Four years ago, a whistleblower and I broke NC’s ag-gag law. The environment and public health are better for it.

The sludge from DAK Americas that was shipped to McGill Environmental. This sample is from the same batch that contained 20,400 parts per billion of 1,4-Dioxane. The colored specks in the sludge are bits of plastic. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

Now that the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled North Carolina’s ag-gag law — as it applies to news-gathering — is unconstitutional, I can tell you that I violated it.

To be clear, I did not trespass, but I checked several of the law’s boxes. Likewise, the worker who agreed to document and obtain evidence did so at considerable financial and personal risk, and could also have been fined.

Four years ago I received a tip from the worker, who thought wastewater sludge being shipped to a compost facility in Sampson County was making him sick. To get a handle on the story, I needed to verify the shipper, DAK Americas, and the recipient, McGill Compost. And I needed sludge to take to an EPA-certified lab to learn what it contained.

But the worker and I had to defy the state’s ag-gag law to find out.

The Private Property Protection Act forbids employees from entering “non-public areas of a workplace” and “without authorization captures or removes the employer’s data, paper, records, or any other documents and uses the information to breach the person’s duty of loyalty to the employer.” That same provision applies to photographs and video. 

Yes, the worker did that.

The law applies not just to employees but to “any person who intentionally directs, assists, compensates, or induces another person to violate this section.”

I induced. I directed. I assisted. Intentionally.

Had this story turned out differently, both the worker and I could have faced a fine of $5,000 per day, plus legal fees. Moreover, should he be penalized, I felt ethically obliged to cover his fine.

This is what happened. To protect the employee, I’m honoring my original promise to him and keeping his identity and workplace confidential.

After the worker described his illness, I suspected it might be due to his exposure to the sludge. Even if I couldn’t establish cause-and-effect, it would still be worth knowing what the sludge contained. 

DAK Americas makes plastic resins and discharges a byproduct of that manufacturing — the known carcinogen, 1,4-Dioxane — into the Cape Fear River. I thought it was possible, if not likely that 1,4-Dioxane was also present in the wastewater, a major component of sludge.

  • Day 1: I asked the worker to photograph shipping manifests so I could verify the sender and the recipient of the sludge. Potential fines: $5,000 for his documentation, $5,000 for my “inducing” him to do so.
  • Day 2: The worker sent me video of sludge in a company truck. Now we’re in for another $10,000.
  • Day 3: Having verified the origin, destination and the existence of the potentially contaminated sludge, I needed to test the material — without trespassing. I asked the worker if he could obtain some, and he agreed.

I delivered four sterile quart-sized mason jars to the worker’s home, along with a cooler. The plan was for him to immediately text me after he had filled the jars and packed them in ice. I would drive an hour to a prearranged meeting spot, where he would hand off the cooler and I would rush it to an EPA-certified lab.

Add $10,000 to the previous potential fines, and we’re looking at $30,000 — not chump change.

Within 10 days, the lab results arrived via email. The levels of 1,4-Dioxane were so high that I called the technician to see if there had been an error. No error, the technician said. There really was 20,400 parts per billion of 1,4-Dioxane in the sludge. 

The EPA has not set a legally enforceable maximum for 1,4-Dioxane — in sludge, water, soil, or any material — but for context, the agency has established a health advisory level for drinking water supplies. That level is 0.35 parts per billion, which means if the concentrations in the sludge were applied to drinking water,  they would have been 57,000 times greater than recommended.

And this sludge was converted into compost and soil builder, to be spread on gardens, farm fields, even playgrounds and soccer fields.

This presented another ethical dilemma. The story wasn’t ready for publication yet, but the test results were so alarming that I considered the material to be a possible public health risk. I had no choice but to notify the companies and state regulators of what I had found. That could expose the subterfuge the worker and I had engaged in to get the sludge.

The companies did not respond, but the Division of Waste Management sent investigators to both McGill and DAK Americas. The state found high levels of 1,4-Dioxane in the sludge as well, confirming my testing. There was not 1,4-Dioxane in the finished compost— the state and I independently sampled it — likely because the chemical had evaporated along with the water. 

However, the state found toxics in the compost that I had not even tested for: 20 types of PFAS, or perfluorinated compounds, totaling 138 parts per trillion, far above what we now know is hazardous to public health.

Within five months of the story publishing, the Environmental Management Commission approved new rules governing compost facilities. 

