agriculture, Environment, Legislature

This Week in Pollution: PFAS in drinking water, Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s secret drilling fluids, plus hog farm odor complaints

Firefighting foam pours from a hose after a training exercise. (Photo: US Department of Defense)

It costs the City of Greensboro, make that the ratepayers, $9,000 a month, plus $1,000 a day, for a treatment system to reduce and remove per- and poly-fluorinated compounds — PFAS — from the drinking water.

Firefighting foam used in training exercises at Piedmond Triad International Airport is one likely source of the contamination. Foam leaves the runways and tarmacs, then enters Horsebend Creek, which drains north into lakes supplying the city’s water.

Storm water runoff from airports (which could also contain contaminants like jet fuel, oils and other petroleum products) is A-OK by the legislature. In 2017, lawmakers tucked a provision into Senate Bill 8 directing DEQ and local government to give airports a pass on runoff from runways, taxiways, and “any other areas” that flows into grass buffers, shoulders and swales.

Greensboro has learned the hard — and expensive — way that grass isn’t a proven PFAS removal system.

Ten years ago, water entering the city’s treatment plant rarely exceeded the EPA’s health advisory goal of 200 parts per trillion. But since the federal agency lowered the threshold to 70 ppt (for individual compounds or a combination), Greensboro has been forced to rent activated carbon technology to limit the levels in water flowing from hundreds of thousands of taps.

If the EPA further reduces the goal to the single digits, which is possible if not likely, “we’ll need to remove it all,” Mike Borchers, assistant director of the city’s Division of Water Resources said at a drinking water forum sponsored by the Cape Fear River Assembly.

A $30 million upgrade to the water treatment system will help keep the concentrations in check, but stemming the source is the more obvious — and cheaper — solution.

Is my water safe? “That’s not a simple answer,” Rebecca Sadosky, NC DEQ’s drinking water protection program coordinator, told the forum attendees. “There have always been things in the drinking water.”

Hardly heartwarming, but the fact is that safe water doesn’t equal risk-free water. As detection technology improves, scientists and regulators are finding unforeseen contaminants, such 1,4 dioxane and GenX and other fluorinated compounds in our water supplies.

In addition to the pesky problem of plastic, bottled water isn’t necessarily better. The water could be sourced from another public system, which might have its own treatment issues. Bottled water isn’t regulated by the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Act, but rather the FDA. Heads up, La Croix fans: Sparkling water is regulated as a soft drink.

University scientists from throughout the state will sample 190 surface water intakes at public water systems, plus groundwater wells serving another 158 municipalities, as part of the NC Policy Collaboratory’s PFAS project.

Funded by a $5 million appropriation by the legislature, the project also includes studying the vulnerability of private wells to PFAS and developing treatment technologies to remove the compounds. Other science teams will analyze air emissions and atmospheric deposition of the compounds, such as Gen X.

The Collaboratory is required to file quarterly progress reports with the Environmental Review Commission. The first one was published on Oct. 1.

Air emissions are one source of drinking water contamination for residents living near the Chemours plant on the Bladen-Cumberland county line. Compounds leave the plant’s smokestacks and then fall to the ground, seeping into private water supplies.

So it’s not surprising that four types of PFAS (but not Gen X) were found in the blood of all 30 people who volunteered for a test conducted by the NC Department of Health and Human Services, Policy Watch reported this week. These residents live near the Chemours plant and depend on well water. 

Waterways in North Carolina can’t get a break. Some ingredients in drilling fluids and additives used for construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline are deemed “trade secrets.” Unless Dominion and Duke Energy decide you’re on a need-to-know-basis, it’s impossible to (legally) know what’s in them.

They call it an inadvertent return. Most people would call it a toxic spill. (Photo: Atlantic Coast Pipeline federal filings)

When these drilling fluids, also known as “mud,” spill — and they do spill — it is known in Orwellian terms as “an inadvertent return.” The Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC’s own federal filings say that if this ahem, return “occurs in a waterbody it will be more difficult to contain because the fluid will be dispersed into the water and carried downstream.”

From water to air: At a recent meeting of the Environmental Management Commission, member Marion Deerhake asked DEQ staff to supply statistics on odor complaints from industrialized hog farms, back to 2000 when the agency began collecting the data.

