In 2017, North Carolinians eyed their glasses of water more carefully, breathed less deeply and waited not-so-patiently for Duke Energy and the industrialized swine farms to clean up their pollution. Here are the top five environmental stories of the year.
1. GenX and emerging contaminants put the state in uncharted waters
Before this summer, the word “GenX” referred to the people born between 1965 and 1979. Now the term has a more sinister connotation: a chemical compound discharged from the Chemours plant in Fayetteville that has contaminated private and public drinking water supplies from Cumberland County south to New Hanover County.
Since June, when the Wilmington Star-News broke the story, the state has played a game of environmental whack-a-mole. GenX in the river, the groundwater, the drinking water, then private wells, then lakes, and now the air.
Meanwhile, state lawmakers have held innumerable hearings, convened a special River Quality Committee and until recently, kvetched ad nauseum about the failures of the NC Department of Environmental Quality – while slashing the agency’s budget. (See No. 5)
But as scientists, state environmental officials and lawmakers have learned, these emerging contaminants, including GenX, reach far beyond the Cape Fear River watershed. Just last week, chemical cousins to GenX were detected in Jordan Lake and the Town of Cary drinking water.
What’s not being said – at least by the conservative legislative majority – is that the state must pass stricter regulations on industry, even if the polluters are their campaign donors.
2. Atlantic Coast Pipeline puts the smackdown on uncooperative landowners
“160 miles, eight counties and untold environmental damage”: It’s probably not the slogan Duke Energy and Dominion Energy, the major owners of the ACP would choose, but it’s closer to the truth than anything they’ve come up with.
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a 600-mile conduit for natural gas, would run from its fracking wellheads in West Virginia through Virginia and communities of color in eastern North Carolina before heading to South Carolina.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has approved the ACP, but the deal is not yet done. DEQ still hasn’t issued all of the necessary air and water quality permits because even after multiple revisions and thousands of pages, ACP’s paperwork is missing vital information, such as detailed drawings and emissions information.
ACP, LLC is also pulling a sneaky legal maneuver on the recalcitrant landowners who don’t want to sell rights of way to the company. Usually, when a company declares eminent domain, landowners get paid before construction begins. In this case, the pipeline owners want to punish the uncooperative landowners by using a “quick-take” method, in which they claim the land now but pay later.
What’s worse, to build the pipeline, contractors would have to carve up rivers and wetlands, mow down saplings and mature trees, and try to save the endangered and threatened species that are in the way. The pipeline will inevitably leak some amount of methane – a potent greenhouse gas – and other pollutants. But rest assured, ACP, LLC says it will plant some bee-friendly bushes along the route.
3. Duke Energy Progress: Pay ‘til it hurts
There was a stunning moment during the two weeks of utilities commission hearings when Duke Energy Progress had to own up to why it was requesting a whopping 16.9 percent rate hike for residential customers.
First, ratepayers are being asked to cover the costs not only of the coal ash cleanup, which is expected to cost tens of millions of dollars. But even more mind-boggling is the idea that customers should pay for the bottled water the utility is “giving away” to well owners whose drinking water might be contaminated by chemicals in coal ash.
Some customers have been on bottled water for nearly 1,000 days; they essentially will have to help pay for any water they’ve used in the past 18 months. Because their well water may not be safe to drink – through no fault of their own.
The utilities commission is expected to announce what it thinks is a reasonable increase next year.
On a related note, Duke Energy also wants to pay off affected well owners for the low, low price of $5,000 in exchange for their agreeing to never sue the utility for any health or environmental damage. That includes the well owners’ children, their unborn heirs, forever and ever. Some folks not only refused to sign, they’re suing.
4. The pork industry rests on its rinds, but day of reckoning could be nigh
The nuisance law passed by the legislature marked a major win for Murphy-Brown, Prestage and the industrial-agriculture complex. That law, which survived a veto by Gov. Cooper, sharply curbs the rights of citizens to sue swine farmers over nuisances, such as odor, flies and quality of life issues.
And the NC Pork Council also scored a victory by contributing to the demise of the UNC Center on Civil Rights, whose attorneys had repeatedly squared off against Big Pig.
However, after those wins, the pork industry rested on its rinds at its own peril. A federal judge allowed 26 nuisance suits – filed before the legislation passed – to proceed against Murphy-Brown.
The newly christened Julius Chambers Center for Civil Rights, which rose from the ashes of the UNC Center, settled with DEQ over how the agency will track and respond to citizen complaints about swine farms. Under the terms of the settlement, it will be easier to track bad actors and expedite inspections based on complaints.
5. Cuts at DEQ, the departure of Donald van der Vaart
The General Assembly seems to take special pleasure at amputating entire sections of DEQ’s budget. This year, lawmakers, apparently convinced that DEQ employees are playing Foosball on company time, excised $1.8 million from the cash-poor agency. And now – surprise – DEQ doesn’t have the necessary staff to address the problem of emerging contaminants in the drinking water.
We can’t speak with 100 percent certainty why conservatives have targeted DEQ for its wrath, but we’ll take a stab at it: Democrats.
When Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper appointed Michael Regan as DEQ secretary, the old GOP political appointees the agency had to step aside. Not to be outfoxed, Secretary Donald Van der Vaart cleverly protected himself and his chief deputy, John Evans, from being fired as political appointees by demoting both back to their old home place: the Division of Air Quality.
However, they apparently forgot that they were no longer in charge. In September, van der Vaart and Evans co-authored an anti-regulatory opinion piece in a widely read environmental law journal, running afoul of DEQ’s position and agency leadership.
Van der Vaart also accepted an appointment to the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, which, under Administrator Scott Pruitt, is now largely viewed as a tool of regulated industries. (In some workplaces, this would be called insubordination.)
Van der Vaart and Evans were placed on investigative leave –with pay. Shortly afterward, Van der Vaart resigned in a huff.
That’s one way to save $98,000 a year.
Honorable mention: The resurrection of the oil and gas commission
The commission is meeting. No, the meeting has been canceled; it’s illegal. OK, now it’s really meeting. Oops, never mind, the commission isn’t meeting. And so on.
The chaos that inevitably surrounds Jim Womack, the one-time chairman of the state’s oil and gas commission, engulfed state government this fall. First, he feigned as chairman to convene the commission in order to challenge Lee and Chatham counties’ fracking moratoriums. Alas, his commission appointment had expired, so the meeting was a no-go.
Eventually, Sen. Phil Berger did reappoint Womack to the commission to fill the slot of a conservationist. Yes, Jim Fracking Womack is a conservationist. Who knew?