Riverkeepers discover extremely high levels of fecal bacteria in waterways near major hog waste spill that was reportedly cleaned up

This photo, taken by the Neuse Riverkeeper and Tar-Pamlico Riverkeeper on Aug. 23, shows the digester illegally operating three months after the original disaster. (Courtesy photo)

Two North Carolina riverkeepers have documented high levels of fecal bacteria in Wayne County waterways near White Oak Farms, raising questions about the thoroughness of the cleanup of a major swine waste spill last year.

White Oak Farms near Fremont hasn’t raised hogs since December 2020, but operated a biodigester that used dead pigs, deli meat and other waste to generate methane for electricity.

In May 2022, The News & Observer reported, the cover of the biodigester ruptured, sending millions of gallons of contaminated waste into nearby waterways, including Nahunta Swamp.

The NC Department of Environmental Quality fined the farm $34,000 for groundwater quality violations in early December 2022.

Shortly after DEQ announced the fine, Neuse Riverkeeper Samantha Krop and Pamlico-Tar Riverkeeper Jill Howell collected samples from channels running directly off the farm property and draining into Nahunta Swamp.

The swamp is a “jurisdictional water,” meaning it is subject to regulations under the federal Clean Water Act.

For comparison, Krop and Howell also collected a sample upstream of the farm.

Downstream, fecal coliform levels on that day ranged from four to 100 times the standard for freshwater. However, for regulatory purposes the state requires five consecutive samples to be taken during a 30-day period. Nonetheless, the extremely high levels of bacteria merit additional testing.

The riverkeepers submitted their samples to Jonah Ventures, which uses DNA techniques to determine the source of fecal contamination. That testing confirmed the main source of fecal contamination in the samples was swine.

Levels of E. coli were also detected at four to eight times the EPA’s recreational standard. North Carolina does not have E. coli standards for its waterways, even though the EPA recommends using that method to better protect human health.

Concentrations of nitrates and ammonia, common in waste, were also elevated in the downstream samples.

Pollutants in the upstream sample were much lower than those downstream and met applicable state water quality standards. Read more

Today’s ‘must read’ op-ed: Key lessons from the Christmas blackouts

(Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

As Policy Watch environmental investigative reporter Lisa Sorg reported yesterday, Tuesday’s meeting of the state Utilities Commission produced a great deal of useful information about the Christmas week blackouts that left hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians shivering in the dark for several hours. It turns out that Duke Energy had many good reasons to think it was prepared and had the situation under control, only to then find itself overrun by a cascade of unforeseen (if, perhaps, not unforeseeable) dominoes — soaring demand, equipment failures, and the unavailability of power from other places that it had anticipated obtaining, just to name three.

One hope fervently that Duke (and other electricity providers) take several lessons to heart from the disaster. As I pointed out in yesterday’s daily radio commentary, the growing global climate emergency and the increased frequency of extreme weather events it is producing make it clearer than ever that now is the time for immediate and sustained attention (and investments) from utility companies, regulators, and elected leaders if we’re to build and maintain a strong and reliable system in the decades ahead.

Happily, a lot of smart people have been thinking about the kinds of changes in this realm that need to take place. For an excellent example, be sure to check out this morning’s featured op-ed on WRAL.com by Carrie Clark of the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters. As Clark explains, there are some obvious lessons on which we need to act, including speeding our transition away from fossil fuels.

Here’s the excellent conclusion to her essay:

The lessons we should learn from the storm are clear in Duke’s responses to Gov. Cooper and the Utilities Commission:

  1. Climate change is causing more extreme weather, which is unpredictable. We are facing more historic storms, not fewer;
  2. Gas and coal aren’t always dependable in extreme weather, while renewable energy with battery storage is more reliable.

Under Gov. Cooper’s leadership, North Carolina is quickly becoming a clean energy powerhouse, with high-paying jobs and associated economic development, along with the obvious climate benefits. The costs of solar and wind generation and battery storage are going down.

