UNC System President on UNC Press controversy: “I’d certainly like to resolve the issue soon.”

UNC System President Peter Hans plans to talk to representatives from the UNC Press Board of Governors and the UNC Board of Governors’ University Governance Committee this week in an effort to resolve the conflict over the committee’s refusal to re-appoint UNC law Professor Eric Muller to the UNC Press Board of Governors

“I’d like to see it resolved as soon as possible,” Hans told Policy Watch Wednesday, between committee meetings of the UNC Board of Governors.

As Policy Watch first reported last month, the UNC Board of Governors refused to reappoint UNC law professor Eric Muller to the governing board of the UNC Press. The nonprofit press, established in 1922 as the first university press in the South and one of the first in the nation, exists to advance “the research, teaching, and public service missions of a great public university by publishing excellent work from leading scholars, writers, and intellectuals and by presenting that work to both academic audiences and general readers.”

UNC System President Peter Hans

Muller has served two five-year terms on the board of the Press and was unanimously reelected chairman earlier this year. During that time, he has been outspoken on the legality of the UNC System’s controversial handling of the Silent Sam Confederate monument and UNC-Chapel Hill’s failure to deal appropriately with sensitive issues of race and history. Sources directly involved in the appointment process tell Policy Watch that enmity from conservatives on the board of governors derailed Muller’s reappointment.

The decision has been met with wide condemnation, most recently from the UNC-Chapel Hill Faculty Executive Committee.

Under the UNC Press Board by-laws, nominations for seats on the board come from the board itself. The chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill and the President of the UNC System must then transmit those names to the UNC Board of Governors. But as Hans told Policy Watch Wednesday, he submitted Muller’s name for reappointment along with two others only to be told the committee would not vote on Muller.

“I didn’t have discussions with board members about it,” Hans said. “But evidently the feedback was they were ready to move forward with the two names [besides Muller]. So I formally submitted the two names.”

That feedback came to Hans through his staff, he said, rather than personal conversations.

Some legal observers, including Muller himself, say that in  in submitting a second slate without Muller’s name Hans may have violated the UNC Press by-laws that govern the appointment process. There is not provision for the UNC Board of Governors to reject appointments without holding an up-or-down vote or to suggest, as the committee did, that the UNC Press board submit names besides those that come from its own process.

“This was a clear violation of the bylaws of the UNC Press,” Muller said in a Twitter post Tuesday.

In a Wednesday interview with Policy Watch, Hans said he doesn’t know why the committee declined to vote on Muller’s appointment.

“There was no discussion of why or…in order to fill those two slots, I formally submitted the two names,” Hans said.

Asked if he would be speaking to committee members, perhaps during Wednesday and Thursday’s board meetings, about their reasoning, Hans said he plans to.

“I certainly plan to,”  Hans said. “You know, it’s never a dull moment around here. A thousand things a day. But I certainly plan to.”

Hans said the ball is now in the court of the University Governance Committee.

“Once I have direction from the governance committee and the board I’ll certainly resubmit the name or submit another name – in, of course, consultation I would think, UNC Press,” Hans said.

The UNC Press does great work and needs a full board to continue it’s important mission, Hans said.

The Press board meets Wednesday afternoon and is expected to take up the issue then.

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Report: One in seven North Carolinians behind on their rent with eviction moratorium set to expire

Image: The Pew Charitable Trusts — Source: National Equity Atlas, PolicyLink, USC Equity Research Institute

A recent report by the Pew Charitable Trusts news outlet Stateline offers more sobering findings on the national rental housing situation. According to data compiled in the National Equity Atlas, a data and policy tool maintained by the University of Southern California and the research firm Policy Link, the number of U.S. renters behind on payments has doubled from 2017 to 2021.

In North Carolina, from May 24 to June 7, the percentage of renters behind on their payments stayed at 14% — a strong indication that rental assistance is not reaching the hands of struggling North Carolinians fast enough with the end of the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) eviction ban set for July 31. The report found a total nationwide rent debt of upwards of $20 billion and more than 5.8 million renters behind on their payments as of June 7.

While the CARES Act and two other emergency rental assistance packages enacted by the federal government have directed billions of dollars to individual states in hopes of getting rental and utility assistance into the hands of Americans in need, the distribution process has not been going smoothly in many places — chiefly because state and local agencies were not adequately prepared to deal with the distribution of such large sums in such short order. As a result, the timing for approval of an application for rental assistance can take anywhere from hours to months, depending on where you are located and what organization is helping you.

Since September 2020, the CDC eviction ban has served as a safety net preventing evictions for these renters. The ban has been extended multiple times, but with final expiration now just days away, many advocates and experts foresee a tidal wave of evictions and other negative consequences throughout the country. These fears would appear to be well-founded. When North Carolina didn’t have an eviction ban in place for the 11 weeks prior to the advent of the CDC’s order, the state saw in excess of 15,000 COVID-19 cases and 300 COVID-19 deaths related to evictions according to a study published by the Social Science Research Network. When the current eviction ban expires on July 31 this influx of cases and deaths could happen again.

Despite the recent sobering data, it’s important to note that the current rental housing affordability crisis predates the pandemic. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, in March of 2020, (i.e., pre-COVID) only 36 affordable and available rental homes existed for every 100 extremely low-income renters in need. But, of course, the pandemic made things significantly worse. Almost seven in 10 Americans who are behind on their rental payments lost employment at one point during the pandemic according to the research done by the National Equity Atlas.

