Greensboro apology for Klan violence establishes a welcome precedent for CIA torture program

This week, in a historic and unprecedented move, the Greensboro City Council formally apologized for the city’s handling of the 1979 massacre by white supremacists in a low-income, predominantly African-American neighborhood of Greensboro.

The apology to victims, their families, and the community comes after over four decades of persistent struggle for acknowledgement of the city’s wrongdoing, including its failure to be transparent about the role of its police. Greensboro’s action is a shining illustration of what can be achieved by sheer, stubborn refusal to let government misdeeds be swept under the rug.

In a less publicized but significant step in the quest for official accountability, Rep. David Price wrote to the CIA this week demanding answers on another dark chapter in North Carolina’s history — the Agency’s misuse of our state’s infrastructure and skilled aviators in a years-long program of systematic torture and rendition.

Without North Carolina’s airports, the CIA torture program literally would not have gotten off the ground. As Rep. Price noted, over 80% of the CIA rendition-to-torture missions in the first half of the CIA’s massive program emanated from our public airports in Smithfield and Kinston.

While advocates for justice and accountability can cheer these important moves, there is still much the state needs to do, and that starts with Governor Cooper. The Governor has taken an important step in creating task forces on racial equity in criminal justice and health. Citizens have given him another important opportunity when it comes to torture.

Greensboro’s apology would never have occurred without the ground-breaking work of the Greensboro Truth & Reconciliation Commission and the survivors and allies who initiated it. This two-year effort to break through government inaction and cover-up was the work of dozens of citizens from all walks of life. In addition to recommending institutional reforms and additional truth-seeking, the GTRC’s 2006 report urged that Greensboro make meaningful gestures to acknowledge the events of November 3, 1979, including public and private apologies to those harmed by the events.

The uphill battle fought by the GTRC, massacre survivors and others, driven by a loving insistence on justice in the face of government inaction, was a major inspiration for the citizen-led North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture. Where government fails to uphold the rule of law, citizens can step in.

While Klan violence and the CIA’s torture program may seem far apart, one thread that links them is official refusal to look the problems squarely in the eye. When it took on the 1979 massacre, the GTRC tackled the enabling landscape of racism in law enforcement and criminal justice. The racist “othering” of Muslim people has allowed the U.S. to avoid scrutiny for a years-long government torture system whose victims are all Muslim. We are overdue for a reckoning on how this form of official and societal racism has degraded our democracy.

Governor Cooper rightly recognized the urgency of tackling systemic racism when he created task forces on racial equity in criminal justice and health. The CIA continues to do its secret business through its contractor based at the Johnston County Airport. We need the Governor to act with urgency on the problem of torture.  In fact, the NCCIT’s 2018 report recommends a governor-led task force.

Greensboro’s apology has flesh through a set of scholarships in the names of those murdered, so that future generations are both aided and reminded of those who lost their lives. The U.S. owes acknowledgement to the men and women whose lives it has trampled through torture and secret detention. With its unique contribution as home of the “torture taxis,” North Carolina is a good place to start.

Jill Williams was Executive Director of the Greensboro Truth & Reconciliation Commission from 2004-2006, and now lives in Pulaski, VA.  Catherine Read was Executive Director of the North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture from 2017-2018, and lives in Raleigh, NC.

Record rainfall causes major sewage spill in Greensboro; equivalent to gallons of maple syrup that Maine produces in a year

Click on a yellow icon to see the address and amount of sewage spilled.

The City of Greensboro discharged 675,450 gallons of untreated sewage into parts of Buffalo Creek, a tributary of the Cape Fear River, after record rainfall last week overwhelmed wastewater treatment systems.

On Feb. 6, Greensboro received 3.69 inches of rain, according to the National Weather Service. The previous record of 2 inches was set in 1955.

As required by state law, the city issued press releases listing the amounts and addresses of the spills.  “The area was cleaned and lime was spread on ground surface areas,” a city spokesperson wrote.

Because of the volume of water, the pollution was likely diluted in the creek before it reached towns and cities downstream.

