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The war on the environment in 2018: Five stories that mattered

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Photo of Hindenberg courtesy of Prelinger Archives (archive.org), 1937, public domain

2018 will go down as the Year of So Much Winning. When the smoke clears from the manufactured border crisis, foreign policy SNAFUs, financial meltdowns, presidential Twitter tantrums, and other mind-boggling behavior from the executive branch, we can also see an EPA in complete disarray: Former Administrator and fossil fuel fanatic Scott Pruitt is out, replaced by a sneakier and less paranoid fossil fuel fanatic Andrew Wheeler. Region 4 EPA Administrator Trey Glenn, which oversees the Southeast, including North Carolina, is under investigation in Alabama for various unsavory environmental deals. Meanwhile, the feds have rolled back, or are in the process of rolling back, rules on air emissions,  water quality, and coal ash, as well as undercutting any attempts to thwart the very real and impending disaster of climate change.

But enough about the feds. While the state has experienced worse environmental years — look no further back than 2013 to 2016 under the John Skvarla/ Donald van der Vaart eras — North Carolina is still a regulatory all-you-can-eat-buffet, thanks to actions by the legislature and to some extent, the Environmental Management Commission.

Since we’re limiting this list to five, we can’t include the follies of Oil and Gas Commissioner Jim Womack [2], the shortsightedness of the Complete 540 toll road, [3] and the sketchy $5 million budgetary earmark for the Resource Institute, [4] a Winston-Salem nonprofit, to conduct research on beach nourishment. But those issues will still be relevant next year. Here are the Top 5 Environmental Fiascoes of 2018:

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Two men argued at a Stand Up for Farmers rally, co-sponsored by the NC Department of Agriculture this summer. the man on the left, opposed the NC Farm Act, while the man on the right supported it. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

1. NC Farm Act: Over the summer, Republicans in the Self-Proclaimed Party of Property Rights  decided that there are limits to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness: They drew the line at Black people who complain about the stench, buzzards and flies emanating from neighboring industrialized hog operations, their open waste lagoons and spray field systems.

In late June, lawmakers passed the NC Farm Act, [6] which severely tightens restrictions on the neighbors’ ability to file  nuisance lawsuits against huge hog farms.  The list of allowable circumstances is smaller than a gestation crate. For example, the farm can’t be sued if it state regulators haven’t assessed civil or criminal penalties on the operation within the last three years. But considering state inspectors spend an average of 45 minutes per farm, per year, and basically just breeze through the record keeping, these operations can violate their permits 364 of 365 days and never get caught.

Bill co-sponsor Sen. Brent Jackson, who represents parts of the nation’s largest hog-producing counties — Duplin, Sampson and Johnston — openly acknowledged the legislation [7] was a response to Murphy-Brown’s court losses. While the bill was wending its way through the sausage factory, the world’s largest pork producer had lost two hog nuisance cases in federal court. The company proceeded to lose two more; jury selection for the fifth trial begins Jan. 8.

In extended committee hearings and floor debates, we heard legislators’ tearful entreaties for support. After all, Adam was a farmer, presumably in the Garden of Eden, which, considering pesticides, antibiotics and automated feeding systems had not been invented yet, had to be organic, its livestock raised on pasture. (Adam’s only neighbor would have been Eve.) Oh, and fatback is essential for life. Someone tell the Seventh-day Adventists.

Ex-House Majority Leader Paul Stam opposed the bill, writing to his former Republican colleagues that the measure trampled on neighbors’ private property rights. Stam also attended the recent hog nuisance trial in federal court — and sat among the plaintiffs. But not even Stam could sway his party from its selective reading of property rights. Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the bill, but the legislature overrode it.

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Tree-cutting has begun in Cumberland County off NC 210. However, construction along the entire 600-mile route of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline stopped after a recent appellate court ruled that the US Forest Service had wrongfully issued permits for the project to cross two national forests in Virginia. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

2. Atlantic Coast Pipeline: The term “screw the pooch” dates from World War II, and later, the NASA space program, as a way of describing an embarrassing mistake. The phrase can also apply to how the governor’s office has handled the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. [9] Co-owned by Duke Energy and Dominion Energy, the 600-mile pipeline would transport natural gas via a fracking operation in West Virginia, through Virginia and 160 miles of eastern North Carolina. Thousands of North Carolinians oppose the ACP for environmental reasons– it locks us into fossil fuels for 40 years and would result in emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas — as well as on property rights and social justice grounds. The route would pass through communities of color, including those of several American Indian tribes.

State environmental regulators delayed permitting the ACP, asking for multiple revisions, but they finally exhausted what they believed to be their legal options. The ACP received a key water quality permit on Jan. 26, 2018 — 23 minutes before Gov. Roy Cooper announced he had struck a voluntary memorandum of understanding with Dominion that would place $57.8 million in an account for economic development and renewable energy along the North Carolina route.

The Republican supermajority in the legislature, always looking for a reason to assail, undermine and badger the governor, claimed the MOU was a pay-to-play exercise: Give the state millions of dollars, ACP, LLC, and you can have your permit.

This as-yet unfounded accusation has birddogged the governor all year, but the timing of the two announcements was at the very least, bad optics. Now in a parting shot, the supermajority, in a matter of days merely a majority with veto power, has hired a private firm Eagle Intel to investigate the circumstances regarding the MOU and the permitting.

