• From hogs to mushrooms: a family farmer fights to chart a new path

    By: Will Atwater, North Carolina Health News December 6, 2022 After nearly three decades as a contract hog producer, Tom Butler is working with his son to return the family farm to a lagoon-free enterprise.   Tom Butler has had enough and wants out. In 1995, he and his brother Robert took over the family tobacco farm just as the industry was declining. Both their father and grandfather were tobacco farmers, but soon after taking over that legacy operation, they decided to pivot away from growing tobacco and signed on as contract hog growers for Prestage Farms. Tom Butler said he and his late brother were seduced by the idea of making easy money. The Butlers started out with four hog houses and based on what they were told about earning potential, they envisioned a life that was a far cry from the reality they experienced. “You'd stay at home with your family and just be happy; you’d go to Hawaii twice a year on vacation with all the money you would have,” he said. “That was what was presented to us, it was [preying] on the American dream.” Now, 27 years later, standing on a concrete floor in a 10-foot x 10-foot room equipped with fluorescent lights and metal shelves, Tom Butler and his son Will Butler have a new dream. “We'll start out small to make sure we're doing everything right and then we'll get bigger,” said Will Butler. He’s referring to his and his dad’s plan to grow oyster mushrooms in the space, which they say, is about 70 percent completed. The father and son team expects to produce more than 200 pounds of mushrooms per week in this room. Will Butler describes how metal shelves will be used in the mushroom growing process. The 100 square foot room is where the Butlers will perfect their growing technique before expanding to a larger space. A key point about mushroom production is that the process doesn’t require soil to produce a crop. Once the room is ready, the Butlers will receive mushroom spores in individual bags containing special growing media or they will receive logs that have been inoculated with mushroom spores, according to Tom Butler. If the experiment proves successful, Will Butler has a specific goal in mind to achieve before embarking on a marketing campaign designed to capture high-end clients. He wants to offer mushrooms to people who otherwise could not afford to purchase them in upscale markets or restaurants. “I want to feed people first. I would go to farmers markets and I would cater to our EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) recipients … because not all people are eating these kinds of mushrooms,” he said. After nearly three decades as a contract hog producer, Tom Butler, 81, sees his new legacy as an opportunity to gradually step away from a business that he says has saddled him with huge debts, is harmful to the environment, is a nuisance to neighbors and one that provides little autonomy to contract growers, who operate at the mercy of corporations that have become increasingly distant. Tom and Will Butler are on a mission to guide the multigenerational family business away from commercial hog production toward a more sustainable and environmental-friendly future that, eventually, the grandchildren - a fifth generation - could take over. The Butlers’ attempt to transition away from contract hog production coincides with recent events, which illustrate just how hazardous concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) can be for the environment and human health. In September, it was revealed that White Oak Farms, located in Wayne County, had a lagoon spill that resulted in thousands of gallons of hog waste being emptied into the Nahunta Swamp. A study released in March 2022, found that people who live in communities near CAFOs tend to experience higher rates of acute gastrointestinal illness than those who do not, and in North Carolina, the majority of folks who live near CAFOs are people of color. A different study, released on December 1, 2022, found that two percent of North Carolina’s swine and poultry CAFOs are in or near floodplains, putting some drinking water sources at risk. The N.C. Swine Floodplain Buyout Program was established in 2000 to buy out and close swine operations located in flood plains. “It takes on average $800,000 to $1,000,000 to buy out a swine operation,” said David B. Williams, deputy director of the N.C. Division of Soil and Water Conservation in the state Department of Agriculture. “[Farmers] that have significant infrastructure invested, they can’t afford to just walk away from that. We have to overcome a considerable amount of debt for the farmer to be able to get out in many cases.” That program is currently stalled and has not received funding to support more buyouts since 2018. To date, the program has spent more than $18 million to buy out swine operations and there are others waiting to apply if and when the legislature allocates more funds. A race against sludge Tom Butler and thousands of North Carolina contract swine growers are facing the same reality: time is not an ally. Operating an industrial hog farm requires a way to manage hog waste which is generated daily and, most often, stored in a pit. Over time, the pits fill with sludge. Annually, in North Carolina, 9 million hogs generate more than 10 billion gallons of waste, according to a document produced in 2020. “The liquid waste is a small problem, the sludge is a killer. And it will eventually, if they don't do something about it soon, cripple the swine industry in North Carolina,” said Tom Butler. “It will actually shut it down.” In 2008, Tom Butler used grant funds to purchase covers for his farm's hog waste lagoons. The covers trap odors and carbon dioxide and prevent flooding. Butler Farms, in the Harnett County town of Lillington, is one of the few where the lagoons are covered with a tarp to minimize odors and CO2 emissions and to eliminate the potential for flooding, Tom Butler said. However, lagoons have limited storage capacity and Butler Farms is running out of space. “We had no idea … we were gonna be handling the waste of a U.S. city the size of 30,000 people,” Tom Butler said. “A pig produces about five or six times more fecal matter and urine than a human does [and] the accumulation of the waste over a period of 27 years is where we are now.” What’s more, there has been a moratorium on the construction of hog waste lagoons since 1997. This temporary ban was made permanent in 2007. Confined hog operations across the state are running out of sludge storage space and have limited options to remedy the situation without taking on more debt. Tom Butler and environmentalists argue that Smithfield Foods should be required to fund alternative technologies for dealing with hog waste. Spraying is not the answer Like many contract farmers, Butler Farms operates a “ feeder to finish” program — every 17 weeks the farm receives approximately 8,000 piglets that weigh between 45 to 50 pounds and in a little more than four months the animals are shipped out, each weighing between 250 to 300 pounds, according to Tom Butler. To prevent lagoons from overflowing, a 19-inch buffer (also known as freeboard) must be maintained between the top of the lagoon and the liquid waste. To regulate waste accumulation, farmers use the lagoon-and-sprayfield system to periodically spray excess liquid waste on agricultural fields to fertilize the soil. Tom Butler planted his fields with Coastal Bermuda Hay, which he says can absorb as much as 300 pounds of nitrogen per acre. Coastal Bermuda Hay is what Tom Butler uses in his spray-field program. He said Coastal Bermuda hay can absorb up to 300 pounds per acre of hog waste. Once it's ready, the hay is bailed and sold for feed stock. While spraying liquid waste on agricultural fields helps reduce sludge buildup, it adds nitrates to soil and contaminates the air. Beyond the odor caused by spraying pig poop on land, studies show that long-term exposure to particulate matter (PM 2.5), present in spray droplets, can cause cardiovascular disease. “I'm a dedicated contract grower, and I have no intentions of hurting the industry or being a bad player,” Tom Butler said, “But the waste management issues that we have are atrocious. All I've done over the past 15 years is tried to get the industry to agree to move away, or, you know, do what's right and adopt newer technology.” Though spraying is legal, this process is highly criticized by environmentalists as it can create runoff issues, negatively impact air quality, and contaminate soil by adding heavy metals. The process has also generated complaints – and lawsuits – from neighbors. A 2018 study published in N.C. Medical Journal found that communities near hog farms had higher rates of infant mortality and deaths caused by anemia, kidney disease, tuberculosis and septicemia. The study didn’t directly link the deaths to hog farms, saying more research was needed. Keeping his word Along with the issues generated