• Warren County commemorates 40 years of environmental justice struggle

    By: Will Atwater, North Carolina Health News September 21, 2022 At around 7 a.m. last Saturday, cars began collecting in the parking lot of Coley Springs Missionary Baptist Church in rural Warren County. Across the road, the sun rose above a mixture of pines and deciduous trees that border a green field. Located somewhere in the distance, a generator’s mechanical hum was softened by early-morning bird songs. In an open field located a few hundred yards uphill and behind the church, chicken was grilling on two large grates parked next to a food truck. Bags of charcoal, needed to keep the cooking going, were being stacked. Something big was unfolding. About 50 yards beyond the food truck stood a roomy white tent that offered clues to what was unfolding. Inside the tent, people were busy, unboxing programs and covering rented tables with white tablecloths and artificial flower bouquets. Others were sorting T-shirts with “We Birthed The Movement” screen printed on them. A few were registering those who had come from near and far to participate in the day’s events. The day had started early for Bill Kearney. By 6:30 a.m. the associate minister of Coley Springs had already made two trips to the church. “I think expectations are so high for me, but I have to realize this is God’s work, and I didn’t do it,” said Kearney. “It was Him that worked through me, they called me to be a facilitator.” Kearney hurried back and forth, greeting people and directing volunteers. Eventually, he and a helper began hanging poster-sized photographs along the tent’s back wall. On display were photographs that document a tumultuous period in Warren County’s history. They harkened back to a time when community members protested. Some were arrested for doing so, some even used their bodies as human shields, trying to prevent injustice from steamrolling their community. They fought valiantly through 1982, but, ultimately, were unable to stop a toxic waste dump from being placed in Warren County later that year. The dump was created to house PCB-contaminated soil, which resulted from an illegal dumping scheme carried out by then North Carolina-based Ward Transformer Company in 1978. To avoid paying to legally dispose of the chemicals, and under the cover of darkness, people who ran the company discharged the toxic waste along roadsides, covering a 250-mile stretch across several counties. ‘We birthed a movement’ PCBs belong to a group of man-made chemicals known as chlorinated hydrocarbons and were widely used in the U.S. from 1929 until 1979, when they were banned. PCBs are considered toxic and carcinogenic. Exposure to these chemicals could result in a suppressed immune system and may cause cancer, among other negative health impacts. By the time people in the area had learned of the contamination, they had started to comprehend how very toxic the waste was. Rev. Ben Chavis speaks with two attendees of the Warren County 40th Anniversary Commemoration event. Credit: Will Atwater Although Warren County residents and supporters were unsuccessful in preventing the toxic waste landfill from being located in their community, their efforts birthed the environmental justice movement, now a worldwide phenomenon. Last Saturday, four decades later, hundreds gathered at the church for the 40th-anniversary commemoration. One of the first guests to arrive was Armenta Eaton, who came over from Franklin County. Eaton was not a Warren County resident when the protests started, but she had strong ties to the community. Her best friend, Dollie Burwell, recognized as the “mother of the movement” asked her to join the cause. “Dollie called me and said, ‘We may have to go to jail tomorrow, but I need you here in Warren County, because we’re starting to protest,’” Eaton recalls. “And I said, ‘Okay, I’ll be there, so I called my boss and I said, ‘I can’t come to work’ … He said, ‘Don’t worry about it, I’ll be there too.’  So anyway, that’s how I got involved.” Eaton said that, at the time, she worked for the civil rights organization The United Church of Christ and Rev. Leon White was her boss and the Rev. Ben Chavis, who is recognized as the “father” of the environmental justice movement, was a co-worker. ‘Hope has two daughters’ There were many highlights from Saturday’s commemoration. One memorable moment occurred during the return walk from the area where the toxic landfill was located. Burwell, a long-time activist and community leader, was given a new perspective on an issue she had struggled with for a while. Edgardo Colón-Emeric, dean of the Duke Divinity School, delivered “The Message of Hope and Commitment,” which Burwell said brought her relief. “I was gratified today to hear the reverend say, that hope has two daughters, courage and anger,” Burwell said. “Sometimes I really didn’t think anger was a good quality to have.” Reflecting on those difficult days during the protests when people’s anger reached the boiling point, she recalled that something positive happened. “The church got involved and got everybody engaged in civil disobedience,” she said.  “That’s what I would say redirected people’s anger into a movement.” Protesters lie in the road in 1982 to prevent trucks carrying PCB-contaminated soil from reaching the toxic waste landfill that was located in Warren County. Credit: Jenny Lebalme Jenny Labalme was a Duke University senior in 1982 when she snapped an iconic photograph that has become one of the visual symbols of environmental justice. On the walk, she reflected on what it was like 40 years later to walk along the road where she snapped her iconic images. “Oh my gosh, it’s always the songs. I don’t know what it is about it, but when Dollie grabbed the megaphone and started chanting and singing some of the [protest] songs, it just brought me right back to where we were 40 years ago,” Labalme said. “Obviously, no one was lying down in the road today to block dump trucks, and I wasn’t photographing, but just the crowd of people … I just felt a swell of support.” Where do we go from here? Before leaving, Chavis said the environmental justice movement has become an international movement since its 1982 birth in Warren County. He also said he is pleased to see the rise of future movement leaders. “I’m most encouraged to see millions of young people throughout the world demand environmental justice, demand climate justice, the two movements are part of the same outcry for freedom, justice and equality,” he said. Bill Kearney, center, holds the megaphone while Cameron Oglesby, right, leads a chant. Credit: Will Atwater To recognize future leaders, the commemoration had a “Passing of the Torch” ceremony that recognized one of the young leaders, Cameron Oglesby, a Duke graduate student. Oglesby said, while spending time with some of the environmental justice icons during the week leading up to Saturday’s event, she realized that they did not have everything figured out when they were young. “I’m hearing that, ‘Yeah, we didn’t really know what we were doing either, but we did it and we made it happen,’” she said. “And so I see potential reflection and mirroring of that work as the next generation picks it up.” As the next generation begins to take the positions itself to take on more leadership, Warren County residents like Angella Dunston would like to support economic development coming to the area. She points to Chatham County as a place where economic development has taken off, with new industries bringing thousands of new jobs to the area. She suggested that maybe “Warren County could’ve been the Chatham County of North Carolina” had the toxic landfill not been placed there. Near the closing of the event, Bill Kearney stepped to the microphone to thank the sponsors and volunteers who helped produce the event. Before leaving the stage, he offered this thought about the future of Warren County. Read the article on North Carolina Health News Join us on Friday, September 30th for our FREE virtual panel with speakers Angella Dunston, Rev. William (Bill) Kearney, Danielle Koonce & Ghanja O'Flaherty! Visit cwfnc.org/40yearsej to learn more and register


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  • Viewpoints: We’re Still Waiting on Chapel Hill Coal Ash Answers

    By: Amanda Strawderman, Op-Ed for Chapelboro.com September 9, 2022 May 16, 2022. That was the date the Town of Chapel Hill and NC Dept of Environmental Quality held a virtual meeting to inform the public of the process of the urgent yet controversial redevelopment of the town’s property at 828 MLK Blvd. Urgent, first and foremost, because the site contains an estimated 60,000 cubic yards of coal ash made up of carcinogenic compounds and heavy metals, exposure to which is known to be harmful to human health. And even after coal ash was discovered and the Town made initial cleanup efforts, sections of this site have continued to be exposed to rain and wind, and is of concern to the community. Controversial, because the Town has proposed to build residential housing and municipal buildings atop the site without first removing all of the coal ash. Given the risks for more exposure during and after the completion of this project, people naturally have questions about how they will be protected. It’s important to note that this was not the first meeting on the topic. Members of the public have been showing up for Chapel Hill Town Council meetings and reaching out with emails and phone calls for months. After being chided by some council members for speaking out without being fully informed, folks wanted to do just that, to become better informed and give the Town the opportunity to demonstrate that they have public health and safety considerations at the forefront of this project. And so on May 16, despite allotting only 30 minutes for questions, 73 members of the public – neighbors, local and statewide coalitions of coal ash-impacted community members, health experts, clean air and water advocates – attended the meeting to voice their concerns and ask for answers. Some questions were addressed during the meeting while others would require research and consultation, but all were promised to be given written responses that would soon be posted on the Town of Chapel Hill’s website. Seventy days. That’s how long we waited for the Town and DEQ to post those responses (Note that members of the public are expected to provide comments within 30 days after notice of a draft permit for polluting facilities). And even when these replies 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. To illustrate, community members have long been asking about the potential removal methods for the coal ash at the site, and when DEQ responded, they simply stated “decisions about removal should be directed to the Town of Chapel Hill representatives.” Yet the Town had insisted they were bringing in DEQ for their expertise. When asked if DEQ’s brownfield program had previous experience with ‘mitigated coal ash on proposed housing sites’ they discussed projects at other types of sites with elevated metals, avoiding the true answer that the program has NEVER put a residential development on top of a former coal ash site. Discourse that has the public running in circles doesn’t exactly build confidence that any number of potentially negative consequences from this project have been considered. Far from trying to obstruct progress, we just want to understand the plan. Aside from the redevelopment proposal that has been put forth, what other types of clean-up and remediation options has the Town even considered or been given estimates? How would potential exposure and health risks differ between users and activities at the redeveloped site (residents/employees or long-term vs visitors or short-term)? Have they consulted the NC Department of Health and Human Services or other health researchers about potential public health impacts from these proposals? How will they ensure workers and community members will be protected during construction? How will the waste be handled, transported, and stored so that coal ash dust doesn’t escape into the air we breathe or the water we drink? How long will they monitor the local environment after the project is completed? And whichever plan they choose, how will they ensure negative impacts are not disproportionately borne by low-income or BIPOC community members? These are just some of the valid concerns that haven’t been addressed. Considering that this is only one of who knows how many undiscovered coal ash sites across the state, what is decided now doesn’t only affect the residents of Chapel Hill, the next one could be in any one of our neighborhoods. It is in everyone’s best interest to see that justice is done for our fellow Carolinians in this matter. Decide for yourself and follow the issue on the Chapel Hill website or Futureof828.org. Watch the recording of the meeting, read their responses, and participate in the upcoming meetings to ask your own questions. This project is still at the early stages, but if we don’t make sure the Town is thinking things through, then decisions will be made and they might just claim it’s too late, that too much effort has already gone into this plan, too much money has been invested, or that we should have said something sooner. It’s now September and the next Chapel Hill Town Council meeting is on the 14th. To the council and DEQ, we HAVE spoken, we’re still here, and we’re waiting for answers. Read the article on Chapelboro.com


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  • ‘Really terrible science experiment’ leads to weeks-long spill from NC hog-waste lagoon