Previously a loophole in state regulations allowed compost operators and the suppliers of raw materials to operate on a tenuous honor system: Composters didn’t have to test for 1,4-Dioxane or any emerging contaminants. And industrial plants didn’t have disclose to the composters if those compounds were present in the material they’re sending.

Now the state can require those operations to test their “feedstock” — the material that is used to make compost — and their finished product for 1,4-Dioxane. 

Because of the worker’s bravery, North Carolina has a stronger compost rule. Had he and I been cowed by the ag-gag law and allowed it to chill legitimate news gathering, it’s possible the compost rule would have never passed; a known carcinogen could still be entering compost facilities.

The 1,4-Dioxane investigation underscores a brief that the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed with the federal court: The right to gather information plays a distinctly acute role in journalism. First-hand accounts, buttressed by video evidence, enhance accuracy and credibility in reporting and increase transparency and reader trust, allowing the press “to tell more complete and powerful stories.”

The Fourth Circuit’s decision is important for journalists. And it’s important for whistleblowers.

Shortly after our stories were published in 2019, the worker found a different job, one that is safer. 

After a series of winter storms, regulators approve new standards for power plants

Winter storm Uri brought historic cold weather and power outages to Texas, including Fort Worth, shown here on Feb. 16. Storms swept across 26 states, bringing a mix of freezing temperatures and precipitation. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)

Two years after Winter Storm Uri, which caused a massive power failure in Texas that caused more than 200 deaths, and just two months after another storm, Elliott, forced blackouts in parts of the South, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has approved new extreme cold reliability standards for power plants.

However, the vote last week on the standards came with the acknowledgement by the commission that the new rules don’t go nearly far enough. The commission sent the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, the nonprofit regulator that sets and enforces reliability standards for the bulk power system in the U.S., back to the drawing board in several respects.

“There are a number of good measures in what we accept today to be sure,” FERC Commissioner Allison Clements said. “But the critical generator weatherization requirements as they were proposed, to be frank, are not up to the task.”

Extreme cold weather, like the temperatures seen during Uri and Elliott, can knock out power plants that haven’t been adequately winterized.

During Uri, natural gas, coal and nuclear plants, as well as wind turbines, failed to hit their expected output, per a report by the University of Texas at Austin. More than 52,000 megawatts of generation went offline during the event, about 40% of the total capacity in the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which runs the electric grid for most of the state. Problems included frozen lines and valves, boiler issues, iced turbine blades and other problems. In 2021, natural gas generation made up more than 50% of ERCOT’s capacity in 2021, with wind about 25%.

In December, as Elliott sent temperatures rapidly plunging across much of the central and eastern United States, gas and coal plants tripped offline, forcing Duke Energy in North Carolina and the Tennessee Valley Authority to order rolling blackouts in their respective territories. PJM, the largest U.S. grid operator, overseeing an area that includes 65 million people and all or part of 13 states and the District of Columbia, implored customers to conserve electricity as 46,000 megawatts of power generation, mostly natural gas and coal plants, went offline because of fuel supply problems and equipment failures. Read more

ReBuild NC’s modular home program still faltering; hurricane survivors now receiving different housing types

A modular home being elevated as part of the ReBuild program. This photo was taken last summer. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

ReBuild NC’s highly touted modular home program, which state officials have claimed would be the fastest way to get hurricane survivors out of motels and into permanent housing, continues to falter, according to state data.

Numbers provided by ReBuild NC to Policy Watch this week show that Rescue Construction Solutions has built 20 modular homes since winning a $52 million contract in August 2021. 

That is less than 10 percent of the 226 modulars in the bid package.

Rescue, based in Raleigh, has been paid $32 million so far, which includes the modulars and 177 new or renovated stick-built houses, state data shows.

However, the recent figures are an improvement over December, when ReBuild NC Director Laura Hogshead told state lawmakers that just 11 modulars had been built. She has attributed the low numbers to backlogs at the modular factories and county permitting issues.

Several homeowners have told Policy Watch, and posted on the ReBuild NC Applicant Facebook page, that they were no longer receiving modulars, ostensibly because of ongoing delays. Instead, their contracts were being converted to traditional “stick-built” homes.

There are 55 facilities that build modular homes in the Southeast, according to the Manufactured Housing Institute. Of those, five North Carolina factories built 4,496 homes in 2021, MHI data shows. 

According to federal census data, 6,129 modulars were shipped to North Carolina in 2021, the year Rescue won the contract.

