was working with members of the UNC Board of Governors and leaders of the North Carolina legislature when trying to obtain video that led to the resignation of former Interim ECU Chancellor Dan Gerlach.

Emails and text messages released this week show attorney Peter Romary and UNC Board of Governors member Tom Fetzer applying pressure and referencing powerful state lawmakers in an independent investigation of the ECU chancellor. They kept this work hidden from the full board of governors, UNC System President Bill Roper and the international law firm the system had hired to officially investigate the matter.[Read more…]

Bonus read: UNC System releases documents detailing Gerlach investigation

5. State Board of Ed receives hopeful report of progress in slowing NC’s school-to-prison pipeline

GREENSBORO – A Pender County graduate almost missed an opportunity to pursue his dream job because he got into a fight while in high school at age 15.

New Hanover County Chief District Court Judge J.H. Corpening told the State Board of Education (SBE) on Wednesday that the young man dreamed of joining the U.S. Air Force to pursue a career in military intelligence.

But when he self-reported to a recruiter that he was charged in the school incident and sent to Teen Court, where the case was dismissed, Corpening said the recruiter told the young man he no longer qualified for the selective intelligence Military Occupational Specialty, commonly referred to as an “MOS.” [Read more…]

6. Weekly Radio Interviews and Micro-podcasts:

Click here to listen to this week’s newsmaker interviews and commentaries with Policy Watch’s Rob Schofield.

7. Weekly Editorial Cartoon:

Environment, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

Senior advisor to lawmakers: Gov. Cooper’s office didn’t meddle in DEQ permitting of Atlantic Coast Pipeline

The segments in red indicate where construction on the pipeline was to begin in 2019; construction scheduled for 2019 along the segment in blue. The project is on hold while the US Supreme Court weighs the utilities’ appeal of a lower court’s rejection of key federal permits in Virginia. (Map: Atlantic Coast Pipeline)

Skepticism about the economic promises of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline prompted Gov. Roy Cooper’s office to establish a $57.8 million mitigation fund, a top official told lawmakers this morning. 

Ken Eudy, senior advisor to the governor, told the Joint Subcommittee on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline that Cooper did not use a key water quality permit as pressure utilities to create the fund.

“From the outset, Gov. Cooper told Duke Energy the permitting would be handled by experts at DEQ based on the science, technology and the law” Eudy said. “There was no interference.”

Duke Energy and Dominion Energy are majority owners of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The 600-mile project would start at a fracked gas operation in West Virginia, travel through Virginia and enter North Carolina near Garysburg in Northampton County. From there, it would route 160 miles through eight counties: Northampton, Halifax, Wilson, Nash, Johnston, Cumberland, Sampson and Robeson. 

These counties, Eudy said, “bear all of the risk and reap none of the reward.”

Eudy reiterated what had been disclosed in public documents, but his comments did underscore major turning points in the ACP controversy: 

  • Eastern North Carolinians, even business interests, became increasingly skeptical about the supposed economic promise of the ACP.
  • Meanwhile, opposition to the project was intensifying.
  • Duke Energy appeared impatient and concerned about the state’s lengthy permitting process.

After months of review and requests for more information from the utilities, the NC Department of Environmental Quality approved the essential water quality permit — a 401 — on Jan. 26, 2018. Within two hours of that approval, the governor’s office announced the mitigation fund and a memorandum of understanding, which was voluntary, with Dominion Energy. Immediately, environmental advocates and Republican lawmakers — rarely on the same side of an issue — speculated that a quid pro quo was at work.

The governor’s office and DEQ have consistently denied the permit was contingent upon the fund. In statements and transcripts released earlier this week, 10 DEQ employees told investigators they did not know of the fund until after the media reported on it.

This was a project most farmers and residents didn’t meet with open arms

Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good called the governor’s office repeatedly, according to public documents. Eudy said Good “was concerned and frustrated about the slow pace” of the permitting process.

Eudy told lawmakers that the governor’s office “had been updated on the status of a series of permits” — erosion and sedimentation, air quality and water quality. “We were kept in the loop of the timing [of the permits] but not the substance,” he said.

Cooper’s office began discussing the possibility of a fund in 2017, after DEQ and the Department of Commerce held several listening sessions in eastern North Carolina. Most of the people who attended those sessions opposed the pipeline — for safety, environmental and social justice reasons — although a few economic developers spoke in favor of it.