By signing the Inflation Reduction Act into law, President Joe Biden ensured these costs will continue to drop. In fact, a new study by the clean energy think tank RMI shows the Inflation Reduction Act makes clean energy cheaper than more than 90% of proposed gas plants.
Similarly, a study Duke commissioned from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory revealed that Duke could most economically meet the carbon reduction targets mandated by the law by tripling the proposed solar on its grid by 2030.

Fortunately, the Utilities Commission highlighted both the Duke outages and the Inflation Reduction Act in its order to Duke. When Duke presents its revised plan to the Utilities Commission in September, they will no longer be able to credibly say natural gas is the cheapest and most reliable path.

Fortunately, their Christmas failure shed light on the best way forward for our state. This storm could ultimately lead to a real gift for the people of North Carolina, not just a lump of coal.

Click here to read and share Clark’s entire essay.

As another winter storm strains the electric grid, it’s time to fix transmission, experts say

Detroit residents brave the frigid temperatures and heavy gusts of wind in downtown Detroit on December 23, 2022 in Detroit, United States. (Photo by Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images)

Christmas week onslaught that impacted hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians is just the latest warning sign

The deadly winter storm, christened Elliott by the Weather Channel, that tore through much of the United States over the Christmas weekend placed a huge strain on the American electric grid, pushing it past the breaking point in some places.

Frigid temperatures, in some places setting records, drove a surge in electric demand while also causing big problems for gas, coal and other power plants that took electric generation offline just when it was needed most. That forced some southeastern utilities to cut power to thousands of people on a rotating basis, and led grid operators to urge customers to conserve power.

“Supply and demand for electricity have to exactly balance in real time,” said Michael Goggin, a longtime electric industry analyst and vice president at Grid Strategies, a consulting firm focused on clean energy integration. “If not, in a matter of seconds the grid can collapse.”

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation announced Wednesday that they will open a joint investigation into the power system’s performance.

“There will be multiple lessons learned from last week’s polar vortex that will inform future winter preparations,” said Jim Robb, president and CEO of NERC, the nonprofit regulator that sets and enforces reliability standards for the bulk power system in the U.S.

“This storm underscores the increasing frequency of significant extreme weather events (the fifth major winter event in the last 11 years) and underscores the need for the electric sector to change its planning scenarios and preparations for extreme events.”

But for some experts, a major lesson from the storm is already plain, and it’s the same as learned in past severe winter weather: The U.S. grid needs to be better connected to enable power to be moved easily to where it’s needed in moments of crisis.

“Although this was a massive event that ultimately affected huge parts of the country, there were geographic elements to it,” said Ari Peskoe, director of the Electricity Law Initiative at Harvard Law School. “The attention belongs on the transmission system.”

The storm

John Moore, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said the storm was unusual in several aspects, including the rapid drop in temperatures triggered by a blast of arctic air pushing down from Canada far into the American South, the rapid strengthening called “bombogenesis,” and the heft of the pressure behind the system, which he said set a record in Edmonton, Canada.

“It’s a very broad system and it’s a lot of impacts associated with it. … The cold air with this one was a little bit stronger than we usually see this time of year,” Moore said, noting that the storm caused temperatures to drop 37 degrees in one hour at Denver International Airport, for example, and set temperature records in Wyoming and Montana, according to preliminary data.

As it moved east, it caused a deadly blizzard in the Buffalo area that claimed at least 40 lives and wreaked havoc on the electric grid.

“There were likely other records set across the South and East Coast,” Moore said.

Southwest Power Pool

The Southwest Power Pool, which coordinates the flow of electricity over more than half a million square miles in all or part of 14 states (Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming), set a record for winter electric use on Dec. 22 of more than 47,000 megawatts, blowing past the previous record of 43,661 set on Feb. 15, 2021.

However, there were no rolling outages implemented, a spokeswoman confirmed to States Newsroom.

Outages

Though hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses were left without power because of normal storm calamities such as downed power lines, many other customers in the Carolinas and the Tennessee Valley Authority service territory, which includes most of Tennessee and parts of Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Virginia and North Carolina, saw outages because of the strain struggling power plants and surging demand placed on the grid.

