Environment, Legislature

Senators trade barbs over funding bill directing DEQ to spend $2.4 million on “busy work”

The Senate bill requires the Department of Environmental Quality to review 43 years’
worth of wastewater discharge permits — starting before Secretary Michael Regan was born.
(Photo: NC DEQ)

At a public forum earlier this month, a man from Bladen County asked state environmental and health officials a direct and desperate question: “Are we guinea pigs?” he pleaded. “I don’t want to die from GenX.”

One could not blame him, his neighbors and the thousands of residents downstream in Brunswick and New Hanover counties for wondering if they are also subjects of a political experiment.

Many lawmakers have underscored the “urgency” of dealing with an aptly described “public health crisis.” However, in terms of concrete legislation, the intent behind — and effectiveness of —  the bills to address the crisis are more akin to extinguishing a five-alarm fire, one glass of water at a time.

The latest glass of water arrived in the form of a Senate bill, publicly unveiled at 10:45 Tuesday evening and discussed at yesterday’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee meeting. It is a proposed substitute for the House version, which appropriated $2.3 million to the NC Department of Environmental Quality in part, to buy a high-resolution mass spectrometer to specifically sample and analyze drinking and surface water for emerging contaminants. There were other bureaucratic requirements, too, but the guts of the House bill was the directive that DEQ use the money and the machine to figure out what’s in the water and how to remove it.

The Senate version, though, dilutes its House counterpart. It rehashes work that’s already in progress and requires state officials to perform bureaucratic tasks torn from the pages of a Franz Kafka novel.

Yes, DEQ would receive $2.4 million. But that money, as Sen. Angela Bryant, a Democrat representing six eastern counties, noted angrily at a committee meeting yesterday is for “busy work.”

If the bill becomes law, DEQ will indeed be busy: Reviewing the last 43 years of its federal wastewater permit program — known as NPDES — which is delegated to the states to administer. Forty-three years of the federal program covers eight presidential terms, 19 EPA administrators and varying rules depending on who was in charge and the state of science at the time.

Forty-three years ago, DEQ Secretary Michael Regan, 41, had not been born.

Sen. Mike Lee, a Republican representing New Hanover County:
“I’m sorry if this schedule is too aggressive for you.”
(Photo: NCGA)

Sen. Mike Lee, a New Hanover Republican, bristled at the term “busywork.” “The contaminants have been going into the Cape Fear River for 38 years,” he said. “What are the requirements for permit disclosures? What are the processes for developing standards? Is the process thorough and timely? If those have changed over time we need to know.”

DEQ’s permit backlog — 40 percent of them are overdue for review — is well-documented. The filing and organizational systems are also outdated. And it’s true that these problems need fixed. But the bill essentially tells DEQ to pour its glass of water on a detached garage instead of the house.

“It’s a bait and switch,” Bryant remarked. “It looks like we’re funding DEQ when we’re doing nothing”

Unlike the House version, the Senate excludes the Secretaries’ Science Advisory Board — renowned scientists, including several from the UNC System, who have been working on the issue and meeting publicly since the fall. Instead, the bill redirects $2 million to the NC Policy Collaboratory, a UNC think tank created by the GOP, to essentially assemble a similar team in consultation with the state health department.

This $2 million provision, Lee said, “is a backstop plan” in the event EPA labs can no longer handle the work.

Under the original legislation creating the Collaboratory, the $2 million would have been appropriated only if the group raised matching funds. Now the money is available without that requirement. The Collaboratory’s research director is Jeffrey Warren, former policy advisor to Sen. Phil Berger.

Sen. Angela Bryant: “This is a bait and switch. It looks like
we’re funding DEQ when we’re doing nothing.” (Photo: NCGA)

Sen. Berger claimed last month that DEQ has free access to of high-resolution mass spectrometers  — necessary to detecting known and unknown emerging contaminants. That’s not true. Now the Senate bill directs the Collaboratory to use its windfall on researching within the UNC system the availability of this expensive, highly sensitive equipment. and connecting those researchers with DEQ. But Brad Ives, the Collaboratory’s director, acknowledged that gaining access to the equipment in the middle of an academic year — when researchers and students are engrossed in their own work — could be challenging.