“If the ACP received the permits we wanted the pipeline to have economic development. Much of the property had been taken by eminent domain,” Eudy said. “This was a project most farmers and residents didn’t meet with open arms.”

To garner support for the project, ACP, LLC had purchased TV ads touting the jobs the pipeline would allegedly create. But as it became clear that the ACP would include only three connection points along the 160-mile route through North Carolina, “people in those ads began questioning those promises,” Eudy said.

Top Commerce and DEQ officials discussed how the pipeline, if permitted, could benefit Eastern North Carolina, “in light of the concerns people had raised,” Eudy said. 

Eudy said that Commerce officials said “one of the best way to create jobs was to encourage solar development.”

Under the terms of the fund, the utilities would pay in installments, and the money would be held by a trustee for disbursal. The money was to be used for environmental mitigation, economic development in eastern North Carolina and renewable energy projects in that region.

One of the best way to create jobs was to encourage solar development

Meanwhile, Eudy was also trying to mediate an impasse between Duke Energy and solar energy developers t over House Bill 589. The 2017 legislation was supposed to help accelerate solar energy projects statewide. However, Duke Energy had placed stipulations on grid interconnections, causing a  backlog that was costly for developers.

“We hoped to announce resolution to House Bill 589 and the mitigation fund to present a full picture of the state’s energy future,” Eudy said.

“Did we do things perfectly? No, we did not,” Eudy said of the MOU. “We didn’t nail down in writing how the fund would be administered.”

In 2018, state lawmakers passed a bill diverting the money to public school districts in the eight affected counties. The utilities have paid none of those funds because pipeline construction has been halted while the legality of several federal permits was considered by the US Court of Appeals — and now will be heard by the US Supreme Court.


Caswell County residents to DEQ: Carolina Sunrock mine will ruin our land, our lives

A standing-room only crowd assembled earlier this week at the Caswell County Courthouse to oppose a proposed granite and sand mine in Prospect Hill. Seventy people signed up to speak before state environmental officials. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

New to the Carolina Sunrock mining issue? Catch up with this Policy Watch story.

J ames Painter eased his walker to the podium and in a voice as strong as a mule’s back, told state environmental officials of what matters: for him, his neighbors, community and a time-honored way of life.

A retired cattle farmer, Painter has lived in Prospect Hill for all of his 97 years, except for a spell when he served in World War II. The proposed Carolina Sunrock mine and asphalt plant — consuming 425 acres of an overall 630-acre tract — would lie a half the length of a football field from his property. The facility, which could operate until 2070, would likely choke his land with dust, possibly bombard it with flyrock, and could taint his water supply.

“The runoff from South Hyco Creek will run into my creeks,” Painter told officials from the Division of Energy, Mineral and Land Resources — DEMLR.

But Painter had equal concern for “the young farmers,” he said, who are carrying on a long Caswell County tradition of coaxing a livelihood from the land, as well as “for people raising their own food.” 

“It will displace some of these farms,” Painter said, “the livestock, the poultry and the beehives.”

A lengthy public hearing earlier this week about the Carolina Sunrock proposal brought opponents out in force. They are distressed about the potential environmental and health threats the mine could present: dust from the mining, airborne rock from the blasting, and toxic air pollutants from the asphalt operation; contaminated runoff into streams, lakes, groundwater and private drinking water wells. 

“Nothing you hear tonight should surprise you,” said Sharon Williams, who has lived in Prospect Hill for 18 years. “It should impress you. Sunrock reaps all the rewards and Caswell County residents bear all the risk.”

Send comments by email to Samir Dumpor, DEMLR regional engineer, or via postal mail to Dumpor: DEMLR Washington Regional Office 943 Washington Square Mall Washington, NC 27889. Please send three copies. Deadline for comments is Thursday, Nov. 14

Yet beyond the bulleted list of concerns, those who gathered beneath the vaulted ceiling of the historic Caswell County Courthouse often told stories. Poignant stories that made clear what is beloved and what is at stake.

“I’m deeply worried our church will no longer be a peaceful place for worship,” said Bruce Pleasant of Bethel United Methodist Church. Established in 1874, the modest church sits on the corner of Ridgeville and Wrenn roads, on the edge of the proposed mining site. 