    By Adam Wagner, Raleigh News & Observer September 6, 2022 The state inspector knew immediately there was trouble at White Oak Farms. When she visited the Wayne County farm on Feb. 3, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality inspector saw a thick layer of hay laden with charcoal-colored foam in a ditch. That foam seemed to have oozed from under a black tarp covering a hog waste lagoon where manure was combined with unusual ingredients like liquified hog carcasses and discarded hot dogs and deli meat in a slurry to generate methane. The farm’s owners, including a former member of the National Pork Board, had not reported a spill. In a notice of violation dated Feb. 18, two weeks after the inspection, David May, a supervisor in DEQ’s Washington Regional Office, wrote that the inspector couldn’t tell how deep the foam was. But, May wrote, “the inspector stepped in that area sinking at least 4 inches on the edge.” White Oak Farms’ problems were just beginning. Four months later, on May 30, the black cover ruptured, sending an estimated three million gallons of the gelatinous gray foam across the farm and toward nearby Nahunta Swamp. By the time the spill ended weeks later, enough foam had spilled to fill more than four Olympic-sized swimming pools. At least 37,000 gallons had reached wetlands. An anaerobic digester on White Oak Farms in Fremont, N.C., tore on May 30, sending foam across the property. N.C. Department of Environmental Quality Environmental advocates learned about the spill by chance. They are outraged that it happened with minimal public notice, particularly considering that DEQ staff were monitoring the spill even as the department was finalizing a permit making it easier for anaerobic digesters to get environmental approval and easier for farmers to install them. Riverkeepers argue that DEQ’s regulation of White Oak Farms shows the department is not prepared for a potentially exponential increase of digesters on North Carolina’s hog farms. They learned about the White Oaks Farms spill on Aug. 3, more than two months after it began, when Sound Rivers’ Neuse Riverkeeper Samantha Krop flew over the facility. Krop saw that the black bubble that was supposed to be capturing gas appeared deflated, with water pooled across its surface. Krop also noticed that there was no vegetation around the lagoon and that it looked like dirt had been moved around southeast of the digester, where the property borders Nahunta Swamp. “It just didn’t look right,” Krop said. “It didn’t look like they were functioning properly.” An anaerobic digester on White Oak Farms in Fremont, N.C., split open in late May, sending foam oozing out for at least three weeks. Shown here on August 3, the farm mixed hog waste with deli meat, hot dogs and liquified pig carcasses to generate methane in the digester. The Feb. 3 inspection focused on the covered lagoon, a system called an anaerobic digester. Farmers pump manure and other unwanted material into the lagoon, where it decomposes, releasing methane and other gases. Digesters capture those gases, particularly methane, and use them to produce electricity or purified natural gas. In recent years, agricultural groups and environmentalists have debated the use of anaerobic digesters in North Carolina. These disagreements played out first against the backdrop of the 2021 Farm Act, which ordered the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality to write a general permit allowing most future digesters to move quickly through the environmental approval process. The N.C. Pork Council and other agricultural interests argue that covering waste lagoons reduces odor and prevents emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. They also offer farmers a revenue stream. In a written statement, Roy Lee Lindsey, the Pork Council’s CEO, said, “Digesters are a safe and proven technology that provide significant environmental benefits. While this situation was unfortunate, it is an isolated incident and should not discourage us from continuing to pursue renewable natural gas projects in North Carolina.” Environmental groups argue that digesters effectively lock in what they call a primitive waste management system in which hog manure and urine are washed into lagoons before being sprayed across nearby fields. The White Oak Farms spill demonstrates the risks digesters pose, said Blakely Hildebrand, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “It goes to show that these digester systems aren’t the environmental, climate silver bullet that the hog industry has painted them to be,” Hildebrand said. DEQ issued the general permit on June 30 — a week after inspectors concluded the White Oaks spill was continuing. As they finalized the permit, DEQ officials never revealed publicly that staff had been monitoring an active digester spill. That general permit would not have covered White Oak Farms’ digester. It only covers systems that process hog manure and urine, said Anna Gurney, a DEQ spokeswoman, not those that add other things into the slurry like White Oak Farms’ liquid pig carcasses, cast-off hot dogs and deli meat. Despite the digester debate, almost nobody knew a North Carolina hog operation was already operating by adding hogs and meat products to the manure under its black plastic balloon. “We have never heard of this before. We started asking around and nobody else in the environmental advocate world that we’re in has heard of this, either,” Jill Howell, the Pamlico-Tar riverkeeper, told The News & Observer. Howell continued, “It just all seems very strange and like one really terrible science experiment.” A N.C. Department of Environmental Quality inspector holds a handful of the foam that spilled May 30 from an anaerobic digester on White Oak Farms in Fremont, N.C. The farm was mixing hog manure, slurry made from dead hogs and cast-off deli meat in the digester to generate methane. ‘THIS IS THE ULTIMATE RECYCLING’ Deborah and Todd Ballance started hog farming in 1990, first as contract growers. When Coharie Hog Farm folded in 2009, the Ballances bought the pigs on their farm and went independent. “Since the farm was built by my husband’s grandfather our family has always strived to look to the future in order to do what is best for our family, our animals, our community, and our environment,” Deborah Ballance wrote in an email to The News & Observer. “We believe strongly in being sustainable and that is why we covered our lagoon and captured the methane for electricity.” The N.C. Pork Report, a N.C. Pork Council trade publication, profiled the Ballance family in 2017, shortly after then-U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue named Deborah Ballance to the National Pork Board. The story says Deborah and Todd met in first grade and farm land passed down by Todd’s grandfather. It also discusses the possibilities their efforts to turn manure into energy offer. Deborah Ballance told the Pork Report, “I think we basically reinvent ourselves every three years. You need to keep your ear to the ground and see what you need to be doing next or thinking about next, and that’s what we try to do.” The Ballance family had long been exploring how to generate revenue from hog waste, according to decades of permitting documents reviewed by The News & Observer. In 1997, White Oak Farms sought and received a permit for a two-lagoon system that it said would help lower nitrogen levels before the waste was sprayed over nearby fields. The farm planned to keep hog manure from reaching the lagoon and spread it on a field. Evaluations were underway, the permit said, of compacting solid waste and using it as animal feed. A 1997 application said, “White Oak Farms is very confident that the waste will become suitable animal feed. When it is converted to animal feed it will no longer be land applied.” In 2002, the farm said the manure capture system hadn’t worked as advertised and the equipment used to move liquid between lagoons had proven noisy and expensive to operate. At that point, the farm was permitted to have 5,500 sows. They wanted more hogs, but were limited by a moratorium on new or expanded hog operations the N.C. General Assembly made permanent in 2007 — a moratorium rooted in The News & Observer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Boss Hog” series that showed how a lack of regulation around the industry was leading to environmental threats near some farms. Another 2007 bill offered a solution. The Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard supported renewable energy in North Carolina. It also required that 0.2% of the state’s energy come from swine waste by 2018. In 2013, White Oaks Farms asked DEQ: Could it add 60,000 hogs as long as it added an anaerobic digester, controlling odor, groundwater contamination and other environmental impacts? “Despite a moratorium in place in North Carolina on new hog farm construction, we found the ideal way to expand with finishing floors. We could build a methane digester and sell power to the power company,” the Ballance family wrote in a 2017 USDA loan application. Electricity generated by White Oak Farms could power about 3,000 homes on Duke Energy’s grid, according to the application. “We will take our hog waste and mortality and use it as fuel! This is the ultimate recycling,” the Ballances wrote. DEQ approved the permit in October 2013. In later permits, the regulatory agency would require the Ballances to expand in phases, starting with 15,000 hogs Hildebrand questions DEQ’s approval, pointing to a rule that any waste management system for a new or expanded hog farm must have a synthetic liner preventing contaminants from seeping into soil or groundwater. The permit approved by DEQ in 2013 and again in 2017 says the 8.75-million gallon anaerobic digester is “earthen-lined.” “It’s a very prescriptive standard,” Hildebrand said. “These performance standards aren’t vague.” The digester started operating in April 2019. Randy Wheeless, a Duke Energy spokesman, said the utility has bought power from White Oak Farms since 2019. Over that period, it has averaged enough electricity to power about 400 homes. Energy generated by hog waste, Wheeless said, is more expensive than energy from solar farms or natural gas. Wheeless said, “It’s a premium product because there’s just not that many facilities in a position to do that, and you still have a law in place in the state that says utilities shall buy or secure that type of power.” CHANGING SOURCES In 2020, DEQ approved an updated permit limiting what could go into the digester each day. The farm could add swine waste, up to 20,000 pounds of food waste like hot dogs or deli meat from Smithfield’s Kinston plant, and 210,000 pounds of dead pigs. With that approval, the farm started adding the dead pigs in July 2020. They later reported the pigs caused significantly higher methane production. Around the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic was impacting the farm’s operation. Despite having permission to add as many as 15,000 hogs, the farm instead found itself operating with 100 sows at most. That impacted the digester, too. In a year-end report, the Ballances wrote, “With swine production and processing decreasing industrywide, the facility has experienced a temporary change from a manure dominated digester feed source to primarily a food waste and mortality source.” In other words, the farm was putting more dead pigs and cast-off meat into the digester than hog waste, despite its permit explicitly stating that manure should be the main additive. The trend continued throughout 2021, with the number of hogs dwindling from 81 to 50. Still, the digester was operating well on mostly dead pigs and unwanted meat. In 2021’s year-end report, the Ballance family wrote, “From an energy production standpoint, the facility experienced its best period to date.” The farm submitted that report on Jan. 31, 2022. Three days later, the DEQ inspector found signs of the digester’s unreported spill. During a February inspection, a N.C. Department of Environmental Quality inspector found signs that a discharge of foam from an anaerobic digester on White Oak Farms had not been reported. Those signs included foam on top of the digester. N.C. Department of Environmental Quality THE SPILL The bubble burst in the middle of the night. White Oak Farms’ digester ruptured around 3 a.m. on May 30, according to a press release the farm sent to local newspapers. Later, the farm would write that “an unexpectedly severe digester foaming event” started with a fissure on the northern face of the black plastic covering. That’s also where the DEQ inspector identified the previous, unreported spill during her February inspection. A “thick foam” made of hog matter, liquid and gases gurgled out of the digester. According to the farm’s accounts, the foam ran across a field and reached a forest that contains wetlands. The farm maintains none of the foam reached Nahunta Swamp on its southern boundary. DEQ staff conducted several inspections over the ensuing weeks. On June 3, they saw foam on nearby surface water, possibly including Nahunta Swamp. That foam was cleaned up when staff returned on June 7. The spill was still active on June 23, according to a notice of violation DEQ issued in July. That notice said DEQ staff had detected “objectionable” odors and air quality and saw foam coming out of concrete structures on the digester’s western edge. The covering on a Wayne County lagoon broke open in late May, sending more than four swimming pools’ of foam across White Oak Farms in Fremont. The damaged anaerobic digester is shown here on August 3. Samantha Krop Sound Rivers What caused the spill is not immediately clear, and the Ballance family did not directly answer an emailed question about why the digester failed. But an N.C. State professor who studies anaerobic digesters said the dead hogs and cast-off meat could have played a role. Adding materials containing fat, oil and grease to anaerobic digesters can significantly heighten biogas production, Mahmoud Sharara wrote in an email to The News & Observer. But at the same time, long chain fatty acids within the so-called FOG material can cause a layer of foam and crust to develop on top of the slurry. Sharara, an agricultural and biological engineering professor, does not have first-hand knowledge of the White Oak Farms facility. It is possible, Sharara added, that the higher levels of gas could have been incompatible with existing infrastructure like the generator or motor that processed the gas. Pressure could have built up underneath the cover, he wrote, ultimately causing the rupture and allowing the foam to spill out. In response to The News & Observer, the Ballance family wrote, “As soon as our cover tore and leaked foam, we called the Department of Environmental Quality and began immediate cleanup. We have repaired our cover and complied with every requirement and suggestion made by DEQ. We will continue to consult with our engineer and scientific consultants to perfect our unique operation.” As of June 13, there were no hogs on White Oak Farms. LINGERING QUESTIONS After learning of the spill via Krop’s flight, riverkeepers dug into the permit record. They were alarmed that they hadn’t heard of the spill before and that the public notice requirements allowed White Oak Farms to report the spill without specific details. “There was no reference to what was in the wastewater foam, there was no acknowledgment that it was swine waste or dead hogs or food waste product,” Howell said. “It’s like a bare, bare bones public notice.” North Carolina laws require any facility that spills more than 15,000 gallons of animal waste into the state’s surface waters or wetlands to issue a press release in both the county where the spill happened and the county immediately downstream. That press release needs to say where and when the spill happened, how much waste was discharged, how long the spill went on and what the facility is doing to prevent further spills. Hildebrand, of the Southern Environmental Law Center, said White Oak Farms followed the law, but that the law or DEQ should require information about a spill to be spread futher than a public notice in a local newspaper’s classified section. “Especially in this day and age. I think the law could be better, the requirements could and should be better around public notification,” Hildebrand said, adding that DEQ is able to issue public notification itself or require operators that have spills to issue more widespread notification. Advocates also wonder whether DEQ can adequately regulate digesters, particularly considering Dominion Energy and Smithfield’s joint $500 million Align RNG initiative that is already forging ahead in Duplin and Sampson counties. With more digesters appearing likely to come online in the coming years, Howell and other advocates are concerned that DEQ field staff have not been specifically trained to inspect them. Gurney, the DEQ spokesman, said the Division of Water Resources “will conduct additional training for regional inspectors as needed as facilities are covered by the Digester General Permit.” The department’s field staff noted violations at White Oak Farms and issued notices of violation, including the one in February, but Howell argues that wasn’t enough to convince the farm to correct the problems. “DEQ’s enforcement was insufficient in all of this,” Howell said. On July 5, DEQ issued another notice of violation against White Oak Farms. The department said the Ballance family’s improper operation of the digester had resulted in the spill and impacts on nearby surface waters and wetlands. The state agency said the farm had failed to update its permit to account for operating without hogs for months and had on multiple occasions accepted more than 20,000 pounds of food waste on a given day, exceeding the amounts allowed in its permit. It noted that ammonia levels in wells between the digester and Nahunta Swamp were more than 12 times higher than the allowable concentration. In response to DEQ, the Ballance family said they stopped adding new material to the digester “at least three weeks” before the spill happened. The Ballance family also mentioned its plans to build another digester. Ideally, they wrote, the manure and meat products that had spilled from the old digester could be pumped into the new one to “seed the digestion process.” The new digester would have a synthetic liner to protect groundwater, as well as a berm on its southern side to contain any future spills. Read the article at News & Observer


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  • NC hog farm buyout failure leaves vulnerable communities at risk