by hog lagoon sludge accumulation, the odor from contract hog operations located in eastern North Carolina has been well documented and was the topic of three nuisance lawsuits brought against Murphy Brown/Smithfield Foods that took place in 2018. The suits were brought on behalf of residents in Bladen, Duplin and Pender Counties, who claimed their quality of life was being harmed by the foul odor created by hog lagoons. Early on in the venture, when the Butler brothers began receiving odor complaints from their neighbors, they made a commitment. “[Because] we care about our neighbors, my brother and I took an oath to do whatever we could to lessen our impact,” Tom Butler said. Instead of selling the farm and risking it falling into the hands of someone who would have little regard for the neighbors or the environment, Tom Butler has maintained it and has continued to keep the oath he and his brother made more than two decades ago. In 2008, he used grant money to pay for two lagoon covers, “which stopped the lagoon odor from drifting out through the community,” he said. “When people don't smell you, they don't hate you,” he said. “But when they smell you they dislike you very much.” The commitment to community and the environment has cost Tom Butler both financially and politically. He says his debt load now is as much as it was when he first went into business due to the farm investments he’s made. In 2018, Tom Butler’s commitment to his neighbors was on full display when he testified on behalf of the plaintiffs in the nuisance trials. He risked the possibility of losing his livelihood to do what he felt was right. In each case, the jury sided with the plaintiffs. “It took me probably 10 years to speak out, because I was afraid they would take our contract and I'd be left sitting here with a $600,000 or $700,000 bill that I couldn’t pay.” Adopting new technologies As an alternative to storing hog waste in pit lagoons and also as a way to harness methane gas, which is generated by all that fecal matter into a marketable commodity, Smithfield Foods, the largest U.S. pork producer, is promoting an endeavor it’s calling Renewable Natural Gas. According to a 2018 press release, Smithfield Foods is partnering with Dominion Energy to develop projects in North Carolina, Virginia and Utah. Smithfield and Dominion Energy claim the endeavor will provide additional revenue for contract growers and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, critics say that, in the end, this process will generate even more money for Smithfield and do little to address the negative environmental impacts caused by hog lagoons, with the exception of reducing carbon emissions. “Smithfield will profit off of biogas and yet the industry is making no commitment whatsoever to redirect any of that additional revenue,” said Blakely Hildebrand, senior attorney, Southern Environmental Law Center, “to cleaning up their mess in these communities or making the situation on the ground in these communities better, they just refuse to do that.” Anaerobic digestion is the process by which bacteria break down animal waste — in this case, hog manure — in an oxygen-free environment provided by an anaerobic digester. Through this process, methane gas is produced, separated from the remaining sludge and piped to a processing center where it’s cleaned and sold as renewable energy. Driven by his commitment to minimizing harm to his community and the environment, Tom Butler has proven to be an innovator. Aside from investing in lagoon covers, which trap odors and prevent carbon dioxide emissions and runoff during rain events, he also spent roughly $400,000 to purchase an anaerobic digester system and a generator used to convert methane into electricity, which he sells to the local grid, he said. Will Butler is standing on the farm's anaerobic digester. Hog waste flows into a sealed plastic tarp, an oxygen-free environment, and methane gas accumulates. The gas is piped to a generator and converted into electricity, which is sold to a local electricity co-op. Beyond sequestering some CO2 and using methane as a renewable energy source, Tom Butler says the Smithfield biogas project does not address the sludge problem. However, he says he’s seen an effective process for treating waste called reverse osmosis. He described a process that will purify hog waste onsite and eliminate the need for the sprayfield system. “I've been to two dairies and one hog farm where I actually drank the water that came out of the pit that day,” he said. “It's just good fresh water, you can actually take their waste and feed it back to them, which is a big water savings, instead of just spraying it out on the field and contaminating the ground, the air and the water.” But reverse osmosis technology is pricey and uses a lot of energy, which also costs. But Tom Butler and others say the industry is not willing to spend money needed to assist contract growers with installing technology that would replace the sprayfield system. No policy, no change In 2000, the Smithfield Agreement was an arrangement reached by then-Attorney General Mike Easley, Smithfield Foods and its subsidiaries. One of the stipulations contained in the agreement required Smithfield Foods to finance research into new technologies that would provide viable alternatives to the sprayfield system. Viney Aneja, N.C. State University professor in the Department of Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, lead a research team tasked with exploring alternative technologies to treat hog waste. After conducting research, Aneja said that the team recommended treating lagoon waste with Super Soil technology, a process that separates solids from liquids, kills pathogens and produces recyclable water that can be used in the production process. “It’s what I called and labeled as an engineering solution to the problem,” Aneja said. “There were no lagoons … the waste was being processed like an engineering system.” However, Smithfield pushed back and complained that the solutions found by researchers were too expensive for them to invest in. This position does not sit well with environmentalists, researchers and farmers like Tom Butler — not to mention the people who live downwind of hog CAFOs. They are quick to point out that North Carolina’s contract hog farming is a $10 billion industry, which they argue, buys a lot of support for Smithfield Farms in the state legislature. In 2021, the company spent $200,000 on four lobbyists to walk the halls in Raleigh. Charting a new path Tom Butler’s son, Will, is eager to move the farm away from contract hog production. “That's what I've been pushing for the whole time was total depopulation,” he said. “The reason for the mushrooms is so that we would have some kind of income that would pay off that farm loan, which [my dad] still owes, you know, hundreds of thousands of dollars.” Butler Farms has 10 hog houses that can hold up to 800 animals each. In North Carolina, it's reported that hog CAFOs produce 10 billion gallons of waste annually. Will Butler enlisted help from Transfarmation, a nonprofit organization that works with farmers who, like Will and Tom Butler, are looking to get out of  the contract meat-raising industry. “[The] intergenerational transfer … or a family member taking over the farm, that's a big part of all the farmers we work with,” said Transfarmation director Tyler Whitley. “In a nutshell, what we do is help farmers who want to transition from raising animals at an industrial scale to raising plants.” Whitley said that Transfarmation works to connect farmers with consultants in their local area who have expertise in whatever subject the farmer is interested in pursuing and also help them plan for the future. “We'll work with a farmer to create a conversion plan for their farm that maybe repurposes the infrastructure.” For the Butler’s project, Transfarmation connected them with an expert who developed plans for the 100 square foot room that was going to be used for the hog operation but is now going to be a mushroom production space. While Transfarmation works to cater to the vision of an individual farmer, it also strives to mainstream the work so that if another farmer comes along and is interested in growing mushrooms, for instance, the plans that were developed for the Butler production space may be shared. During a phone conversation with Will Butler, he laid out his and his dad’s vision for the future. “We want [to be an example] for hog farmers that kind of want to get out [of the business],” he said. “The pork that they're selling now — it’s not even their pigs, they’re contract growers, just providing the buildings and the labor.” This article first appeared on North Carolina Health News and is republished here under a Creative Commons license. North Carolina Health News is an independent, non-partisan, not-for-profit, statewide news organization dedicated to covering all things health care in North Carolina. Visit NCHN at northcarolinahealthnews.org.