DEQ is still digging up numbers from early years of the program, but from 2012 to 2017, there were a total of 34.

Here are the statistics by year:

  • 2012             11
  • 2013               5
  • 2014               4
  • 2015               2
  • 2016               3
  • 2017               9

Judging from testimony in the three hog nuisance trials, many, if not most people don’t know how to file a complaint or whom to complain to. Start with Debra Watts, supervisor of DEQ’s Animal Feeding Operations branch: 919-707-3670 or debra.watts@ncdenr.gov .

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Interactive map shows who needs legal help after Hurricane Florence

A screenshot of the interactive story map created by the Equal Access to Justice Commission

The North Carolina Equal Access to Justice Commission this week released new data that reveals the impact of Hurricane Florence on North Carolina and the vulnerable populations who may potentially need legal help during the recovery.

The Commission developed an interactive story map with information from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, North Carolina Department of Transportation, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the American Red Cross.

As users scroll through the story, they can click on maps to see data for specific geographic areas of North Carolina. Data includes hurricane impacts, social vulnerability, housing and location affordability, immigrant and limited English proficiency populations, SNAP recipients, renters, people without health insurance, race and vulnerable populations like children and seniors.

The map also includes information about where residents can access disaster legal services around the state.

Hurricane Florence made landfall on North Carolina’s coast as category 1 in September and then wreaked havoc for days in eastern North Carolina as the wettest tropical cyclone on record. Thousands were without power, displaced and left picking up the pieces after their homes and businesses were damaged.

A media release states that the Commission plans to continue sharing resources in the story map with several groups, including the General Assembly, legal aid providers and policy advocacy organizations for use in strategic planning, grant writing, collaboration and decision-making regarding the allocation of resources.

Commentary, News

As election begins, both gerrymandering and hopes for ending it loom large

The 2018 election is obviously an extremely important one for the future of North Carolina and the nation. Unfortunately, it’s clear that gerrymandered maps will continue to play a central role in determining the makeup off the next Congress and General Assembly. To see confirmation of this check out a new website from the good people at the Brennan Center for Justice. It includes a colorful interactive national map that shows had dramatically congressional maps have been skewed to favor Republicans.

It shows, for instance, how Republicans can retain control of Congress even by winning fewer than 50% of votes. This is from the site:

Districts across the country tend to shift uniformly in response to changes in the national vote. So by adjusting the bar that controls the parties’ national vote share, you can see how their projected share of seats increases or decreases — including the fact that if both parties win 50 percent of the vote, Republicans will still wind up with many more seats. You can also look at individual districts to see which seats change hands as the national vote changes, and to see assessments by two leading election prognosticators, 538 and Larry Sabato. (Note: The 538 number is their estimate of Democrats’ percentage chances of winning the seat, not Democrats’ expected vote share.)

To be clear, the actual national vote percentage needed for Democrats to win a majority may be somewhat lower than the map suggests, especially in a wave year. That’s because of district-specific factors like retirements, scandals, or exceptionally weak or strong fundraising. While some election analysts take those factors into account in formulating their estimates, our map focuses solely on the raw effects of gerrymandering — showing how rigged maps put one side in a hole from the get-go and thwart the will of voters.

When one hovers over North Carolina’s second district for instance, it shows that Democrat Linda Coleman will probably need for Democrats to win 57% of the national vote to win the seat currently held by George Holding.  The same holds in the ninth district where Democrat Dan McCready is up against Republican Mark Harris. That said, most prognosticators have listed both races as toss-ups at this point.

The Brennan Center site, of course, highlights the issue of gerrymandering reform and the issue of enacting nonpartisan redistricting laws at the state level. On this front, the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government are out with new survey results of where North Carolina legislative candidates stand on the issue. Learn more at http://www.nclobbyreform.org.

Commentary

Editorial: Hurricanes show need for tougher regulation of hogs, sewage, development

There was a fine editorial in the Fayetteville Observer earlier this week (and republished today in the Greenville Daily Reflector) that tells it like it is with respect to the massive water pollution issues that confront eastern North Carolina — particularly in what the editorial describes as the “open sewer” that is the Cape Fear River. As the editorial notes:

The extent of the river pollution raises serious public policy questions that need to be addressed. It is urgent and procrastination should be punishable by losses at the polls.