We would all have a better idea of what transpired had the governor’s office not waited 10 months — the equivalent of a full-term pregnancy — to finally released documents requested by the media and environmental advocates. Those documents — 19,000 pages — dropped on Dec. 20 at 5:30 p.m. Touché Public Records Act users! Look for a story soon about the contents of the document dump, which, by the way, is nearly as voluminous as the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary.

3. Chemours: North Carolina is now in Year 2 of the Chemours Dumpster Fire, also known as Holding the Company Accountable. After multiple rounds of testing, numerous public meetings, an EPA listening session,  an ongoing private class-action lawsuit and legislative budget cuts intended to punish the Department of Environmental Quality for merely existing, DEQ penalized Chemours $12 million plus another $1 million in investigative costs for discharging untold millions of gallons of  wastewater contaminated with GenX and other fluorinated compounds into the Cape Fear River and emitting tons of similar pollution into the air. Although it is largest fine DEQ has ever assessed on a single facility, for Chemours, a spinoff of the chemical giant DuPont, the amount is the equivalent of us losing $5 in the dryer at the Laundromat.

Under the consent order and penalty, Chemours is required to reduce air emission of these compounds by 99 percent. Nor can it discharge GenX or other fluorinated compounds from the plant. That contamination is being trucked to a hazardous waste facility, “Clean Harbors,” in El Dorado, Ark., a low-income community of color in the southern part of the state. Out of sight, out of mind, unless you live near, ahem, Clean Harbors, which the EPA has flagged as a “significant non-complier. [10]” While no additional contamination is reportedly being released from the Fayetteville Works plant, given current technology, it’s impossible to remove all of the contamination from the bed of the Cape Fear River, the groundwater, the lakes, the soil, the bodies of people who drank the water. That damage is done, and worth more than $13 million.
You can comment on the proposed consent order [11] through Jan. 7.

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Sandy Hester and his daughter Mary plead with state environmental officials to deny an air quality permit to Malec Brothers, which would have allowed the company to emit more than 140 tons of methyl bromide into the air each year. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

4. Methyl bromide: A potentially deadly neurotoxin emitted a mile from a school? What could go wrong? Nothing, claimed Malec Brothers, the Australian company that wanted to emit more than 140 tons of methyl bromide [13] into the air near Delco in Columbus County. Banned internationally because it depletes the ozone layer, the chemical compound received a critical use exemption from the EPA: It can be used to fumigate logs bound for export to China., which is what Malec Brothers intends to do.

Columbus County Commissioners held a public hearing 30 miles from Delco on a Tuesday night in the middle of January, with minimal public notice, and unsurprisingly, no one from Delco showed up. Commissioners took that lack of attendance as a yes, and soon the issue landed in DEQ’s wheelhouse. DEQ scheduled a public hearing on Malec Brothers’s draft air permit, by which time word of company’s shenanigans had spread from church pulpits to local diners. Those shenanigans included using “duct tape and sandbags” to seal off the fumigation containers in case of a methyl bromide leak.

The venue for the DEQ hearing was so packed — and the crowd, despite the offer of free baseball caps, practically drove Malec Brothers out of town — that fire marshal shut the hearing down. Another angry hearing ensued and DEQ put all pending methyl bromide applications on ice, pending rule making by the Environmental Management Commission. The EMC is moving slower than methyl bromide travels, but meanwhile, Malec Brothers is testing technology to capture methyl bromide emissions. The technology that the Australian company said didn’t exist — and that is manufactured in Australia.

5. Coal ash: [14]February marks the five-year anniversary of the Dan River coal ash disaster, and yet, doesn’t it feel like yesterday? In the spring, Duke Energy also tried to convince the state Utilities Commission that ratepayers should bear the brunt of the millions of dollars of clean-up costs. The utility succeeded in part: A rate hike will cover $476 million of the costs. The commission also fined Duke $70 million for mismanagement of coal ash waste cleanup. The utility was not permitted to pass along the costs of providing bottled water to residents within a half-mile of the coal ash impoundments. However, those neighbors, former private well users who had relied on bottled water for more than 1,000 days, finally were connected to permanent water systems. But there’s a catch. Before, their water was free. Now they have monthly water bills of more than $50.

Even though federally mandated tests have shown that groundwater beneath the Duke Energy North Carolina plants is contaminated with radium, arsenic and other toxic chemicals, the EPA is rolling back regulations on coal ash removal and landfills. Hurricane Florence breached the coal ash landfill at Sutton in Wilmington in September. This is the same landfill whose closure plans have been foiled, the utility says, by severe weather and unexpected remnants of a cypress forest in the bottom of the basin. Duke Energy wants a six-month extension [15] to shutter the impoundment at Sutton.

Sutton is one of eight plants where Duke Energy is excavating the ash and placing it in lined landfills and/or transporting it offsite. But the utility plans to leave coal ash in unlined but capped lagoons at six sites: Allen (Lake Wylie), Belews Creek, Cliffside/Rogers, Marshall, Mayo and Roxboro. DEQ will hold public meetings to receive public input about whether Duke Energy should be required to remove its coal ash, the source of the groundwater pollution. All meetings begin at 6 p.m.