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  • Environmental justice board hears concerns about wood pellet plants

      By: David Boraks November 18, 2022 The state's growing wood pellet industry came under fire at a meeting in Raleigh last night from scientists, activists and residents who live near wood pellet plants. The meeting's main target was Enviva, the world's largest wood pellet manufacturer, which has four plants in eastern North Carolina. The company cuts trees and turns them into wood pellets that are shipped to Europe to be burned for electricity. All four of Enviva's North Carolina plants are in counties with high poverty rates and large populations of people of color. At the meeting of the Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board, Ruby Bell of Sampson County, said that makes this an environmental justice issue. "DEQ has an obligation under Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to consider disproportionate impacts," she said. Bell said most of her neighbors are afraid to speak up. "They don't feel that their voices will be heard. Their feeling is what's the use, meaning that the county and the state government are going to do whatever they want to do, with no concern for them," she said. She said when Enviva was first recruited to the county, local leaders ignored residents who opposed the plant, and instead gave the company a multi-million-dollar subsidy. The board scheduled the meeting after writing a letter to environmental secretary Elizabeth Biser in September expressing concerns about the industry. The board worried about the impact on communities with large non-white populations and high poverty and about excessive logging of forests around the plants. And they said the industry does not contribute to the state’s goal of increasing renewable and other clean energy production. Pollution and destruction During the 2½-hour meeting, more than two dozen speakers complained about dust, air pollution and noise, and said the industry is not climate friendly. "This industry is not contributing to any of our goals to increase renewable or clean energy production," said Maritza Mendoza. "It rather continues the status quo of continuing our practices of extraction and deforestation. And so I really hope folks think critically about whether this is good for any of us." In Europe, wood pellets are subsidized and treated as a carbon-neutral fuel. The industry says the carbon is accounted for where the trees are cut. Climate scientist William Moomaw (MOO-maw) said many factors aren't considered. "When wood is burned, it releases more carbon dioxide immediately than does any coal or any other fossil fuel to produce the same amount of energy or heat or electricity. Second, the forest that would have kept on growing would have accumulated three to 10 times as much carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere by 2100 as would the regrown cut forest," Moomaw said. While many comments were about the industry broadly, speakers from a group called Impacted Communities Against Wood Pellets urged the DEQ to reject Enviva's pending request for an air quality permit to expand its plant in Ahoskie, in Hertford County. The plant is near tribal lands of the Meherrin. Tribe member Hannah Jeffries called on the company and DEQ to improve communication. "I'm here to let you know, after speaking to my chief, my chairman, my council, members of my general body, we were not aware, fully, what the industry was doing to the community," Jeffries said. Other speakers called on state regulators to begin tracking the industry's carbon emissions. Emily Zucchino of the Dogwood Alliance, an environmental justice group that's part of the coalition, said they're also worried that the pellet industry's growth will further endanger North Carolina forests. "This permit (Ahoskie) also has a massive expansion of production and there's no forum to express concerns about the impact of that expansion. The industry talks about forest health and forest growth in a way that's misleading," Zucchino said. At the meeting's end, advisory board chair Jim Johnson hinted that the board would pass along at least some of the recommendations to Biser. "I think that it is incumbent upon us as an advisory board to take seriously everything that we've heard and make known to the secretary and all the people at DEQ our stance on what we've heard," he said. In a statement before the meeting, Enviva said its plans provide "well-paid jobs and create a positive economic impact." The company said that air quality near its plants complies with environmental laws and regulations. And it said the air quality permit for Ahoskie would allow it to begin installing state-of-the art emission control equipment. Read on Blue Ridge Public Radio


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  • ACT Against Coal Ash: We Want Answers

    Watch the Livestream! Press Release 828 Martin Luther King Boulevard is the location of a police station and 60,000 cubic yards of coal ash waste in Chapel Hill. The Town acquired the property after coal ash waste was already deposited, and discovered it in 2013.The Town’s plans for remediation uses the cap and contain approach, which includes some ash removal and off site disposal, capping with 3-4 ft of clean soil, a retaining wall and restricted use of groundwater.   In May, the Town hosted a meeting which included town staff, environmental consultants, and DEQ’s Brownfields program, where the town promised to answer questions from the public. 73 members of the public, which included neighbors, local and statewide coalitions of coal ash-impacted community members, and clean water and air advocates, were allotted only 30 minutes to address these concerns and questions. Some answers were given during the meeting, while other questions would require additional research and consultation, but all were promised to be given written responses what would be posted on the Town of Chapel Hill’s Website.    We waited SEVENTY days for the Town and DEQ to post these responses, and even when they were posted, less than half the questions were answered and many were essentially evaded, overgeneralized, or pushed to future decisions in later stages of the project. The ACT group asked 34 questions. Only a couple were answered during the meeting, and none on the response document. These included questions about housing considerations, public participation, coal ash clean up and management procedures and worker protections, and reporting and monitoring.   In September, the Town posted a status update which considers a phased approach where “Under this plan, the Town would begin moving ahead with site remediation and construction of the MSC now with steps taken to allow for future development (commercial, office, or housing) on the remainder of the site at a later time.” (Status Update Town of Chapel Hill). However, the Town has yet to discuss this during a Public Regular Council meeting and answer questions we’ve been asking for FIVE months now.   Our questions and concerns remain: How will the Town ensure that this proposed development does not result in disproportionate health impacts to low-income and BIPOC community members near the site or the landfill that receives coal ash? Has the Town researched options for encapsulating coal ash and storing on site? What other options have been researched aside from cap-in-place or full excavation? Excavated coal ash from the site has been sent to Uwharrie landfill - how is this landfill set up to handle coal ash specifically to prevent air and water contamination? What types of monitoring will take place during and after construction of this project? How frequently, and how long will monitoring occur? At what stages of decision-making on this project will the public be given the opportunity to comment?   “I grew up in a rural, coal ash frontline community that is spread far from the landfills and the power plant. However Chapel Hill is a densely populated area with the landfills and power plant nestled in the midst of neighborhoods. This close proximity needs to be addressed. By putting people in harms way at the 828 MLK Location, either through housing, a work environment, or recreation of the proposed gathering place, the Town is placing an unfair burden on individuals, parents, and the greater community who serves the citizens of Chapel Hill: the health care system, teachers, police officers who risk personal exposure at work and will have to address the needs of individuals dealing with related mental health issues.” Caroline Armijo   “The town has a chance to deal with the problem in an ethical manner that respects the nearby community, and protects the health of the community. With coal ash, and the many toxic components, the usual solutions are: 1. Sweep the problem under the rug and bury or simply cap the ash. 2. Ship the problem away and dump the coal ash on another community - usually one that is low income and/or disproportionately composed of people of color. With the coal ash that has been currently been excavated from the police station grounds, unfortunately Chapel Hill has chosen to ship the ash away with little concern for the environmental and engineering designs of the new dump site. We want to raise several questions about the Uwharrie Landfill which was selected for receiving the coal ash. Since coal ash is a "non-asbestos" material, has the town ensured that the coal ash will not be spread daily on top of the Uwharrie landfill? Did the town take any steps to require that the coal ash be deposited in the lined portion? Is Chapel Hill willing to transfer its problem and just do the minimal coal ash dump transfer without taking any of these protective measures?  Has the town ever investigated the options for on-site complete encapsulation or using above-ground salt-stone technologies to solidify and protect the coal ash on-site?  Please use science, community involvement, and transparency in your on-going deliberations about how to resolve the coal ash problems.” John Wagner    “Though the Chapel Hill Town Council directs the public to its website for information about coal ash, and though we are invited to make comments on that site, I am concerned that the general public finds it too inaccessible, and the Council needs to have public forums regarding this very serious issue.” Lib Hutchby   “Despite there being no examples of successful residential redevelopment projects constructed on coal ash sites, the town has failed to answer questions related to reporting and monitoring of the site both related to human health assessments and water quality concerns.  In considering health concerns, during the Public Meeting with DEQ on May 16th, when asked if the town or DEQ has investigated the cancer rates of the current and historical occupants of 828 MLK, DEQ responded that they were not aware of such an investigation, and that that investigation would fall under NC Department of Health and Human Services and that they had not been in contact with that department. Further, according to consultants, higher concentrations of metals were identified in some perched water zones where coal ash is present in the fill. However, we ask that if this site is not excavated and no lining is installed under the site, we ask what would prevent toxins at the site from entering Bolin Creek and traveling to Jordan Lake to contaminate that drinking water source? How would a retaining wall prevent infiltration? We asked these questions and voiced these concerns during the public meeting and are still waiting for answers.” Christine Diaz   “As a resident of Chapel Hill -- a voter and a taxpayer -- I expect the elected officials and institutions in my community to be open and transparent in their pursuit of our community's safety, health, and well-being. Too few of my neighbors and friends even know about the fact that coal ash is exposed on popular public greenways like Bolin Creek -- let alone that the town is considering development that could threaten more workers, families, and children. Experts and scientists much smarter and better informed than I am have outlined grave concerns about the Town's plans; they have posed some urgent questions to the Town; and every person in our community is entitled to adequate, prompt responses in forums and platforms that are accessible to everyone. To date, the Town has failed to comply with its basic obligations with regard to the coal ash threats in our community." Isabel Geffner   We ask for the Town to respond to urgent concerns and questions before moving forward with this remediation and redevelopment to protect the health and safety of neighbors and community members who are or will be impacted by the coal ash at 828 Martin Luther King Blvd.   Alliance of Carolinians Together (ACT) Against Coal Ash