ReBuild NC, also known as the Office of Recovery and Resiliency, has been awarded $800 million in federal funding to help survivors of the 2016 disaster, Hurricane Matthew, and the historic 2018 storm, Hurricane Florence, return home. An estimated 4,100 households have applied for new or repaired homes under the ReBuild NC program.

Instead hundreds of households, equivalent to thousands of people, still live in motels or in their dilapidated houses, years after the funding became available.

ReBuild NC is under legislative and public scrutiny over mismanagement of its disaster recovery program. An investigative series by Policy Watch about the program’s failures spurred state lawmakers last fall to form a special oversight committee to monitor ReBuild NC’s performance. There have been several shakeups within the agency since then. Last November, Ivan Duncan, chief program delivery officer and a subject of Policy Watch’s investigation, abruptly resigned.

On Feb. 1, Richard Trumper, who had led a successful disaster relief program for the state Office of State Budget and Management, became a senior advisor to help fix ReBuild NC. The agency is under the Department of Public Safety; Trumper reports directly to DPS Secretary Eddie Buffaloe.

Other data provided by ReBuild NC shows some progress in homebuilding and repairs since December.

The figures below show the number of homes built under the ReBuild NC program since May 2022.*

Homes completed as of Feb. 20 — 735
As of Dec. 14 — 688
Sept. 16 — 588
May 9 — 516

*Robeson County built another 201 homes in 2018 and 2019 with federal funding. ReBuild NC absorbed that county-led program in early 2020, and often takes credit for those homes even though it was uninvolved in the contracting and construction.

Below is a table of ReBuild contractors, the amount paid so far, and the total number of homes built or renovated. Three firms, indicated by an asterisk, don’t build homes; they are responsible for removing asbestos and lead contamination.

ContractorTotal Construction PaymentsNumber of Homes Built or Renovated
CRSC, LLC$8,783,905.78 102
Currituck Homes$231,630.80 1
DSW Homes$452,544.88 18
Ducky Recovery$3,839,830.99 65
Eastern Environmental*$62,518.25
Excel Contractors$7,836,082.55 94
Family Housing Center of NC$2,691,859.76 12
Fam-Lock Construction$1,042,092.46 28
First Time Around$39,952.53 2
Fuller Center Disaster ReBuilders$1,064,551.74 38
G&N Construction and Remodeling $444,587.83 6
Heath and Sons Management Services$64,405.63 4
Jeffery Locklear$180,411.71 17
Kevin K Jacobs General Contracting$114,482.93 9
L & E Management Services$34,179.69 2
Lady Built Construction$464,683.12 18
Opportunities Industrialization Center$47,772.63 2
Persons Service Company$7,892,103.17 121
Prevatte's Home Sales $845,501.69 13
Rescue Construction Solutions$32,653,596.65 197
RHD Property $270,860.76 6
Shepherd Response$16,391,001.01 54
Steven Stone Mobile Homes$1,297,943.62 16
Thompson Construction Group$8,565,282.27 104
Timberline Construction Group$3,101,501.87 7
Grand Total$99,019,197.24 936


Meanwhile, the House Disaster Recovery and Homeland Security committee will discuss a bill specific to ReBuild NC’s  contracting problems today at 1 p.m.

House Bill 119 would allow ReBuild NC, to use an informal bid process for projects costing up to $250,000. The previous figure was $30,000.

Lawmakers hope this will allow ReBuild NC to more quickly recruit contractors, and in turn more quickly build or repair hurricane-damaged homes. Late last year ReBuild NC had less than a half dozen contractors; it now has 27, including those that do asbestos and lead abatement, according to the most recent state data.

The informal bid process still requires that “all such contracts shall be awarded to the lowest responsible, responsive bidder, taking into consideration quality, performance, and the time specified in the bids for the performance of the contract.” 

Plastics, natural gas and substation attacks: environmental bills to watch this week

(Collage by Lisa Sorg)

With Medicaid, guns and anti-LGBT legislation consuming lawmakers’ time, only a few environmental bills have been introduced this session. The pace usually picks up — a gut-and-amend bill here, an ambush provision there — so enjoy the relative quiet while you can.

That said, here are several bills worth watching this week as they emerge (or wither) in committee.

Regulatory reform 

There are no extra taxes, no mandates, no regulations — only voluntary incentives — yet previous versions of House Bill 28, the Managing Environmental Waste Act, have never become law.

“What we’re trying to address here .. with no additional funding from the state … is a public commitment to migrate away from using plastics,” State Rep. Harry Warren, a Rowan County Republican told the House Environment Committee earlier this month. “If it became law, North Carolina would be a leader in reducing plastics.”