    By: Makaelah Walters, Facing South July 21, 2022 Back in May, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) called on the Republican-controlled state legislature to include $18 million in the new state budget to fund the state’s Swine Floodplain Buyout Program. Created in 1999 in response to devastating floods from Hurricane Floyd that sent enormous amounts of hog farm pollution into communities and waterways, the program buys out owners of farms in low-lying areas prone to flooding. But the budget passed by the legislature — and signed into law by Cooper on July 1 — does not include funding for the program. "This is one of many examples of this industry wielding political power at the legislature," said Brooks Pearson, legislative counsel at the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) in Chapel Hill. The nonprofit law firm has long fought to protect communities from hog farm pollution. The hog industry has been a mighty political force in North Carolina for decades now. Since 2000, hog farmers and other meat industry interests have contributed more than $5.6 million to North Carolina state candidates, as Vox recently reported. In addition, several legislators themselves are farmers who champion the industry’s interests. The buyout program's funds have also been used to close hog farms' notoriously smelly "lagoons" — massive, open pits used store animal waste, including feces, urine, and blood. When lagoons get full, the contents are typically sprayed onto nearby fields, risking runoff into waterways while making life miserable for nearby residents. And while the lagoons pose a particular risk during hurricane season, they can overflow at any time due to lack of maintenance coupled with weak regulatory oversight. In December 2020, for example, a lagoon failure at DC Mills Farm in Eastern North Carolina’s Jones County spilled 1 million gallons of hog waste into a tributary of the Trent River. The farm raised pigs for Smithfield Foods, a Virginia-based food-processing company that's owned by the Chinese conglomerate WH Group. The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) had previously cited DC Mills Farm twice for lagoons being over capacity. "It's not necessarily a matter of if there will be another devastating hurricane in Eastern North Carolina," Pamlico-Tar Riverkeeper Jill Howell told Facing South. "We see climate change manifesting in smaller ways. When three or four inches of rain is dumped all at once — and that's not an event here in Eastern North Carolina, it happens all the time — it causes serious localized flooding." For a time, environmental advocates were encouraged by farmers’ interest in the Swine Floodplain Buyout. In all, the state has spent nearly $19 million to halt operations on 43 swine farms. But in 2007 — the same year the legislature made its 1997 moratorium on swine farms permanent — it stopped funding the program. More than 100 farmers who applied were sent away empty-handed. "There are very few things that environmental advocates and operators at CAFOs agree on, but it feels like a swine buyout may be one of them," Howell said. Though the state's hog farms remained under scrutiny after a series of hurricanes and lagoon breaches, the buyout program did not resume until 2018, when Hurricane Florence sent animal waste from 46 lagoons flowing into communities and waterways. Twenty-three farmers applied for the last round of buyout funding, but there was only enough money to close three to five facilities, according to the state Soil and Water Conservation Division. The number of farmers volunteering for the program consistently outpaced the funding, leaving the communities most impacted by the industry vulnerable to disaster. "Every time this program gets funded, there are more applications than there is money to cover it," Pearson said. "The wall we typically hit is Steve Troxler." Troxler, North Carolina’s elected Republican agriculture commissioner, campaigned on making agriculture a $100 billion industry in the state. At the same time, his campaign is heavily supported by agricultural interests, with the North Carolina Pork Council and Smithfield Foods among his top donors, according to FollowTheMoney.org. Given current political realities, Pearson thinks any policy proposal that reduces the number of hogs in North Carolina likely isn’t going to fly. The entire legislature is up for election this year, but it will be elected using GOP-drawn maps favorable to the GOP. For Republicans to retake the supermajority and override Cooper's veto, they need to gain three seats in the state House and two in the Senate. Meanwhile, new pressure is building to keep hog waste lagoons in operation thanks to the state’s energy companies. In 2020, Smithfield Foods and Virginia-based Dominion Energy proposed the largest swine waste-to-energy project in North Carolina. The $500 million project would involve capping waste lagoons to collect methane gas, which would then be processed and transported via pipeline and sold to Piedmont Natural Gas. "It's the poster child for greenwashing," said Blakely Hildebrand, a senior attorney with SELC. "Industry is holding up biogas as this silver bullet to the climate crisis for the agricultural industry. And it is far far from that." As powerful industries team up to continue polluting, the resulting pain is disproportionately borne by residents of North Carolina’s environmental justice communities. A growing body of public health research shows that people who live closer to industrial animal operations get sick more often, stay sick longer, and die more often than people who live further away. And census data shows between a quarter to a third of residents of the state’s major pork-producing counties are Black and around a quarter of are Latinx. In Robeson County, home to both hog and poultry farms, nearly 42% of residents are Native American and 23% are Black. Despite the environmental health risks, the DEQ issued permits to four farms to begin biogas operations at the beginning of this year — a move that many advocates saw as environmental racism. "There’s lots of talk about how covering lagoons will be good for odors and for flooding related things," said Howell. "But what nobody talks about is how building out natural gas infrastructure does nothing to reduce the number of open air lagoons in Eastern North Carolina." Read the article on Facing South


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  • Experts to Congress: Restore EPA enforcement staffing and funding for environmental justice

    By: Julia Kane, Grist July 22, 2022 For the past three years, the Valero Houston Refinery hasn’t gone a single quarter without committing a significant violation of the Clean Air Act. Year after year, as toxic air pollution has wafted through Manchester — a predominantly Hispanic, low-income neighborhood across the street — the facility has racked up a long list of violation notices from state regulators, but that’s done little to actually stop the onslaught. “We always voice concerns about non-enforcement,” said Juan Parras, executive director of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, who has advocated for Manchester and other communities along the Houston Ship Channel for more than 20 years. “Even when there is enforcement, the penalty is so ridiculously low that it doesn’t pressure the industry to clean up,” he said. To Parras, this is unconscionable. “We ought to be showing communities that are impacted like we are — throughout the nation — that the law is going to back them up,” he said. A mural in the park next to the Valero Houston Refinery shows Manchester, a neighborhood inundated by industrial pollution. Environmental Protection Agency The Valero Houston Refinery is just one of 485 facilities across the country with “high priority violations” of the Clean Air Act that have been left unaddressed through formal enforcement actions. Those violations could include operating without a permit or not using the best available technology to control emissions, among other infractions. At the federal level, EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance is responsible for enforcing environmental laws. The division runs programs to assist companies with compliance, carries out investigations into suspected violations, issues penalties, and refers the more severe violations to the Department of Justice for prosecution. But for the past decade, Congress has steadily chipped away at the enforcement division’s funding and staffing levels. Since 2011, enforcement funding has fallen by nearly 30 percent once adjusted for inflation. The division currently has 713 fewer staffers than it did back then — a decrease of about 28 percent. As a result, the number of inspections, investigations, and civil and criminal cases the division initiates each year has plummeted, too. There’s a backlog of violations that the EPA hasn’t taken enforcement action on, and there are likely many more that the agency doesn’t even know about because investigators aren’t examining the data companies report or getting out into the field as often. Grist / Chad Small That has real-world consequences for neighborhoods inundated with industrial pollution, which tend to be communities of color or low-income communities. When it comes to enforcing the law, “if our state’s not going to do it and our EPA can’t because they don’t have the capacity, then now there’s nobody left, right? There’s nobody who can hold polluters accountable,” said Jennifer Hadayia, executive director of the environmental justice non-profit Air Alliance Houston. Environmental justice advocates hope Congress will soon reverse course and begin building the enforcement division back up. Last week Air Alliance Houston and 26 other environmental groups from across the country urged lawmakers to fund the EPA’s enforcement efforts at the levels proposed in the Biden administration’s budget. Any day now, the House of Representatives is expected to vote on a spending bill outlining funding for the agency through the next fiscal year. Since his first day in office, President Biden has pledged to make environmental justice a cornerstone of his policy agenda. In May, EPA Administrator Michael Regan and Attorney General Merrick Garland unveiled a new enforcement strategy outlining how their agencies would work together to help fulfill that pledge and pursue environmental justice. “Communities of color, Indigenous communities, and low-income communities often bear the brunt of the harm caused by environmental crime, pollution, and climate change,” Garland said during a press conference. “We will prioritize the cases that will have the greatest impact on the communities most overburdened by environmental harm.” Grist / Chad Small But it isn’t enough to just better prioritize cases, says Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project and a former director of the EPA’s Office of Civil Enforcement. “Many if not most EPA enforcement actions are already brought against polluters surrounded by lower-income neighborhoods or communities of color, since that’s where the biggest polluters are concentrated,” Schaeffer said. “The problem is that there aren’t nearly enough of them, they take longer than they should, and they sometimes aren’t significant enough to make a long-term difference.” “That won’t be solved by continually refining targeting strategies for an ever-shrinking number of cases,” he said. Instead, the enforcement division needs to conduct more investigations and bring more cases when they find violations. And to do that, they need adequate funding and staff. The Biden administration’s proposed budget allocates over $630 million for enforcement — an 11 percent increase from last year when adjusted for inflation, but still significantly less than in 2011, when enforcement expenditures were nearly $730 million. Biden also wants to boost the division’s staff by more than 130 — which would still leave the division about 600 shy of the nearly 3,300 employees it had a decade ago. “It’s a start,” said Schaeffer. He’d like to see a bigger investment, but “we live in the real world, and we’ve got a fifty-fifty Senate,” he said. Once the House passes legislation to fund the EPA, they will still have to iron out any differences between their version and the Senate’s version, which lawmakers say they’ll release before the end of the month. Then both chambers will need to pass the final version of the bill, which likely won’t happen until after the election in November. “The administration is trying to reorient its focus, but it needs the tools to do that,” said Tim Whitehouse, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and a former senior attorney for EPA’s enforcement division. “It needs the enforcement officers, it needs the inspectors, it needs the attorneys to make sure that there is environmental justice in this country.” But building the division back up won’t be easy. “Just on a human level, you know, it takes time,” Whitehouse said. “These are very complicated laws and regulations. And so EPA needs to make sure it has the best available people and the proper expertise to see these enforcement cases through from beginning to end.” For more than a decade, conservatives who see the EPA’s enforcement efforts as overreach have successfully whittled away funding and staffing for the enforcement division. That came to a head under the Trump administration. In 2017, the Washington Post wrote that former President Trump was planning “to take a sledgehammer” to the agency, attempting to cut enforcement funding by 60 percent. Whitehouse thinks it will take several years of sustained funding to get the enforcement division back to a place where it can adequately enforce the country’s environmental laws. “It’s pretty easy to break something,” he said. “It’s really hard to put it back together. Read the article on Grist


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  • Chemours says it will offer alternative water to more GenX-affected households, but is vague about future

    By: Lisa Sorg, NC Policy Watch July 15, 2022 Chemours told the NC Department of Environmental Quality this week that it would offer replacement water supplies to more North Carolinians whose wells are contaminated with GenX, but was vague as to whether it would continue to do so if the company wins a federal court case. In a July 13 letter from Chemours plant manager Dawn Hughes to DEQ, she wrote that the company “reserves its rights to take appropriate actions …  based upon the results of the pending federal litigation, including in the event EPA’s Final Advisory is found to be invalid.” Chemours, which operates its Fayetteville Works plant near the Cumberland/Bladen county line, is responsible for contaminating public and private drinking water supplies in the Lower Cape Fear River Basin with GenX. An estimated 800,000 people who live in the basin have been affected. Exposure to GenX has been linked to myriad health problems: including reproductive problems, low birth weight, high cholesterol and several types of cancers. The new EPA toxicity assessment said the liver “is particularly sensitive” to the effects of GenX. As part of a 2019 consent order between DEQ, the company and Cape Fear River Watch, Chemours must offer alternative water supplies to private well owners whose water tests either  greater than 140 parts per trillion — the state’s health advisory goal at the time — or above EPA thresholds, even if they change. Last month, the EPA sharply reduced its goal to 10 ppt; it was originally 70 ppt. Chemours has challenged the EPA’s scientific basis for the new goal in a petition to a federal court. A health advisory goal is not legally enforceable, but it is among the steps toward a national drinking water standard, which is law. Nonetheless, the more stringent threshold legally forces Chemours to offer alternative water to more than 1,500 private well  owners in North Carolina whose drinking water contains levels of GenX between 10 ppt and 140 ppt. In her remarks to the Environmental Management Commission yesterday, Assistant Secretary for the Environment Sushma Masemore said 1,545 well owners could be eligible, based on Chemours estimates. That number has since been updated to 1,697 residences or other properties in Cumberland, Bladen, and Robeson counties. Policy Watch reported yesterday that the cost of installing, operating and maintaining these replacement water systems could cost Chemours $200 million, based on the maximum amount per customer, as laid out in the consent order. Regardless of the federal court’s decision, which could be months away, Assistant Secretary Masemore reiterated to Chemours that it must immediately begin complying with the updated health advisory goals. In a letter dated July 14, Masemore responded to Chemours: .. the Department wishes to make clear its position that the Consent Order is unequivocal in requiring Chemours to provide replacement drinking water supplies in the form of public water or whole building filtration systems to parties with private drinking water wells impacted by EPA’s new health advisory, which is now in effect and applicable. This requirement is of real and immediate importance to parties whose wells have been contaminated by pollution from the Fayetteville Works Facility. Affected parties must be assured that the replacement drinking water supply provisions in the Consent Order will be fully and timely implemented.” Chemours itemized to DEQ the status of replacement systems. This does not include households downstream, such as in New Hanover and Brunswick counties, who are connected to public systems. 885 have reverse osmosis systems that were installed by Chemours and are operating; 124 already have public water connections, including 84 that were connected by Chemours to public water systems, and are receiving public water; 108 are under consideration for public water connections and in the interim are receiving bottled water or have reverse osmosis systems already installed; 3 have had new deeper wells constructed by Chemours, producing water tested to have below 10 ppt for HFPO-DA; 5 (all non-residential properties) have granulated activated carbon (“GAC”) systems that were installed by Chemours and are operating; 4 of the wells are no longer in use; 519 have not accepted Chemours’s offer for reverse osmosis systems and are receiving bottled water deliveries or vouchers; and 49 have declined Chemours’s offer for reverse osmosis systems, and are not currently receiving replacement drinking water. There are an additional seven wells in New Hanover County whose owners have been provided with bottled water deliveries or vouchers. DEQ is hosting a public meeting on Tuesday, July 26 about the impacts of the new EPA goals on private well owners. The meeting will be held at the Crown Theatre, 1960 Coliseum Drive in Fayetteville, at 6 p.m. Read the article on NC Policy Watch


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  • EPA warns toxic ‘forever chemicals’ more dangerous than once thought