While the current bleak situation is forcing families to make tough choices between paying the rent, putting food on the table, and paying the electric bill, there are policy options that would go a long way toward protecting renters from short-term and long-term harm. Here are two:

  1. Evictions in North Carolina should be paused while every effort is made to make sure landlords and tenants access the hundreds of millions of dollars of rental assistance that remain available in the HOPE (Housing Opportunities and Prevention of Evictions) program to resolve non-payment of rent eviction cases.
  2. The U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau should act to seal the eviction records and rental debt of those hardest hit by this pandemic. Doing this would make that information private and help prevent tenants who have struggled during the pandemic to pay rent  from being rejected for future housing applications based upon pandemic related financial hardships.

Raquel Harati is a Housing and Health Policy Intern at the N.C. Justice Center.

Once planned for North Carolina, Active Energy’s wood pellet experiment in Maine hits a snag

Source: Active Energy investor chat webinar

Active Energy, the company behind a controversial wood pellet plant in Lumberton, has produced only a fraction of the amount it promised to deliver from a quickly assembled operation in Maine.

Because of delays in North Carolina, Active Energy in early June began a trial run of of CoalSwitch pellets in Ashland. The company was on a contractual deadline to deliver 900 to 1,000 tons of pellets to PacifiCorp, which plans to burn them at its Hunter Power plant in Utah, according to company correspondence with investors.

So far that’s not gone well. Eric Kennedy, director of licensing and compliance with Maine’s Bureau of Air Quality, said that during the trial period the company has produced only about eight tons of pellets that it had promised to PacifiCorp.

In response to questions from Policy Watch, an Active Energy spokesman said via email that “Active Energy Group will not be making any comments at this time.”

Nonetheless, in a video message to investors in June, Active Energy CEO Michael Rowan said the company had made the “first deliveries” of CoalSwitch pellets to PacificCorp, but did not specify amounts.

In Maine, the CoalSwitch technology had been added to a recently permitted log extruding plant owned by Player Design. The company, which is also Active Energy’s engineering consultant in North Carolina, manufacturers fireplace logs. The facility is smaller than the one under construction in Lumberton, according to a description of the project provided to Maine environmental regulators.

Environmental regulators in Maine had originally scheduled the temporary air permit to expire on July 31. The company has requested an extension of the trial period through Sept. 29, which the Maine Bureau of Air Quality has granted, Kennedy said.

Active Energy CEO Michael Rowan told investors in a letter on May 20 that the company hopes the Maine facility will be a second CoalSwitch plant, and eventually receive approval to produce up to 35,000 tons of pellets per year.

The company has heralded CoalSwitch wood pellets as a game changer for utilities. The patented technology creates a pellet that can burned alongside coal or as a standalone fuel in traditional power plants with no loss of heat. Utilities that use CoalSwitch pellets wouldn’t have to spend millions of dollars to retrofit their facilities. And because the manufacturing process uses steam to explode the pellets to remove some contaminants, they burn cleaner than coal.

However, the pellet production process itself can emit tons carbon monoxide, particulate matter and hazardous air pollutants. Kennedy said Maine regulators don’t yet have emissions data from the trial period, but expect to after it concludes. This data could be instructive for the NC Department of Environmental Quality, which has questioned the accuracy of the company’s most recent emissions estimates.

Source: Active Energy Group investor webinar

DEQ granted Active Energy an air permit last year, over strenuous public objections and concerns about public health and the environment. Shortly afterward, the company began tinkering with the technology, ostensibly to reduce potential emissions. Instead, the changes appear to increase them. DEQ issued a Notice of Violation to Active Energy on May 5  for construction new equipment and changing the process design without state approval.

When Active Energy announced in May that it would manufacture wood pellets in Maine, conservative lawmakers were quoted in the Carolina Journal blaming, without evidence, the NC Department of Environmental Quality for the company’s decision. Active Energy still owns the Lumberton plant, but has not produced pellets there.

Division of Air Quality spokeswoman Zaynab Nasif said in May that the company’s amended application, filed in late April, “appears to indicate an increase in potential emissions due to these control and process modifications. The department has also found inconsistencies in the emissions estimates.”

The most significant upticks are for carbon monoxide, the emissions of which are projected to increase 104%, from 7.9 tons per year to just over 16 tons. Particulate matter — essentially fine dust — would increase dramatically from 0.1 tons per year to 26.7 tons, according to the permit applications. Hazardous air pollutants, classified by the EPA as those that can cause cancer and other serious health problems, also increased: 6,263 pounds a year, up from 4,963 pounds.

The Division of Air Quality asked Active Energy for more information. However, Nasif told Policy Watch today that the department has not received any updates since May 21, including any information regarding testing in Maine.

Active Energy was running a sawmill at the Lumberton facility, but that operation is also in doubt. “We’ve ceased saw log exports from Lumberton because it doesn’t fit our ethos with what we’re trying to achieve,” Rowan said in the investor presentation. “We’ve kept the sawmill under review. We have produced the feedstock for future activities.”

The company had been awarded a $500,000 grant from the Department of Commerce to upfit the old Alamac Knits factory in Lumberton. The grant was contingent on meeting job creation benchmarks of 40 to 50 full-time positions. As of March, the Commerce Department had yet to deliver the funds to Robeson County, the pass-through agency, because the paperwork had not yet been completed.