A spokeswoman for the NC Department of Environmental Quality said the agency is investigating several wastewater overflows that occurred because of the storm. “Once the five-day reports come in for all of these spills, our staff will make a determination about whether enforcement actions are warranted,” she said.

How much is 675,000 gallons?

  • The State of Maine produced 675,000 gallons of maple syrup in 2016.
  • An Olympic-size swimming pool holds about 660,000 gallons of water.
  • The amount is equal to 21,774 barrels of beer.
  • It would take 1,054 hours for an Airbus ACJ319 to burn through 675,000 gallons of fuel.

This weekend: Greensboro Event explores impact of court fines and fees

This weekend the The North Carolina Fines and Fees Coalition and the Aspen Institute Financial Security Program  are holding an event in Greensboro examining the impact of court fines, fees and criminal justice debt in North Carolina.

The event begins Friday at 11 a.m. and will be held at the main banquet hall at Bennett College Global Learning Center, 521 Gorrell St., Greensboro. The program, which runs through Saturday, will feature a variety of criminal justice experts from across the political spectrum:

  • The Honorable Josephine Davis, Superior Court North Carolina 14th Judicial District
  • Satana Deberry, District Attorney for Durham County
  • Dennis Gaddy, Founder and Executive Director, Community Success Initiative
  • Brandon Garrett, Professor of Law, Duke University School of Law
  • Kristie Puckett-WIlliams, Statewide Campaign for Smart Justice Manager, ACLU of North Carolina
  • Vikrant Reddy, Senior Fellow, Charles Koch Institute
  • Priya Sarathy Jones, National Campaign Director at the Fines and Fees Justice Center
  • Joanna Smith-Ramani, Managing Director, Aspen Institute Financial Security Program
  • Daryl Atkinson, Co-Director, Forward Justice

“In North Carolina, criminal justice systems have imposed burdensome fines, fees, court costs, and other debts onto residents, creating a ‘two-tier justice system,'” the coalition said in a release Monday.  “In an attempt to close budget gaps, some states and local municipalities have increased court fines and fees, imposed late fees and installment plan fees, and intensified efforts to collect. These efforts hit low-income households and households of color disproportionately hard, and when penalties like suspending driver’s licenses are implemented, it exacerbates a person’s inability to pay.”

Policy Watch has written about this issue extensively, including coverage of policy changes under Deberry as district attorney in Durham.

Among the changes Deberry made shortly after taking office: waiving unpaid traffic fines and fees for 2,118 people who lost their licenses at least two years ago, removing a major impediment to restoring their ability to legally drive.


Greensboro official: “No trigger level” at which we were required to alert DEQ of high 1,4-Dioxane levels

Simple, but toxic: A chemical model of 1,4 dioxane, an emerging contaminant and likely carcinogen.

The City of Greensboro didn’t immediately report an alarming spike in levels of 1,4-Dioxane in its wastewater to state officials because there was no requirement that it do so, a top utility official said today.

A likely human carcinogen, 1,4-Dioxane was released from Greensboro’s TZ Osborne wastewater treatment plant on Aug. 7. The levels were high enough that it contaminated Pittsboro’s drinking water more than 4o miles downstream. There, concentrations reached 114 ppb, and likely contaminated the water supply for about a week. Although the EPA does not regulate 1,4-Dioxane, it has set a recommended health goal of 0.35 ppb.

Nonetheless, Greensboro officials didn’t disclose the increase until Sept. 27, when its monthly discharge report was due to the NC Department of Environmental Quality.

“Whether the levels were high or low, there was no trigger level” set by DEQ at which Greensboro was required to promptly alert state officials, Mike Borchers, assistant director of Greensboro’s Division of Water Resources, told Policy Watch.

North Carolina Health News first reported the discharge and spike in the 1,4-Dioxane levels in drinking water.

Greensboro has been reporting 1,4-Dioxane concentrations in its wastewater discharge each month since December 2017; as part of a targeted three-month monitoring plan, DEQ had required additional sampling this summer. The sampling and reporting are required as a condition of its federal discharge permit — an NPDES — that is administered by state environmental regulators.