    By: Gino Grandoni, The Washington Post June 15, 2022 The Environmental Protection Agency warned Wednesday that a group of human-made chemicals found in the drinking water, cosmetics and food packaging used by millions of Americans poses a greater danger to human health than regulators previously thought. The new health advisories for a ubiquitous class of compounds known as polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, underscore the risk facing dozens of communities across the country. Linked to infertility, thyroid problems and several types of cancer, these “forever chemicals” can persist in the environment for years without breaking down. “People on the front-lines of PFAS contamination have suffered for far too long,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement. “That’s why EPA is taking aggressive action.” The guidance aims to prompt local officials to install water filters or at least notify residents of contamination. But for now, the federal government does not regulate the chemicals. Health advocates have called on the Biden administration to act more quickly to address what officials from both parties describe as a contamination crisis that has touched every state. “Today’s announcement should set off alarm bells for consumers and regulators,” said Melanie Benesh, legislative attorney at the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization. “These proposed advisory levels demonstrate that we must move much faster to dramatically reduce exposures to these toxic chemicals.” Since the 1940s, chemical makers have used the highly durable compounds to make nonstick cookware, moisture-repellent fabrics and flame-retardant equipment. But that same toughness against water and fire, which made the chemicals profitable, allowed them to accumulate in nature and build up in the body — with long-term health effects. The sun sets behind the control tower of the former Loring Air Force Base on July 18, 2020, in Limestone, Maine, where the Air Force plans to test for contamination by “forever chemicals.” (David Sharp/AP) Agency officials assessed two of the most common ones, known as PFOA and PFOS, in recent human health studies and announced Wednesday that lifetime exposure at staggeringly low levels of 0.004 and 0.02 parts per trillion, respectively, can compromise the immune and cardiovascular systems and are linked to decreased birth weights. Those drinking-water concentrations represent “really sharp reductions” from previous health advisories set at 70 parts per trillion in 2016, said Erik Olson, a senior strategic director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group. The announcement, he added, sends “an important signal to get this stuff out of our drinking water.” More significantly, the EPA is preparing to propose mandatory standards for the two chemicals this fall. Once finalized, water utilities will face penalties if they neglect to meet them. The advisories will remain in place until the rule comes out. The EPA also said Wednesday that it is offering $1 billion in grants to states and tribes through the bipartisan infrastructure law to address drinking-water contamination. The advisories’ levels are so low that they are difficult to detect with today’s technology. Some lawmakers, including Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), the top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement that this meant the new guidance is impractical. “EPA’s announcement will only increase confusion for water systems’ compliance efforts and further complicate risk communication to the public,” she said. The American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry’s main trade group, said in a statement that it supports developing enforceable standards for these long-lasting compounds. But it faulted the EPA for issuing the advisories before outside experts on the agency’s Science Advisory Board had finished reviewing the underlying research, suggesting the process is “fundamentally flawed.” “Rather than wait for the outcome of this peer review, EPA has announced new Advisories that are 3,000 to 17,000 times lower than those released by the Obama Administration in 2016,” it said. Already in the United States, manufacturers have largely replaced PFOA and PFOS with other fluorinated compounds. The EPA determined that two of those alternatives — dubbed GenX and PFBS — also are dangerous to ingest even at relatively low levels, according to a review of recent research on mice. Among the communities hit hardest with contamination are those near military bases, where PFAS-laden foams were used for decades to fight jet-fuel fires. Many residents in Oscoda, Mich., for instance, have heeded warnings from state health officials and stopped drinking untreated well water and eating deer hunted near the now-shuttered Wurtsmith Air Force Base. “There still is no plan in place for the cleanup,” said Anthony Spaniola, an attorney and co-chair of the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network whose family has a lakeside home in Oscoda. “The Department of Defense, quite frankly, has mismanaged this site, bordering on reckless.” Spaniola hopes the new health advisories mean the military will “change the scope of what they need to clean up.” In North Carolina, Emily Donovan’s family of four started carrying around bottled water and installed a filter under their sink after PFAS were discovered in and around Cape Fear River. Instead of asking parents to donate cookies and cupcakes, schools request bottles of water for dances and other events. “It’s a layer of stress that we all live with now,” said Donovan, now an activist who co-founded Clean Cape Fear and is on the leadership team of the National PFAS Contamination Coalition. “You’re constantly wondering,” she added, “is there something inside of me? Is there something inside of my children?” Regan, who served as North Carolina’s top environmental official before joining the EPA, ordered the chemical company Chemours to stop the compounds from trickling into the river. On Wednesday, the company took issue with the analysis the EPA used to craft its latest guidance. “We are already using state-of-the-art technologies at our sites to abate emissions and remediate historical releases,” Chemours said in a statement. “We are evaluating our next steps, including potential legal action, to address the EPA’s scientifically unsound action.” While the agency is planning to regulate two PFAS, thousands of distinct compounds have been discovered. Many health advocates say federal regulators need to crack down on the compounds as a group. “We can’t continue this whack-a-mole approach to regulating them,” Olson said. “We’ll never be finished in anyone’s lifetime.” Radhika Fox, who heads the Office of Water at the EPA, said the agency is considering more sweeping regulations of the class of compounds. “We are exploring options to propose a rule that is for groups, not just PFOA and PFOS,” she told reporters Tuesday in a Zoom call. Read the article on The Washington Post


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  • Climate-driven flooding poses well water contamination risks

    By: Michael Phillis and John Flesher, Associated Press June 08, 2022 ST. LOUIS -- After a record-setting Midwestern rainstorm that damaged thousands of homes and businesses, Stefanie Johnson’s farmhouse in Blandinsville, Illinois, didn’t have safe drinking water for nearly two months. Flood water poured into her well, turning the water a muddy brown and forcing Johnson, her husband and their two young children to use store-bought supplies. Even after sediment cleared, testing found bacteria — including E. coli, which can cause diarrhea. The family boiled water for drinking and cooking. The YMCA was a refuge for showers. “I was pretty strict with the kids,” said Johnson, who works with a private well protection program at the local health department. “I’d pour bottled water on their toothbrushes.” Though estimates vary, roughly 53 million U.S. residents — about 17% of the population — rely on private wells, according to a study conducted in part by Environmental Protection Agency researchers. Most live in rural areas. But others are in subdivisions near fast-growing metro regions or otherwise beyond the reach of public water pipes. While many private wells provide safe water, the absence of regulation and treatment afforded by larger municipal systems may expose some users to health risks, from bacteria and viruses to chemicals and lead, studies have found. Risks are elevated after flooding or heavy rainfall, when animal and human feces, dirt, nutrients such as nitrogen and other contaminants can seep into wells. And experts say the threat is growing as the warming climate fuels more intense rainstorms and stronger and wetter hurricanes. “Areas that hadn't been impacted are now. New areas are getting flooded,” said Kelsey Pieper, a Northeastern University professor of environmental engineering. “We know the environment is shifting and we're playing catch-up, trying to increase awareness.” Pieper is among scientists conducting well testing and education programs in storm-prone areas. After Hurricane Harvey caused widespread flooding along the Texas coast in 2017, sampling of more than 8,800 wells in 44 counties found average E. coli levels nearly three times higher than normal, she said. Sampling of 108 wells in Mississippi following Hurricane Ida in 2021 produced a similar bump in E. coli readings. Other studies turned up higher levels in North Carolina after Hurricane Florence in 2018. The following year, above-average snowfall and a March storm unleashed flooding in Nebraska. Levees and dams were breached. Fremont, a city of more than 25,000, turned into an island when the nearby Platte and Elkhorn rivers overflowed. The municipal system continued to supply drinking water but some nearby private wells were damaged or contaminated. Julie Hindmarsh's farm was flooded for three days, and it took months to make the well water drinkable again. At times, the cleanup crew wore protective suits. “They didn’t know what was in that floodwater,” she said. CONTAMINATION RISK Groundwater is often a cleaner source than surface supplies because soil can provide a protective buffer, said Heather Murphy, an epidemiologist at the University of Guelph in Canada. But she said that can give well owners a false sense of security, leading them to forgo testing, maintenance and treatment. “There's a big misconception that it's underground, therefore it's safe,” said Murphy, who estimates 1.3 million cases of acute gastrointestinal illness in the U.S. are caused annually by drinking untreated water from private wells. Old, poorly maintained wells are especially vulnerable to floodwaters entering through openings at the top. “It just runs right in and it’s full of bacteria,” said Steven Wilson, a well expert at the University of Illinois. It doesn’t always take a flood or hurricane to pollute wells. Industrial contamination can reach them by seeping into groundwater. Around 1,000 residential wells in Michigan’s Kent County were tainted for decades with toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in landfill sludge from footwear company Wolverine World Wide. The pollution, discovered in 2017, spurred lawsuits and a $69.5 million settlement with the state that extended city water lines to affected houses. “We thought we were getting this pristine, straight-from-nature water and it would be much better for us,” said Sandy Wynn-Stelt, who has lived across from one of the dump sites since the early 1990s. She said tests detected high levels of PFAS chemicals in her water and blood, leaving her fearful to drink or even brush her teeth with well water. In a suit later settled, she blamed the contamination for her husband’s 2016 death from liver cancer. She was diagnosed with thyroid cancer four years later. LITTLE REGULATION FOR WELL OWNERS While many well owners don’t have the option of hooking up to a public water system, others are happy with well water. They might favor the taste or want to avoid monthly bills and government regulation. “What I hear from people is freedom,” said Jesse Campbell, private well coordinator for the Midwest Assistance Program Inc., which addresses rural water needs. Private well owners are responsible for them. While public water systems must meet federal safety standards, those rules don’t apply to wells that have fewer than 15 connections or serve fewer than 25 people. State and local standards usually involve only construction and design, although some states set tougher rules. New Jersey requires water quality testing before sales of property with private wells. Rhode Island requires testing when new wells are built and when property with a well is sold. But many states rely on public outreach and voluntary action to protect private well users. “There’s an overall lack of education,” Campbell said. He meets with well owners from Montana to Missouri, providing free inspections and advice. A lot of harm can be prevented if owners make sure the well's top keeps out debris and that the pump is turned off before a storm to keep out floodwaters. Experts recommend testing after a flood and decontaminating wells with chlorine if a problem is found. “People aren’t regularly testing,” said Riley Mulhern, an environmental engineer at the research group RTI International. Indiana’s health department offers testing for bacteria, lead, copper, fluoride and other contaminants. Some land-grant universities and private labs provide similar services. While many owners know how to maintain their wells, others ignore problems even if the water isn’t sanitary. Water that tastes fine can still be contaminated. “I wish I had a nickel for everyone who's walked into a workshop and said, ‘I’ve been drinking this water forever and it's fine,'” said Jason Barrett, who directs a Mississippi State University program that educates well owners. It provides free testing. But where such assistance isn't available, costs can run to a few hundred dollars, according to experts. Some owners avoid testing because they are concerned it will reveal an expensive problem. Johnson, the Illinois resident whose well was fouled by the 2013 downpour that killed four people and caused $465 million in flood damage, paid about $3,500 for repairs and upgrades. “Luckily, none of us became ill,” she said. Even ordinary rainstorms can carry diseases into groundwater, said Mark Borchardt, a microbiologist formerly with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “A lot of times people say, ‘Well, no one got sick,'” Borchardt said. “It's hard to see when people get sick unless it is a huge outbreak." Bea and Neil Jobe live in Primm Springs, Tennessee, an hour’s drive from Nashville. Several times a year, when there is heavy rain and a nearby creek floods, their well water turns “dingy," Bea Jobe said. The discoloration disappears after a few days but Jobe takes precautions such as keeping bottled water available. “I guess I’m used to it,” she said. Read the article on ABC


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  • The Lithium War Next Door

