Environmental reporting in 2016 was like shooting two-headed fish in a toxic waste barrel: It’s tough to miss. As we come to the end of the year, this is an occasion for the airing of environmental grievances. For the sake of time, we had to limit ourselves to ten.
1. The saga of coal ash
Two words North Carolinians would like to never hear again: Coal. Ash.
The coal ash scandal that began in 2014 helped un-elect Gov. Pat McCrory. Yet while he seeks a new job in the Trump administration, North Carolinians have to live with coal’s dirty legacy: Leaking ash basins, contaminated rivers and water wells, abandoned mines filled with tons of ash, residents living on bottled water, secret conversations between Duke Energy and state officials, environmental permits that don’t fully protect the environment.
Through litigation, the Southern Environmental Law Center has forced Duke Energy to excavate eight of its 14 coal ash sites in North Carolina. But that leaves six more locations where the ash could be capped in place, posing risks to groundwater and public health.
And a draft wastewater discharge permit for the HF Lee plant allows for a capped landfill, even though Lee is on the list of excavation sites. Don’t worry, state regulators and Duke Energy say, that’s old language, a vestige of another draft. A landfill? At Lee? Don’t be silly. Really, believe us.
2. The attack on Ken Rudo, the resignation of Megan Davies and the audacity of Thomas Stith
Someone should write a tragic-comedy about how one summer, top government officials try to sully the reputation of two of the state’s top scientists. But the plan backfires when the open records law is used.
Act I: In a deposition and under oath, state toxicologist Ken Rudo blows the whistle on the Department of Health and Human Services, DEQ and Gov. Pat McCrory’s office for downplaying the risks of hexavalent chromium in drinking water wells near Duke Energy coal ash basins.
Act II: DHHS, DEQ and McCrory’s office go on the offensive. In a late-night press conference, Thomas Stith, McCrory’s chief of staff, accuses Rudo of perjury, a felony. Oops, Stith didn’t actually read Rudo’s deposition before calling him a liar.
Oops, no one counted on public records showing DHHS communications director Kendra Gerlach’s sworn testimony that language in letters to well owners, which indeed downplayed the health risks, was made at the behest of McCrory’s office.
The administration’s assault on Rudo’s reputation compelled the resignation of state epidemiologist Megan Davies, who could no longer tolerate the mendacity of DHHS and the McCrory administration.
Act III: The movie ends when public records show how state officials were trying to squelch the information and control the press, like a game of Whack-a-Mole.
Stay tuned for the sequel.
3. Hurricane Matthew, western drought and climate change
State officials called these natural disasters acts of God, but in reality, they signal the wrath of climate change. Which makes DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart’s opposition to the Clean Power Plan even more ironic. The state (without the backing of its justice department) is suing the Obama administration over the CPP, which would sharply reduce carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants — a major contributor to climate change. Why? Because — regulation!
The failure of state environmental leaders to connect the dots between historic (and now commonplace) storms, flooding, droughts and other weather extremes jeopardizes the citizens of North Carolina. People who didn’t live in flood plains now do. Swine waste lagoons (See No. 4), once thought immune to flooding because of their elevation, are not necessarily so. Unchecked coastal development puts people in harm’s way. Yet, the opposition to stronger regulations is vehement (unless they govern solar panels, see No. 10)
As for the western wildfires, arsonists started those (and a pox upon their house), but the exceptional drought, a byproduct of climate change, made those felonies possible. As of Dec. 20, 68 of North Carolina’s 100 counties were in a drought status ranging from abnormally dry to extreme.
4. Gaslighting and swine waste lagoons
Hurricane Matthew killed 2 million chickens and more than 5,000 hogs, while flooding some hog waste lagoons. State agriculture and environmental officials say no lagoons were breached but when polluted water reaches the rivers — as it did — “breach versus flood” is a matter of semantics.
That pollution extends not just to the air and water but to farmworkers’ noses. A study of 400 workers’ families found a greater incidence of antibiotic-resistant staph in their noses than nonworkers’ families.
Behind the scenes, the powers-that-be wielded their influence through gaslighting.
NC Farm Families, which despite its homespun name, represents a family of large agribusiness, assailed the Waterkeeper Alliance for allegedly trying to shut down the hog industry. Not true, the waterkeepers say, we’re just trying to stem the pollution.
The NC Environmental Justice Network, the Waterkeeper Alliance and REACH filed a civil rights complaint with the EPA against DEQ for allegedly trying to intimidate residents who live near giant hog farms. DEQ officials allegedly allowed the NC Pork Council to attend a private mediation session with environmental groups, even though those organizations had explicitly said they weren’t invited.
5. The mysterious NC Policy Collaboratory
This environmental think tank at UNC was funded by a last-minute $1 million appropriation by the conservative General Assembly. Without any faculty input, UNC didn’t even know the collaboratory was in the works.
The project was masterminded by Jeffrey Warren, Sen. Phil Berger’s science adviser, who never met an environmental regulation he liked. Its interim director is Brad Ives, who served as assistant DEQ secretary under John “oil is renewable energy” Skvarla.
Pardon us if we sound skeptical of the collaboratory’s charge to “examine environmental and economic aspects of natural resources management and new technologies for habitat, environmental and water quality improvement.” The group then reports those findings to the General Assembly.
