NC DEQ Secretary Regan: “I want to create an open and inclusive agency”

Michael Regan, the nominee for NC DEQ secretary, speaks to the NC Chamber: “I’m not afraid to ask tough questions.” (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Michael Regan hugs trees.

But the presumptive secretary for the Department of Environmental Quality also shakes hands with business executives, who commonly chafe at the regulations that keep those trees standing.

“There’s nothing wrong with hugging a tree,” Regan told a crowd of 150 North Carolina Chamber members on Tuesday. “But protecting the environment and a having a strong business community are not mutually exclusive.”

The two previous –and unpopular — DEQ secretaries, John Skvarla and Donald van der Vaart, made similar comments when they began their respective reigns. What sets Regan apart is his experience with the Environmental Defense Fund. EDF is no Greenpeace; it’s known as a mainstream group that forges partnerships with major corporations: McDonald’s, Smithfield, Duke Energy and Walmart. Yet Regan’s embrace of clean energy, energy efficiency and environmental justice breaks from the business über alles approach of the last four years.

During Regan’s tenure at EDF and EPA — at the agency he served under both Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton — Regan learned to thread the needle between environmental protection and business interests. “”There are non regulatory and regulatory approaches to protecting the environment. I was at the nexus of policy and politics,” Regan said. “Managing scientists, spending time with stakeholders, trying to get complicated rules out of the agency. What I learned is that everyone wants a level of certainty, to be heard and to participate in a fair process.”

Regan said his priorities include “unleashing the expertise at DEQ.” That expertise and knowledge, forged over decades by career employees, was chained to political considerations under Van der Vaart. Regan also plans to  address the backlog of permits and “increase transparency and stakeholder engagement.”

“I’m not afraid to ask the tough questions,” he said, as many DEQ division chiefs sat in the audience.

[Tweet ” I can’t do my job without a respectful relationship with the legislature”]

Regan can expect to field tough questions during his Senate confirmation hearing, particularly regarding his time at EDF. During a special session in mid-December, Republicans invoked a little-used statute allowing them to hold confirmation hearings for Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s cabinet picks, presumably to derail their nominations. Those hearings, expected to be contentious, are scheduled to begin Feb. 8.

Already the hard-right faction of the Republican Party, led by the Civitas crowd, has labeled Regan a radical — which he clearly is not. However, support from the chamber and its membership could help calm legislative turbulence. So could Regan’s personal history: In addition to his environmental and policy bona fides, he is an African-American from Goldsboro, an area hard hit by Hurricane Matthew. His ties to eastern North Carolina also prime him to address, and possibly begin to resolve, the environmental justice issues associated with industrialized swine farms. If Senate lawmakers fail to confirm Regan, they risk alienating voters in that part of the state.

“I’m reaching out to legislative leadership,” Regan said. “They are one of our most important partners. I can’t do my job without a respectful relationship with the legislature.

“I want to create an open, inclusive agency,” he went on. “To work with stakeholders, to find creative solutions to complex situations.”

EPA launches civil rights inquiry into DEQ’s permitting of biogas systems on hog farms

The entrance to “High on the Hog,” an exhibit celebrating the state’s swine farming, at the Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

The Environmental Protection Agency is opening an investigation into whether state regulators violated civil rights law when last spring, they granted permits to four industrialized hog farms that are installing anaerobic digesters to produce biogas for renewable energy. The investigation is in response to a complaint against the NC Department of Environmental Quality filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is representing several community groups.

SELC alleges that when DEQ granted the general permits to the Smithfield-owned farms, the agency failed to protect the surrounding communities from air and water pollution. A disproportionate share of the hundreds of families who live around the hog operations in Duplin and Sampson County are Black and Latino.

Under a federal civil rights law, known as Title VI, entities that receive federal funds can’t from discriminate on the basis of race, color, or national origin —intentionally or unintentionally.

“We are excited that the EPA decided to investigate this complaint.  As a ‘watch dog’ for those most negatively impacted by the hog industry, we consider the investigation of this complaint as a step in the right direction.  Nevertheless, we also understand that there is much more work to be done,” said Robert Moore, president of the Duplin County Chapter of the North Carolina NAACP, in a prepared statement.

The SELC complaint met the administrative requirements for the EPA to proceed; next the agency will determine whether the complaint has merit.

DEQ has 30 days to respond to the EPA. If the EPA finds the underlying issues of the complaint are valid, the case would initially go to mediation, which is legally required.

Parts of the SELC complaint to the EPA are similar to one it filed to the state Administrative Office of the Courts. Earlier this week, Administrative Law Judge Donald van der Vaart ruled that DEQ legally permitted industrialized hog farms to install the digesters on their waste lagoons. Van der Vaart previously served as DEQ secretary under then-Gov. Pat McCrory, and was known for his anti-regulatory stances.

The SELC’s state filing did not address civil rights laws.

This is the EPA’s third civil rights inquiry into DEQ’s handling of industrialized hog farms since 2014. That year, under DEQ Secretary John Skvarla, the Waterkeeper Alliance, NC Environmental Justice Network and REACH (Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help) filed a complaint alleging that the state’s general permitting process for swine farms disproportionately burdens communities of color.