The House passed this bill — twice, in 2019 and 2021 — by unanimous, or near-unanimous votes. The Senate, though, never brought it to a floor vote and instead let it die in committee.

The measure reallocates a portion of existing landfill fees — 5% of the 12.5% that goes to the state General Fund — to cities and counties that use plastics recycling programs. The language contains basic reporting requirements, as well as a study that would evaluate the opportunities for state agencies to phase out single-use plastics: utensils, plates and cups.

The plastic problem can’t be overstated. It takes up space in landfills, clogs streams, adds to the Pacific Garbage Patch. Its manufacturing process uses and discharges toxic chemicals, including those in the tanker cars that recently burned and contaminated the environment in East Palestine, Ohio.

  • Globally, 400 million tons of plastic is manufactured each year.
  • Of the 40 million tons of plastic waste generated in the U.S. in 2021, only 5% to 6% — or about two million tons — was recycled, according to the World Economic Forum.
  • Plastic accounts for 85% of all marine trash.
  • Also problematic: micro plastics, which are present in rivers, streams — including the Neuse River Basin — as well as sea spray. Fish and other aquatic life eat the particles, filling their guts in place of food. People might unknowingly drink those plastic particles in water flowing from their taps.

At the House Environment Committee meeting, there was a concern that plastics made with “post-use polymers or recovered feedstock processed at an advanced recycling facility” counted as recyclable. “I’m skeptical of chemical recycling,” State Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat, said. “It opens up the door to a toxic process. I appreciate the intent but the wording is problematic.”

The bill, including the problematic language, passed out of the Environment Committee.

“We can do much better we can take responsibility like private industry has,” Rep. Warren said. “If you aren’t tripping over it, you may not realize impact plastics are having on the world.” Read more

Vinyl chloride is not just an Ohio problem. More than 5 tons are emitted into the air in North Carolina each year.


In 2020, air permit holders in North Carolina emitted 5.5 tons of vinyl chloride — the same chemical that was released from rail cars during a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, earlier this month.

To illustrate the magnitude of that environmental disaster, an estimated 550 tons of vinyl chloride was released in East Palestine one week, according to a lawsuit filed against Norfolk Southern, the railroad owners. That’s 100 times more than North Carolina emits into the air in a year.

A known carcinogen, vinyl chloride is a colorless gas with a sweet odor that burns easily. It is used to make plastics, but it can be emitted from other sources, including landfills, paper mills and wood product manufacturers.

In North Carolina, vinyl chloride emissions increased by 20% from 2017 to 2020. Landfills are the largest source of emissions, primarily because microbes breakdown chlorinated solvents present in the waste — plastics, degreasers, spot removers, even cosmetics. Of the top 20 emitters statewide, 17 of them are landfills.

The Sampson County Landfill, which already carries the dubious distinction of ranking second in the nation in methane emissions, also led the state in vinyl chloride air releases: 3,224 pounds — or 1.6 tons. That figure is a 61% increase since 2017. That uptick coincides with the 25 tons-and-counting of garbage rotting in the landfill, which accepts waste from 44 counties.

Here are the top 10 landfills for vinyl chloride emissions, in pounds, for the Year 2020. Figures are from the NC Department of Environmental Quality’s air quality division. Facilities in bold indicate they are located in predominantly communities of color, neighborhoods where at least 30% of residents are low-income, or both.

  1. Sampson County –3,224
  2. Cleveland County — 893
  3. Kersey Valley (High Point) — 533
  4. Foothills Environmental (Caldwell County)– 386
  5. White Oak (Haywood County)  — 384
  6. Wayne County — 335
  7. Davidson County — 298
  8. New Hanover County –275
  9. Onslow County –245
  10. Blackburn Sanitary (Catawba County) — 242

Here are the top 10 emitters that are not landfills:

  1. International Paper Riegelwood Mill, Columbus County — 433
  2. Millwork and Panel, LLC, Catawba County — 318
  3. Blue Ridge Paper Products, Haywood County — 288
  4. Charlotte Pipe & Foundry, Plastics Division, Union County– 166
  5. Black Creek Renewable Energy, Sampson County — 109
  6. Domtar Paper, Washington County — 104
  7. National Pipe & Plastics, Guilford County — 92
  8. Rocky River Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant, Cabarrus County –83
  9. Color Path Technologies, Jones County — 80
  10. CPI Southport — 67*
    *Facility closed in 2021 after being fined $474,000 for repeated air quality violations.