Learn more about what the think tank is up to at its meeting on Jan. 20.
6. The attempted extinction of red wolves
There are fewer than 45 endangered red wolves living in eastern North Carolina. But the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the state Wildlife Resources Commission think there should be even fewer. Only through the actions of a federal judge — at the urging of the Southern Environmental Law Center, the Red Wolf Coalition and Defenders of Wildlife — have the wild wolves been granted clemency.
What’s not to like about a wolf? An anti-government contingent in eastern NC has argued that the federal government released them illegally, that they’re no longer genetically pure because they’ve interbred with coyotes, that they kill deer, and thus compete with human hunters. (The difference: Most humans can shop at a grocery store.)
Federal and state wildlife officials are caving in to this political pressure, over the objections of scientists. The federal government wants to send most of the wild wolves to live in captivity in zoos, which is akin to a person being on house arrest for the rest of her life.
7. DEQ’s and the McCrory administration’s demonization of environmental advocates
Lobbyists, riverkeepers, environmental groups, the media: Bogeymen and women, all of them, trying to foil the good work of the administration’s higher-ups. At various public events, Gov. McCrory, Agriculture Secretary Steve Troxler and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest all called these advocates “environmental extremists.”
Meanwhile, DEQ’s PR team was busy crafting press releases with headlines like:
“State focuses on coal ash clean-up while lobbyist group tries to block progress” wrote DEQ Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder in an October press release.
In “State officials counter false reports about coal ash” Reeder said, “It’s unfortunate that a political group masquerading as environmentalists is deliberately trying to mislead the public.”
Public records show that Crystal Feldman, DEQ deputy secretary of public affairs, said “Liberal groups” launched a “coordinated attack” earlier this year on the NC Department of Environmental Quality over coal ash.
8. The perils of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline
One of the underreported stories of 2016 is the proposed 150-plus mile section of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline that would run parallel to US 301 in eastern North Carolina. Spearheaded by Dominion Energy, the pipeline would begin in West Virginia and carry fracked natural gas through Virginia and North Carolina.
Aside from the well-documented environmental problems with fracking — earthquakes, drinking water contamination and methane leaks — the NC portion of the ACP would pass through low-income and minority communities, including Lumbee land.
The pipeline would lower property values — few people want to live near an explosion hazard — and would traverse sensitive environmental areas, such as rivers and wetlands. Did we mention the pipeline would not provide natural gas to North Carolina? Dominion hasn’t either.
9. The buzzkill of Solarbees
The General Assembly and DEQ wasted another $1 million (are lawmakers printing million-dollar bills in the basement of the Legislative Building?) to deploy an army of Solarbees at Jordan Lake. These giant egg-beaters were supposed to stir, aerate, make giant frittatas and improve the water quality in the reservoir, a source of drinking water for 300,000 people in the Triangle.
However, in an unusual move, DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart invoked scientific evidence to declare the two-year experiment a failure. The Solarbees were dismantled and removed. Meanwhile, the Jordan Lake rules, which would regulate development in the watershed and reduce water pollution, are still on hiatus, seven years after they were passed.
10. The bashing of solar energy
While solar bees were initially heralded as the Next Big Thing, solar energy is receiving no such love from conservative policymakers. North Carolina is a national leader in solar capacity, and solar farms are being built throughout the state. (There are 26 proposals in the queue awaiting public comment, according to state records.)
Nonetheless, members of the state Energy Policy Council and its Clean Energy Subcommittee say they’re alarmed, even downright scared, about the hidden dangers of solar panels. At a recent subcommittee meeting, member Herb Eckerlin, who was appointed to the Council by Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, said most of the panels are made in China (true) but that the North Carolina’s solar farm system has no codes and regulations (not true).
“Citizens are increasingly concerned about their land and groundwater,” Eckerlin, a professor of mechanical engineering at N.C. State University, said with uncommon urgency. “Solar panels are a potential time bomb. This can’t be swept under the rug. Immediate action is required.” Eckerlin was appointed to the Council by Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger. Berger’s scientific adviser, Jeffrey Warren, is the mastermind of much of the anti-environmental legislation.
This panic is unwarranted, reports the UNC School of Government:
“Opponents of solar projects occasionally claim that PV panels, especially the materials within the panels, are unsafe. The actual concern is limited. A typical PV panel is constructed mostly of glass and aluminum. Panel semi-conductors—the components that convert sunlight to electricity—are usually made of crystalline silicon and only account for a small percentage of the panel weight. Silicon is a common element found in sand and used in glass, bricks, and household electronics.
A small amount of lead may be used in the electrical solder in the modules. PV panels using cadmium are more popular in desert climates, and moreover, the cadmium in one module is comparable to that in a C-size rechargeable battery. Regardless of the materials, they are contained in a solid matrix, so they are insoluble and non-volatile under normal conditions. Releases to the ground or air are unlikely. At the end of a PV panel’s useful life, most of the panel may be recycled.”
2017 will begin not only with the legislature’s long session (Jan. 11), but also the Environmental Management Commission (Jan. 11), DEQ’s Air Quality Committee (Jan. 11), the NC Policy Collaboratory meeting (Jan. 20), the Energy Policy Council (late January). Stay tuned as the year goes by. If nothing else, it promises to be another interesting one.