NC has been hit by the harsh extremes of climate change from the mountains to the coast. Drought, flooding, unpredictable rain events, and wildfires have plagued the state in historic proportions. Learning more about how your community could be affected and preparing ahead for potential climate extremes is encouraged. Exceptional weather events highlight the need for a movement away from fossil fuel dependent energy production practices.
The destruction in communities in eastern NC from Hurricane Matthew is historic and overwhelming. Flooding occurred as the result of 6 to 18 inches of rain that fell in eastern North Carolina during the hurricane. Peak totals were recorded at 18.38 inches near Elizabethtown, NC. Many communities of color or low-income communities are still feeling the flooding’s effects. Flooded hog lagoons and farms impact nearby eastern NC communities as a result of mass flooding.
Hurricane Matthew was also responsible for a breach of coal ash impoundments. Hazards posed by decades of dumping coal ash in unlined pits were exposed during the catastrophic rain event. By products of coal ash, containing toxic metals were washed downstream at the HF Lee plant in Goldsboro, NC.
Contaminated flood water and damages to water treatment plants are worrisome to many folks living in eastern NC. Some places, such as Lumberton, have been without clean tap water for weeks. Private well users should test their wells if they were submerged; for information on free Hurricane Matthew well test kits that will be available through county health departments click here.
Central and eastern NC have been experiencing unusually high rainfall in the spring and summer, but parts of western NC have been suffering from “extreme” or “exceptional” drought conditions. As a result, communities have been devastated by water scarcity and wildfires. During any stage of drought, residents are encouraged to refrain from nonessential uses of water. The North Carolina Drought Management Advisory Council added extreme and exceptional drought stages to its state classifications in August 2016. Drought statuses are updated weekly at ncdrought.org.
Despite a few recent rain events in western NC, the NC Forestry Service has kept an open burn ban for 47 NC counties. The Forestry Service lists the burn ban status of each county. If you see an illegal burn, the NC forestry service advises that you contact 911. Widespread wildfires have engulfed more than 50,000 acres in western NC. The western NC wildfires have also resulted in poor air quality measurements statewide. Air quality data is updated daily by the Department of Environmental Quality. NC air quality information and forecast can be viewed by region.
NC’s General Assembly has unanimously passed a bill for cleanup and repairs following Hurricane Matthew and mountain wildfires, in a recent special session. The proposal is for a $201 million dollar fund designed to get more displaced residents into housing, give local governments help building infrastructure and provide the state forest service money for firefighting expenses. Critics of the bill argue that the legislation does not include some of the most effective methods for individual assistance that were implemented following hurricane Floyd in 1999.
The State Climate Office updates a high resolution drought trigger tool, weekly. Areas across NC have been classified in the most extreme categories of both exceptional dryness and wetness. High resolution mapping illustrates the alarming impacts of climate change in NC. The State Climate Office creates the maps by comparing historical and real-time data from the National Weather Service to calculate a color coded Schedule Performance Index (SPI). See mapping and updated information on NC flood and drought estimates here.
Princeville in 1999 after Hurricane Floyd (top) and after Hurricane Matthew (bottom). Photos credited to Chris Tyree/Virginia Pilot and Jonathan Drake/Reuters.
The devastation in communities in eastern NC from Hurricane Matthew is historic and overwhelming. We know that many communities – many of them communities of color or low-income communities – are still feeling the worst of the flooding’s effects.
For example, Princeville, the oldest U.S. town incorporated by African Americans which was settled by freed slaves after the Civil War, suffered severe flooding by the second supposedly 500-year storm in only 17 years (see photos, right)
Some of the biggest short-term environmental justice / health concerns for communities at this time include:
A flooded hog lagoon in Wayne County, NC. Photo credit: Rick Dove, Waterkeeper Alliance.
- Flooding of hog farms. The extent of damages are still unknown, but so far don’t appear to be as bad as those from Hurricane Floyd in 1999. However, the floods have once again brought into the spotlight the vast number, size and EJ impacts on nearby communities of concentrated animal feeding operations in eastern NC.
- Flooding and breaching of coal ash impoundments, and Duke Energy’s failure to respond quickly. Unbelievably, it was a news crew from WRAL that alerted Duke Energy to a breach in their cooling pond dam at the H.F. Lee plant in Goldsboro. Duke Energy was also late to admit that coal ash had been washing downstream from the submerged coal ash ponds at Lee. This flooding is another reminder of how hazardous leaking coal ash pits are, and the urgency of finding real, protective solutions to store coal ash.
