Greensboro violates consent order, discharges high levels of 1,4-Dioxane, heading toward Pittsboro, Fayetteville

South Buffalo Creek receives wastewater from Greensboro’s TZ Osborne treatment plant. The creek flows into the Haw River, a drinking water supply for the Town of Pittsboro. In turn, the Haw empties into Jordan Lake, which feeds the Cape Fear River. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

This is a developing story and will be updated.

The City of Greensboro has discharged levels of of 1,4-Dioxane 20 times higher than EPA recommended levels into the South Buffalo Creek, a tributary of the Haw River, according to a NC Department of Environmental Quality press release. The contaminated discharge came from the city’s TZ Osborne Wastewater Treatment Plant; the source of the contamination has not been disclosed.

Preliminary sampling results show that levels of the likely carcinogen ranged from 543 parts per billion to 687 parts per billion in the wastewater. The EPA’s drinking water health advisory level is 35 parts per billion; in surface water the level is 0.35 parts per billion.

DEQ has notified Pittsboro and Fayetteville, both downstream from Greensboro, that their drinking water could become contaminated. Pittsboro could be affected as early as tomorrow, and based on the levels in the discharge, DEQ said the town’s drinking water could exceed the health advisory level.

Greensboro reported sampling results to the North Carolina Division of Water Resources this afternoon. Additional sampling is underway at the Pittsboro raw water intake.

EPA has identified 1,4 dioxane as a likely human carcinogen. 1,4 dioxane is a clear liquid that is highly miscible in water. It has historically been used as a solvent stabilizer and is currently used for a wide variety of industrial purposes. It is difficult, if not impossible to completely remove from drinking water using traditional treatment methods.

These concentrations violate a Special Order by Consent between DEQ and the City of Greensboro, which set a maximum daily level of 45 parts per billion. In a notice on the city’s website, Greensboro said it is actively investigating possible sources of the substance. This discharge does not affect Greensboro’s drinking water quality.

The Special Order by Consent was triggered by an event nearly two years ago, when discharge from the city’s TZ Osborne plant contained levels of 1,4-Dioxane ranging from 705 ppb to 1,210 ppb. The source of the contamination was Shamrock Environmental, an industrial customer that discharges its wastewater to the Osborne plant.

Shamrock is headquartered in Browns Summit; it has several facilities in North Carolina and one in Virginia. The Patton Avenue plant, responsible for the discharge, is a tanker cleaning facility. It also treats and manages wastewater, recycles and disposes of drilling mud, and hauls waste.

At the time, Greensboro did not notify state environmental regulators for nearly a month, when the city’s next report was due. The consent agreement requires Greensboro to notify DEQ within 24 hours if there are detections greater than 45 ppb.

Haw Riverkeeper Emily Sutton told Policy Watch that “this new release of 1,4-Dioxane in the Haw is a result of weak enforcement of the water quality standards. The EPA has stated that levels of 0.35 ppb over a lifetime is harmful to human health. The proposed special order by consent is a result of previous violations, but is proposed to allow 33-45 ppb to be discharged into the Haw watershed and transported to downstream communities. This is unacceptable. We have to stop these discharges at the source.”



Former DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart’s new job: Chief Administrative Law Judge

Donald van der Vaart (File photo: NCDEQ)

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Newby has appointed Donald van der Vaart as the new Chief Administrative Law Judge and director of the Office of Administrative Hearings, according to a press statement released today.

“Dr. van der Vaart is a multi-disciplined expert who has accumulated a vast amount of experience in regulatory, legal, and administrative operations,” said Chief Justice Newby. “His skill set is a great fit for directing OAH.”

Van der Vaart resigned from the Environmental Management Commission last week; he had been on the EMC since July 2019, an appointee of State Senate Pro Temp Phil Berger. The 15-member board makes environmental rules that DEQ must follow.

The Office of Administrative Hearings is a quasi-judicial agency that provides administrative law judges to preside over contested cases of administrative law. In addition, OAH deals with the procedure which governs rulemaking for North Carolina state agencies, including Van der Vaart’s alma mater, the Department of Environmental Quality.

Van der Vaart’s annual salary as Chief Administrative Law Judge is roughly $127,000.

Former Gov. Pat McCrory appointed Van der Vaart as Secretary of the Environment in January 2015, a post Van der Vaart held until December 2016, when McCrory lost the gubernatorial election.