Sen. Mike Woodard, a Democrat representing Durham, Caswell and Person counties, stippled Lee with questions, leading to several sharp exchanges.

“My concern is you’re putting more delays in there and not achieving your goal,” of cleaning up the drinking water, Woodward said. “How does DEQ implement this bill? It’s not getting to the point of it.”

“I live in Wilmington, I drink the water,” Lee replied. “It’s not political. This is about getting the best people. But this can’t be resolved in one day in one session. I’m sorry if that schedule is too aggressive for you.”

Lee proposed a politically untenable challenge: “If you think $2.4 million is too much, then run an amendment and cut it.”

Funding — who gets it and for what — has dogged the legislature since last summer when Gov. Roy Cooper initially proposed $2.3 million for DEQ and DHHS to address the GenX issue. Since then the General Assembly passed an anemic bill to instead fund work by UNC Wilmington and the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, the results of which not addressed the urgency of the problem.

The House unanimously passed a $2.3 million funding bill last month, largely seen as indicating at least some progress toward legitimately addressing the contamination. The Senate refused to take up the bill and went home, only to re-emerge with its committee substitute.

“Are you hearing from your constituents there is some mistrust in the legislature?” Bryant asked Lee. “In this process, we’re crippling the role of DEQ. That’s the subtext of the agenda. That’s what I’m hearing.”

“This problem spans all of the administrations. This is the best plan we can have moving forward,” Lee replied, shortly before the committee voted to send it to appropriations with a favorable report. “Constituents mistrust everybody.”

Even the guinea pigs.

Environment, Legislature

Senate Ag, Natural Resources Committee recommending $2.4 million for DEQ to address emerging contaminants

Red areas contain levels of GenX above 140 parts per trillion, the state’s provisional
health goal, in drinking water. Yellow signifies levels under 140 ppt, but still detectable.
Green is non-detect. (Map: DEQ)

The Senate, under scrutiny for failing to even confer or debate a GenX bill that unanimously passed the House, has now come up with its own version, including substantive changes.

The proposed committee substitute will be introduced at the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee tomorrow at 5 p.m. in Room 1127/1028 of the Legislative Building.

The Senate is proposing several revisions to House Bill 189, including $2.4 million in one-time money for NC Department of Environmental Quality to address GenX and other emerging contaminants in drinking water. The money comes from the unappropriated balance in the General Fund.

The Senate version also includes up to $2 million for the NC Collaboratory, split between Fiscal Years 2017–2018 and 2018–2019. The Collaboratory would use the money to hire faculty, which, with DEQ, could use high-resolution mass spectrometers within the UNC system to research these contaminants and methods of removing them from drinking water.

That money is being siphoned from a special appropriations fund within the Office of State Budget and Management, and allocated to the UNC Chapel Hill Board of Trustees for use as matching funds by the Collaboratory.

Senators have consistently stated that DEQ has access to this specialized equipment throughout the UNC system and doesn’t need money to buy one for the agency. However, as Policy Watch reported last month, there are still fees — some of them steep — to access the equipment, and university researchers receive priority to use it. This portion of the bill appears to help alleviate the equipment access problem by bringing universities in to collaborate with DEQ.

The Department of Health and Human Services receives no extra money under the bill. Instead, DHHS is directed to work with the federal authorities and the NC Collaboratory, which will provide entrée to UNC System faculty, on the health goals for GenX and similar compounds in drinking water.

The House version of HB 189 directed DEQ to undertake several studies, including the effectiveness of its wastewater discharge permitting program. The Senate takes that directive further, requiring DEQ to study the permitting program’s effectiveness  since 1975, when the EPA delegated authority to the state to manage it. A report is due June 1.

DEQ also must cooperate with the EPA in an audit of that process, known as NPEDS permitting. The EPA already audits various DEQ operations. The two bills are listed below, annotated with their major differences. The House unanimously passed its version of HB 189 last month, but the Senate adjourned without taking it up.

Senate Version of HB 189 by Lisa Sorg on Scribd

House Version of HB 189 by Lisa Sorg on Scribd

Environment, Legislature

Science says burning wood pellets is a bad idea; you’ll likely hear the opposite argument at the legislature tomorrow

Photo of wood pellets

Trees are ground into wood pellets, which are then shipped to the United Kingdom,
where they are burned for fuel. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Hunt Forest Resources, based in Youngsville, just north of Raleigh, will thin and burn, replant and spray, harvest and haul your hardwoods and pines, as the company’s website says, “to maximize your profits” and “provide you peace of mind that your timberland is appreciating.”