- The lack of clean, safe drinking water in many areas due to contaminated flood water and damages to water treatment plants. Some places, such as Lumberton, may be without clean tap water for weeks. Private well users should test their wells if they were submerged; click here for information on free Hurricane Matthew well test kits that will be available through county health departments. Read more about drinking water impacts in NC Health News.
In both the short and long term, we stand with these communities as they face many environmental risks. We hope that in the wake of a natural disaster of this magnitude, NC decision makers will seek to enact policies that will make the state more prepared and the environment more secure from potentially harmful substances.
If you wish to help communities affected by the storm, here are just a few of the many organizations receiving donations for flood relief for areas hit by post-Matthew flooding:
- Burnt Swamp Baptist Association is providing hot meals in Robeson County. Mail checks to Burnt Swamp Baptist Association, PO BOX 1207, Pembroke, NC 28732 (“flood relief” in memo), or email Brandi Brooks at firstname.lastname@example.org for information on donating online.
- Rebuilding Broken Places, CDC is accepting donations to provide hot meals for Wayne County residents in need. Mail checks to Rebuilding Broken Places, CDC 2105 N. Williams Street Goldsboro, NC 27530 or donate online at www.rbpcdc.org.
- Salvation Army (specify flood relief): http://bit.ly/2dKhhuD or call 1-800-SAL-ARMY.
- The Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina is asking for donations of food and money.The group is accepting donations of canned fruits and vegetables, pasta, rice and other food items, as well as baby formula, diapers and other supplies for infants and children. Items can be dropped off at any of the Food Bank’s six locations in North Carolina. In Raleigh, items can be dropped off at 3808 Tarheel Drive. View a full list of requested items, or donate money online here. Donations can also be sent via mail to any of the Food Bank’s locations with the memo line “Matthew.”
Environmental Working Group has released a new interactive map and report showing all the public water systems that have reported detecting hexavalent chromium at any level. This may leave North Carolinians wondering if they should be concerned about the amounts of hexavalent chromium found in their own local NC water supplies.
Last year, the NC Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) warned well users near coal ash dumps with more than 0.07 parts per billion (ppb) hexavalent chromium not to drink their water. This concentration represents a 1 in 1 million increased lifetime cancer risk. (The Department later rescinded those letters, a decisions that has errupted into a major controversy).
Besides being associated with coal ash, hexavalent chromium can come from other industrial sources; non-toxic forms of chromium can also react with some drinking water disinfectants to create the toxic hexavalent form. Under current–but outdated–federal law, total chromium up to 100 ppb is allowed in drinking water. All of that could be the hexavalent form, leading to an estimated cancer risk of 1 in 700! Thankfully, no NC water supplies are close to that, but some have been found to exceed the DHHS health screening level (and even more are above California’s public health goal of 0.02 ppb, which is even more health-protective).
Out of 143 publicly and privately owned supplies tested from 2013-2015 under EPA’s Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule, 48 (33%) had an average concentration above 0.07 ppb, but mostly far below the high concentrations detected in wells around coal ash sites. The majority of public water systems in NC (66%) averaged below 0.07 ppb. Private company Aqua NC’s Bayleaf Master system in North Raleigh, with a history of water quality violations for other contaminants, had the highest average concentration (0.62 ppb), and some of the highest individual sample results – up to 11 ppb at one well, and 3.1 ppb in the distribution system!
Among NC’s ten most populous cities, only Greensboro’s water supply averaged – barely – above 0.07 ppb during the 2-year period. Officials there recently identified the cause of the 2014 hexavalent chromium spike that led to the higher average – a specific liming agent they had used to treat the water, which has since been discontinued.
As federal standards for hexavalent chromium and many other substances fail to protect public health, often by factors of hundreds or thousands, CWFNC is advocating for health-based notifications to both private well users and public water customers for possibly harmful contaminants, whether there is a standard or not! See how your water supplier’s average compares at bit.ly/Cr6NC.
Thanks to Jennifer Liming for contributing to this article.
We had a wonderful time at our 32nd Annual Meeting in Statesville September 17th! Many thanks to Clean Water for NC’s Board, volunteers, speakers and the great group of people who came together with a commitment to water justice for all and a future that guarantees good jobs AND safer, clean energy. Here are some photos from the event; powerpoint slides from our featured speaker, Nancy LaPlaca, will be posted soon.
Attendees listen to a presentation about coal ash disposal.
Lisa Hughes, of Person County, shares her community’s struggles for clean water.
CWFNC staff with community members fighting for coal ash justice (L–>R): Ericka Faircloth, Larry Aiken, Lisa Hughes, John Mosely, Sue Fife, Roger Hollis, & Katie Hicks
Nancy LaPlaca, of NC WARN and the Climate Times, speaks on “Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire: Why Switching from Coal to Fracked Gas is a Terrible Idea”