The EPA ordered the parties into mediation, but in 2016 — under van der Vaart’s tenure — those talks broke down after DEQ brought members of the N.C. Pork Council and the Pork Producers to a confidential mediation meeting. In turn, Elizabeth Haddix and Mark Dorosin, who at the time worked for the UNC Center for Civil Rights, filed a retaliation complaint against the agency.

In 2018, under Secretary Michael Regan, DEQ reached a settlement with the UNC Center for Civil Rights and its clients. The key points included air and surface water monitoring, greater public participation and transparency, and new complaint and violation point systems.

Regan is now the EPA administrator.

EPA notifies three NC facilities they could be required to report use of cancer-causing chemical that’s emitted into the air

Sterigenics, represented by the purple cross on this map, is within one mile of Winget Park Elementary School. (Map: EPA EJ Screening Tool)

Three facilities in North Carolina could be required to report their use of a cancer-causing chemical to the EPA, the agency announced yesterday.

Andersen Products in Haw River, Andersen Scientific in Morrisville, and Sterigenics in Charlotte are among 31 facilities nationwide that the EPA is considering to require reports on their usage of ethylene oxide, a hazardous air pollutant. Data about emissions and usage would be reported to the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory. Also known as TRI, this is a public database of facilities, the chemicals the use, their emissions and discharges to the environment, and other information.

Some of these facilities, including Sterigenics, are also being considered for ethylene glycol reporting.

Ethylene oxide is a flammable, colorless gas used to make other chemicals that are used in making a range of products, including antifreeze, textiles, plastics, detergents and adhesives. Ethylene oxide also is used to sterilize equipment and plastic devices that cannot be sterilized by steam, such as medical equipment.

Long-term exposure to ethylene oxide has been linked to lymphatic cancer and breast cancer. It can irritate the eyes, skin, nose, throat, and lungs, and harm the brain and nervous system, causing effects such as headaches, memory loss and numbness, according to the EPA.

In 2018, a Sterigenics plant in Willowbrook, Ill., was found to have emitted large amounts of the ethylene oxide into the air. The emissions drifted over a neighborhood and a high school; the EPA found that residents within a mile and a half of the plant had up to 10 times a greater risk of developing cancer. Six workers at the high school, just a mile away, developed either breast cancer or lymphoma.

The company subsequently closed the plant.

The EPA’s recent action to select additional sterilization facilities for monitoring and reporting is based on their usage of ethylene oxide, the agency said, upward of 10,000 pounds — or 5 tons per year.

The EPA also selected these facilities based on other factors, including their proximity to highly populated areas, their history of releases of ethylene oxide and ethylene glycol, and other factors the Administrator Michael Regan determined were appropriate, such as the location of nearby schools and communities, especially those with potential environmental justice concerns.

In Charlotte, the Sterigenics plant is in an industrial park on the city’s southwest side, at 18021 Withers Cove Park Drive. The plant previously reported it released 850 pounds of ethylene oxide emissions to the TRI in 2016. Sterigenics has not reported emissions since, because, the EPA said, the facility may have determined it was not legally obligated to continue reporting to TRI after that time.

According to the EPA’s Environmental Justice Screening tool, 5,572 people live within a mile of the plant, two-thirds of them persons of color. Winget Park Elementary School is a mile away.

Andersen Products in Haw River, represented by the purple cross. (Map: EJ Screening Tool)

Andersen Products, 3154 Caroline Drive in Haw River, is in a more sparsely populated area that is predominantly white, although a portion of the one-mile radius lies within Occaneechi-Saponi tribal lands; 38% of the households are low-income.

 

The one-mile radius of Andersen Scientific, near RDU International Airport, extends into Lake Crabtree County Park. (Map: EPA EJ Screening Tool)

Andersen Scientific, 1001 Aviation Parkway, is near the Raleigh-Durham International Airport. However, of the 226 people who live within a mile of the facility, 60% are individuals of color, including many of Asian descent.

The facilities have 30 days to respond to EPA with information that the agency could use to weigh its decision. The EPA said it intends to notify these facilities of its final decision following the 30-day response period; the agency will then issue an order about the reporting and monitoring requirements.

Biden to nominate NC’s Hooks for FEMA deputy

Sec. Erik Hooks

President Joe Biden will nominate Erik Hooks, state Public Safety secretary, to be FEMA’s deputy administrator, the White House announced Tuesday.

Hooks has led Public Safety, which includes the prison system, juvenile justice, the state Highway Patrol, the NC National Guard, and emergency management, since Gov. Roy Cooper’s first term. Public Safety is the state’s largest department.

Hooks was a familiar face at hurricane and COVID-19 news conferences. He announced his retirement earlier this month, to be effective Aug. 1.

Civil rights groups sued Cooper and Hooks last year for the release of incarcerated people vulnerable to COVID-19, NC Policy Watch reported.  In a settlement last February, the state agreed to release 3,500 people early.

Hooks would be the second member of Cooper’s cabinet to join the Biden administration. EPA Administrator Michael Regan was the state’s secretary of Environmental Quality.

Hooks received bachelor and master’s degrees from NC State University. Before he was appointed to run Public Safety, he worked at the State Bureau of Investigation.

U.S. House to vote next week on expanding PFAS regulation, backers say