The state’s timber industry, worth $11 billion according to sector figures, is not only lucrative but politically powerful –so much so that the science behind timbering is conveniently ignored.

Tomorrow, some of the industry’s most powerful players, including Hunt, will appear before the Joint Legislative Commission on Energy Policy. Lawmakers, including Republican co-chairs Rep. John Szoka and Sen. Paul Newton  are scheduled to hear a presentation tomorrow from Hunt and other timber industry representatives about the state’s market for timber and wood pellets as energy sources.

The wood pellet industry already has a foothold in North Caroina. Enviva has three plants in eastern North Carolina — Ahoskie, Faison and Garysburg — and is building a fourth in Dobbins Heights, a low-income, Black neighborhood near Hamlet. These pellets are then transported by rail to the Port of Wilmington for shipment to Europe.

Attendees will likely hear a lot of sunny pronouncements about replanting the forests, cutting trees as a method of “timber management” and other rationalizations for using wood for fuel.

But the science has shown that burning wood releases large amounts of carbon dioxide, in some cases more per unit of energy than coal. And carbon dioxide is a major contributor to climate change. In addition, trees store carbon dioxide; forests are known as “carbon sinks” because they retain it rather than releasing it into the atmosphere. But the very act of harvesting trees releases carbon, not just the burning of them.

Attendees tomorrow will likely hear that the industry uses predominantly waste wood and low-grade wood fiber to manufacture the pellets. But that’s not entirely true, either. With those sources nearly exhausted, industry has turned to whole trees, and not just softwoods, but also hardwoods, especially in North Carolina. These hardwood forests, some of them in sensitive wetlands, regenerate much more slowly.

As to be expected, the issue is underpinned by politics. One of tomorrow’s presenters, the NC Forestry Association, belongs to lobbying group NC Forever. As Policy Watch reported last month, NC Forever wrangles companies such as Smithfield Foods and Martin Marietta with trade groups and nonprofits, like Environmental Defense Fund and the NC Coastal Federation. NC Forever’s self-imposed charge is to advocate for funding for land conservation and water quality protection, the definitions of which are malleable in the hands of polluting industries.

And finally, if lawmakers craft wood-as-fuel legislation this year, House Bill 476 could show another aspect of its noxiousness. The bill, now law, received a lot of attention because it prohibited neighbors of hog farms from filing nuisance lawsuits for quality of life issues like noise and odor. But HB 476 places the same restrictions on neighbors of timber operations and wood pellet plants. That was not an accident.

Tomorrow’s meeting starts at 1 p.m. in Room 643; the audio is streamed.


Defending Democracy, Education, Environment, News

The Week’s Top Five on Policy Watch

1. The state of NC’s redistricting battles: A litigation cheat sheet for those trying to keep track

North Carolina’s redistricting plans have drawn major court involvement over the last few years, and it’s not looking promising that trend will change in 2018.

There are five pending redistricting cases, four of which have had some action in the past month and it’s not easy to keep them straight. They involve legislative and congressional maps, partisan and racial gerrymandering and state and federal courts.

The state is so deep in litigation over its maps that it’s not even clear what the elections later this year will look like for certain voting districts. Policy Watch has put together a helpful guide on where things currently stand and in which court. [Read more…]

*** Bonus reads:

2. Four GOP senators send puzzling letter to EPA asking for audit of DEQ

While its House counterpart was holding hearings and hammering out legislation, the Senate Select Committee on River Quality has met one time. It has proposed not a single bill. Since Oct. 3, the committee has essentially disappeared.

Senate River Quality members, along with the rest of their Senate colleagues, then bailed on a vote to study the problem of GenX and emerging contaminants and to fund DEQ to do the work.

Now, four of the Senate committee members  — Trudy Wade, Andy Wells, Bill Rabon and Michael Lee — have sent a letter to the EPA Region 4 administrator asking that the federal government audit DEQ.