“What we saw was concerning,” said Goggin, who was monitoring data from many of the major regional transmission organizations hit by the storm. “You saw very high unplanned or forced outages of power plants of many types but primarily fossil.” The extreme cold shut down many natural gas production wells, he said, which limited pipeline supplies that feed power plants.

“We’ve seen a number of events like this where the extreme cold disrupts the gas system which then cascades to the power system,” he said.

TVA

On Dec. 23, with demand climbing past 33,000 megawatts (its normal December demand is around 24,000) the TVA for the first time in its 90-year history instituted load shedding — temporary, controlled outages — and urged customers to conserve electricity. The service interruptions ended on Dec. 24, with the TVA saying it had supplied more power over the previous 24 hours than ever before to meet an all-time peak winter demand. POWER magazine also quoted a TVA spokesperson saying that a “limited number” of power plants in TVA’s territory “did not operate as expected during this event resulting in a loss of generation.”

“We at TVA take full responsibility for the impact we had on our customers,” the authority said in a Dec. 28 statement. “We are conducting a thorough review of what occurred and why. We are committed to sharing these lessons learned and — more importantly — the corrective actions we take in the weeks ahead to ensure we are prepared to manage significant events in the future.”

In an email to States Newsroom Thursday, a TVA spokesperson could not say how many customers were affected nor provide any information on why power plants weren’t able to perform, citing the ongoing review. In the Memphis area, where Memphis Light, Gas and Water is the TVA’s largest customer, more than 30,000 customers were affected, WMC-TV, a local station, reported. The Chattanooga Free Press reported on Christmas Eve that the TVA had lost about 6,000 megawatts of generation the day before at coal and gas plants.

“Until the review is completed over the next few weeks, any discussion on individual plants would be inappropriate because it would just be speculation on our part,” TVA spokesman Scott Fiedler told States Newsroom. “As the wholesale power provider, we instruct our 153 local power companies to reduce load. They implement the process to limit the impact to their customers. We expect customers were affected by 15-30 minutes in a rolling fashion as LPCs implemented curtailments.”

Duke Energy

Duke Energy, one of the nation’s largest utility companies, was forced to cut power to about 500,000 of its customers in North Carolina and South Carolina on Dec. 24, with the last of them having power restored by about 6 p.m., spokesman Jeff Brooks said.

“The combination of temperatures that were lower than forecast, customer usage that was higher than projected, some reduction in generating capacity on our system and limited options for additional capacity from outside of our service area due to extreme cold weather that impacted the eastern half of the United States created conditions that resulted in the need to conduct temporary outages,” Brooks said.

“We made this difficult decision to protect the electric grid and reliability on our system, and to avoid a potential longer or broader outage to customers.”

Another Duke Energy spokesman told States Newsroom in November, in response to a report by NERC that its service territory might be vulnerable to electric outages in the event of extreme winter weather, that the company was “ready to meet the energy needs of our customers every day, regardless of weather.”

Brooks said the company is still examining generation performance during the storm and assembling information for regulators and couldn’t provide more details on what type of power plants failed to perform.

Duke Energy officials are scheduled to brief the N.C. Utilities Commission staff on the outages on Tuesday. Read more

Trash troubles: The pandemic started it; inflation keeps it going

Plastic waste cleaned from Durham’s Ellerbee Creek – Photo: Lisa Sorg

This story was first published by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Terrill “Ya Fav Trashman” Haigler, who worked for 14 months during the height of the pandemic as a Philadelphia sanitation worker, spent much of his tenure pointing out to the media and city officials the neighborhoods where garbage was piling up in the streets.

With a website and outreach to local news outlets, Haigler shone a spotlight on mounds of trash and the plight of garbage workers. He partnered with local elected officials and gathered an army of volunteers for cleanup. He also raised more than $30,000 to buy personal protective equipment for workers.

In Philadelphia and across the nation, the pandemic has exposed all the problems with trash pickup. In many places, refuse went uncollected as workers got sick or struggled with getting personal protective equipment, and garbage in residential neighborhoods piled up from people working from home. New trucks got caught in supply chain snarls.

