They persisted: It wasn’t easy, but in 2019 local communities scored environmental victories

They persisted: It wasn’t easy, but in 2019 local communities scored environmental victories

- in Environment, Top Story
Thousands of people gathered at Halifax Mall this year as part of the global climate strike to protest inaction on climate change. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)
2019 was the year of planetary grief: The Trump administration’s drumbeat of environmental rollbacks – at last count 80-plus. Melting sea ice and the attendant rising ocean levels; the very real threat of species extinction; extreme weather, like Hurricane Dorian, which devastated the Outer Banks.

And yet, in North Carolina, people persisted. They marched and protested against the national inertia to address climate change. They turned out for tedious government meetings. They commented, wrote letters, organized around environmental issues threatening their communities.

Sometimes, despite all efforts, they could not move the levers of power. But there were also many victories. It’s important to recognize that when people, armed with science, facts, and relentless watchdogging, can reduce or even thwart environmental harm.

Exhibit A has occurred within the last month in Caswell County, where rural Prospect Hill residents have successfully precluded Carolina Sunrock, a mining company, from building a 430-acre granite quarry on ecologically sensitive land.

Even on short notice, residents organized and petitioned state environmental regulators and local elected leaders about the quarry’s potential, if not likely pollution of the area’s drinking water supplies – both surface water and groundwater.

Caswell County, which abuts Orange County, has pockets of progressivism, but it’s no Carrboro. Nonetheless, the county commissioners unanimously voted on Dec. 16 to write and approve a 12-month moratorium on quarries, mines and asphalt plants. That local action alone would put the temporary kibosh on Sunrock’s plans.

State agencies, such as the Wildlife Resources Commission, also have questioned the wisdom of the project, which could pollute tributaries to Hyco Lake and Lake Roxboro and possibly suffocate aquatic life. And now that graves of former enslaved people are thought to lie beneath the proposed quarry site, the Department of Cultural and Natural Resources has also intervened, demanding a full archaeological review.

What’s next: The text of the moratorium and Sunrock’s response.

The crowd in Mooresville demanded that DEQ require Duke Energy to fully excavate and remove the millions of tons of coal ash from unlined pits at its Marshall Steam Station on Lake Norman. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Local resistance in Mooresville – with the help of science – also compelled DEQ to order Duke Energy to excavate the millions of tons of coal ash from unlined pits at six of its plants. Duke Energy has contested DEQ’s decision, but so far, an administrative law judge has ruled in favor of the state.

What’s next: The utility’s cleanup plan for the final six sites – Marshall, Belews Creek, Allen, Cliffside/Rogers, Mayo and Roxboro – is due to DEQ by Dec. 31. Happy holiday reading!

Meanwhile, in Chatham and Lee counties, two environmental groups, EnvironmentaLee and the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League refused to let legal setbacks derail them from stopping a Kentucky-based company from disposing of coal ash in parts of old clay mines. On Dec. 13, Administrative Law Judge Melissa Lassiter reversed her own earlier ruling, which had been appealed, and decided that piling coal ash 300 feet high on previously unexcavated land did not comply with the spirit or the letter of the Coal Ash Management Act. Neither the company, Charah, nor DEQ, which granted the permit, have publicly announced whether they will appeal Lassiter’s ruling.

Her decision, though, goes beyond Chatham and Lee counties. It could affect the fate of coal ash in unexcavated areas of other clay mines in the state.

This map shows the location of the former Brickhaven mine in Chatham County that now holds 7.3 million tons of coal ash. (Map: Charah)

What’s next: The waiting game to see if DEQ and/or Charah appeals Lassiter’s ruling. Charah is also scheduled to report by the end of the year the results of its investigation into groundwater contamination near the Brickhaven site. It’s unclear if the ash is responsible.

Neighbors of Falls Lake alerted regulators to years of illegal dumping on land adjacent to that drinking water supply. It took nearly four years of neighbors’ complaining, but Durham County finally amended an ordinance that will tighten the loophole on what constitutes “beneficial fill” on farm land. Spoiler alert: Trash. does not qualify.

What’s next: The ordinance change is only an interim step. Under pressure from neighbors, the county is expected to refine it early next year. Both the county and DEQ fined the responsible parties – Russell Stoutt III and James Puryear. Now let’s see if they pay.

Not a full-blown win, but credit the concerned residents of Moore County who pushed the school system to more aggressively test a future school site for toxic chemicals. The new Aberdeen Elementary School, which predominantly serves low-income and students of color, is sandwiched between two Superfund sites and within a mile of 10 pollution sources and other environmental hazards.

Initially, the school district pooh-poohed residents’ concerns, arguing that a Phase I environmental review showed there were no reasons to worry. Then Superintendent Bob Grimesey decided to pony up $25,000 for a Phase II study, which, lo and behold, revealed lead levels in the groundwater above the EPA action level. The school will be connected to the public water supply, but because of the findings, it can’t use groundwater for irrigation. Low levels of lead were also detected in the soil, making the dirt off-limits for kids to play in,

What’s next: The new school is scheduled to open in the fall of 2020. Residents are watching.

It smelled as bad as it looks: Sludge from the DAK Americas plant in Fayetteville contained very high levels of 1,4-Dioxane. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

And finally, not a community but a lone whistleblower helped strengthen state rules about forever chemicals – PFAS and 1,4-Dioxane – in compost and the materials used to make it.

The whistleblower alerted Policy Watch to suspicious materials in wastewater sludge leaving a plastics plant in Fayetteville, then used to make compost at McGill Environmental in Sampson County. Policy Watch tested the sludge, which showed exceedingly high levels of 1,4-Dioxane, a likely carcinogen. That prompted DEQ to test the compost. While the agency didn’t find 1,4-Dioxane in the compost (it likely evaporated in the drying process), it did detect 20 types of perfluorinated compounds, also toxic.

New rules passed by the Environmental Management Commission now empower DEQ to require facilities to test their compost and feedstock for these compounds.

What’s next: Watchdogging DEQ to see if it exercises its authority, and monitoring results of any testing.