From climate change to coal ash: Five environmental stories to follow in the New Year

From climate change to coal ash: Five environmental stories to follow in the New Year

- in Environment, Top Story


Photo: Lisa Sorg


Remember 350 parts per million? In 2008, author Bill McKibben christened his environmental group because 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide was thought to be the limit of the “safe” amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Within five years, we blew past 350 and careened to 400. In May 2019, Planet Earth, the Only Known Viable Place to Live in the Universe, hit 415.26 ppm, a historic high.

What does that number mean? The people of eastern North Carolina can tell you: Inundated farms, wastewater treatment plants spewing sewage into the streets. Sunny day flooding in Wilmington. More frequent devastating hurricanes: Dorian, Florence, Matthew. In Goldsboro, in Wayne County, the storms forced residents from their homes for months. In Duplin County, some homeowners accepted a federal buyout and permanently abandoned their battered houses for higher ground. The Robeson County school system has lost hundreds of students whose families left the area, unable to sustain the incessant climate upheaval. Entire towns are on the verge of uprooting, of moving to higher ground. And with that uprooting comes a loss of identity. Of home.

Even if you’re not hunkered in a climate change foxhole, you’ve felt the effects. 100-degree heat in October. Record droughts and their ensuing mountain wildfires. The year 2019 was the second-warmest in North Carolina since 1981; 2018 was the wettest. The Federal Emergency Management Agency recently announced it had allocated a half-billion dollars to North Carolina for recovery and resiliency projects related to Hurricane Florence. A half-billion dollars – and that’s not enough.

In 2018, Gov. Cooper issued Executive Order 80 to direct the state to “strive” to reel in their greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent over 2005 levels. (Despite this, the Albemarle Building, home of the Department of Insurance, still keeps every window lit after dark.) By March, DEQ is required to provide to Cooper a “State Climate Risk Assessment and Resiliency Plan.” How that plan translates to real action, with tangible, positive outcomes remains to be seen. But for a start, in the next legislative session, instead of enacting moratoriums on wind energy and trying to weaken the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard, lawmakers could pass legislation – legislation not written by utility companies – that not just incentivizes, but also prioritizes clean power.

Since the U.S. has abandoned the Paris Agreement, we are now a larger part of the problem. We can also be a large part of the solution. In 2020, what will we do to disarm this existential threat? While the officials in Raleigh and Washington, DC dither, we as individuals can act, even in small but meaningful ways. If you’re among the privileged, you can drive less and fly less. Eat less meat, because livestock contributes to the methane emissions. Keep homes cooler in the winter, warmer in the summer. Use public transit that has a smaller greenhouse gas footprint. Unless you’re on the list for an organ transplant, same-day delivery is unnecessary. It might be convenient but it’s not the planet’s friend.

Climate change is no longer an abstraction. As I write this, it’s 71 degrees – 16 degrees above the average high for this date in late December – and the windows are open. Blossoms are flecking the tree across the street. Yesterday, I heard a mower in my neighborhood. If this is life in winter at 415 parts per million, what will 450 be?


Wilmington’s Sweeney water treatment plant (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

Three years ago, most North Carolinians had never heard of 1,4-Dioxane, GenX, PFOA, PFOS or the other toxic perfluorinated compounds that contaminate our drinking water. Now PFAS glides off the tongue like a fried egg off a Teflon plan.

Since 2017, when GenX was detected in Wilmington’s drinking water – the origin being a Chemours facility, 150 miles upstream – these contaminants have been found in private drinking water wells near the plant near the Bladen-Cumberland County line. Now we know that metaphorically speaking (and in some cases, literally) we’re swimming in these contaminants. They have been detected in waterways, drinking water, and even compost throughout North Carolina.

In their myriad 5,000-plus configurations – an extra fluorine molecule here, a carbon bond there – PFAS are used in Teflon pans, GoreTex jackets, pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags, take-out containers, parchment paper and more. As for 1,4-Dioxane, this likely carcinogen is used in the plastics industry, as well as in the manufacture of personal care products.

The discharge from these industries either flows directly into waterways or to wastewater treatment plants that are ill-equipped to remove the contaminants before sending them downstream and back into the drinking water supply or into biosolids that are then applied on farm fields. A vicious cycle, and the price of convenience.

Meanwhile, the EPA is dragging its feet on any meaningful regulations for PFAS or 1,4-Dioxane in drinking water. The NC Department of Environmental Quality, so far has deferred to the EPA. The legislature is asleep at the switch.

It’s probably too much to hope for that under the Trump administration the EPA will regulate these compounds in 2020. For its part, DEQ has been reactive, not proactive in responding to the crisis. Granted, lawmakers have slashed the department’s budget, but that shouldn’t prevent DEQ from taking enforcement action as soon as it’s aware of the problem.

Which leaves the courts as North Carolinians’ main recourse: Within the next two weeks we’ll learn whether DEQ will take enforcement action against the City of Burlington for discharging 1,4-Dioxane into the Haw River. If not, the Southern Environmental Law Center has notified the city it intends to sue under the Clean Water Act and federal hazardous waste law for applying contaminated sludge from the wastewater treatment plant onto land.


Magic 8-Ball, what will happen to the millions of tons of Duke Energy’s coal ash currently percolating in unlined pits? 