Two of the church’s congregants carry portable oxygen to services. Silica dust from the mine could worsen their respiratory illnesses, Pleasant said. And the 3 million gallons of water per day that Carolina Sunrock proposes to suck out of the ground could deplete the church’s drinking water well.

“Where do we as a church get clean air and clean water?” Pleasant said. “We will forever lose our quality of life.”

Carolina Sunrock has left old equipment for an asphalt plant on property at NC 49 and Wrenn Road. Several Prospect Hill residents told state environmental officials that the company has a history of ignoring, and even fighting against, community complaints. “Their words are as hollow as the holes they leave behind,” said Graham Zimmerman.

The Piedmont Progressive Farmers Group helps small farmers who sell their free-range beef, meat goats, poultry and vegetables at farmers’ markets and food cooperatives. The appeal of their products is that they are sustainably grown, humanely raised and adhere to federal Good Agricultural Practices. “We have to be GAP certified,” said Michael Graves, co-founder of the group. He raises chickens and laying hens, hops and lavender, and installed beehives on his family farm. “That means the water has to be tested.”

Jeff Kirby was born on Ridgeville Road, as were generations of his family, and, he said, “grew up respecting Mr. James Painter.”

DEMLR can deny Sunrock’s permit application on any of seven criteria. Among them is that the operation “will have a significantly adverse effect on the purposes of a publicly owned park, forest or recreation area.”

Kirby said that a consultant for Sunrock, Tracy Davis, told him that no public recreational areas were near the site. (Davis was the director of DEMLR until December 2017; he now consults for industry.)

Yet the mine would be within a quarter-mile of Roxboro Lake, a supplemental drinking water supply for the City of Roxboro. It is also a fishing and boating destination. In fact, Amy McCauley, whose yard abuts the lake, said she pays boat and dock fees to the city in order to use the lake for recreation.

Progress is a great thing, but not at the expense of the environment. — Caswell County resident Burt Lee

Because the creeks, streams and lakes in and near Prospect Hill are classified as WS-II, High Quality Waters, state rules prohibit any new discharge from homes or industry. “The mine would be close to many, many streams,” said Mark Zimmerman. “They couldn’t have chosen a worse place to site it.”

DEMLR does not consider traffic impacts in its permitting decisions because they are outside the purview of the state Mining Act. However, the trucks — making an estimated 75 round trips per day — are also a pollution source, and not only because of their diesel emissions.

William Shapiro has worked in the transmission business for 43 years. “Most trucks release or leak oil, antifreeze, hydraulic fluid and other bad stuff,” which could enter streams, creeks, and groundwater, he said. “You don’t want these in your drinking water. Please don’t allow this community and the environment to be destroyed.”

Environment, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

DEQ staff to investigators: We knew nothing about the governor’s deal with Dominion over Atlantic Coast Pipeline

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would enter North Carolina in Garysburg, in Northampton County. Initial excavation started earlier this year, but stopped after a federal appeals court ruled the US Forest Service lacked authority to grant a right-of-way to cross the Appalachian Trail in Virginia. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

Ten NC Department of Environmental Quality staff, including Assistant Secretary Sheila Holman, told investigators earlier this month that they did not communicate with the governor’s office in advance about a $57.8 million mitigation fund related to the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Nor was there a quid pro quo involving a key water quality permit for the natural gas project and the fund, DEQ staff said.

DEQ posted the written statements and interview transcripts on the agency website ahead of Friday’s hearing held by the Joint Legislative Subcommittee on the ACP. The hearing starts at 10 a.m. in Room 643 of the Legislative Office Building.

A year ago Republican lawmakers hired Eagle Intel to probe  the timing of the mitigation fund, which was brokered by the governor’s office, and DEQ’s approval of the water quality permit, known as a 401.  The two events were announced within hours of each other on Jan. 26, 2018.

However, all of the staff interviewed by Eagle Intel said there were unaware of the mitigation fund until after the news media reported on it. Their statements are consistent with previous responses to lawmakers who questioned them in committee hearings.

The purpose of the fund, which was voluntary, was to help eastern North Carolina with economic development and renewable energy projects. If built, the 600-mile ACP would start at a fracked natural gas operation in West Virginia, route through Virginia and enter North Carolina in Northampton County. From there the pipeline would run 160 miles to the North Carolina-South Carolina border.

The ACP’s majority owners are Duke Energy and Dominion Energy.