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  • A closer look at the problem of contaminated drinking water wells in NC

    By: Lisa Sorg November 14, 2022 Under a special state fund 658 drinking water wells were sampled for contamination, many of them in Wake County Since 2007 state regulators have sampled more than 5,500 private wells for potential contamination under the Bernard Allen Memorial Emergency Drinking Water Fund, according to an annual report filed by the Department of Environmental Quality. The state legislature created the fund — named after a former Wake County state legislator — in 2006. The money can be used to pay to notify persons whose wells are at risk of contamination, to pay for the cost of testing, and to provide alternate drinking water supplies to affected residents. There is an income limit: Households must earn no more than 300% of the current federal poverty level. In 2022, that’s equivalent to an annual income of $83,000 for a family of four. In 2021, the General Assembly passed a law that eliminated the income requirements for residents with wells contaminated by PFAS. The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is working on guidelines related to this expansion of program eligibility, according to the annual report. The fund does have shortcomings. It does not cover naturally occurring contamination. For example, many drinking water wells in the North Carolina “slate belt” are contaminated with arsenic from the underlying rock. Those well owners have to find other funding, including out-of-pocket expenses, to treat their water. If they are connected to a public water supply, they could be required to pay a tie-in fee, which can run in the tens of thousands of dollars. Here’s a closer look at where the state has sampled and provided alternate water supplies. Figures are for July 1, 2021, to June 30, 2022, unless otherwise noted. You can see county-by-county totals here. 345 – Total number of groundwater contamination sites where no responsible party can be identified and that have private drinking water wells nearby 205 – Number of those same sites with nearby contaminated drinking water wells 1,611 – Number of letters DEQ sent to property owners asking for permission to sample drinking water wells, fiscal year 2021-22* 658 – Of those, the number of drinking water wells that DEQ received permission to sample 152 – Number of sampled wells in Wake County, the most of any county 89 – Number sampled in Guilford County, which ranked second 37 – Number of counties in which wells were sampled 49 – Number of homes that received alternate water supplies from DEQ 12 – Number of homes that received bottled water as a temporary supply (including homes in Buncombe, Gaston, Guilford, Henderson, Mecklenburg, Orange and Wake counties) 4 – Number of homes where treatment systems were installed (Buncombe, Guilford, Wake) 1 – Number of homes connected to a public water service (Mecklenburg) $700,000 – State appropriations the fund received $300,000 – Amount that is dedicated to work associated with PFAS, or perfluorinated compounds *Fiscal year is July 1, 2021, through June 30, 2022. Source: DEQ annual report to state legislature, dated Oct. 1, 2022. Read on NC Policy Watch And for more information, read our report, “Advancing Well User Protections Through Policy,” released on World Water Day this year highlighting the need to: 1.       Increase Funding, Scope & Accessibility of the Bernard Allen Fund, and 2.       Require Well Testing Prior to Real Estate Transactions


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  • Check out Clean Currents Fall & Winter 2022!

    Our latest Clean Currents newsletter is available to read! Check out one of the articles below. Read Clean Currents Fall & Winter 2022 Finding Camaraderie at the EJ Summit In 1998, the 1st annual NC Community Environmental Justice (EJ) Summit was held at the historical Franklinton Center at Bricks in Whitakers, NC. The summit was created from groundwork done the year prior, and helped form the NC Environmental Justice Network (NCEJN) that we know today. This past October, Clean Water for NC staff were able to attend the most recent EJ Summit and connect with fellow advocates, academics, and engaged community members. Belinda Joyner, Clean Water’s Northeastern Organizer and longtime attendee, reflected on her past experiences at the summit. She described the focus on community impacts with engagement and interaction from organizers such as herself. Camaraderie was especially important, with memories of karaoke and piano playing in the evening as participants enjoyed each other’s company. The next day would be filled with breakout sessions, with attendees splitting up into individual groups and later coming back together to reflect on their takeaways. Youth attendees had their own sessions and would report back afterwards. Babies and children brought to the summit, often year after year, were fondly dubbed “EJ Babies.” Due to the pandemic, the EJ Summit has not met in-person the last two years. Clean Water staff were excited to participate in this year’s summit, as it was the first time for several of us to attend. This year’s summit was purposely different, reflecting the shifted dynamics of NCEJN and the world we live in today. The summit’s program stated, “[with] this being our first in-person Summit in two years, we decided to focus on connection and community, foregoing some of those aspects but maintaining the goal of building power and paving the way forward.” With these goals in mind, the first day of the summit emphasized connecting with ourselves and others, through breath work, body movement, and storytelling. Memories of those EJ advocates who had recently passed away brought tears to the eyes of many in the audience. Moments of levity, however, interspersed the serious with jokes and fond remembrance. A disgruntled groundhog even made an appearance, running through the crowd shrieking on its way back to its burrow. As we gathered by the campfire after dinner, stories passed around about past EJ victories, the struggles for workers’ rights, and the passion that drives forward those seeking change. EJ Organizer & Researcher Christine Diaz at the 2022 EJ Summit The next day brought new light and renewed energy. Pallav Das, Co-founder of Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group spoke of revolutionary influencers and progressive systems to push against injustice, reminding us of how we can learn from different places and time periods. A breakout session allowed us to hear directly from a few impacted community members who spoke about barriers to public participation and the needs that have gone unmet within their communities. EJ advocates likewise expressed their desire to reach more people with the services they provide. We were reminded that we could all expand our reach and serve more of those needs by working together in cooperation to identify gaps and link to other groups who serve a specific function—perhaps it might be translation services, legal aid, or, in our case, drinking water advocacy. The notion of providing connection where needed was present in each of the circles we shared at the summit. As the summit wound to an end, we all joined hands and spoke, one after the other, I am a link in the chain, and the link in the chain will not break here. These words solidify our connection to each other and the mission at hand, building a more equitable and just world, with a safe and livable environment, for all. Read More!