Now, local jurisdictions still face trash problems that surfaced during the pandemic and are exacerbated by inflation and a scarce workforce. Cities are having to increase wages and add bonuses to attract and keep sanitation workers. Landfill tipping fees have gone up, and there’s still a higher percentage of trash accumulating in residential areas than there was before the pandemic began because more people are working from home at least part of the time.

The challenges have led to higher costs for cities and counties, and efforts to increase or shift budgets to cope are having mixed success.

The Memphis City Council held a meeting in July to address trash issues. Jacksonville, Florida, talked in January about paying residents back for uncollected trash, though officials eventually decided against it. Mounds of overflowing trash in New York City have dampened Mayor Eric Adams’ efforts to lure tourists back to the city. And thousands of complaints about St. Louis’ uncollected trash have set records in city hall.

In addition to its severe water problems, Jackson, Mississippi, almost lost its trash collection service in a contract dispute that was finally settled in October after the company went without pay for six months.

“It clearly is a problem that has not abated,” said Francis Ryan, a labor history professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, who has studied sanitation workers and trash.

“When you walk down the streets of many big cities, you are having to get off the sidewalks to walk in the streets because of trash,” he said. “It’s a persistent problem that we are going to have to have really smart people try to resolve.” Read more

How Putin’s war and small islands are accelerating the global shift to clean energy, and what to watch for in 2023

Solarize Charlotte Project. by Jack Miczek, Greenpeace.

The year 2022 was a tough one for the growing number of people living in food insecurity and energy poverty around the world, and the beginning of 2023 is looking bleak.

Russia’s war on Ukraine, one of the world’s largest grain and fertilizer feedstock suppliers, tightened global food and energy supplies, which in turn helped spur inflation.

Drought, exacerbated in some places by warring groups blocking food aid, pushed parts of the Horn of Africa toward famine. Extreme weather disasters have left trails of destruction with mounting costs on nearly every continent. More countries found themselves in debt distress.

But below the surface of almost weekly bad news, significant changes are underway that have the potential to create a more sustainable world – one in which humanity can tackle climate change, species extinction and food and energy insecurity.

I’ve been involved in international sustainable development for most of my career and now teach climate diplomacy. Here’s how two key systems that drive the world’s economy – energy and finance – are starting to shift toward sustainability and what to watch for in 2023.

Ramping up renewable energy growth

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine has reverberated through Europe and spread to other countries that have long been dependent on the region for natural gas. But while oil-producing countries and gas lobbyists are arguing for more drilling, global energy investments reflect a quickening transition to cleaner energy.

Call it the Putin effect – Russia’s war is speeding up the global shift away from fossil fuels.

In December, the International Energy Agency published two important reports that point to the future of renewable energy.

First, the IEA revised its projection of renewable energy growth upward by 30%. It now expects the world to install as much solar and wind power in the next five years as it installed in the past 50 years.

The second report showed that energy use is becoming more efficient globally, with efficiency increasing by about 2% per year. As energy analyst Kingsmill Bond at the energy research group RMI noted, the two reports together suggest that fossil fuel demand may have peaked. While some low-income countries have been eager for deals to tap their fossil fuel resources, the IEA warns that new fossil fuel production risks becoming stranded, or uneconomic, in the next 20 years.

The main obstacles to the exponential growth in renewable energy, IEA points out, are antiquated energy policy frameworks, regulations and subsidies written at a time when energy systems, pricing and utilities were all geared toward fossil fuels.

Look in 2023 for reforms, including countries wrestling with how to permit smart grids and new transmission lines and finding ways to reward consumers for efficiency and clean energy generation.

The year 2023 will also see more focus on developing talent for the clean energy infrastructure build-out. In the U.S., the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will pour hundreds of billions of dollars into clean energy and technology. Europe’s REPowerEU commitments will also boost investment. However, concerns about “buy American” rules within the new U.S. climate laws and an EU plan to launch a carbon border adjustment tax are raising fears that nationalism in trade policy could harm the speed of green growth.

Fixing international climate finance

The second system to watch for reform in 2023 is international finance. It’s also crucial to how low-income countries develop their energy systems, build resilience and recover from climate disasters. Read more