The senators requested that the EPA review environmental officials’ handling of the NPDES program — federal wastewater discharge permits whose authority are delegated to the states. Under the guise of “assistance to North Carolina” the subtext of the two-page letter is that DEQ has independently decided, through rules and procedures, not to protect human health and the environment. [Read more…]

*** Bonus read:

3. A rare chance to make trickledown economics work
Why regulators should order utilities and insurance companies to pass along their federal tax windfalls

When Congress and the Trump administration enacted their massive tax cuts for profitable corporations and wealthy individuals at the end of 2017, they (and the corporate special interests behind the scheme) promised – as they always do – that benefits of the cuts would “trickle down” through the economy to average Americans.

You know how this conservative mantra goes:

We’re going to put more money in the pockets of entrepreneurs and innovators so they’ll have the freedom to create new growth and opportunities that will trickle down throughout the American economy!” [Read more…]

4. School administrators report: Benefits of school funding overhaul “ambiguous”
The benefits of a comprehensive overhaul for North Carolina’s school funding system are “at best, ambiguous,” says a new report from the state’s top lobbying outfit for public school administrators.

Officials with the N.C. Association of School Administrators (NCASA) turned over their weighty report to state lawmakers Wednesday, with legislators on a joint task force still gathering feedback on a possible K-12 funding model facelift in the coming months.

NCASA leaders said they consulted superintendents, finance chiefs and experts from across North Carolina in developing their recommendations, which, above all, emphasized that legislators’ policy and overall funding decisions are of greater import than the type of funding model they ultimately choose.[Read more…]

***  Bonus read:

5. Ideological battles at UNC continue as board considers equal opportunity, diversity and inclusion report

Last week the UNC Board of Governors received a report summarizing Equal Opportunity and Diversity & Inclusion services at the system’s 17 schools and whether they could be consolidated and centralized for cost savings.

The short answer, according to the report: Consolidation is possible, but isn’t likely to save much money. Also, doing so could hurt the good work being done across the system to conform to federal equal opportunity rules and create more diverse and inclusive campus communities.

In a committee meeting ahead of last week’s full board meeting, some of the more conservative members of the almost entirely Republican board questioned the “return on investment” of the diversity programs and personnel and criticized how the work is done. [Read more…]

Upcoming event:

Join us for a very special Crucial Conversation luncheon:

Prof. Peter Edelman discusses his new book, Not a Crime to be Poor: The Criminalization of Poverty in America

Friday, February 16, 2018 at noon

Learn more and register today.



In Bladen County, sorrow and outrage over GenX contamination in drinking water

Kellie Hair: “This is bullshit! We should tell Chemours to drink our water.” The deputy escorted her from the auditorium, but she later returned. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

DuPont had yet to break ground on its chemical plant when Elsie Dew’s father dug Marshwood Lake in 1964, in a hushed forest off Tranquility Road near the Cumberland-Bladen County line. The Dew family used to be the only folks out here, but now Marshwood Lake is stocked with fish, has its own road, and is ringed by modern homes tucked in the woods with a waterfront view.

A half-mile southwest and downstream, DuPont built its factory in 1968 along the bank of the Cape Fear River. The 2,100-acre chemical complex, which includes Chemours, a spinoff company designed to shield DuPont from further legal action, has been a neighbor of Marshwood Lake for nearly 50 years.

Now the drinking water wells of Dew family, including their son, daughter-in-law and grandchild, have tested from 530 to 730 parts per trillion for GenX. That level is three to four times the state’s provisional health goal of 140 ppt. Water samples taken from Marshwood Lake tested at 915 ppt. Since September, the Dews have depended on bottled water, provided by Chemours, for drinking, brushing their teeth, cooking and preparing food.

Everywhere my daughter goes is contaminated Click To Tweet

“This was our retirement,” said Elsie Dew, at an information session Thursday night in Bladen County about GenX. “It’s breaking my heart.”

The information session was the fourth sponsored by the state’s environmental quality and health departments. And with each session, the list of questions grows longer and the tempers of the residents grow shorter.

“This is bullshit!” yelled Kellie Hair, as a Bladen County sheriff’s deputy quietly approached her and asked her to calm down. “We shouldn’t have to be here.”

Not only are the extent and effects of the chemical contamination unknown — there are no human health studies on GenX — but data collection and analysis is a protracted process. It requires state samples to be shipped to the EPA and state scientists to verify Chemours’ own testing protocols.