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  • Coal plant operators shirking responsibilities on ash cleanup, report contends

    By: Robert Zullo November 7, 2022 Duke Energy facility in NC cited as among the worst contamination sites, but company pushes back   In the wake of major coal ash spills from power plant containment ponds in Tennessee and into the Dan River along the North Carolina and Virginia border, the Environmental Protection Agency in 2015 laid out the first federal rules for managing the ash, one of the nation’s largest waste streams, and the toxins it contains. But more than seven years later, few utilities and other owners responsible for the often unlined pits where billions of tons of ash leach heavy metals and other toxins into groundwater are planning comprehensive cleanups, per a report released last Thursday by a pair of environmental groups. “This report serves as a warning bell for the need to change course to ensure that the federal rule actually restores coal ash-contaminated groundwater, closes all unlined and leaking coal ash ponds and prevents future water contamination,” the report by the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice says. “Progress to clean up contaminated groundwater and safely close dangerous coal ash ponds is dismal. Industry data reveal ongoing groundwater contamination and widespread violations of the federal rule.” The report contains information on groundwater contamination, including levels of arsenic, cobalt, lithium, thallium, selenium, boron, lead and other toxins, at nearly 300 coal plant sites in 43 states and ranks the 10 top most contaminated sites, which it says are in Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Tennessee, Wyoming, Mississippi and Texas, based on sampling data released by the owners of the sites. Many are in low-income communities and communities of color and almost all of them (91%) are contaminating the groundwater, the report contends. “Quite simply, most coal plants are violating the law that requires toxic waste cleanup,” said Lisa Evans, a senior attorney with Earthjustice, during a Thursday media call. “Coal plants are polluting the nation’s water illegally and getting away with it.” Abel Russ, a senior attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, said the EPA’s 2015 regulations, called the Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals from Electric Utilities rule, have done a decent job of laying out the scope of the problem at coal ash sites across the country. “But of course the rule is also meant to do something about the problem and stimulate cleanup and corrective action and we’re not seeing that as much as we should be seeing,” Russ said. Enforcement lagged during the Trump administration, and both organizations have been pushing the EPA to take more action to prod plant owners to clean up contamination, Russ and Evans said. “This rule was promulgated in 2015 followed by four years of the Trump administration where the EPA did nothing but try to remove the coal ash rule. They did not try to enforce it, there were no pronouncements on what the rule meant. And so in January of this year … EPA has started to enforce the rule. But it is industry’s argument that they’re doing it in some new or novel way, which is total nonsense.” An EPA spokeswoman said the agency would review the report but did not answer specific questions about enforcement of the 2015 rule. Bill Norton, a spokesman for Duke Energy, which has coal ash units at 20 different facilities in five states, said the company is “making great progress” on closing coal ash ponds. “We are pursuing corrective action at each site to address any groundwater contamination, and our work won’t be done until it is fully addressed,” he said. “As that work proceeds, it is critical to note that drinking and recreational water supplies remain safe from ash impacts.” He said the Environmental Integrity Project’s news release on the report — which lists the company’s Allen Steam Station in Belmont, North Carolina, as one of the 10 worst coal ash contamination sites in the country and claims Duke doesn’t plan to treat groundwater — isn’t accurate. “We are actively treating the groundwater at Allen and it has already begun to improve. We are also building new lined landfills and are excavating both ash basins and the landfill under approved closure plans that NCDEQ confirmed are “protective of public health and the environment,” Norton said. He also called the report’s methodology flawed because the high cobalt levels at Allen are “deep within the interior” of the site and groundwater flows away from neighbors. “Separate private well testing by state regulators in North Carolina did not observe elevated levels of cobalt or any other ash impacts in neighbors’ well water near the Allen plant, and regular surface water sampling shows Lake Wylie continues to remain safe from coal ash impacts,” he said. Attempts to reach GenOn, which operates two facilities, one in Maryland and one in Pennsylvania, that were listed among the 10 most contaminated in the country, for comment were unsuccessful. ‘Common tricks’ Local activists said coal ash pollution has plagued their communities for years. “This report chronicles the bad faith of big coal in America that has created public and environmental health problems that will take generations to clean up in some cases,” said Fred Tutman, the Patuxent Riverkeeper, who has fought to force GenOn to clean up pollution from its coal ash landfill in Brandywine, about 24 miles southeast of Washington in Maryland. “All in pursuit of ill-gotten profits while they seek to evade sustainability or accountability. It’s an ugly story and people need to take heed.” Tim Maloney, senior policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council, said during a news conference that coal ash has contaminated drinking water wells in four Indiana communities, including the town of Pines, a Superfund site, and has rendered groundwater unusable at 10 other sites across the state. “Despite knowing for years about the contamination caused by their coal ash, at most of our 17 power plant sites where toxic metals are leaking from ash dumps, the power companies still don’t know the full extent of the contamination or have specific plans to clean up these dumps,” Maloney said. The report also says utilities and ash dump owners are obfuscating actual levels of pollution and exploiting loopholes to avoid cleanup costs. “To save money and avoid liability, coal plant owners ignore critical requirements and employ common tricks to avoid mandatory cleanup requirements,” the report says. For instance, it’s up to coal plant operators to make the initial determination as to which ash pits are subject to the rule, since plants that operated for decades often have multiple ash disposal areas, some that may not have accepted new waste for years. As an example, Duke Energy long considered two old coal ponds at the Gallagher Generating Station in New Albany, Indiana, that had been drained and covered with soil and grass as exempt from the rule even though the ash was “sitting in approximately 20 feet of groundwater,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wrote to the company in June. There are 200 unlined coal ash impoundments in 30 states that plan to close without removing any ash, even though the waste is within five feet of groundwater, creating the potential for heavy metals to continue leaching out for years, the report says. Plant owners are also rigging groundwater data to cover up the degree of groundwater contamination, the report contends. It cites an example of a Florida facility in which a so-called “background” monitoring well — designed to establish baseline levels of water contaminants before it comes into contact with coal ash — was designated as upgradient of the ash ponds even though it was actually downgradient. The effect is to make it seem as if the ash isn’t contributing significant contamination to the groundwater. “When plant owners illegally install ‘background’ wells that are already contaminated by coal ash, they can avoid cleanup requirements. Cleanups are triggered, according to the rule, when downgradient wells (wells placed to detect water passing the boundary of a landfill or pond) show a statistically significant increase in coal ash contaminants when compared to wells reflecting the original condition of the groundwater,” the report says. Even when the upgradient wells are properly designated, sometimes coal ash unit owners don’t compare those background wells with the monitoring wells designed to identify contamination. “Instead of comparing downgradient wells to upgradient wells, they analyze the data for each well in isolation,” the report says. “This does not work at most coal plants because the groundwater is already contaminated.” More than 100 coal ash dumps regulated by the rule use that technique, called “intrawell analysis.” And when they embark on cleanup efforts, ash dump operators fail to restore groundwater quality, drag their feet by failing to choose a solution or opt for “monitored natural attenuation” to address contamination, even though that essentially means groundwater monitoring without a clean up plan, the report says. The groups say state and federal regulators should push coal plant owners to remove ash from pits and place it in sealed landfills away from surface and groundwater, which can be pumped up and treated. The report calls for more monitoring wells, more testing of nearby surface water and private drinking water wells, correct analysis of groundwater data and prompt clean-up action, among other provisions. It also calls on the EPA to step up enforcement and revise the rule itself so that it no longer exempts older coal ash units. “This is not a problem that can’t be solved,” Evans said. “The problem is the intransigence of the industry in not being willing to solve the problem.“ Read on NC Policy Watch