At the end of August, levels of 1,4-Dioxane in the wastewater had decreased to 17.5 ppb, In September, the levels dropped further to 5.98 ppb, but rebounded again on Oct. 15, to 12.5 ppb, Borchers said.

While the decrease is notable, the concentrations are still far above the EPA’s health goal.

Greensboro is now required to submit weekly samples to DEQ. An agency spokeswoman said DEQ’s lab is still analyzing the first set of samples, which were received last week.

The discharge originated at Shamrock Environmental in Browns Summit. The facility contracts with other industries throughout the Southeast for oil recycling, hazardous and non-hazardous waste hauling and storage, and decontamination and vacuum services for trucks. In a press release, Shamrock Environmental said its facility, which is located in an industrial park across from the NC Soccer Complex, discharged 15,825 gallons of “non-hazardous wastewater” originating from a customer that did not report the material contained 1,4-Dioxane.

Shamrock Environmental last week declined to name the customer to Policy Watch.

“They won’t tell us, either,” Borchers said, adding that the company has been “supportive in trying to come up with a management strategy, and how we make the screening process better.”

The sources of the contaminant are industries and wastewater treatment plants upstream. Burlington, Greensboro, Asheboro and Reidsville receive the contaminated discharge, and since 1,4-Dioxane can’t be removed from either water or wastewater using traditional treatment methods, the plants  in turn, send that contaminated effluent into the Haw River, its tributaries and through the taps of Pittsboro water customers.

The upstream pollution sources have not always been cooperative in taking responsibility. According to a timeline posted on the Town of Pittsboro website, in early 2017, well after NC State University scientist Detlef Knappe had released his findings, Kevin Eason, then with Reidsville’s Public Works Director, called Knappe “an outlier” during a phone call to Pittsboro officials.

Easton then reportedly said that Reidsville Mayor Jay Donecker “was a scientist.” Donecker is a veterinarian.

Easton also blamed fracking in Stokes County for the contamination downstream. However, no fracking occurred in Stokes County; the NC Geological Survey contracted with a firm to only drill test holes.

As a result of the contamination, the Town of Pittsboro has been struggling to cap levels of 1,4-Dioxane in its drinking water since at least 2014, when  Knappe began studying the presence of the compound in the Haw River. Pittsboro has been using granulated activated charcoal to reduce the contamination in its drinking water, but the town is still searching for a long-term solution.

In late August of this year, CDM Smith, a consulting firm, presented town officials with cost estimates for various advanced treatments — reverse osmosis, ion exchange, granulated activated charcoal and ultra-violet light/advanced oxidation.

Costs ranged from $9 million to $27 million for treatment alone, plus an estimated $20 million to $69 million to expand the plant or seek other water supplies in order to meet projected increases in the number of customers.

Facts aren’t lining up in 1,4-Dioxane discharge by City of Greensboro, Shamrock Environmental

Shamrock Environmental in Browns Summit is across from the NC Soccer Complex. Nearly half the 7,100 residents in the census tract are from communities of color. There are more than two dozen permitted pollution sources in the area. (Map: DEQ Community Mapping System)

People who rely on the town of Pittsboro for their drinking water were likely exposed to high levels of 1,4-Dioxane for about a week in August, after the City of Greensboro discharged the compound, a likely carcinogen, into a tributary of the Haw River.

Levels of 1,4-Dioxane spiked to 114 parts per billion in the town’s drinking water in August, shortly after the discharge. Although the EPA doesn’t regulate 1,4-Dioxane, it has established a lifetime health goal of 0.35 ppb. At the drinking water forum sponsored by the Haw River Assembly in Pittsboro last night, NC State University scientist Detlef Knappe called the concentrations “very alarming.”

He estimated people were exposed to these levels for about six days before the contaminated water traveled through the town’s system.

North Carolina Health News first reported the discharge and spike in the 1,4-Dioxane levels in drinking water.

