Charlotte PD settles civil rights suit, promises to stop using tear gas on protesters

Law enforcement officers deployed pepper spray to block protesters off the Historic Alamance County Courthouse Square where a Confederate statue stands. Photo: Anthony Crider, licensed under Creative Commons

In a settlement with civil rights groups, the city of Charlotte and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department agreed to abide by directives geared toward a more peaceful response to protests, including a ban on the use of tear gas and the practice of corralling crowds, according to a press release distributed Friday by legal groups representing the plaintiffs.

The police department used chemical weapons, including tear gas on protesters around June 2, then trapped them by blocking their exits, the lawsuit filed in Mecklenburg County Superior Court alleged. The police conduct “violated the protesters’ rights to assemble, to freedom of speech and to due process under the North Carolina Constitution,” the lawsuit claimed.

The plaintiffs included the the NAACP, Charlotte Uprising, Team TruBlue, Southeast Asian Coalition Village (SEAC), the ACLU of North Carolina, and four Charlotte residents.

“We must not forget that people were protesting police violence and the police brutally proved the point of the protesters with their violent actions,” said Chantal Stevens, executive director of the ACLU of NC in a press release Friday. “We will continue to support protesters in their demands for justice and police accountability.”

The plaintiffs described the police response as “a premeditated and violent attack on peaceful demonstrators,” the press release stated.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department said the lawful protests escalated into assaults on more than 50 police officers on June 2, 2020, WCNC reported. Officers from the department arrested 16, according to the report.

According to the settlement, the city and CMPD have added crowd control measures to policies and directives following the filing of the lawsuits — including banning the use of tear gas and from kettling, a military-style tactic of forming lines around protests to prevent them from leaving. The directives also require officers to give clear dispersal orders in both English and Spanish, with clear instructions on dispersal routes and time frame in their commands.

In addition, the city agreed to amend operating procedures to mandate pre-planning and pre-approval for the use of chemicals intended for riot control.

The settlement binds law enforcement officers to the newly developed rules and standards for four years.

ACLU of North Carolina, the Charlotte Chapter of the NAACP, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and several civil rights attorneys in Mecklenburg County represented the plaintiffs.

August 5 Crucial Conversation: Theodore Johnson on his new book, “When the Stars Begin to Fall”

Join us Thursday, August 5 at 2:00 p.m. for a very special (and virtual) Crucial Conversation:

Author, scholar, and former U.S. Navy Commander Theodore Johnson, discusses his new book, When the Stars Begin to Fall: Overcoming Racism and Renewing the Promise of America

Click here to register.

“Racism is an existential threat to America,” Theodore Johnson declares at the start of his profound and exhilarating book, When the Stars Begin to Fall: Overcoming Racism and Renewing the Promise of America. It is a refutation of the American Promise enshrined in our Constitution that all men and women are inherently equal. And yet racism continues to corrode our society. If we cannot overcome it, Johnson argues, while the United States will remain as a geopolitical entity, the promise that made America unique on Earth will have died.

When the Stars Begin to Fall makes a compelling, ambitious case for a pathway to the national solidarity necessary to mitigate racism. Weaving memories of his own and his family’s multi-generational experiences with racism, alongside strands of history, into his elegant narrative, Johnson posits that a blueprint for national solidarity can be found in the exceptional citizenship long practiced in Black America.

Join us for a special Q&A with the author.

Theodore Johnson is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Fellows Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, where he undertakes research on race, politics, and American identity. Prior to joining the Brennan Center, he was a National Fellow at New America and a Commander in the United States Navy, serving for twenty years in a variety of positions, including as a White House Fellow in the first Obama administration and as speechwriter to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Click here to register.

Don’t miss this very special event.

When: Thursday August 5 at 2:00 p.m.

Where: Online; pre-register from the comfort of your home or office.

Suggested contribution: $10 (click here to support NC Policy Watch)

Questions?? Contact Rob Schofield at 919-861-2065 or [email protected]

Duke University scientists found a new way to trace coal ash in soil. (Spoiler alert: It’s found near Lake Norman)

This story has been updated with comments from Duke Energy.

Coal ash particles have been found in soil near two coal-fired power plants: Duke Energy’s Marshall Steam Station on Lake Norman near the Iredell-Catawba county line in North Carolina, and Bull Run Steam Plant, operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority, in Clayton, Tenn., scientists announced this week.