While supported by several Chambers of Commerce along the route, the ACP has encountered vehement grassroots opposition. The $8 billion-plus project is on hold because of legal challenges in Virginia. After losing in a federal appeals court, the ACP owners appealed the case to the US Supreme Court, which has agreed to hear it. A date has not been scheduled.

Investigators asked DEQ staff why the permitting process was so protracted. Over more than five months, Division of Water Resources staff had repeatedly requested additional information from Dominion Energy. Standard department procedure allows 60 days for applicants to provide the information; after DEQ receives that information, if  the application is still incomplete, department officials ask for additional information and the 60-day clock restarts.

In her written statement, Holman said she was unaware of any “direction given to the Division of Water Resources to accelerate or delay their review and decision” on the permit certification.

Linda Culpepper, who had previously worked in the Division of Waste Management before becoming director of DWR, said the permitting process was not unusual and that there was no outside interference into the decision-making.

Environmental advocates and some lawmakers had questioned why DEQ had prepared both a denial letter and an approval letter to send to the division director.

Brian Wrenn was the hearing officer for the public hearings. He said that DWR staff drafts two versions. “We have beat up in the past … if we just bring a permit to be signed people have said that’s pre-decisional so we’ve started bringing both so we can say that we considered both options.”

Apart from the ACP’s geographical expanse, construction and operation of the pipeline would have “cumulative impacts” on water and air quality, forests, and endangered species habitats. The project would also run through low-income communities of color, including American Indian lands, presenting serious environmental justice issues.

Jay Zimmerman, the former DWR director, told investigators that during staff discussions about the 401 certification, there were questions about the ACP’s economic claims: “Does the pipeline really bring in the number of jobs it’s alleged to bring in, you know the amount of money it would bring in to the state.”

However, Zimmerman said the economic uncertainties fell outside the water quality certification process. “It was repeated a number of times to follow the rules,” Zimmerman said. “We need to be thorough, we need to be consistent with what we’ve done in other cases.”

agriculture, Environment, Legislature

Disaster relief bill includes money to buy out vulnerable swine farms

This map shows the location of swine farms in Duplin County, home of more than 2 million hogs, compared with 100-year flood plains. (Map: Lisa Sorg, based on swine farm data from NC DEQ and FEMA flood maps)

A chronically underfunded program to buy out swine farms in the 100-year flood plain received another $5 million as part of a $280 million disaster relief package that passed unanimously in the House last night.

The money includes appropriations to state agencies for mitigation and resiliency, as well as local government loans to help communities damaged by Hurricanes Dorian, Florence or Matthew, as well as Tropical Storm Michael.

The measure now goes to the Senate, where it’s expected to pass.

Depending on the cost to buy out the farms, which is based in part on the price per pound of live hogs, the funds will chip away at the backlog of concentrated animal feeding operations in the 100-year flood plain. Last year, when the state relaunched the moribund buyout program, $5 million covered the purchase of five to eight farms, according to state agriculture department figures. At the time, 45 to 62 active swine farms were located within the most flood-prone areas. 

Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a Republican from Duplin County, home of more than 2 million hogs, introduced the buyout amendment to the original bill.

The buyout program launched in 1999, after Hurricane Floyd, Dennis and Irene hammered the state. After four buyout rounds totaling nearly $19 million for 43 farms, the legislature stopped funding the program in 2007. More than 100 farmers who wanted to participate in the buyout program couldn’t.

But Hurricane Florence was a game-changer: Rising water flooded 46 lagoons and another 60 nearly overtopped. Last year the NC Department of Agriculture secured $5 million to restart the buyouts, split between federal and state funds.

The buyout funds are used to close lagoons, decommission farms, purchase swine production and development rights, and establish conservation easements in areas prone to flooding. The applications are ranked based on several criteria: the facility’s history of flooding, distance to a water supply or high-quality waters, structural condition of the lagoons and the elevation of the hog barns and lagoon dikes to the 100-year flood plain.

The program is voluntary and intended to reduce environmental damage, particularly to waterways, from inundated lagoons. The farmers can still plant row crops on that land or raise livestock on pasture.

At a legislative committee meeting held shortly after Hurricane Florence, Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler said he opposed further buyouts unless existing farms could move out of the floodplain or those on higher ground could expand. Both are currently prohibited under a 20-year moratorium on industrialized hog farms that rely on an outdated lagoon-and-sprayfield system of managing the millions of gallons of feces and urine.