A key state environmental board rejected political censorship of water quality reports, plus more news, this week in CIB:
The NC Environmental Management Commission (EMC), often overshadowed and ignored during the current administration, has stepped up to say “enough” to greenwashed reports being put forward by the political level of the NC Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). At its meetings last week, the EMC (led by its Water Quality Committee) politely rejected the rewritten and sanitized reports from DEQ on in-lake pollution controls and buffer protections for state waterways.
The EMC instead voted to submit to the legislature the original draft reports by DEQ professional staff. In doing so, it passed along the stronger language of the staff’s original critique of the ineffectiveness of the discredited “SolarBee” water mixers.
The EMC’s actions also defended the value of riparian buffer protections, which have been singled out for attack by the DEQ political leadership. It even added language emphasizing the value of riparian buffer protections on “intermittent and perennial” waters. This is a key point which recognizes environmental science evidence on the importance of both kinds of streams to protecting clean water, and pushes back against efforts to narrow protections to the smaller number of streams which continue to have extensive flow even during dry seasons.
Conservation advocates praised the EMC’s exercise of its independent oversight responsibility to see that complete and accurate information on environmental issues reaches legislators. In response, however, the politicians running DEQ indicated that they would submit their greenwashed reports as well—despite their rejection by the EMC.
Observers said they were unaware of previous occasions when the DEQ leadership ignored the EMC citizen commission oversight in this manner. What will legislators think about that? One clue came in the reaction from Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson), who co-chairs a key legislative environmental committee. McGrady called the DEQ’s runaround move “silly” and observed, “The department does not want any of its decisions given any scrutiny.”
Dan Crawford, NCLCV’s director of governmental relations, weighed in: “Not only is the McCrory administration blatantly putting politics before the health and safety of North Carolina citizens but these actions show complete disregard for the dedicated DEQ experts who are doing their jobs to protect the state’s natural resources.”
Executive Watch: Testimony Confirms Political Intervention in Drinking Water Warnings
Testimony by the North Carolina state epidemiologist made public last week appears to confirm suspicions that pressure from Duke Energy on state environmental and public health departments’ leadership was involved in the reversal of do-not-drink water contamination warnings for well water near coal ash pits. The testimony was given in a deposition May 4 taken by attorneys for clients represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), in a lawsuit against Duke Energy involving coal ash issues.
In her deposition, NC state epidemiologist Dr. Megan Davies told of a meeting in June 2015 at which Duke representatives challenged the earlier letters from the state which warned against drinking the contaminated well water. In addition to Davies and other state public health officials, the meeting included DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart and his deputy Tom Reeder.
It was subsequent to this meeting that the state sent out letters to well owners retracting the do-not-drink warnings—letters which Dr. Davies opposed. It was also subsequent to the meeting that Reeder made public statements that the contamination by carcinogenic hexavalent chromium found in the contaminated well water was no worse than that in public drinking water systems. Dr. Davies testified to the inaccuracy of those statements in key respects.
As reported by the Winston-Salem Journal and other media outlets, the meeting with Davies, van der Vaart, Reeder, and Duke representatives was around the same time that Duke attorneys and executives met with Governor Pat McCrory and other state department officials at the governor’s mansion. McCrory Administration officials have declined to say what was discussed at that meeting.
It doesn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to connect the dots here. State health officials put out warning letters to users of well water near Duke coal ash pits, contaminated with dangerous levels of a substance known to be associated with coal ash. Duke complains to the health officials directly and to their bosses (probably up to and including the Governor himself, and certainly up to the governor’s appointed environmental department leader). Over the health officials’ objection, the warning letters are rescinded.
This is toxic politics at work, and the health of North Carolinians is being put at real risk as a result.
Legislative Watch: Solar Eclipse?
Environmental lobbyists in Raleigh report that much of the legislative action last week was focused (as it should be) on the details of the budget bill being worked through House committees. While important, the details are still fluid and no major action alerts are being released yet.
In CIB’s estimation, the most noteworthy new bill to drop in last week was probably the legislation which would implement DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart’s unfortunate vision of an eclipse of new solar development in our state. SB843 is titled “Renewable Energy Property Protection”. (Excuse us while we quit laughing. Really, who thinks of these titles?)
In reality, SB 843 would slap a long list of new, unneeded, and counterproductive regulations on the development of new solar energy farms: bonds, application fees, “permit preapplication” information packages and site evaluation meetings with DEQ, etc. There’s no mystery here: As reported in previous editions of CIB, it’s clearly a goal of DEQ Secretary van der Vaart to use his department to discourage solar development and encourage new nuclear plants instead.
The good news at this point is that it appears that the Senate may not be in the mood to take up another discretionary environmental fight like this during an election year. We’ll keep a watch on this matter and let you know if that seems to be changing.
Conservationists: Hunt, Legislators Inspire at Green Tie
Four-term NC Governor Jim Hunt inspired a full house of environmental quality and human health advocates as the keynote speaker to the 2016 NCLCV Green Tie Awards last week. In remarks which reflected the breadth and depth of his long leadership career and status as a legendary figure in North Carolina political history, Hunt underscored the centrality of green issues. For our children and all coming generations, Hunt declared, “We need elected officials who cherish our air, land, and water, and have the records to prove it.”
Among the current legislative leaders recognized at the event were Sen. Josh Stein, awarded Defender of the Environment; and Senator Floyd McKissick and Rep. Paul Luebke, named Senator and Representative of the Year, respectively. For information on all the award recipients, see here.
That’s our report for this week.