We’ve heard a great deal about the problems caused by massive amounts of animal waste from the pork and poultry industries, which annually raise millions of hogs and tens of millions of chickens and turkeys in this region. Both use primitive technology for waste disposal and have been reluctant to upgrade to safer disposal solutions that are readily available but more expensive that old fashioned open cesspools and piles of poultry litter. The problem is compounded by the location of many of these factory-scale farms in flood plains, where they are vulnerable, especially to epic floods like those brought by hurricanes Floyd, Matthew and Florence.

Tighter regulation is needed and some of those factory farms need to be moved to higher ground. Gov. Roy Cooper’s proposed Florence relief package includes funding for farm buyouts and relocations.

While state lawmakers and regulators need to find better solutions to those problems, they turn out to be only one part of the danger we face from the growing number of flooding events that appears to be North Carolina’s new normal. Even more contaminants were released into the Cape Fear and its tributaries by sources we had previously believed to be under control: our municipal sewer systems. Read more

NC Budget and Tax Center, race

Low-income taxpayers in NC pay more of their income in state and local taxes each year than the richest taxpayers

A new study released today by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) finds that the North Carolina tax system is regarded as the 31st most regressive because low-income taxpayers are asked to pay more in state and local taxes as a share  of their income compared to the rich.

The study, Who Pays? A Distributional Analysis of the Tax Systems in All 50 States, analyzes tax systems in all 50 states. The analysis evaluates all major state and local taxes, including personal and corporate income taxes, property taxes, sales and other excise taxes. According to their findings, the lowest-income North Carolinians pay 1.5 times more in taxes as a percent of their income compared to the state’s wealthiest residents. As illustrated below, the lowest 20% of North Carolina taxpayers pay 9.5% in total taxes as a percentage of their income, while the top 1% of North Carolina taxpayers pay 6.4% in total taxes as a percentage of their income.

Source: Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy

The wealthiest North Carolinians continue to benefit most from our growing economy and the state tax code is supercharging those gains. It’s not unreasonable to ask the highest-income residents and corporations to pay a share of state and local taxes that gets closer to the share that taxpayers with poverty-level incomes pay or that seeks to balance what is now an upside down tax code.  It makes certain that those who spend more of their income have more income to spend locally. It is also good for our fiscal position as a state.  It turns out, more progressive rate structures are better able to keep up with a growing economy and thus fund the services and infrastructure that support thriving communities.

Sales taxes play a critical role in the regressive and consequently inequitable nature of the North Carolina tax system. Like most other states, North Carolina relies on sales and excise taxes (30.7% of the 2018-2019 approved budget) as a primary mechanism to raise revenue. However, in North Carolina, sales and excise taxes are the most regressive taxes when compared to income and property taxes. The lowest 20% of North Carolina taxpayers 6.1 percent in sales taxes as a percentage of their income while the top 1 percent pays less than 1 percent in sales taxes as a percentage of their income.

Source: Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy

 Equally important are the racial implications of regressive state and local tax systems. Tax codes worsen the racial wealth divide when they tax low-income people at higher rates than the wealthy, tax income derived from wealth (e.g. capital gains) at a lower rate than income derived from work, and heavily rely on consumption taxes. A recent study on the Tax Cuts and Job Act from ITEP and Prosperity Now report regarding changes to the federal tax code report similar findings— communities are color benefit the least from tax systems that reward the wealthy, who are overwhelmingly White. Moreover, tax cuts in recent years in North Carolina have consolidated the racial wealth divide by delivering the greatest share of net tax cuts to White taxpayers.

State lawmakers have control over how their tax systems are structured. This latest Who Pays data makes clear that our state’s failed tax-cut experiment is maintaining a tax code that privileges the few at the expense of us all.

Martine Aurelien is a Policy Fellow at the Budget and Tax Center, a project of the North Carolina Justice Center. Her work focuses on equitable economic opportunities, tax policy, race equity, and systems level policy solutions.