And with each test result, state environmental officials are learning that GenX and other emerging compounds have been released into the air, surface water and groundwater. Even though state inspectors have confirmed Chemours is no longer discharging wastewater from the plant — the pipes have been severed and capped — there continue to be spikes of contamination at the Chemour outfall, at 2,300 ppt in mid-December.

“We have not found the edge of the contamination,” said Michael Scott, director of the Division of Waste Management, which oversees groundwater. Consequently, the state has begun Phase 4 of  sampling farther and farther from the plant. They are following the local wind patterns, to the southwest, north and northeast for new rounds of testing, including the fish in Marshwood Lake.

The latest sampling results show drinking water wells with levels of
GenX above the health goal of 140 ppt shaded in red. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Although the state is testing, conferring with independent scientists, and consulting with the EPA, for neighbors of Chemours, these efforts are invisible and do little to ease the anxiety. “Nobody will do anything,” said Jimmy Dew, Elsie’s husband.

Judging from the grumbling in the front of the auditorium, residents found little solace in comments by Bladen County Commissioner Ray Britt. He told the crowd of 200 that he had met with Chemours officials for three hours. “I have to say I feel real good. I’m an optimist. I pray hard and I’m praying for this situation.”

Democrat State Rep. Billy Richardson, whose district includes Cumberland County, was less sanguine. “I’m a cautious optimist,” said Richardson, an attorney. He has met with Rob Billot, the lawyer who took on DuPont in West Virginia and won — after 18 years.

“Past behavior predicts future behavior,” Richardson said of DuPont. “This is going to be a long, long, long process and you” — the crowd — “should avail yourselves of the court system.”

Rep. John Szoka, a Republican from Cumberland County, who sits on the House River Quality Committee, had joined Richardson in unanimously voting for House Bill 189. That legislation not only required further studies by DEQ, but also appropriated $2.3 million to the department to help expedite their work on the GenX and emerging contaminant problem. However, the Senate adjourned without even hearing the bill.

(Two senators, Republican Wesley Meredith and Democrat Ben Clark, also attended the session, but did not speak.)

Szoka seemed to provide political cover for the Senate. “It’s not a criticism of the Senate that they didn’t vote on it,” Szoka said. The Senate Select Committee on River Quality “is looking at the bill. They’re giving it due diligence.”

However, the Senate had been clued in on the bill well before the vote. Since then, the only public activity by the Senate River Quality Committee members has been to ask the EPA to audit DEQ.

None of the political maneuvering, though, helps the residents. The area near the plant is a mix  — some comfortably middle class, others living paycheck to paycheck or on Social Security. Even if they eventually could connect to a public water system, a $20 monthly bill would cut into their meager income.

“I apologize for being overwhelmed earlier,” said Hair, who had returned to the auditorium after being escorted out by the deputy. “When is this going to stop? This problem needs solved. Chemours has more money in the world and we don’t have anything.”

Most of the residents do not trust Chemours not only because of DuPont’s history, but the company’s lack of transparency in what chemicals they’re discharging, their unreported spills, and their insularity. Chemours has not attended a public meeting, including those held at the legislature.

“They have proved themselves to be loathsome corporate citizens,” said Mark Valentine. “We can get along without Teflon in my frying pan.”

They've proven to be loathsome corporate citizens Click To Tweet

The state is scheduled to shock Marshwood Lake — electrifying it — in order to kill some fish for testing. It could be several weeks before the results are available. “Everywhere my daughter goes is contaminated,” said Amanda Dew, carrying a large binder of research. “This is Third World country type of living.”

Jimmy Dew lives within a half-mile of Chemours. His family’s well tested
at 900 parts per trillion. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Jimmy Dew is Elsie’s husband and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War. He fought in 1970 and 1971, when he was exposed to Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant now linked to cancers and other health problems. “I remember getting off a chopper soaked inn Agent Orange,” he said, his voice cracking. “They told me not to worry. But they burned my clothes.”

Dew’s life has come full circle. Dow Chemical was among the companies that manufactured Agent Orange; Dow has since merged with DuPont, the mothership of Chemours.

“Dow tried to kill me with Agent Orange,” Dew said before the session. “And now DuPont wants to kill me with GenX.”