Magic 8-Ball says, “Concentrate and ask again.”

The big coal ash news from 2019 was that the NC Department of Environmental Quality ordered Duke Energy to fully excavated coal ash at its final six plants – Allen, Belews Creek, Mayo, Roxboro, Cliffside/Rogers and Marshall – and place the material in lined landfills, either on or offsite. This cleanup method is already underway at the utility’s other eight plants in North Carolina, and has been done by other utilities in South Carolina and Virginia. Duke, though, has proposed either leaving the ash in an unlined pit with a protective cap, or a hybrid of capping some ash in place and disposing the rest in an onsite lined landfill.

(Regardless of the cleanup method, expect Duke to ask the Utilities Commission pass the costs to the ratepayers. Public hearings on Duke Energy Carolinas and Duke Energy Progress rate cases are scheduled for January and February. Mark your calendars: The docket numbers are E-7 1214 and E-2 1219.)

Communities are demanding the coal ash be removed from unlined pits to protect the groundwater and public health, an obvious solution. They also want the mess hauled away, offsite. That’s understandable, but with less obvious winners and losers. The toxic ash – classified by the EPA for political, not scientific reasons, as non-hazardous – has to go somewhere. And that somewhere is often low-income neighborhoods or communities of color.

Duke’s closure plans for the pits at the six remaining plants are due to DEQ no later than tomorrow, Dec. 31,  the contents of which should be sung to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne.”


(File photo: Lisa Sorg)

While greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, upend the planet – see Story No. 1 – energy companies and utilities are primed to raze trees, pollute streams and fragment wildlife habitat to clear the way for two natural gas pipelines in North Carolina.

Co-owned by Dominion Energy and Duke Energy, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would start at a fracked gas operation in West Virginia and travel 600 miles, 160 of them routing through eight North Carolina counties, including tribal lands. Environmental groups’ legal challenges have halted construction on the ACP, raising questions whether the $8 billion-and-counting natural gas project will ever get built. In 2019 the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the U.S. Forest Service wrongly granted permits to ACP, LLC that would allow the project to cross the Appalachian Trail. Undaunted and with a lot of money and investors on the line, ACP, LLC appealed to the US Supreme Court. The justices agreed to hear the case, but oral arguments have yet to be scheduled.

Even if the ACP dies like a dinosaur, expect it to re-emerge as an issue in the 2020 gubernatorial campaign. Last year Republican lawmakers hired Eagle Intel to uncover the origins of Gov. Cooper’s $57.8 million deal with ACP, LLC, which was supposed to pay for economic development and environmental mitigation. Based in part on several eyebrow-raising text messages between Duke Energy and Cooper’s senior advisor, Ken Eudy, investigators determined that while the governor didn’t benefit from the deal, he improperly used his authority to negotiate it – a GOP campaign ad machine’s dream. Scary music? Check. High-contrast black-and-white photos of the governor, preferably with a furrowed brow? Double-check.

The ACP’s younger sibling, the Mountain Valley Pipeline Southgate project might be shorter – 46 miles – but is no less controversial. This project is owned by a murky consortium with names like Midstream Partners and NextEra Energy. (The next era after the Anthropocene? Death!) If built, it would cross streams that feed the Dan River and the Haw River, already besieged by pollution – see Story No. 2. Considering North Carolina’s inroads into solar energy and battery storage, even state environmental regulators seem circumspect about the necessity of all this gas.

A Final Environmental Impact Statement is due in 2020, which, if the ACP’s version is any indicator, will be about as thorough as a last-minute essay written by a college freshman jacked up on Adderall and expired cans of Four Loko. After the public comment period, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission – FERC – will decide. And then the lawyers cash in.


Hog lagoons, which holds millions of gallons of waste, and the barns, which hold thousands of hogs. (Photo from court files)

After batting 0-for-5 in U.S. District Court, where juries unanimously decided in favor of neighbors of industrialized hog operations, Murphy-Brown/Smithfield decided to roll the dice at Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. Several months of byzantine legal briefs ensued, and finally, oral arguments will begin Jan. 31 in Richmond. At issue is whether five juries were correct in determining the stench, flies, buzzards and airborne fecal bacteria from the outdated lagoon and sprayfield waste systems, as well as truck traffic and dust, constituted a nuisance to residents – all of them Black – living adjacent to or near these behemoth “farms.” At stake is hundreds of millions of dollars in damages that the same juries awarded to the residents.

Outside the courtroom, expect an onslaught of puerile attacks on the plaintiffs’ lawyers and the press from NC Farm Families, the front group for Murphy-Brown and NC Pork Council. Or perhaps Feed the Dialogue, a project of the NC Farm Bureau, will make the rounds preaching the gospel of Big Ag. In September 2019, hog farmer Marlowe Ivey Vaughan spoke for 30 minutes at the opening of “High on the Hog,” an ongoing exhibit at the Museum of the Albermarle in Elizabeth City. (It conveniently omits the environmental problems associated with industrialized animal agriculture; there’s not even a Scratch ‘n’ Sniff card.)  “As a modern farmer, I’m looking to be better,” Vaughan said. “Farmers, we’re recyclers. We don’t want to spend money on anything (just kidding).” Click here to listen to Vaughan’s presentation from the event.