    By: Alexander C. Kaufman, The Huffington Post May 22, 2022 This story was published in collaboration with The Assembly, a digital magazine about the people, institutions and ideas that shape North Carolina. GASTON COUNTY, North Carolina — Brian Harper opened the door to his back porch, stepped outside, and inhaled the brisk air. Exhaling, he stretched his arms out wide as if to embrace the bucolic scene before him. Moments like this were sacred — and, he feared, fleeting. On that late afternoon in early January, the sun cast a golden tint over the brown frost-nipped fields behind the Harper family’s stately brick home. Just a few hundred feet away was the red barn containing his workshop, where he makes precision gears for clients like Duracell, Dart Container Corp. and Nestlé. Harper, 54, wanted to catch the last bit of light on his quiet stretch of farmland about 45 minutes northwest of Charlotte. He crunched onto his icy lawn and cut a diagonal path across his neatly mowed 12 acres. Past the neighboring home where his sister-in-law and her family live and down a gentle slope, he came to a stop on the squishy banks of a brook. He crouched down and pointed to a small mound of mud — a crayfish burrow. Before long, Harper said, a herd of deer would make its nightly visit to drink and munch on greenery the recent cold snap hadn’t yet claimed. “This, to me, is paradise,” Harper said. “And all this, when they start mining, will disappear.” Brian Harper, a local business owner, walks between his home and his sister-in-law’s on their properties in Cherryville, North Carolina. BRIAN BLANCO FOR HUFFPOST Beneath these rolling hills lies what many investors now call “white gold.” And just beyond Harper’s tree line, the mining startup Piedmont Lithium wants to dig up to four 500-foot-deep pits to pull out the lithium reserves that once made Gaston County the world’s top source of the soft metal now used to make batteries for cellphones and electric vehicles. If permits and local zoning changes clear the way for the project, Piedmont could begin digging as early as next year, making this likely the first major new supply of American lithium since demand started surging over the past two years. The mine has become an unlikely microcosm of a clean-energy conflict starting to take center stage in the debate over how to avert catastrophic global warming. To preserve a planet with hospitable weather patterns resembling what we see today, the world needs to rapidly phase out oil, gas and coal. But quitting fossil fuels means dramatically increasing the supply of minerals such as lithium, nickel and cobalt that make it possible to do with electricity what today requires igniting liquid carbon. And in places from Chile to Serbia, Nevada to now North Carolina, the clashes erupting between mining companies and the people who live near resource deposits are increasingly known as “lithium wars” and could dictate how that transition happens. Lithium’s Tar Heel Foothold Few places in the U.S. better exemplify the demand for battery metals than the American South, where the power grid is especially dirty, the lack of public transit makes personal automobiles necessary, and labor laws that are unfavorable to unions have helped attract car factories. Last December, Toyota unveiled plans for a $1.3 billion battery plant in Greensboro, North Carolina. In March, Vietnamese electric-car maker VinFast announced it would build its first U.S. plant in North Carolina. This week, Hyundai confirmed Savannah, Georgia, as the site of its next big electric vehicle factory. The South Korean battery behemoth SK Innovation was already building its manufacturing hub in northern Georgia to supply lithium packs to the Tennessee factories building Ford’s electric F-150 and Volkswagen’s signature crossover models. Beneath the soybean fields, pine stands and trickling streams of this county is a uniquely pure vein of minerals containing the most valued type of lithium on the market today. The price of the metal overall surged nearly 500% between 2021 and 2022, with forecasts showing demand is set to increase fourfold by the end of the decade. Lithium hydroxide, the type of finished product Piedmont would sell, sold in mid-May for as much as $72,000 per metric ton — a 127% increase since the start of the year. Pines dot the landscape at a farm adjacent to the site of a proposed pit mine in Cherryville. BRIAN BLANCO FOR HUFFPOST But as the Biden administration and lawmakers from both parties push to ramp up domestic mining and processing in hopes of breaking China’s near-monopoly on the metal, local opposition is mounting. In Nevada, Native American tribes, ranchers and environmentalists complain that a big proposed lithium mine in the desert threatens to desecrate sacred land, deplete a drought-dried water table, and kill off rare plant species. In California, plans to extract lithium from the inland Salton Sea have stoked concerns over air pollution and toxic contaminants. Projects to mine copper, nickel and rare earth minerals — all critical ingredients to a post-fossil future — have faced similar complaints across Western states. With the roughly 3,200 acres of land it now controls, Piedmont vowed to make this county — which in the 1950s was the epicenter of global lithium production — the home of “the world’s most sustainable lithium project.” The company is spending millions on infrastructure and equipment that it said will set a new standard for reducing air pollution and noise from a mine of any kind. It has pledged to treat and recycle water, help neighbors whose water wells run dry as a result of the mining, and pay local employees salaries about 50% higher than the county average. “You couldn’t possibly design our project in a more environmentally friendly way — our team is smart, experienced and cognizant of what the rules are,” said Keith Phillips, 62, Piedmont’s chief executive and a former mining banker on Wall Street. “We think it’s the best lithium asset on the planet, and we think the community should be inordinately proud of it.” But that sales pitch is falling flat with many residents here, who fear the mine dooms a community with families who trace their roots back centuries. Unlike projects out West, which are largely located on sparsely populated tracts owned by the state or federal governments, Gaston County has more than 610 people per square mile — nearly seven times the average U.S. population density. There’s no municipal water supply, and the mine will draw millions of gallons from the same water table that replenishes local wells and streams. Residents here worry about pollution: Small-scale mining from decades ago left behind toxic waste. And in a county close to one of the nation’s fastest-growing financial capitals, property owners wince at how much value their land could lose if there’s a mine practically in their backyard. Signs like this one opposing Piedmont Lithium’s proposed pit mine mark the roadsides of Gaston County. BRIAN BLANCO FOR HUFFPOST Piedmont, by its own admission, has been slow to reach out to the community, many of whose members now see the company’s executives as opportunistic carpetbaggers. In a place where children bear surnames etched on gravestones older than the United States itself, many residents worry the horizon for any benefits from the project is short. If mining lasts only 30 years, as company statements have suggested, or alternative battery chemistries make lithium-ion packs obsolete, they fear their sacrifices will have only enriched Piedmont’s shareholders. Now a coalition of those neighbors wants to stop the project in its tracks. For months now, signs calling for Piedmont to leave have fluttered up and down the country roads that crisscross the county. Fearing state and federal mining rules are stacked in favor of permitting the project, these locals have focused on what they see as the most vulnerable chokepoint: persuading the Gaston County Board of Commissioners to reject Piedmont’s bid to rezone the area from agricultural to industrial use. At public hearings so far, these opponents of the mine outnumbered supporters. Both sides of the feud see it as an existential fight. If wells dry up, if contaminants make it less safe to live here, or if the wildlife and landscapes that define the area disappear, many lament the possibility of becoming the final generation of their families to call this place home. But others worry that if a state-of-the-art mine can’t move forward in a place with a history of lithium production at a time when political and market demand is this high, then the chances of seriously slashing fossil fuel use in the world’s largest economy look slim. “Right now, the battery plants that are there in the U.S. are dependent on imports,” said Caspar Rawles, an analyst at the British-based battery supply chain research firm Benchmark Mineral Intelligence. “Having a domestic, secure supply of lithium is critical. And obviously Piedmont is one of those projects.” The sun rises over the Appalachian Mountains near Mt. Pisgah, about two hours west of Gaston County. TERESA KOPEC VIA GETTY IMAGES Old Rocks, New Demand Long before there was a Gaston County or a United States — hundreds of millions of years ago — the tectonic plates beneath northern Africa and North America collided, forming the Appalachian Mountains. Molten magma oozed into cracks in the Earth’s crust and formed veins of igneous rock geologists call pegmatite containing a mineral named spodumene, the ore that is processed into lithium. The deposit, known as the Carolina Tin-Spodumene Belt, is one of the oldest and most economically important formations of its kind in North America. The belt is roughly 25 miles long, snaking northeast from the South Carolina border to Lincolnton, North Carolina. The thickest portion, barely 2 miles wide, is in Gaston County, where outcroppings of the yellowish, flaky mineral are abundant enough that you can pluck samples from boulders in the woods. It’s hard to tell from today’s quiet, rural landscape, but this area was the cradle of the lithium industry throughout the mid-20th century. Small mines along the belt supplied most of the world’s lithium, then primarily used for pharmaceuticals and, later, in nuclear weapons. Demand for the commodity grew quickly after World War II as industry and Cold War arms makers alike increased their appetites. Some mom-and-pop miners even dug trenches in their backyards and sold ore to the federal government. In 1939, the value of lithium mined in the U.S. came out to a little over $500,000 annually, according to inflation-adjusted data from a 1955 U.S. Geological Survey report. By 1953, that output was worth more than $21 million. The next two decades were the heyday of Gaston County’s lithium boom. And it was, quite literally, a boom. Back in the 1970s, when miners set off dynamite to break up rocks at the now-defunct Hallman-Beam lithium mine in Bessemer City, the windows would rattle in Dean Crocker’s home. “Those blasts could be heard for miles and miles,” said Crocker, now in his 80s, a cattle farmer whose family has lived in Gaston County for seven generations. At peak capacity, Piedmont could set off multiple explosions per day as it mines deeper into the ground. That might be an irritation for Crocker and others. But Harper, who runs Stine Gear & Machine Co. from his barn, said even a single routine blast would make it impossible for him to run his business, which relies on highly sensitive machines calibrated to carve precise grooves into metal cogs. The number of explosions will depend on where the miners are in the ore body, Phillips said, noting that local ordinances would bar Piedmont from blasting “when it’s dark, weekends or holidays.” He insisted the company has every incentive to blast as little as possible because it’s a difficult and time-consuming process. “Ideally you blast just enough so the team can move it from the processing area,” the chief executive said. “The fewer times you blast, the better off everybody is.” Harper said he met with Piedmont executives and told them it would cost about $250,000 to move all his equipment to a new location, and asked what they could offer him to help. The company never responded, he said. “That’s completely inaccurate,” Phillips said. “To be crystal clear: A man with a machine shop who needs a quarter-million dollars, do you think we’re going to let him stand in the way? If he needs a quarter-million dollars, we’ll find him a quarter-million dollars. That’s the world’s easiest answer. But we want to really understand it. We’re actually not convinced it’s true that anything we do will have any impact on what he’s doing.” The lithium industry’s legacy in the region is one of the stronger arguments in favor of starting a new chapter. After all, it never fully went away. In the 1980s, the Hallman-Beam and other mines closed down as lithium production shifted overseas, where more lax rules made it cheaper to extract. Australia became a top producer, particularly of lithium extracted via hard-rock mining. South America — Chile and Argentina, in particular — emerged as major sources of lithium produced by a process known as brining, where miners flood pools of water in the desert and collect the metals that remain after evaporation. Little by little, China came to dominate the supply chain: By 2020, it became a top-four supplier of raw materials, the No. 1 refiner of processed lithium, the No. 1 manufacturer of lithium batteries and components, and the No. 1 market demanding more lithium, according to a ranking from the energy consultancy BloombergNEF. In 2021, a newer version of BloombergNEF’s report that laid out its findings in slightly different categories ranked China No. 1 in battery raw materials, manufacturing and demand. The U.S., by contrast, ranked 15th in lithium production in 2020, despite coming in second for market demand, and came in 11th last year for raw materials. That the U.S. placed in the top 20 at all owes on some level to the legacy industry that remains here in North Carolina’s Piedmont region. Albemarle Corp., one of the largest lithium mining companies in the world, is still headquartered in Charlotte. In March, the firm began holding public meetings about restarting production at a shuttered lithium mine in Kings Mountain, just south of Gaston County. Livent Corp., the modern spinoff of the mining company that once owned the Hallman-Beam mine, still operates a lithium refining business in Bessemer City, where in 2019 it said it would spend $18 million to increase its output of the metal. A spokesman for Livent said the company stopped all hard-rock mining in North Carolina in 1996 and sold Hallman-Beam in 1998. Today the site is located next to a quarry owned by Martin Marietta Materials. A spokeswoman for the Raleigh-based building materials seller did not respond to multiple requests for comment. One scar the mine left behind was an artificial pond so polluted with arsenic that two neighbors separately relayed stories of watching birds land there only to die shortly afterward. Arsenic occurs naturally along the spodumene belt, and state regulators have long considered Gaston County a “hot spot” for contamination. Chronic exposure to arsenic causes diarrhea and stomach cramping in the short term and increases the risk of cancer over time. While I could not find any studies or reports that independently verified locals’ claims about avian deaths, federal studies have documented the deadly effect arsenic has on