A lawyer and a chemical engineer, with a specialty in air quality, Van der Vaart often supported weakening or even eliminating environmental rules. His anti-regulatory stance had put him on the short list for the top job at the EPA in the Trump administration, a post that went to Scott Truitt instead.

As Van der Vaart’s tenure as DEQ Secretary wound down, he helped ensure he would remain on the public payroll while awaiting a possible federal appointment: While still secretary, Van der Vaart demoted himself and his chief deputy, John Evans, to mid-level management positions in their previous branch of the agency, the Division of Air Quality.

Within a year, though, van der Vaart and Evans were placed on investigatory leave after publishing an anti-regulatory opinion piece on air quality in a widely read national environmental law journal that contradicted Gov. Cooper administration’s stance.

Both men resigned. After that, van der Vaart joined the staff of the conservative John Locke Foundation, where he was employed as a Senior Fellow focusing on energy and environment issues. Evans went to work at the EPA office in Research Triangle Park writing air quality rules.

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Gov. Cooper nominates former DEQ lobbyist Elizabeth Biser to lead agency

Elizabeth Biser

Elizabeth Biser, who previously served as the director of Legislative and Government Affairs for the NC Department of Environmental Quality, is the governor’s new nominee to lead the agency.

Biser also worked as a government relations policy advisor at the law firm Brooks Pierce, where former DEQ Secretary Bill Ross works. There, she successfully lobbied for the $78 million Connect NC bond package for state and local parks.

She also lobbied for North Carolina Forever, which includes not only the Environmental Defense Fund, NC coastal Federation, but also Smithfield Foods and the NC Farm Bureau.

She also served as vice president of policy and public affairs for the Recycling Partnership; she also ran her own environmental consulting business.

Gov. Cooper had originally nominated Dionne Delli-Gatti, but Senate leaders tanked her confirmation, allegedly because she was unfamiliar with the proposed MVP Southgate natural gas pipeline, which would route 50 miles through Rockingham and Alamance counties.

However, behind the scenes, it appeared that supporters of that project, including Sens. Paul Newton and Chuck Edwards, worked to derail there nomination. Given Biser’s previous work with agribusiness, her nomination might be more palatable to conservative lawmakers.

David Kelly, director of public affairs for Environmental Defense Fund, issued a statement in support of Biser. He characterized her as a “woman who has spent her career advancing smart environmental and natural resource policy. Through her policy expertise and strong network throughout the business community,Elizabeth possesses the right mix of experience, knowledge and relationships to serve as an effective leader” of DEQ.

Like Delli-Gatti, if confirmed, Biser would be the first woman to lead the agency.

Section weakening whistleblower protections struck from Farm Act

Rep. Nasif Majeed, a Democrat from Mecklenburg County (Photo: NCGA)

The House Agriculture Committee voted to remove a controversial section of the Farm Act involving whistleblower complaints today, but that portion could still be reinstated later.

Rep. Nasif Majeed, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, successfully amended the bill to strike that provision from Senate Bill 605.

It would have directed the Department of Labor, when dismissing worker retaliation complaints, to issue right-to-sue letters with the caveat its investigation showed the allegations were unfounded. The letters would go to both the employees and the employer.

This is important because workers can use these right-to-sue letters to independently file lawsuits against their employers. With that new required wording from the Labor Department, it could have dissuaded workers from suing and have given the employer the upper hand.

The Labor Department is notorious for finding working complaints are baseless. In the past 10 years, the Labor Department records show it investigated 2,154 complaints and found only 217 had merit.

The provision would have applied to not only farm workers but all employees.

“I’m disappointed,” said Sen. Brent Jackson after the committee vote. As the bill sponsor, Jackson was present for the discussion. A farm owner, Jackson himself has been the subject of whistleblower complaints.

Facing opposition from worker rights advocates and many Democrats, Jackson had already softened the language from its original version. That language did not require the Labor Department to send a right-to-sue letter at all.

After Jackson tweaked the wording, the full Senate had passed the bill 28-21. The bill as amended now goes to the House Rules committee. It will eventually circle back to the Senate for concurrence.

This legislation also supports the proliferation of biogas systems, whose methane would be captured from industrialized hog farms and then injected into natural gas pipelines. Biogas has also faced staunch opposition from environmental groups and neighbors of these farms over concerns about air and water pollution, as well as environmental justice issues.