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.”

Chemours appealing EPA’s stricter health advisory goal for GenX

This pipe carries water from upstream and discharges into the Cape Fear River in Wilmington. Before Chemours stopped discharging GenX into the river, this pipe was a source of the contamination, according to a former riverkeeper. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Chemours announced today it has filed a legal challenge to the EPA’s new health advisory goal for GenX, a type of toxic perfluorinated compound, alleging the agency’s decision is not grounded in the best available science.

Chemours petitioned the Third Circuit Court for a review. The court covers New Jersey and Pennsylvania, as well as Delaware, where the company is based.

Roughly 1 million North Carolinians in the Lower Cape Fear River Basin are routinely exposed to GenX in their drinking water. Chemours’s Fayetteville Works plant, on the Cumberland/Bladen county line, is the source of the contamination for more than 6,200 private drinking water wells and several public water supplies.

Based on toxicology studies, on June 15 the EPA announced a new and more stringent health advisory goal for GenX in drinking water: 10 parts per trillion, compared with an earlier threshold of 70 ppt. Health advisory goals are not legally enforceable, but states often adopt them outright. They can also use the goals as guidance to set their own thresholds.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan said last fall that a new GenX goal was pending, and that the science showed the compound is more toxic than previously thought.

Chemours alleges that the toxicity assessment, which serves as the basis for the health advisory, overstates the risk. Even before the EPA’s announcement last month, behind the scenes Chemours had been challenging the agency’s conclusions and asking for the toxicity assessment to be withdrawn and corrected.

The chemical industry, including major manufacturers of PFAS, have consistently downplayed the toxicity of their perfluorinated products. In 2018, Chemours claimed GenX was safe in groundwater and drinking water at concentrations as high as 70,000 ppt. Chemours paid NC State University professor Damien Shea for supplementary material that supported the company’s conclusions.

(Shea, a professor of environmental toxicology, had previous testified in federal court as an expert witness on behalf of BP, claiming that data showed there was no harmful exposure from petroleum-related chemicals released from the Deep Horizon oil spill.)

Yet independent scientists, using rat and mouse studies, have consistently found links between GenX exposure and certain health conditions: reproductive problems, low birth weight, high cholesterol and several types of cancers. The EPA’s new assessment said the liver “is particularly sensitive” to the effects of GenX.

In a tense exchange before a congressional committee in 2019, Chemours President of Fluoroproducts Paul Kirschman said the company would not compensate people harmed by the company’s contamination.

Gov. Cooper’s budget on environmental issues: what it contains and why it matters

Gov. Cooper’s recommended budget, apportioned by topic area (Source: Governor’s Office)

Gov. Roy Cooper unveiled his $29.3 billion budget yesterday, 3% of which is devoted to natural and economic resources. 

Here are some highlights of the environmental sections and why they’re important:

Department of Environmental Quality

  • $2.49 million to address emerging compounds with additional staff and testing

Why it matters: Are you tired of PFAS yet? Well, PFAS aren’t tired of you. These toxic compounds have seeped into every day life: drinking water, carpet, clothing, fast food containers, furniture, cookware. They’re in blood, in pee, in breast milk.

This money would pay for more specialized staff — chemists, hydrogeologists, engineers — to meet the increasing need for groundwater testing, as well as permitting. What it will not pay for: the legislature’s political will to allow DEQ to establish a legally enforceable drinking water standard.

  •  $160,000 for a “project liaison” to collaborate with the Department of Commerce and Economic Development Partnership related to permitting and site development; plus another $500,000 for support positions

Why it matters: Former DEQ Secretary Michael Regan often said that it’s possible to have both economic development and environmental protection. That’s a sunny talking point, but In Real Life government and economic development leaders chase tax dollars from polluting industries while giving short shrift to the people who have to live next to the contamination. Those people are usually non-white and/or low-income. And once the first polluter enters a community, then it’s open season. (The NC Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board discussed cumulative impacts of multiple polluters at a meeting earlier this week.)

At the risk of using corporate lingo, state agencies are stuck in “silos”: For example, Commerce recruits a company to locate in North Carolina, but until recently no one has considered the environmental — or environmental justice — implications of that department’s efforts.

If the legislature actually includes this line item in their budget (don’t hold your breath), watchdogs should track how it plays out. If the legislature nixes the governor’s recommendation, DEQ and Commerce could still communicate about their respective concerns. The phone call is free.