animals, and examples abound of migratory birds dying after landing in arsenic-contaminated ponds. The South Fork River in High Shoals. BRIAN BLANCO FOR HUFFPOST The Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, a local environmental group focused on the region’s water systems, said modern mining techniques generally produce fewer tailings, or leftover materials, than in the 1950s, so the risk of similar arsenic contamination from Piedmont’s project is lower. But the county’s natural waterways could suffer, the nonprofit said. Last November, the Catawba Riverkeeper joined researchers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in conducting a survey of the area that discovered two new species of crayfish. The researchers asked Piedmont for permission to survey some of the land the company owns. The firm had no legal obligation to comply and declined, said Brandon Jones, the Riverkeeper’s chief scientist. (Phillips said he did not recall that conversation.) “There’s actually much more diversity and we’re just starting to tell the different crayfish apart,” Jones said. “We’re certainly concerned about losing some of those species.” Well Water Concerns Stirring up arsenic is the least of many residents’ worries. Most of the ore Piedmont plans to dig is below the water table, meaning as the company excavates, water will flood in and it will need to be pumped out. The firm said in regulatory filings that it would pull between 860,000 gallons and 1.1 million gallons of water from the ground per day at peak capacity. “This is certainly going to be dropping the water table, and it will certainly be impacting wells,” Jones said. Piedmont acknowledged in filings that its mining may lower the water table, which is uniquely close to the surface. Abundant streams like the one on Harper’s property are one visible effect of that geological reality. Another unseen one is how shallow some residents here have dug their wells. Some household wells, one resident said, go down only 30 feet. More common, though, are wells dug 300 feet deep. “We don’t think we’re going to impact anybody directly,” Phillips said. “If we do, we’ll be happy to remediate it.” In a state permit application, Piedmont suggested that it would drill new wells for homeowners at its own discretion if its experts determined that mining operations were responsible for a well going dry. A small creek runs through a farm in Cherryville. BRIAN BLANCO FOR HUFFPOST As a secondary solution, the company said it would pay to connect homeowners to a municipal water source. That could prove tricky, since the area around the proposed mine is not currently piped for that, and the nearest municipal supply has, in the past, struggled to service its existing customer base in times of drought. It may not be a popular option, either: Households on wells do not pay for water, and the company said in the application that it would not pay people’s water bills once they’re hooked up to a municipal supply. Piedmont said it “may also” supply neighbors who lose their wells with water tanks and short-term deliveries that “meet the minimum water volume used or needed by the resident prior to the groundwater level decline.” If all else fails, the company said it will “negotiate in good faith” to buy the property. “We know that there’s different depths of where some of the aquifers are. Everybody thinks you drill a hole in the ground, and there’s one big lake under here. It’s not like that,” David Klanecky, then Piedmont’s chief operating officer, told me during an hourlong drive around Gaston County in January. “There are all these different pockets. We’ve done all these different water studies with hydrogeologists out here. There may be some impacts.” (Klanecky and another executive who gave me a tour around Piedmont’s properties, vice president of corporate communications Brian Risinger, have since left the company. Phillips said Klanecky took a job as chief executive of a battery recycling firm, but remains a “technical adviser and close friend” of Piedmont. He said Risinger “left on his own accord.”) Piedmont’s opponents, Klanecky said, think “we’re going to drain all the water in Gaston County and this is going to be a desert in five years. That’s probably not going to happen, right? So, we can talk through this with people.” “The truth is, nobody knows how it will affect our water system,” said Bob Lancaster, 71, a retiree who relies on well water and lives just north of the county. “But once you ring the bell, you can’t unring it.” Bob Lancaster is a retiree in Lincolnton, North Carolina, who relies on well water. Locals are worried mining could lead to pollution. BRIAN BLANCO FOR HUFFPOST On a cold night in January, I met Dan Setzer, 58, at his tidy one-story home near the proposed mine. While we discussed the possibility of relying on bottled water, he hurried to the kitchen sink to fill me a glass. It tasted crisp and mineraly, distinct from the highly treated but prized tap water in New York City, where I’m from. “We’ve got springs and creeks that are some of the nicest around,” the upholstery manufacturing worker said. He just didn’t believe Piedmont’s promises to ultimately restore whatever land it tarnishes with its operation. “They’ll never put that back. … This is just a money grab to them.” Locke Bell, a retired former district attorney who lives with his wife on a sprawling property dense with woodlands and gardens, suspected the company didn’t even have a full picture of which wells its project would affect. He has three operating wells on his land. A map Piedmont submitted in public documents last year showed just one, he said. “I’ve got four creeks, too, and three of them will be dry if they mine,” Bell said, puffing on a cigar on his back porch. “Everybody else, and all the wildlife that lives off these things, it’ll all be gone.” The Catawba Riverkeeper also worries about runoff pollution in the surface streams. Right now, Piedmont is proposing 30-foot setbacks — or undisturbed buffer zones between the mine and streams, which is the requirement under North Carolina law. “We’d prefer 100-foot setbacks,” Jones said. “That’s the gold standard for the industry.” The company would, in fact, have a “different setback for different things,” Phillips said, adding that for “our pits, we’re expecting [the setback] to be 100 feet.” From Australia To North Carolina Piedmont Lithium got its start six years ago, when Taso Arima, an Australian investor who works on mining startups, joined forces with Lamont Leatherman, a geologist who grew up in Lincolnton, near the end of the Tin-Spodumene Belt. Canadian-born Phillips, who previously worked at JPMorgan Chase, joined a year later. In September 2016, the company secured the rights to buy at least five separate tracts of land in Gaston County, according to property records. By the end of 2017, it added at least nine more and registered at least one separate shell company to make land deals in North Carolina. At first, the company planned to mine in Gaston County but build its chemical processing plant near Kings Mountain, just south of the area. But the firm ultimately acquired land adjacent to its mining tracts that it deemed suitable for the facility, and changed its plans to consolidate everything in one area. Piedmont inked its first major deal in September 2020, to supply electric auto giant Tesla with one-third of the mine’s annual output of unprocessed spodumene for five years. Last year, Piedmont, which had until then been headquartered in Australia, officially “redomiciled” in Belmont, North Carolina, roughly 30 minutes away from the proposed mine, on the opposite side of Gaston County. It also currently occupies a small field office closer to the site. Piedmont Lithium has set up a local office near the proposed mining site in Cherryville. BRIAN BLANCO FOR HUFFPOST As of last October, the company controlled approximately 3,245 acres, of which 1,526 acres were claims on private property through option or deferred purchase agreements, 113 acres were under long-term mineral leasing deals, 79 acres were under lease-to-own contracts, and 1,527 acres were owned by Piedmont outright, according to figures in a feasibility study it published. That, the firm said, is more than enough to begin its work, though it claims on its website to be “actively and aggressively adding further options to considerably expand our presence in the region.” “We want to continue to acquire property here, because we think there’s more development opportunity,” Klanecky said. “Realistically, this could be double the size of what we’ve announced today if we continue to acquire more land. We know there’s spodumene on the belt, and we know there’s lithium.” The main obstacle, he said, were landowners who refused to sell their property, or asked the company to pay 10 times what the firm believed the parcel was worth — which Piedmont considered exorbitant. Once the company has mining permits, Klanecky said, that will serve as a “trigger event” where holdouts will lose hope of stopping the mine and instead see the project as inevitable. “Once the state mining permits have been issued, that’ll be another trigger event. People will say, ‘They’re going to mine here, so let’s let them buy the property,’” Klanecky said. “We’re being patient. We’ve done a lot of really good deals with owners. I think we’ve paid them very well.” Asked if Piedmont’s generosity may be more limited if a landowner has a change of heart once mining begins, he said: “If it’s a relationship where it’s contentious, then they’ve got to understand the risk of not doing something. We try to point that out.” Rich Pembleton, left, worries about how the proposed mine will affect his new home and small farm, pictured at right. LeAnne and Rich Pembleton hoped to live out their days at the farm they moved to from Atlanta. BRIAN BLANCO FOR HUFFPOST Perceptions of bad faith cut both ways. Crocker said he suspected Piedmont “thought Gaston County was an ignorant county, and they thought they could hoodwink us.” Harper said his first impression of the company was “gentlemen coming down from New York, thinking we were dumb hicks.” Even newer residents felt the company’s representatives had talked down to them. LeAnne Pembleton, a 64-year-old clinical health researcher who relocated here from Atlanta in 2015 with her husband, Rich, said: “My impression is they feel they’re dealing with a bunch of hillbillies. They acted so hoity-toity.” Klanecky conceded that “there’s some people who truly have an emotional connection,” not just property owners playing hardball. “Their grandfather grew up here. Their whole family lived here forever, and it’s hard to see their property sold or their neighbor’s property sold and be potentially impacted by that. That’s why we’re trying to minimize the impact to the people who can still live here,” Klanecky said. “Those are the hard conversations.” I asked Risinger, the spokesman at the time of my trip, if Piedmont could provide names or numbers for some of the 150 or so landowners who made deals to sell the company their property. He initially said yes, but did not respond to follow-up requests. At least half a dozen residents in Gaston County told me their neighbors had signed nondisclosure agreements with the firm. But what the firm called “trigger events,” Pembleton saw as bullying. “Some people feel they don’t have any choice,” she said at her dinner table one night. “A lot of them were snookered into signing the contracts.” LeAnne Pembleton sits at her kitchen table at her home in Cherryville. BRIAN BLANCO FOR HUFFPOST ‘The Worst Rollout,’ Or ‘Abrasive’ Change? If approved, the project would be a massive undertaking, dwarfing past mining and chemical operations in the county. The mining would start by digging a 500-foot-deep open pit. The miners will bore into the rock, load the holes with dynamite, and clear the area before blasting it apart. Workers would then sort through the remains and use machines to crush boulders into smaller rocks. Normally, at that point, a mining company would fill diesel trucks with excavated materials and drive them to a processing facility. But Piedmont plans to spend over $50 million on an electric-powered covered conveyor system that will snake thousands of feet from the dig site to the neighboring chemical plant. Another, smaller facility on the site will gather other rocks of value such as quartz and feldspar, which the company plans to sell for construction materials. Rocks and dirt without value will end up in a pile more than 21 stories high. At the chemical plant, the spodumene rocks will be roasted at lava-hot temperatures, cooled, crushed and cooked in sulfuric acid, which converts the spodumene from its alpha to beta form, a necessary prerequisite to refining it into lithium hydroxide. The mining operations and sorting plants will be powered completely with solar electricity, but the chemical plant will use natural gas. Despite the natural gas required — it’s difficult to reach the temperatures needed for processing without fossil fuels — Piedmont claims its lithium will be among the cheapest and cleanest in the world because of its local supply chain. Most lithium on today’s market is either mined similarly in Australia and then shipped to China for processing, or produced using the brining method in Chile and Argentina. Much of that, too, typically gets shipped to China for processing. The processed materials then go to battery manufacturers in China, Europe, South Korea or the U.S., where automakers are increasingly sourcing their electric vehicle components. A map of the proposed pit mine. BRIAN BLANCO FOR HUFFPOST “We think our project is, from an environmental perspective, going to be a world leader, located in an area where it can be closer to important customers, car companies and battery companies,” Phillips said. At some point in the next decade, Piedmont plans to dig a second pit, also as deep as the length of two football fields. Once it exhausts the first mine, it will dig a third and backfill the first, then repeat that process again with a fourth pit. Phillips declined to give a timeline for digging all four holes. The plan is to eventually leave the final pit open as a quarry. “You build one, mine one, then mine another and backfill the waste rock,” he said. Despite years of buying up properties and studying the mining potential of the area, Piedmont did not approach the Gaston County Board of Commissioners until April 2020. Phillips said mining projects take years to fully conceive, and a local adviser had told him to wait until the company had finalized its proposal to avoid any kind of confusion over Piedmont’s plans in the county. The firm only made its first public appearance at a hearing last July. It wasn’t exactly a warm welcome. Four of the seven commissioners expressed anger that this was the first time a company with such ambitious plans in the county was coming before the body that would ultimately decide its fate. Commission Chairman Chad Brown called the proposal “the worst rollout of a project from a company I’ve ever seen” in a Reuters interview before the hearing. From behind his wooden dais, he complained at the hearing that Piedmont’s marketing materials included the county government’s trademarked logo, giving the appearance that the officials had already rubber-stamped the proposal. When constituents asked about the proposed mine, Brown said he was made to look foolish because the company had not yet engaged with the commission. “I