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  • Report shows contaminated groundwater is migrating toward Teer Quarry, site of Durham’s future water supply

    By: Lisa Sorg November 3, 2022 High levels of several toxic chemicals have been detected in groundwater near Teer Quarry, storage site for Durham’s future water supply, and are migrating toward the pit itself, state documents show. However, it is still uncertain if these compounds will reach the quarry, and if so, at what concentrations. The contaminant of greatest concern is 1,4-Dioxane, a likely carcinogen. It was found in more than half of the 26 groundwater monitoring wells at levels 3 to 50 times above the state’s target value for water supplies, according to a consultant’s report filed with the NC Department of Environmental Quality. Neither the EPA nor DEQ has set a legally enforceable maximum for 1,4-Dioxane, but state officials have recommended that raw water supplies, such as those stored in the quarry, contain no more than 0.35 parts per billion. The EPA announced yesterday that it would add 1,4-Dioxane to the latest list of contaminants that could be regulated within the next five years under the Safe Drinking Water Act. PFAS, or perfluorinated compounds, also widespread in drinking water supplies, including Durham’s, is also on the list 1,4-dioxane can be found in solvents, plastics production, industrial spills and discharges from municipal wastewater plants. Contaminated wastewater was used to make compost in Sampson County, Policy Watch previously reported.  The chemical is also found in many household products like laundry detergent, shampoos and cosmetics as a byproduct of manufacturing. Along with Jordan Lake, Teer Quarry is a potential new water resource for Durham.  A confluence of climate change and the city’s rapid growth – its population could double over the next 25 years – is forcing Durham to seek additional sources of drinking water. Currently, the city’s primary drinking water sources are Lake Michie and the Little River Reservoir. Durham also has agreements with Cary, Hillsborough, Chatham County and OWASA, in Orange County to buy and sell water. For 15 years, city officials have eyed the Teer Quarry as storage for water. Pending approval from DEQ, they are proposing to pump water from both Lake Michie and a segment of the Eno River and store it in Teer Quarry for future treatment and use. DEQ is holding a meeting tonight to add the designation “critical area” to part of the Eno River watershed’s classification to protect the area from further contamination. Durham construction mogul Nello Teer originally owned and operated the rock quarry, then sold it to Hanson Aggregates. Mining stopped in the late 1980s, and the city now owns the quarry. Hanson still operates a crushed stone sales yard onsite. At 200 feet deep, the quarry can hold 1.58 billion gallons, or nearly two months’ worth of water. Durham uses 28-to-30 million gallons of water per day, according to the city. There are two sources of the contamination on quarry property: underground storage tanks from an old gasoline station and spills from a former asphalt plant and NC Department of Transportation testing laboratory. Contamination levels and groundwater flows vary depending on the aquifer zones. Compounds in the groundwater in the intermediate and deep zones are “likely migrating toward the pit,” according to a Phase II Remedial Investigation Report commissioned by DEQ. The deep zone is the most likely area to discharge directly into the quarry pit. Five of six monitoring wells in the deep zone detected 1,4-Dioxane, at concentrations ranging from 3 to 20 times higher than DEQ’s target value, according to state records. Monitoring records since 2017 show that levels have gradually decreased but still far exceed target values. 1,4-Dioxane is often called a “forever chemical” because it does not quickly degrade in the environment. The Durham Environmental Affairs Board has not discussed the city’s proposal or contamination near the quarry. Juilee Malavade, the EAB chairperson, told Policy Watch in an email that the group had not yet been briefed on the issue. “We plan on inquiring regarding the environmental condition of the quarry,” Malavade said. Other contaminants include benzene and vinyl chloride, known to cause cancer; naphthalene, which the EPA has classified as a possible carcinogen; and bix(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, a probable carcinogen. DEQ has ranked the site as “high risk,” even though all of the nearby homes are now connected to public water supplies. In 2008, the consulting firm Highlands Environmental, working on behalf of Hanson Aggregates, asked DEQ to lower the site hazard ranking because no private drinking water wells were in use. DEQ declined to do so “when it was determined the quarry pit may be used as an emergency supply reservoir for the City of Durham water supply,” state documents read. Joe Lunne, spokesperson for the Durham’s Department of Water Management, told Policy Watch that 1,4-Dioxane has never been found in Teer Quarry water, which would be treated before it flowed from public taps. A DEQ memorandum related to Durham’s proposal recommends annual surface water monitoring of quarry water. Lunne of the Durham Water Management Department said the location of monitoring points “will depend, at least in some part” on where the intake would be installed in the quarry. Extreme weather, driven in part by climate change, has forced the city to re-examine its water options. Durham and the rest of North Carolina suffered from a historic drought in 2007. In August of that year, temperatures soared well above 100 degrees for several days, making it the second-warmest and second-driest August on record, according to the NC State Climate Office. As lakes and rivers dried up – Falls Lake looked like a moonscape – Durham at one point had just 38 days of water left in its reservoirs. The city supplemented it with water from Teer quarry. (Also in 2007, extreme winter weather halted progress toward cleaning up the quarry site. Two major snowstorms damaged the remediation system, which stopped operating and did not resume.) The USDA Forest Service in Raleigh issued a report in 2013 projecting that by 2060, the Upper Neuse River Watershed , which provides the water supply for Raleigh and Durham will to experience a 14% decrease in water yield while population growth will increase water demand by 21%. Meanwhile, more frequent droughts, floods and long periods of hot weather — all markers of climate change will alter the supply and demand for clean water. (Even during rainy stretches, the water can evaporate because of high temperatures.) If 1,4- Dioxane does reach the pit, levels could be diluted as long as the there is enough water to dilute it. The city also has a consultant “that will soon be studying treatment technologies” Lunne added, for the removal of 1,4-Dioxane and PFAS, or perfluorinated compounds. In 2018, high levels of two types of the compounds, PFOA and PFOS, were detected in Lake Michie, an existing drinking water supply; some of that water will also be stored in Teer Quarry. Traditional water treatment methods can’t remove PFAS or 1,4-Dioxane. PFAS and 1,4-Dioxane have been detected in both the Haw River and the Cape Fear River, as well as in drinking water in Pittsboro, Sanford, Fayetteville and Wilmington, according to DEQ data. Industrial dischargers and wastewater treatment plants are the likely sources. For 1,4-Dioxane, ultraviolet irradiation and hydrogen peroxide, coupled with granulated activated charcoal, is one potential treatment. Cost depends on several factors, including the amount of raw water to be treated and the level of contamination. Wilmington spent upward of $46 million to treat its drinking water for PFAS, which have been almost completely removed, and 1,4-Dioxane, whose levels have been reduced by two-thirds And unless federal or state grant money covers the expense, Durham water customers would likely have to pay for any such upgrades through higher rates. Read on NC Policy Watch


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  • Chapel Hill Weighs Redeveloping a Site That Sits Atop a Coal Ash Pit Despite Warnings