  • $15 million for low-income households to reduce energy costs and afford clean energy sources

Why it matters: The national average residential electricity rate was up 8% in January from a year earlier, according to The New York Times, which reported it is the biggest annual increase in more than a decade. Low-income households are particularly hard-hit, as are renters. While this budget recommendation would help homeowners, how it would trickle down to renters remains to be seen. According to the NC Housing Coalition, there are 27 counties where renters average more than 8% of their household budget on energy. Renters tend to earn lower wages than homeowners, and since they have to answer to a landlord, they can’t upgrade their homes to make them energy efficient or outfit them with heat pumps or solar panels.

Department of Agriculture

  • $2 million for a forest development program

Why it matters: The importance of forests and trees can’t be overstated. They provide critical wildlife habitat, store carbon, provide shade, and absorb and hold flood waters. The forest development program in the governor’s budget would restore 18,200 acres of forestland — about the size of Durham County — and plant up to 6 million trees. That sounds admirable until you realize North Carolina’s wood pellet plants consume more than that each year.

Map: Lisa Sorg, based on DEQ database of swine farms and NC Division of Emergency Management flood plain data

  • $18 million for the swine farm buyout program

Why it matters: The Coastal Plain, with its sandy soils, high water table and proliferation of swamps, are not well-suited for CAFOS — Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations — and their open-air waste lagoons and spray fields.

Dozens of these farms lie within the 100-year flood plain, making their lagoons vulnerable to overtopping or breaching during a hurricane or prolonged storms. This money would help fund the voluntary buyout program, up to 19 swine farms. The land is put in a conservation easement, but farmers can still plant row crops on that land or raise livestock on pasture.

As Policy Watch reported in 2019, the buyout program launched in 1999, after Hurricane Floyd, Dennis and Irene hammered the state. After four buyout rounds totaling nearly $19 million for 43 farms, the legislature stopped funding the program in 2007. More than 100 farmers who wanted to participate in the buyout program couldn’t.

But Hurricane Florence was a game-changer: Rising water flooded 46 lagoons and another 60 nearly overtopped. In 2018, the NC Department of Agriculture secured $5 million to restart the buyouts, split between federal and state funds.

Department of Natural and Cultural Resources

  • $10 million for peatlands and pocosin conservation and inventory

Why it matters: First, peatlands are cool, at least when they’re not on fire. In this part of the world, they are the result of decomposed Sphagnum moss, shrubs and sedges. In Scotland, smoldering peat is used to dry malt that is used to make whisky. (Laphroig will knock your socks off.)

However, burning peat releases carbon dioxide, a major driver of greenhouse gas. North Carolina has coastal peatlands; those of you around in 2008 might remember when, during a severe drought, lightning struck a peat bog, igniting it. The bog burned for weeks, and the smell — and pollution– traveled west all the way to the Triangle.

Restoring peatlands — re-wetting them — can reduce carbon emissions and wildfire risk, as well as promote flood resilience and water quality, all very important not just to coastal communities but the planet.

These funds will also help the Natural Heritage Program inventory Coastal Plain wetlands that have been previously excluded from other counts. Wetlands can control flooding, filter pollution and provide key habitats. Finding, acquiring and protecting wetlands, particularly in the flood-prone Coast Plain, can build resiliency against future hurricanes and severe storms — events that are very likely because of climate change.

(Creative Commons)

Other appropriations

  • $10 million to the Department of Transportation so the state can receive matching federal grants for the first portion of the S Line: commuter rail that would link Wake, Franklin, Vance and Warren counties. Another $10 million would go to a local government program that would to provide matching funds for bike and pedestrian projects.

Why it matters: Transportation is responsible for 60% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. However, electric cars won’t solely dig the planet out of the climate crisis. As long as we continue to put more cars on the road, including electric, that sparks road widening. And road widening requires asphalt, whose manufacture and trucking emits greenhouse gases. More highway lanes often require massive clear-cutting of trees, which are carbon stores. (Exhibits A and B: I-40 in Wake County, I-95 in Cumberland County.)

As for the S Line, it’s years away, but a north-south rail line could alleviate the daily logjam on U.S. 1 and Capital Boulevard. 