find it very damaging to me to have to tell these people that I don’t know anything about it,” Brown said. “It’s very frustrating.” Gaston County Commissioner Chad Brown is skeptical of Piedmont’s plans for the mine. “Just because it’s jobs doesn’t mean it’s always the right fit.” BRIAN BLANCO FOR HUFFPOST During a portion in which constituents lined up to speak, Tim Hepler, a truck driver, said he tried selling his house, but had to take it off the market because no buyers wanted to be near a likely pit mine. “Houses are selling for $30 to $50 less per square foot that are going to be near what a lot of people are saying is the big hole in the ground that’s proposed, and near a chemical plant,” he said. “The Piedmont Lithium people, are they going to live near this big hole in the ground and near this chemical plant? That’s a real big question that needs to be asked of them.” Harper warned that the project would destroy his livelihood. “What is happening here may make other people’s dreams,” he said, his voice quivering with emotion. “But mine is going away.” A handful of residents expressed support for the proposal. Kevin Gee said he recently moved to the area and urged a farming community concerned over pollution to take stock of how much pesticide and chemical fertilizer was already used here. “Change is abrasive. It’s hard. I get it … [but] any objection anyone has to this project I can overcome in five minutes,” he said. “I’m a dreamer, and I see the potential of a project like this, so I’m going to embrace it.” In response to the criticism, Phillips — dressed in a sleek, dark suit and fashionable clear-framed glasses — said at the hearing: “We haven’t spent a lot of time on community relations or government relations.” In August, Reuters reported that Piedmont indefinitely postponed its first shipments of spodumene ore to Tesla as it waited to get its permits in order, though in a public filing the company described the move as a “mutual agreement” to “extend” the “initial delivery dates.” “They might have put the cart before the horse a little bit with that deal,” said Gavin Montgomery, a battery raw materials analyst at the energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie. Shortly afterward, shareholders filed two class action lawsuits accusing the company of giving investors and regulators a false picture of the project being ready to go and widely supported in the area. Lawyers representing the investors did not respond to repeated requests for comment. “We’re defending them vigorously and feel very strongly about our position,” Phillips said of the lawsuits. In the months that followed the public meeting, Piedmont seemed to hone its public messaging on jobs. The company promised to hire hundreds of workers — estimates in public statements have ranged from 300 to 500 — in a part of North Carolina that lost some furniture and textile manufacturing jobs to overseas competitors during late 20th century globalization. Salaries, the firm said, would top $80,000 per year in a county where the median annual income is a little over $53,000. It’s hard to tell from today’s quiet, rural landscape, but Gaston County was the cradle of the lithium industry for much of the mid-20th century. BRIAN BLANCO FOR HUFFPOST But characterizations of Gaston County as some post-industrial husk seeking new economic lifeblood clash with what many here see as the potential next beneficiary of nearby Charlotte’s breakneck growth. The county’s unemployment rate in February was about 4%, in line with the national average. Gleaming new office parks line the highways that cut through the county, and in January construction was underway on several new buildings. Brown said virtually all the new corporate space is leased before construction is even complete. The businesses included a food-processing plant, a vehicle-lift manufacturer and an Amazon warehouse, which provided up to 40 jobs per acre of land the companies occupied, Brown said. By contrast, the Piedmont project offered one job per 6 acres. “Just because it’s jobs doesn’t mean it’s always the right fit,” Brown told me over breakfast at Cracker Barrel. “Some of the things they’ve rolled out are that we’re not doing very well economically. Well, I beg to differ.” Klanecky said Piedmont would create jobs for generations of workers in Gaston County, and not just in mining. “We think property values are going to increase once this operation is out here because you’re going to be attracting people making $90,000-plus a year,” he said. “They’re going to want to buy stuff.” At least one native has returned here to work at the mine. Piedmont hired Emily Blackburn, a 26-year-old geologist, to work on both community relations and resource exploration. “Piedmont Lithium brought me back home. I was in Minnesota after college,” Blackburn said. “Now I’m back at church with my parents. I moved back to my hometown. I got a fiancé.” She’s set to marry here in August. Outdated Mining Laws vs. Surging Demand As the sun set over a field that would likely form the entrance to the mine, Eric Carpenter, 52, stood on his mother’s land and crossed his arms. The 5-acre parcel, once part of his grandfather’s cotton farm, is today filled with low, dense foliage and trees. The mine will “render our property worthless,” he said. Piedmont sent a representative to his 85-year-old mother’s home sometime between 2017 and 2018, he said, and proposed leasing the land. But Carpenter, who happened to be there when the employee showed up, asked to see a lease and run it by an attorney. The lease did not materialize, he said, and they never heard from the company again. In the meantime, Carpenter, an insurance underwriter, decided to research who would be liable for restoring the property after the mining was done. He found that the entire legal framework for approving projects like this in the state is the 1971 Mining Act, which caps the money state regulators can require a mine owner to set aside for cleanup and reclamation at $1 million. Eric Carpenter’s family goes back centuries in Gaston County. The spot near his mother’s property may be the site of a proposed pit mine. BRIAN BLANCO FOR HUFFPOST “This is really designed for a farmer who wants to sell sand from his property,” Carpenter said. “It doesn’t contemplate a mine of this size.” As things seemed to be moving forward last November, Carpenter said he spoke to L.T. McCrimmon, director of legislative affairs for Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. McCrimmon said the governor did not have the authority to issue an executive order halting mine permitting to give the legislature time to review and update the mining law. There didn’t seem to be much appetite in the legislature, anyway. That same month, Carpenter emailed his state legislators to ask about reviewing the law. State Sen. Kathy Harrington, who represents his district and is the Republican majority leader, never responded. State Rep. Kelly Hastings, a Republican, said the legislature had nothing to do with permitting the mine, and directed Carpenter to the governor, who oversees the regulatory agencies responsible for permitting mines. When Carpenter asked if Hastings would look into updating the law, he responded: “The General Assembly is not currently in session. Have a great Christmas.” By coincidence, the same week Carpenter started contacting his state leaders, an effort to reform a similarly outdated national mining law fell apart. On the federal level, the 1872 General Mining Law still governs hard-rock mining. Designed to encourage white settlement of the American West around the time of the California gold rush, the statute allows individuals or companies to stake claims on minerals found on public lands without paying royalties to the government. Mining companies have extracted some $300 billion worth of minerals from gold to lithium to copper from public lands since 1872, according to the environmental group Earthworks. And much like the North Carolina legislature, the U.S. Congress has been reluctant to update the law; last November, Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) blocked a proposal to reform the 150-year-old legislation. A new bill from Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) is trying once again to add mining royalties and new protections, though critics have said it does little to require companies to seek input from communities near the projects. Carpenter said the proposed mine would “render our property worthless.” BRIAN BLANCO FOR HUFFPOST When Piedmont started buying property here, Klanecky said the county had no ordinances in place to regulate mining. Since then, he said, the county added some rules that the company supported. Those could help assuage some short-term concerns. But opponents of the project are thinking decades down the line, and remain skeptical of a technology that they do not see as a safe bet. What happens if an alternative battery chemistry seizes the market? In Australia, a company called Graphene Manufacturing Group claims its novel approach to making aluminum-ion battery cells could charge up to 70 times faster than lithium-ion batteries and hold three times as much energy as traditional aluminum-based cells. The company told Forbes it plans to roll out vehicle batteries in 2024. The Canadian startup Salient Energy says its zinc-ion batteries can compete directly with lithium-ion cells and offer a steadier domestic supply chain. But high energy costs and the war in Ukraine have sent prices soaring for a commodity that was already subject to market shocks similar to those that afflict lithium. Researchers in South Korea and a team from the U.S. and China recently made major breakthroughs with sodium-ion battery prototypes, though Arkady Krasheninnikov, a physicist studying the technology at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf laboratory, told the German broadcaster DW: “Our work is of a purely theoretical nature, and we do not claim that a new generation of batteries will be developed in the foreseeable future on the basis of our results.” Batteries built with vanadium are gaining attention as a potential competitor with lithium, particularly as prices of the latter metal continue to soar. In March, the Department of Energy issued a new category of license to help bring vanadium-based “flow” batteries to market. At an industry conference in May, James Hayter, an adviser at the natural resources investment fund Baker Steel Capital Managers, called vanadium “overlooked” and “more efficient than lithium-ion in the grid storage market,” according to a report from S&P Global Commodity Insights. “We’re bending over backwards to be as accommodating as we can to a lot of people. This is going to be a boom business. ... I think people will look back and come to the realization that this worked out an awful lot better than they thought.” - Piedmont Lithium CEO Keith Phillips But so-called flow batteries, which use external tanks of electrolyte fluids that pump through the device, will more likely “serve a part of the market that barely exists today for energy storage that can last for eight hours or more, while lithium-ion batteries will continue to be the leaders in shorter-duration storage, electric vehicles and consumer electronics,” a researcher from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado told Inside Climate News. Analysts say lithium demand is highly unlikely to drop off anytime soon — if anything, the rate of growth has exceeded projections. Piedmont, meanwhile, sees demand for the category of lithium it plans to produce soaring in the years to come. The high-nickel car-battery chemistry that yields longer range — a desirable trait in the U.S., where suburban sprawl means drivers face longer commute times than in other developed nations — tends to use more lithium hydroxide. Ideally, the U.S. could temper surging demand by increasing the availability of both public transit and recycling infrastructure to reuse existing lithium and other minerals, said Thea Riofrancos, an associate professor of political science at Providence College who co-authored a report on the U.S. battery supply chain for the nonprofit Climate and Community Project. “Our entire economic system is resource-intensive — but we live on a finite planet,” she said. “We could extract a lot less lithium, with fewer impacts on rural communities like those in Gaston County, if we took the opportunity of the energy transition to transform our transportation sector, building out mass transit and moving away from car dependency.” But Klanecky suggested some local opponents to the mine may have ideological blinders that make them less sensitive to the urgent realities of climate change. “This isn’t a place where you’re going to see something like the Bay Area, where everyone is going to convert to EVs because they think it’s good for the environment,” he said. Sixty-five percent of adults in Gaston County recognize that global warming is happening, 7 percentage points lower than the national average, according to data from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication’s 2021 survey. And 55% said local officials should do more to address climate change. But just 47% acknowledged that humans are causing climate change, while 37% said they believed warming was primarily due to natural cycles. That last claim was one Klanecky said he had heard before. “We want to listen to everybody and we want to educate everybody, but it’s hard to educate someone who thinks the Earth is tilted differently and that’s why it’s warmer or colder,” he said. Opponents of the project here say they aren’t numb to the climate concerns at all. Lancaster, the retiree, said he petitioned county officials to approve the big solar farm just down the block from his home. But in the face of ecological destruction on a scale few can reckon with, many here say they just want to preserve what they feel they have control over in their lives. “We have a high population here,” Pembleton said. “If things go wrong, responsibility will fall on the landowner to fight in court.” Phillips said it’s “not irrational” for the community to fear that “we’re some fly-by-night operation, and we’ll start this up and three weeks later we’ll run out of money and leave.” But, he said, “the good news is we’ve become a reasonably substantial company, we have investors like JPMorgan advising us. And we’ll have some very strong partners come into the project.” “We’re bending over backwards to be as accommodating as we can to a lot of people,” he said. “This is going to be a boom business. This is going to grow and grow and will be great for the community. I think people will look back and come to the realization that this worked out an awful lot better than they thought.” Harper doesn’t share that optimism. He had planned out his life. He would pass his business on to his 31-year-old daughter, who already works with him. He thought maybe, someday, his grandchildren would take over. And he would sit out on the porch in the afternoons watching his wife spend meditative hours listening to music on her headphones while she mowed the vast fields behind their home, and evenings observing the deer feast on the clippings. “This is God’s country. Each and every day we see turkey, deer, ringtail hawks, even a bald eagle that nests around here. This is a pristine, beautiful and tranquil area, and it’s going to be decimated,” Harper said. “All I can do is pray.” Read the article on The Huffington Post