The presence of  particles, specifically of fly ash, in soil suggests they originated from the plants, the study says.

Avner Vengosh and Heather Stapleton were among six scientists from Duke University and Appalachian State to conduct the study. The results were published July 20 in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Avner Vengosh

Heather Stapleton

Concentrations of toxic elements found in the ash — mercury, arsenic, lead, chromium, cadmium, radium — did not exceed human health guidelines for soil.

But “low concentrations of toxic metals in soil does not equal to no risk,” Vengosh, distinguished professor of Environmental Quality at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, said in a press release announcing the study results.

Coal ash was also historically used as structural fill beneath parking lots, roads and on farm land. Last September, a sinkhole developed in a parking lot in Mooresville; the area had been backfilled with 46,000 tons of coal ash, according to state records.

“We need to understand how the presence of fly ash in soils near coal plants could affect the health of people who live there. Even if coal plants in the United States are shutting down or replaced by natural gas, the environmental legacy of coal ash in these areas will remain for decades to come.”

Until this study, testing methods using could not definitively trace certain elements in the soil back to coal ash. The new methods, though, used advanced geochemistry — lead and radium isotopes — to determine coal ash, even at very low levels, was the source.

“Because of the size of these particles, it’s been challenging to detect them and measure how much fly ash has accumulated,” Vengosh said. “Our new methods give us the ability to do that – with high level of certainty.”

In response to the study, a Duke Energy spokesman said, “Our testing extends well beyond air emissions, and decades of scientific monitoring of Lake Norman and the air around Marshall Steam Station demonstrates that residents are well-protected.”

The scientists compared soil known not to contain coal ash with 20 surface soil samples in parks and residential areas in Mooresville, near Lake Norman; most of the samples were collected downwind of the Marshall Steam Station. Low levels of fly ash were found in all of them.

By tracing the chemical fingerprint of these particles, scientists can better understand where the ash came from and where it is.

“It confirms that our new tools perform consistently and, when used together, provide a reliable method for detecting contamination that other tests might miss,” Vengosh said.

This is important not only from an environmental perspective, but also for public health reasons. Ash contains and other toxic elements. People and pets can track fly-ash contaminated soil into private homes from yards and parks; the ash can even show up in house dust.

“It underscores the need to regularly monitor sites in close downwind proximity to a coal-fired power plant, even if levels of contamination are below current safety thresholds. Fly ash accumulates over time, and risks can grow with repeat exposures to playground dust or home dust,” Vengosh said.

Many residents who live near the Marshall Steam Plant are concerned about the number of thyroid cancer cases in two zip codes that include Lake Norman. Here, the rate of that type of cancer is significantly above the state average, according to state Cancer Registry data. State health officials, though, have not identified a cancer cluster there.

Former Mooresville resident Susan Wind, whose teenage daughter had thyroid cancer — she has recovered but the cancer has returned — held several fundraisers for the study. (The National Science Foundation co-funded it.) “This is just the beginning,” Wind said. ” More will continue to come out about the dangers of living among this coal ash. Until the EPA starts putting the health of the people first and not the profits for these companies, we will continue to watch people fall ill in these areas. Denial and deflection can only work for so long.”

Researchers have yet to identify a potential source or sources, but thyroid cancer is linked to radiation exposure. However, radium is also naturally occurring in some soils, so it is important to determine its origin through advanced testing.

Coal-fired power plants are required to install pollution control systems to reduce carbon emissions. If tracer studies find high levels of carbon in the ash, then it could indicate the material was released decades ago, before the formation of the EPA and the passage of the Clean Air Act. Lower levels of carbon could signal that the ash is more recent.

The Duke Energy spokesman said electrostatic precipitators have been in place at Marshall Steam Station since the early 1970s; they remove more than 99% of the ash generated from coal combustion. “The addition of flue gas scrubbers in 2006-07 increased this ash capture efficiency to better than 99.7% under continuous testing, in full compliance with the very strict emissions standards designed to protect public health,” he said.

Scientists plan to use the new tracer method to detect fly ash in house dust. “We continue to evaluate the occurrence of coal ash across North Carolina,” Vengosh said. “Hopefully, we will be able to complete the new study in a few months.”