Another way to get cars off the road is to make cities and suburbs safe and pleasant for walkers and bicyclists. Protected bike lanes, greenways, sidewalks that connect neighborhoods: People would more likely walk or bike to a coffeeshop if they didn’t have to cheat death by crossing four lanes of traffic.


The Week in Pollution: Chemours says toxic GenX helps fight climate change

GenX — a toxic compound scientifically linked to several cancers, high cholesterol, thyroid disorders, reproductive issues, fetal development problems and a depressed immune system — is … ahem, necessary to fight climate change?

That’s the claim by Chemours, in its March filing to the EPA rebutting the agency’s toxicity assessment of GenX. Sharon Lerner of the Intercept first reported on the document earlier this month.

Chemours, whose GenX discharges have contaminated drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people in the Lower Cape Fear River Basin, contends that GenX and other fluoropolymers are “essential in manufacturing lithium-ion batteries central to electrifying cars … .”

The company is also the major U.S. manufacturer of key components in hydrogen fuel cells, “which show great potential for harnessing green hydrogen as an alternative to fossil fuels.”

Chemours’s audacious climate change argument is new, signaling a last-ditch effort to thwart the EPA’s pending new health advisory goal for GenX. That goal, which the agency has said will be more stringent, is due out this spring.

Last fall, EPA Administrator Michael Regan announced that scientists had found GenX is more toxic than previously thought. The agency is expected to issue a new, more stringent drinking water advisory this spring. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

There is no federal or state drinking water standard for GenX or any type of PFAS, also known as perfluorinated compounds. The NC Department of Health and Human Services has set a health advisory goal of 140 parts per trillion for GenX in drinking water. The EPA’s updated health goal could be as low as 5 parts per trillion.

Unless the EPA corrects its toxicity assessment of GenX, Chemours wrote in the filing, regulations could “cause significant harm to Chemours as well as to the broader U.S. economy.”

Meanwhile, peer-reviewed science and broad health studies have demonstrated that GenX causes significant harm to living beings.

Donald van der Vaart (File photo: DEQ)

Former DEQ Secretary-turned-judge to oversee Wake Stone case

Wake Stone is contesting the NC Department of Environmental Quality’s denial of its mining permit, which would have allowed the company to build a quarry on 105 acres next to Umstead State Park. Wake Stone and DEQ have been ordered to enter mediation, but if a settlement isn’t reached, the case will be heard by an administrative law judge, beginning July 11.

And the judge? None other than Donald van der Vaart, former DEQ secretary under Gov. Pat McCrory. Van der Vaart, who was a senior fellow at the conservative John Locke Foundation after his DEQ gig, is now the chief administrative law judge, appointed by Republican state Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby.

Another big mining case, that of Carolina Sunrock‘s proposed quarry in Prospect Hill, in southern Caswell County, remains unresolved. Opponents reached a settlement with DEQ over its approval of the mining permit, which should afford more drinking water protections.

However, there is still disgruntlement among mine opponents over DEQ’s opportunities for public participation — or lack thereof — when the mining permit was still in play. The agency held one public hearing, but days before DEQ approved the permit, there was a flurry of changes — all done without public notice or input. (Opponents of a proposed discharge permit for Chemours are also begging for a public hearing, so far to no avail. DEQ is accepting public comment through May 2.)

Before the first stone can be excavated, Carolina Sunrock must also navigate a convoluted vested rights disagreement at the county level.  “Vested rights” allow a company to continue a use or to complete a project as it was approved, despite subsequent changes to a county ordinance. As it pertains to Caswell County, commissioners passed a temporary moratorium on polluting industries in 2020.

If a Caswell County judge determines that Carolina Sunrock doesn’t have vested rights, then the mining permit is in jeopardy; the state’s approval is contingent upon the county’s go-ahead. A court date has not been set.

And because nothing is simple in Caswell County, the Watershed Review Board still has to rule on the project. The quarry property boundary would lie roughly 1,000 feet from South Hyco Creek, the headwaters for Roxboro Lake. The lake is the supplemental drinking water supply for the City of Roxboro.

The ginormous Yadkin County mine is still in a holding pattern. The county’s planning board will meet May 9 for a second public hearing on the rezoning proposal. The mine, owned by a subsidiary of Synergy Materials, an out-of-state company, would be constructed 800 feet from West Yadkin Elementary School and 500 feet from several nearby homes.


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.