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  • Air Monitors Alone Won’t Save Communities From Toxic Industrial Air Pollution

    By: Lisa Song and Lylla Younes, ProPublica May 18, 2022 One summer night last year, air began flowing into a steel canister across the street from the Little Bo Peep Child Development Center in Calvert City, Kentucky. The pollution monitor hummed into the morning as parents dropped off their toddlers and later into the day as the kids played outside. Within a month, a lab analysis would reveal that the canister had captured a troubling concentration of ethylene dichloride, which has been linked to pancreatic and stomach cancers and leukemia. No one, however, raced in to warn parents or alert nearby residents that the air they sucked in with every breath was laced with a poisonous chemical. No one took immediate steps to stop the stream or sue the offending polluter into compliance. In fact, that Calvert City monitor had been running all year, along with two others around town. Each of them had registered more ethylene dichloride than any of the 123 other monitors nationwide designed to detect the chemical. The results had been logged by Kentucky regulators and uploaded to a database managed by the Environmental Protection Agency. If my child attended that day care, “I would be very concerned and working tremendously to get them into another school,” said Wilma Subra, an environmental health expert who advises the EPA on community concerns, after reviewing a summary of the air-monitoring results at ProPublica’s request. It’s examples like Calvert City, experts say, that expose an infuriating conundrum with the U.S. systems for protecting citizens from dangerous pollution: Regulators install air monitors to flag hazardous emissions from local companies, then pull their punches in taking action against the offenders. Meanwhile, the monitors serve as a false promise to residents that the findings will be used to keep them safe. Some people believe the mere existence of monitoring is “protecting them” from harm, said Barbara Morin, an air pollution expert at a nonprofit that advises the environmental regulators of eight Northeastern states. “Unfortunately, sometimes there’s just the monitoring and nothing happens to change the situation.” ProPublica spent the last year crisscrossing the country to detail the failures of the EPA and state regulators to measure and address the community impacts of industrial toxic air pollution. The series of stories resulted in immediate response, including promises by the EPA to install monitors and track outputs — a move hailed as a victory for local communities. Residents of many of the toxic hot spots had spent years begging regulators to install them. But an examination of the long history of air monitors in Calvert City shows that even when the monitors capture years’ worth of evidence that a polluter is putting a community in harm’s way, the path to clean, safe air is rocky and filled with well-funded obstacles, misdirection and inaction. An air monitor maintained by Kentucky environmental regulators has been located behind Calvert City Elementary School for about a decade. In this remote industrial city of 2,500, where manufacturing has long been king, regulators have had proof for at least three decades that residents are breathing dangerous amounts of air pollution. During that time, the EPA and the state have amassed an extraordinary amount of documentation establishing not just how hazardous the air is in Calvert City, but where the worst pollution is coming from. They’ve watched in real time as the problem got worse and as the estimated cancer risks of area residents crossed the threshold level that the EPA considered acceptable — in places, reaching 17 times that limit. Nicole Deziel, a Yale epidemiology professor and environmental health expert, said it could take decades to see the damage. Researchers often find themselves lagging behind, studying emerging cancer clusters and trying to reconstruct the cause, Deziel said. In Calvert City, where there’s already data that pollution levels exceed what’s considered safe, “we have the opportunity to actually intervene,” she said. State and federal regulators have an arsenal of ways to do so and hold the culprits accountable, including levying millions in fines, requiring pollution controls and launching criminal investigations. And yet, as the history of Calvert City shows, such action isn’t a given. In the face of a global petrochemical corporation, in a company town where residents are reluctant to criticize their employers, regulators have, again and again, stopped short of using all the tools at their disposal. “Good Neighbor”   Founded on a railroad stop near the Tennessee River, Calvert City began attracting industrial development after the Kentucky Dam brought cheap electricity to the region in the 1940s. By 2020, more than a quarter of the private-sector jobs in surrounding Marshall County came from chemical plants and other manufacturing, with wages well above those in other fields. Every year, local families gather for a “Good Neighbor Night” hosted by a collection of plants whose employees hand out free swag, such as lawn chairs printed with the companies’ logos, as a turtle mascot named Wally Wise Guy teaches kids how to shelter in place in the event of an industrial accident. Westlake Chemical moved into town in 1990, expanding over time into three plants — a maze of industrial boilers, tanks and wastewater ponds, with innumerable smokestacks and vents and pipes. The plants make polyvinyl chloride, better known as PVC, and petrochemicals used in construction, packaging and other goods. The company got regulatory permits that authorized it to release thousands of pounds of carcinogens a year, but almost from the start, additional, unauthorized releases accidentally seeped or leaked into the air, according to EPA records. It wasn’t just ethylene dichloride, but vinyl chloride, which is highly flammable and has been associated with brain, liver and lung cancers. (The company did not respond to multiple requests for comment). A Westlake chemical plant in Calvert City. While a few plants run by other companies nearby also emitted these chemicals, Westlake’s authorized emissions would come to dwarf theirs. According to the most recent four years of available federal data, Westlake released at least 48,000 pounds of ethylene dichloride per year; the other companies combined released just 1 pound. Westlake’s annual vinyl chloride emissions during that time were at least 28 times that of the others. Within eight years of Westlake’s opening, state and federal regulators had already been alerted to problems at the sprawling compound. In the decades that followed, news articles and regulatory documents would chart the company’s checkered record with the chemicals. In 1998, for example, Westlake told the EPA that it hadn’t released any ethylene dichloride into the water when it had actually released more than 8,000 pounds, according to an EPA complaint. In 2001, it waited more than an hour before reporting a 2,727-pound leak; the same happened four years later, after a release of 7,700 pounds, the complaint said. The company was supposed to immediately inform a federal center for chemical accidents if it leaked 100 pounds of the potent carcinogen into the air. Shortly after that leak in 2005, the local emergency response system made thousands of automated calls warning residents to shelter indoors, The Paducah Sun reported. The system had been adopted after 5,000 pounds of leaking vinyl chloride caused a fire and explosion at the plant in 2002. Despite the calls in 2005, a Westlake manager told The Associated Press that air monitors hadn’t detected the carcinogen outside the plant’s boundaries. In 2010, the EPA took the aggressive step of announcing a consent decree, a settlement that involves complex negotiations with the help of the Department of Justice. Under the terms of the decree, Westlake agreed to pay $800,000 and create a vast leak detection plan. Failure to meet those terms could lead to daily penalties of up to $5,000. The EPA predicted this would force Westlake to cut emissions of vinyl chloride by 2,300 pounds a year and of ethylene dichloride by 1,300 pounds per year. Less than a year later, more than 11,000 pounds of vinyl chloride and 2,000 pounds of ethylene dichloride streamed out of a hole in a piece of Westlake piping, according to state and federal records. The leak destroyed the EPA’s goal in a single day; the agency later found Westlake hadn’t inspected the piping for mechanical integrity. “Negligence Loophole” With that leak in 2011, state regulators believed they had three separate air pollution violations, but Westlake wielded its legal might to fight back. In the company’s lengthy response to regulators, a Westlake manager interrogated the definitions of basic terms like “equipment leak” or “standard” and argued that none of the violations were valid. In response, Kentucky regulators rescinded one of them, noting that the federal rule only applied to leaks during startups, shutdowns or malfunctions. Then they offered a startling rationale: The leak didn’t count as a “malfunction” because the problem partly stemmed from “poor operations and maintenance.” “We are left with this loophole,” the regulators wrote. Experts say such exit ramps from regulation are not uncommon. The system often presents a “laundry list of defenses” to polluters, said Seema Kakade, a former attorney in the EPA’s civil enforcement division who is now a law professor at the University of Maryland. Some provide leeway for unavoidable accidents and some are negotiated end-runs around the rules by corporate or other special interests, she said — with large, wealthy companies poised to take advantage. Westlake benefited from what was “basically a negligence loophole” that “allows plants to avoid accountability even for releases caused by their own poor operations and maintenance,” Jim Pew, an attorney for the nonprofit group Earthjustice, said in an email. His organization has spent decades advocating for stronger EPA rules. Left: Calvert City, located in western Kentucky. Right: The Westlake Chemical Corporation facility in Calvert City. Over the next few years, the EPA unearthed four more leaks caused by faulty inspections or testing. However, none of these incidents broke the terms of the consent decree, as the agency concluded that these leaks concerned “alleged violations” of a different regulation from the one cited in the consent decree, said Tim Carroll, deputy press secretary for the EPA. (Carroll said Westlake has continuously demonstrated compliance with the 2010 settlement.) Despite the continued problems, and additional leaks cited by state regulators, Westlake was able to expand one of its plants — a move with so little pushback from the state that then-Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, attended the ceremony. (Beshear didn’t respond to a request for comment.) In 2017, two state environmental investigators were on the highway when they spotted a plume of black smoke, which they traced to a flare at a Westlake plant. Flares reduce pollution by burning off toxic gases, and they’re much less effective when there’s visible smoke. When the inspectors parked outside the facility fence to take photos, a Westlake security officer came out “and, after we had introduced ourselves, asked us to leave this location,” an inspector wrote in a report, which they did. Hours later, the plume of smoke was still visible from 10 miles away. Though this violation and others at the same plant could have entailed millions in penalties, the agency offered Westlake a $350,000 settlement, according to an email from Beth Clemons, a Kentucky environmental enforcement specialist, to Westlake. In the email, obtained through open records requests, Clemons called it “a good deal.” Westlake flatly disagreed. “$350,000 may be a good deal if there were violations, which we clearly believe there are not,” Kevin Sheridan, a Westlake health, safety and environment manager, wrote in an email. Clemons responded that state regulators believed “the violations are valid and we are pretty much in total disagreement with what you are saying.” The parties eventually agreed on a $175,000 penalty and a list of required repairs — a sanction that experts say amounts to a financial hiccup for the corporation that owns Westlake. Last year, Westlake’s parent company, Westlake Corporation, reported $2 billion in net income from dozens of facilities across North America, Europe and Asia. Such penalties are “like a nuisance to the facility. It doesn’t serve as a significant deterrent,” said Scott Throwe, a former senior staffer in the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. Wealthy corporations see it as “the cost of doing business.” In response to questions about the effectiveness of its enforcement actions, John Mura, director of communication for the Kentucky regulator, said in a statement that his agency “remains committed to safeguarding the health of all Kentuckians and believes that it has acted appropriately under its regulatory authority.” Even the better-resourced EPA rarely seeks maximum fines, said George Czerniak, a former enforcement officer in EPA’s Midwest regional office. Doing so involves going to court, and there is no guarantee the judge will rule favorably. The risk, he said, has made the agency skittish about pursuing aggressive sanctions in court. In the 35 years he spent on air pollution enforcement covering six states, Czerniak recalled fewer than 20 cases that ended up before a judge or jury. If the EPA is going to take a case to court, then it needs to be “assured this is an important case,” Czerniak said — and one that “we can win.” Limited budgets and EPA leaders’ changing priorities drove a decline in EPA enforcement actions from 2007 to 2018, according to a recent EPA Inspector General report. In 2009, the office that manages Kentucky conducted 2,700 inspections and other related activities to ensure polluters were following the law; that number plummeted more than 50% over the next decade. After Donald Trump became president, his administration deferred more enforcement cases to the states; Throwe said state agencies are more hamstrung by political pressure and less able to act decisively. “That’s why EPA is supposed to be the neutral entity that goes in,” he said. The EPA wrapped up another investigation of Westlake in 2019, issuing a consent agreement and final order for a series of leaks that occurred more recently. The order, which is less serious than a consent decree, came with a $49,000 penalty. The company also had to buy $183,500 worth of equipment for local emergency responders. Four additional EPA inquiries of Westlake violations over the past decade have resulted in less than $150,000 in penalties. Throwe said it would have been more effective to require Westlake to install no-leak valves and other devices to reduce leaks. “This shows how hard it is to actually effect change,” he said. “You Can’t Use That”   Manufacturers in Calvert City benefited from yet another flaw in oversight: Even when regulators stocked the town with air monitors that logged damning evidence, bureaucratic bungles and missed opportunities rendered them virtually useless. Alarm bells about dangerously dirty air began going off as far back as 2005. Some of the more than 10,000 air samples collected statewide by Kentucky regulators over the prior 15 years showed “levels of concern” in Calvert City, and officials announced a work group to investigate “elevated levels of hazardous air pollutants,” the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky, reported. Between 2005 and 2007, state regulators installed five monitors in town, including the one at Calvert City Elementary School, across the street from the Little Bo Peep day care center. Air monitors installed between 2005 and 2007. Once every six days, the monitors took a 24-hour sample that was analyzed for ethylene dichloride, vinyl chloride and other hazardous pollutants. “What they’ve done here is way more air monitoring than what’s required by any EPA program,” said Morin, the Northeastern air pollution expert. “So the state clearly recognized there was some issue they wanted to deal with.” By 2015, a quarter of the samples from the monitor closest to Westlake’s vinyls plant had levels of ethylene dichloride that violated EPA’s long-term cancer risk guidelines. But an EPA audit that year found a critical flaw in the data; the state had never created a quality-assurance plan for the monitors, detailing the procedures to ensure that the collected data was reliable and accurate. Neglecting to do so, Throwe said, “gives ammunition to the industry to say, ‘You can’t use that.’” Kentucky officials say they didn’t break any rules in their failure to implement a quality-assurance plan. But a spokesperson for the EPA regional office in charge of Kentucky said the federal government required such a plan. The agency ordered the state to develop one in 2015, but two years later Kentucky still didn’t have one. By then, every one of the five monitors had captured elevated cancer risks, with ethylene dichloride and vinyl chloride the chief culprits. The EPA considers a 1 in 10,000 risk as acceptable, meaning that if 10,000 people in an area are exposed to a certain level of hazardous air pollution over a lifetime, at least one person would develop cancer as a result. (These EPA guidelines are used to calculate community cancer risk, and it’s nearly impossible to tie an individual cancer case to emissions from a specific facility.) In Calvert City, at least one sample showed cumulative risk as high as 60 times the limit, according to a 2017 risk screening analysis conducted by the EPA. “Overall, the weight of evidence indicates that high levels of several VOC air toxics are present in the air in the Calvert City area,” concluded a report from Kentucky regulators and the EPA, while acknowledging that the lack of a quality-assurance plan “may affect the potential legal defensibility of the prior data collected.” Mura said the state didn’t develop a plan because “no specific data monitoring objective was identified by EPA or Kentucky for the data collected.” Mura said his agency doesn’t know how many residents were exposed to those concentrations or for how long. The failure to come up with a plan — rendering the results vulnerable to challenge — was baffling to experts and advocates. Monitoring for hazardous air pollutants is a costly, painstaking endeavor; no regulator would operate multiple monitors for years without a good reason, several experts told ProPublica. “You would think you’d want to get data that you can use,” Czerniak said. And despite its worrisome conclusions, neither the EPA nor state regulators told residents about the cancer analysis. Billy Pitts, public health director of the Marshall County Health Department, said no one has contacted his office. “We’ll Cross Those Bridges When We Get There”   It wasn’t until 2020 — five years after it was ordered to do so and 15 years after concerns about toxic air pollution were first raised — that Kentucky finally put in place a quality-assurance plan that would make the monitors’ data usable in serious enforcement efforts. It was the seventh straight year that one of Westlake’s plants emitted more ethylene dichloride than any other polluter in the country. In 2020, the EPA installed new monitors in town after conducting air modeling to find the areas with the highest concentrations of the dangerous chemicals. The agency modeled vinyl chloride and ethylene dichloride emissions from the three Westlake facilities and three other nearby plants. Federal data shows that Westlake releases far more of these compounds than the other companies: Since 2010, only one of the non-Westlake plants has leaked vinyl chloride (a 15-pound leak in 2014), and none has leaked ethylene dichloride, according to state records. In contrast, regulators have cited Westlake at least a dozen times for leaking these and other hazardous compounds. EPA and state regulators are analyzing data from the new monitors (and the one at the school) that was gathered from October 2020 to September 2021. A cancer risk analysis will be shared with the community once it’s complete. Air monitors for the October 2020-September 2021 study. The EPA modeled emissions from the six facilities shown in order to determine the monitors’ locations. Two of the monitors were placed to catch the highest concentrations of ethylene dichloride and vinyl chloride; the monitor at the school indicates what people are exposed to near the center of town. If the results show a cause for concern, then “we’ll cross those bridges when we get there,” said Pitts, the health director, during an interview in his office. After ProPublica described the elevated levels from the past decade, Pitts said he wouldn’t “get too concerned until I see the facts that are presented.” He later explained his department conducts a community health assessment once every three years, using data from local hospitals, schools and other sources. After ProPublica showed him air-monitoring reports from the EPA and state regulators, Pitts shared the materials with the team developing the health assessment, he said. The next assessment is scheduled for June, and the community would help decide the top public health concerns. Interim updates from the current study, obtained through public records requests, show higher concentrations than the earlier data. While average ethylene dichloride levels at one monitor near the Westlake plants exceeded the EPA’s cancer risk guideline by 40% in 2017, the newer data showed the levels exceeded the limit by 600%. When ProPublica showed the data to Morin, the concentrations were so high in Calvert City that she initially thought there’d been a mistake. Czerniak, the former EPA regional enforcement officer, said that if he were in charge, he would assign three of the federal agency’s technical experts and a couple of attorneys to do a deep dive on the Westlake plants and neighboring polluters. Czerniak has conducted similar investigations during his time at EPA, he said. If the agency found that specific air-permit violations at any Calvert City facility are pushing air pollution past acceptable cancer risk, he said, it should require the facilities to fix the root cause. If the excessive risk is caused by the sheer quantity of local facilities, the case could be referred to EPA headquarters with the request that tighter emission limits be put on these types of facilities. In an email, Carroll, the EPA spokesperson, said the agency “is continuing to take steps to address noncompliance” at Westlake’s plants. In response to questions about the company’s pattern of violations, Carroll cited the ongoing study in Calvert City and said the EPA “will address any noncompliance identified using the appropriate enforcement tools.” Poison in the Air The EPA is also investigating Westlake’s flares at its Calvert City and Lake Charles, Louisiana, facilities, according to the company’s 2021 annual report to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The EPA has worked on the case since 2014 and “indicated that it is seeking a consent decree that would obligate us to take corrective actions,” the report said. The decree could lead to penalties “in excess of $1 million,” the report continued. “We do not believe that the resolution of these flare matters will have a material adverse effect on our financial condition, results of operations or cash flows.” (An EPA spokesperson said the agency “cannot comment on potential or ongoing investigations.”) It might be time to raise the stakes by building a criminal case against Westlake, Czerniak said, as even the threat of a criminal investigation could change the facility’s behavior. “I realize that agencies have limited capacity to undertake criminal-type proceedings, but heck, when you have a community that is exposed” to cancer risks up to 60 times the EPA’s acceptable limit, he said, “make no mistake ... there are people who are being impacted.” The motivation to hold the polluter accountable may need to come from regulators, as most residents ProPublica encountered in Calvert City were unaware of Westlake’s environmental record or the pattern of alarming air-monitoring data. When a reporter and photographer visited community leaders in March, we found that no one had heard of ethylene dichloride, and most did not know there was an air monitor at the school. Some expressed concern after learning about elevated levels of carcinogens. “We know the EPA monitors the area,” said Tammy Blackwell, director of the county library system. “I would hope that if anything was significant enough that we needed to be made aware of it, the EPA would let us know.” Tammy Blackwell, Director of the Marshall County Public Library. Marshall County Schools Superintendent Steve Miracle was even blunter: “You can’t just record it. ... You would think if they’re the EPA, they can actually go in and help those companies come up with a solution for correcting that.” Others did not want to talk about the companies that support the tax base and employ their friends and family. Mayor Gene Colburn didn’t respond to multiple inquiries for this story, including messages left in person. (The mayor and three of the six City Council members work for local chemical plants, but not for Westlake.) The principal of Calvert City Elementary School, Kendra Glenn, declined through a representative to listen to a single question when ProPublica reporters visited in March. Connie Monroe, who owns the Little Bo Peep day care across the street, said that she’d want to learn more about the pollution if it’s harming the kids she cares for, but that her husband recently retired from a local chemical plant. “It’s made our living,” she said, “so I’m not going to say anything critical.” Chemical plants “do a lot for the community,” retired nurse Sherry Todd said on a recent spring day while watching her grandson’s soccer practice. The plants pay taxes that go toward “making Calvert City nice.” She had no qualms about air pollution or the plants hurting the town. “I can’t believe they’d do something intentionally,” she said. Sherry Todd, right, watches her grandson's soccer practice.   About the Story Last year, ProPublica conducted an analysis of data from the EPA’s Risk Screening Environmental Indicators model to identify hot spots of cancer-causing industrial air pollution across the United States. We then compared the results of our analysis to data from the EPA’s Air Quality System (AQS), which is a database of state, local and federally collected ambient air-monitoring samples. Because the EPA does not require states to set up air monitors near most major sources of toxic air pollution, we were unable to make comparisons in many of the hot spots that we identified. We filtered and sorted the data to understand which air monitors in the AQS network were picking up high concentrations of cancer-causing chemicals. Calvert City stood out, particularly for its concentrations of ethylene dichloride, a potent human carcinogen. Our analysis of the RSEI model indicated that Westlake was the dominant driver of cancer risk in Calvert City, so we began investigating the enforcement history of the facility and the reason the monitoring program was established there in the first place. We obtained documents through public records requests and correspondence with the EPA and Kentucky Division for Air Quality. Read the article on ProPublica


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