But many questions remain about who knew what and when — and the answers have not been forthcoming.

The discharge originated at Shamrock Environmental in Browns Summit. The facility contracts with other industries throughout the Southeast for oil recycling, hazardous and non-hazardous waste hauling and storage, and decontamination and vacuum services for trucks. In a press release, Shamrock Environmental said its facility, located in an industrial park, discharged 15,825 gallons of “non-hazardous wastewater” originating from a customer that did not report the material contained 1,4-Dioxane, a likely human carcinogen. The discharge occurred on Aug. 7.

Monty Hagler, spokesman for Shamrock Environmental declined to name the customer to Policy Watch.

The wastewater then entered the TZ Osborne Wastewater Treatment Plant in Greensboro, which in turn discharged it into South Buffalo Creek, a tributary of the Haw River. 1,4-Dioxane then contaminated the Haw River, the drinking water supplies for thousands of people living downstream.

However, the City of Greensboro did not inform state environmental officials of the discharge until Sept. 27. That’s when the city submitted its monthly discharge report for August, and mentioned it to DEQ staff.  DEQ did not announce the discharge until mid-October. Neither DEQ nor Greensboro would name Shamrock as the source of the contamination until North Carolina Health News reported their refusal.

City officials reportedly told DEQ that they were unclear when or if they needed to report the discharge because 1,4 dioxane is an emerging contaminant and does not have a specific permit condition.

It’s unclear why Greensboro officials were unaware of the reporting requirements; a city spokeswoman could not be reached by phone or email for clarification.

In fact, a press release from the city says that since 2015 Greensboro “has been proactive in working with NCDEQ and the industry” to reduce the discharge of 1,4-Dioxane “to the maximum extent practicable” — about 80 percent. The city also noted that it had identified Shamrock Environmental in Browns Summit as a “significant source” of the compound as early as 2015.

And, according to DEQ documents online, the TZ Osborne plant had been monitoring its 1,4-Dioxane discharge since December 2017. DEQ also sampled sites in the Cape Fear River Basin in 2018 and posted the results online.

Then in April of this year DEQ sent letters to treatment plants and industrial dischargers throughout the Cape Fear River Basin about a three-month investigative monitoring program to begin in July. The letter specifically mentioned 1,4-Dioxane.

On July 22, 2019, DEQ requested the plant provide a plan to reduce the amount of the compound leaving the plant. That plan was due Sept. 23.

According to online records, Shamrock Environmental has not been cited for violations in North Carolina, although the database is not comprehensive. But the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency did issue a Notice of Violation to the company in March 2016 for failing to obtain a proper hazardous waste manifest.

1,4-Dioxane has long been a contaminant of concern in the entire Cape Fear River Basin. In 2014, DEQ began a monitoring program from Reidsville to Wilmington, including the Haw River, the Cape Fear and several tributaries.

That monitoring showed levels as high as 1,030 ppb near Reidsville and 543 ppb near McLeansville.

Previous monitoring of Pittsboro’s drinking water showed varying levels of 1,4-Dioxane:

  • 15.6 ppb in 2014
  • 17.1 ppb in 2015
  • 7.5 ppb in 2016

A second monitoring period ran over 18 months from 2017 to 2018. That sampling showed levels of 1,4-Dioxane at 35 ppb in the Haw River near Pittsboro on May 9, 2018.

On June 13, 2018, the compound was found at 11 ppb in the upper arm of Jordan Lake, where the Haw enters the reservoir. Jordan Lake is the drinking water supply for hundreds of thousands of people, including those living in Chatham and Wake counties.

Julie Grzyb, a permit writer in the Division of Water Resources, told attendees at a public forum in Pittsboro last night that the state could pursue enforcement action against the city. Even though Shamrock was the discharger, Greensboro is held responsible because it holds the discharge permit. DEQ could also enter into a Special Order by Consent with Greensboro, a legal document that lays out requirements for facilities that are “unable to consistently comply with the terms, conditions, or limitations” in their discharge permits.