Feds: Florida, Missouri, Texas account for 40 percent of all COVID-19 cases this week

WASHINGTON — Amid a rise in infections and hospitalizations from the surging delta variant of COVID-19, the Biden administration is boosting money and other assistance to the hardest-hit areas of the country.

This week, just three states with lower vaccination rates — Florida, Texas and Missouri — accounted for 40 percent of all cases nationwide. One in five cases occurred in Florida alone.

Federal public health officials on Thursday announced $1.6 billion in money from the pandemic relief package approved earlier this year will be used to increase testing and mitigation in high-risk group settings, like homeless shelters, substance abuse treatment centers and prisons.

Another $100 million will be sent to rural health clinics, to pay for more vaccine education and outreach in communities that generally have seen the slowest vaccine uptake.

As they send more resources, federal health officials emphasized that those spikes in infections and hospitalizations typically are occurring in regions that have the lowest rates of vaccination.

“If you are not vaccinated, please take the delta variant seriously,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, during a press briefing. “This virus has no incentive to let up, and it remains in search of the next vulnerable person to infect.”

Federal “surge response” teams have been working with governors and local public health officials. They’ve provided technical expertise on genetic sequencing, data analysis, and outbreak response to Missouri, Illinois and Colorado, said Jeff Zients, the White House’s COVID-19 response coordinator.

In North Carolina, FEMA will be deploying mobile vaccination clinics, Zients said.

FEMA and Department of Health and Human Services staffers have been on the ground in Nevada to assist in the COVID-19 response, and HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra visited on Thursday to check in on the mitigation efforts.

The national vaccination campaign did dramatically curb the virus’ spread by late spring, but vaccinations have stalled across the country, with 68% of U.S. adults having received at least one shot.

There are wide variations regionally, and the number of infections and hospitalizations has begun to rise again as the more contagious delta variant surges. The seven-day average of U.S. cases has gone up 53% compared to the previous seven-day average, according to data from the CDC.

Hospitalizations are up 32%, and deaths have risen 19%. Ninety-seven percent of those cases are occurring among the unvaccinated, according to federal health officials.

But there may be shifting views toward the vaccine in areas of the country that have been most reluctant. In the past week, five states with the highest case rates — Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Missouri, and Nevada — had higher rates of people getting newly vaccinated compared to the national average, Zients said.

While some parts of the country have begun to reconsider or reinstate mandates on wearing face masks amid the surging cases, CDC officials so far are not calling for any changes. The agency’s recommendations say unvaccinated individuals should wear masks, and that those who are vaccinated can do so at their own discretion.

New poll: North Carolinians overwhelmingly oppose eliminating corporate income tax

Last month the North Carolina Senate passed a bill that would eliminate the corporate state income tax over five years, beginning in 2024.

New polling, released Thursday by progressive policy group State Innovation Exchange, (SiX) shows North Carolina voters overwhelmingly oppose such a change.

The poll, of 800 registered voters in the state via telephone and online between July 6 and July 11, found 66 percent against completely eliminating the state income tax.

That view held across the political spectrum with 59 percent of Republicans opposing the change, 74 percent of Democrats and 58 percent of Independents. Of those who voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election, 58 percent opposed the change. Among supporters of President Joe Biden, 76 percent were opposed.

“It’s something we saw across the board, across parties,” said Nida Allam, state director for SiX. “People want to see more investment within North Carolina communities. They don’t want to see corporate taxes being eliminated.”

Allam, who is also a Durham County Commissioner, said the polls shows North Carolinians realize the impact that could have on investment in public education, infrastructure and essential services.

TargetSmart, the firm that conducted the poll, has done similar surveys in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota. Ben Lazarus, the company’s director of research solutions, said the polling on this issue appears to be consistent across the states.

“It happens to be one of these rare circumstances where it’s really bad policy and really bad politics,” Lazarus said.

In North Carolina, Lazarus said, respondents strongly opposed cutting the corporate income tax whether they were told the annual five-billion-dollar cost or not.  Sixty-eight percent of respondents who were informed of the cost opposed it, as did 66 percent of those not given the information.

“The polling shows that people want to see that money put into schools, roads, a lot of other good things that help working people,” Lazarus said. “They don’t want to see corporate taxes cut.”

See the  poll results, including information about methodology, here.