    By: Chad Knuth, Indy Week October 26, 2022 Managing coal ash in North Carolina has long been a sordid issue. Last month in response to the Town of Chapel Hill’s proposal to build on top of an existing 60,000-ton coal ash deposit without removing the coal ash, a group of residents known as Safe Housing for Chapel Hill hosted three of the nation’s top coal ash scientists in a public forum in an effort to educate citizens on the dangers attributed to coal ash. “Coal ash is the new asbestos,” said Edward Marshall, a professor in Duke’s school of engineering who spearheaded the forum. The property at the center of the debate runs along the Bolin Creek Parkway at 828 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, one mile north of the heavily trafficked Franklin Street. It has been the sole home to the Chapel Hill Police Department since the 1980s, but it is also the site of a coal ash infill that dates from the 1960s and ’70s. When plans for reconstruction of the current police station were initially submitted in 2013, the Town of Chapel Hill discovered the buried coal ash deposit at the site, and officials have since been looking to remediate the property. Current plans that the town has released outline the construction of a roughly 80,000-square-foot new municipal services center, which is set to include a reconstructed police station, alongside the addition of private development and a total of 225 to 275 multifamily residential rental units, all of which would be built directly over the existing 60,000-ton coal ash deposit. “The town [of Chapel Hill] has failed to make a compelling, science-based case for building on top of 60,000 tons of coal ash,” Marshall said at the meeting. “All we want the town to do is remove the coal ash before building anything. It is the town council and mayor’s moral and public health responsibility to keep our citizens safe—the proposed plan does not do that.” Chapel Hill mayor Pam Hemminger, however, says the town understands the dangers attributed to coal ash and further assures that current plans to not remove the coal ash have been well researched. ”We can all agree that there are concerns surrounding the coal ash,” she says. “We’ve explored digging [the coal ash] out, but that was going to cause more environmental concerns in many ways, causing fly ash and just all of the hazards associated in digging it up and carting it out with trucks. It would ultimately endanger the community more [to remove it].” Hemminger has since stated that, due to costs, plans for any residential units to be built on the site have been pushed into later project phases, while plans for the municipal center and reconstructed police station remain under way. For Marshall and others attending the forum, the removal of residential units from development plans is not nearly enough. They asked why the town seemed to be dodging the glaring issue at hand. Hemminger declined to attend last month’s forum, as did all but one member of the town council, Adam Searing. Searing was the only town council member to vote against the proposed redevelopment project. “It’s wonderful that the community is asking the questions they are,” says Hemminger, “but we’ve employed top-notch scientists and we’ve met with the [NC Department of Environmental Quality], and this group of citizens [who attended the forum] had also met with the DEQ, and they were told the same thing we were: that capping it and controlling it where it was is the best way forward.” Officials from NC DEQ also declined to attend last month’s forum. “This has been going on for a long time now,” Hemminger continues. “[The town has] been very forthcoming and up-front about everything. I learned about this when I came in as mayor seven years ago, and we’ve been posting our progress, and continually testing, and doing constant monitoring of the groundwater and the creek. We’re happy to say the creek has shown no sign of ever having coal ash in it.” Earlier last month, the town issued a memo discussing the proposed project’s current status. “Over the summer, we have continued to work with the NC DEQ through the EPA’s Brownfields Program,” the memo states. “We have, also, continued to work with Hart & Hickman, our environmental consultants, who are in the process of conducting on-going monitoring and additional testing of on the site at NC DEQ’s request as a standard procedure for the Brownfields Program.” The EPA’s Brownfields Program provides grants and technical assistance to communities, states, tribes, and others to assess, safely clean up, and sustainably reuse contaminated properties. It is estimated that there are more than 450,000 Brownfields properties in the United States. According to NC DEQ, as documented during a public meeting Q&A back in May, the Brownfields Program “is still reviewing assessment data collected at this site and some additional assessment is anticipated to occur …. The primary identified contaminants at the Chapel Hill Police Property are elevated metals from the coal ash.” The presence of the elevated metals was a focal point at last month’s forum. The metals include antimony, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, radium, radon, thallium, thorium, and uranium, all of which are known to cause serious health effects due to exposure. Scientists at the forum took turns exchanging collected research on the effects of coal ash exposure with grave concern. Avner Vengosh, a professor of environmental quality at Duke, reported that the composition of soil samples taken at 828 MLK Jr. Boulevard revealed a total of 19 toxic metals, including levels of arsenic, lead, and radium that were three to four times what the EPA allows. Health risks from exposure to metals found in coal ash include damage to the liver, kidneys, and heart, as well as nervous system damage and even lung, prostate, and urinary tract cancers, to name only a few. “Overall, studies show higher all-cause mortality; rates of premature deaths and infant mortality; higher risk of cardiovascular and chronic respiratory diseases; lung cancer; and higher prevalence of low birth weight in newborns reported in association with air pollutants related to coal-burning power plants,” wrote Julia Kravchenko, an associate professor of surgery at Duke School of Medicine, in a research paper published in 2018. Kravchenko’s research shows that, unfortunately, studies with direct measurements of exposure and health status in the communities adjacent to landfills or coal ash impoundments in the United States are currently not available. In addition, no studies with direct measurements of individual or group/community exposures that can provide a scientific rationale for policy changes in the United States are currently available. Vengosh and Kravchenko both attended the forum, along with Susan Wind, a former resident of Mooresville, who joined in an effort to share her daughter’s story. Wind’s daughter, Taylor, who now suffers from thyroid cancer, was one of at least 25 children and teens in the Lake Norman area who have been suspected to have contracted cancers related to the improper disposal of coal ash in their community. The state’s Central Cancer Registry statistics showed that for the past 26 years Iredell County has reported higher incidences of thyroid cancer than the state average, in some cases three times greater. In May 2018, state and county health officials designated two zip codes near Lake Norman as suspected cancer clusters, one of them being 28117, where the Wind family had resided. Lake Norman High School, where Wind’s daughter was in attendance at the time of her diagnosis, was discovered to have been built alongside a 42,000-ton coal ash deposit, a site not dissimilar to that at 828 MLK Jr. Boulevard. According to Wind, a number of the children and teens in the Lake Norman area who had contracted cancers similar to her daughter’s have since passed away from complications. Pamela Schultz, former chair of the Chapel Hill Stormwater Advisory Board, spoke after Wind. “Our bodies are not designed to be exposed to these chemicals, but the conversation is that there are no short-term effects due to exposure to coal ash,” she said. “We need more medical data. The risks are greater than what we have believed.” As the town starts its long journey on the road of remediation, Hemminger ensures that the Town of Chapel Hill has been committed to redeveloping the site safely from the start. “We’re all learning how to live with it,” Hemminger says. “We’re learning as much as we possibly can.” Read the article at Indy Week


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  • Mountain Valley Pipeline halts eminent domain actions for Southgate extension

    By: Charlie Paullin, Virginia Mercury October 21, 2022 Mountain Valley Pipeline has decided to withdraw eminent domain actions against land in North Carolina the company sought for its Southgate extension, a 75-mile offshoot of the main pipeline that would carry gas from Pittsylvania south to Rockingham and Alamance counties. “As the timing, design, and scope of this project continue to be evaluated, MVP has elected to dismiss this action, believing that to be the appropriate course of action for the time being and a demonstration of its desire to work cooperatively and in good faith with landowners and communities along the pipeline’s route,” said the motion filed Friday in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina. But the company asked for the dismissal without prejudice, which would allow it to pursue eminent domain actions against the properties again. Mountain Valley “has not abandoned this project,” the pipeline wrote. Shawn Day, a spokesperson for the MVP Southgate project, reiterated the motion’s language, adding, “Mountain Valley remains committed to the MVP Southgate project, which is needed to help North Carolina achieve its lower-carbon energy goals and meet current and future residential and commercial demand for natural gas in the region.” “Proceedings currently remain under way with respect to a small number of tracts” along the proposed Southgate route in Virginia, Day added. A condition of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s approval of the Southgate project in 2020 was that construction of the extension would not begin until the company received the required federal permits for the mainline system and the Director of the Office of Energy Projects, or its designee, lifted a stop-work order and authorized the project. The pipeline regained life in August after FERC extended its October 2022 completion deadline by four years. Regulators said their decision was an administrative one and that the proceedings were not the proper time to revisit the project’s approval. At that time, a company spokesperson said the company remains committed to securing federal and state permits to bring the project into service in the second half of 2023. Mountain Valley has said the main line is 94% complete, although some opponents dispute the company’s numbers. However, Mountain Valley still lacks necessary permits to complete the pipeline. An effort by U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, to force approval and completion of the project through federal legislation on permitting reform stalled this fall. The Southgate extension has also run into problems. In 2021, the Virginia State Air Pollution Control Board denied an air permit for a proposed compressor station in Pittsylvania that was crucial to ensure gas could flow from Virginia into North Carolina. The denial triggered General Assembly legislation transferring permitting authority from the citizen air board to the state Department of Environmental Quality. North Carolina had also previously denied Southgate a required water permit, citing “unnecessary and avoidable impacts to surface waters and riparian buffers.” Environmental activists on Friday celebrated Mountain Valley’s voluntary dismissal of its eminent domain actions. “Today we can exhale. We still have a long way to go, but the road gets shorter,” said Crystal Cavalier Keck, co-founder of 7 Directions of Service, an indigenous people’s activist group, in a statement. “This decision is more proof that the MVP is destined for defeat.” Read the article at Virginia Mercury


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  • Lake Sediments Record North Carolina’s Coal Legacy

    By: Kimberly M. S. Cartier, EOS October 14, 2022 Sediment cores taken from five lakes in North Carolina reveal the state’s history of coal ash pollution from power plants. Analysis of these cores, published in Environmental Science and Technology, explains that although coal ash deposition has declined in recent years, its legacy lives on in the contaminants the ash left behind to seep into the environment. These toxins could be affecting the health of local residents and ecosystems. “These are recreational lakes,” Zhen Wang, an environmental geochemistry doctoral student at Duke University in Durham, N.C., and the lead author of the study, said in a statement. “Some of them…were originally built for the coal plant, but over the years, it has become very desirable real estate where people build their dream homes. It looks very pristine and beautiful, but if you dig in, you find piles of toxic coal ash.” Decades of Pollution Coal ash is the by-product of burning coal and is one of the most prevalent forms of industrial waste in the United States—around 130 million metric tons are produced every year. Ash contains toxic metals, including lead, mercury, arsenic, and selenium, which can cause respiratory diseases and cancers after short- or long-term exposure. Coauthor Avner Vengosh of Duke University and his colleagues have been investigating the water quality of lakes and groundwater across North Carolina for more than a decade. Some of their past work has focused on pollution in the five artificial lakes sampled in the new study—Hyco Lake, Mayo Lake, Belews Lake, Mountain Island Lake, and Lake Sutton—each of which is located near a coal plant. The team collected cores up to 70 centimeters deep from the lakes between July 2020 and August 2021. They also collected a core from Lake Waccamaw, a natural lake close to Lake Sutton, for comparison. “The oldest sediments we collected were aged to mid-1950s,” Vengosh said, “representing 60–70 years of sedimentation.” Some of the cores look back to before the nearby coal plants were installed and provide a good baseline to understand a plant’s environmental impact. For each core, the researchers analyzed the morphology, magnetic and geochemical properties, and strontium isotopes of the lake sediments and the embedded coal ash to track the history of ash deposition into the lakes. The cores revealed three distinct phases of coal ash release into the lakes. The first phase, from the 1960s to 1970s, saw significant deposition of both coarse and fine-grained ash particles as ash was dumped right into the lakes. During the second phase, from the 1970s to 1990s, the enactment of the Clean Air Act meant that coal ash was stored in ponds next to the plant. The level of pollution into the nearby lakes decreased during this time, and larger particles were captured by air filters instead of entering the environment. The third phase, from the 1990s to the present, also saw a decrease in the quantity of coal ash deposited into the lakes as storage changed from wet coal ash ponds to dry landfills and a few plants shifted from coal to natural gas for energy production. Using streamflow data from the U.S. Geological Survey, the team found that the lakes accumulated more coal ash during times of high streamflow and precipitation. This result suggests that stormwater runoff, flooding, and effluent discharge from coal ash ponds and dry landfills are some of the main mechanisms by which the ash enters nearby lakes. Ash can also enter the air, land in the surrounding landscape, and be washed into the lakes by rain. The researchers noted that climate change continues to heighten the severity of the storms striking North Carolina, including hurricanes like Florence in 2018, which bodes ill for the coal ash still stored at these plants. Research speculates that coal ash enters North Carolina lakes via three pathways: airborne ash that settles into the lakes and surrounding landscape, stormwater runoff from coal ash ponds, and effluent discharge from coal ash ponds. Once in the lake bottom sediments, the coal ash can release contaminants into the water, increasing their bioavailability. Credit: Wang et al., 2022, https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.2c04717 A Toxic Legacy The plants near Hyco, Mayo, and Belews Lakes continue to burn coal for power; the Sutton Plant has switched to natural gas, and the Riverbend Plant near Mountain Island Lake has been retired. But the toxic legacy of all of these energy plants continues. “Coal ash that was stored in the nearby coal ash ponds seems to continue [to be] displaced and transported into the lakes, specifically during times of major flooding like hurricane episodes,” Vengosh said. “The problem of coal ash legacy did not go away by switching to natural gas.” Once in the lake bed, the coal ash breaks down and releases contaminants into the water. Those contaminants become bioavailable, which is a concern for the local ecosystems and the residents who live nearby. All five lakes are destinations for recreational boating, fishing, and camping, and Hyco Lake is also a residential area. What’s more, Mountain Island Lake is a local drinking water intake, noted Amanda Strawderman, polluter accountability program director for the nonprofit Clean Water for North Carolina. This study raises pressing questions, she said. “To what degree could suspended particles of coal ash be taken into the municipal drinking water treatment system? Is this water being tested and remediated for toxic coal ash constituents? If remediation is taking place, to what extent are those 800,000 residents of the Charlotte/Mecklenburg area bearing the cost burden of that remediation through water rates?” This study examined the environmental risks of bioaccumulation of coal ash pollutants, Vengosh said, but “it is well known that the assembly of contaminants in coal ash are highly toxic [to people]. There are reports that many workers who participated in the cleanup of the coal ash spill in the Tennessee Valley Authority [in 2008] became severely sick, with a high percentage of cancer. Many of them have already passed.” “This alarming study reinforces the need to regulate generation and management of coal ash waste to understand where coal ash exists,” Strawderman added, “and strengthen protections for communities in North Carolina and beyond.” Read the article on EOS


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