Former House Speaker tried to strong-arm DEQ over chemicals in Jordan Lake

By: - May 25, 2017 5:00 am

Harold Brubaker, the former Republican House Speaker turned powerful lobbyist, tried to ram through a scientifically dubious cleanup project for Jordan Lake and allegedly used hurricane relief funding as leverage, according to emails obtained by NCPW under the Open Records law.

Former House Speaker-turned lobbyist Harold Brubaker (Photo from Brubaker and Associates website)

Brubaker’s client, SePro, proposes using chemical treatments — the effectiveness of which has been questioned in scientific journals, by the EPA and DEQ — to clean up algae in Jordan Lake.

Last winter, Brubaker reportedly told then-DEQ Chief Deputy John Evans that if the agency didn’t sign a $1.3 million contract with Sepro, “the GA [General Assembly] would refuse to support hurricane funding.”

Evans recalled that conversation with Brubaker in an email dated Dec. 6, 2016, which he sent to six DEQ colleagues. The email reads:

“Purely as FYI: Harold Brubaker called me and said GA would take funds on December 13th if we are not under contract. I didn’t think we received any money anyway. He also said if we didn’t get under contract the GA would refuse to support hurricane funding.”

Evans seemed unfazed by Brubaker’s strong-arm tactics, according to the email. Evans reportedly told Brubaker:

“DEQ would do exactly what we said we would do and that is let our technical folks evaluate and if there is merit we would enter contract with caveat pending Corps approval. We have to let science drive these decisions.”

Brubaker told NCPW that the “depiction of the conversation is a misrepresentation and inaccurate.” He said that he told Evans the General Assembly could use any funds not obligated to the SePro project for hurricane relief.

A week after Evans’s email, on Dec. 13, DEQ officials and SePro representatives met to discuss the proposal. That was the same day that the legislature approved $175 million for hurricane relief.

DEQ has yet to sign a contract with SePro, which is contingent on federal approval. However, as NCPW has reported, the Indiana-based company did make a presentation to DEQ earlier this year. Its asking price has also decreased to $800,000, according to DEQ documents. SePro didn’t return a call seeking comment.

Brubaker served in the House for 35 years. During that time he was a chief budget writer and also served two terms as House Speaker. Those extensive networks have garnered him both a lucrative client list and influence over legislation. In fact, the previous House budget contains a provision that seems to lay the groundwork specifically for SePro.

DEQ “shall consider” treatments for Jordan Lake, the budget reads, including “algaecide and phosphorus-locking technologies.” To test these treatments, DEQ could then choose to spend up to $1.3 million — the same amount for the SePro pilot program. Any unused money would revert to the General Fund.

According to an email sent by Assistant DEQ Secretary Tom Reeder, SePro approached the agency about the same chemical treatments mentioned in the budget.

That email, dated Aug. 26, 2016, sent to eight DEQ colleagues, specifically states that “SePro wants to discuss with us the possibility of using algaecide or phos lock in a pilot test.”

But Reeder seemed skeptical that SePro’s proposal would receive the necessary approval from the US Army Corps of Engineers, which built Jordan Lake.

“I have already told them that I don’t think the Corps will be favorably disposed to this idea after the SolarBee deal,” Reeder wrote. “But I would like to meet with them and get your opinions on their plan.”

As part of a project funded by the legislature, UNC researchers are studying the sources and levels of contamination in Jordan Lake. (Photo: UNC Institute for the Environment)

Jordan Lake has been dirty nearly since its construction in the 1980s. But the agriculture and urban runoff — fertilizers, manure, and the like — has further sullied the watershed with nitrogen and phosphorus, which algae craves. For algae, Jordan Lake in the summertime is like a cozy, all-you-can-eat buffet.

This is not just a cosmetic problem. Large swaths of algae can contaminate lakes and rivers, choking fish, which in turn, can die en masse. The toxic species of algae can sicken people, birds and animals. If drinking water supplies become contaminated — Jordan Lake serves more than 300,000 people — treatment plants have to work harder, often using more expensive methods, to remove the material.

The question of how to clean up pollution in Jordan Lake has dogged the legislature for nearly a decade, since 2009, when lawmakers passed rules that would have more strictly regulated in particular, housing and commercial development. But special interests, such as the real estate lobby, chafed at the regulations. As a result, lawmakers have repeatedly delayed the implementation of the rules. Instead, they have floated other initiatives, including SolarBees, which were supposed to churn the water and prevent algae from growing. The $1 million project failed.

SePro’s initial proposal did not impress agency scientists, either. In a Nov. 23, 2016, email, Culpepper wrote to Reeder, Zimmerman and Mark Vander Borgh, an algal ecologist, that the first pass “lacked specific evidence for proof of concept and they have submitted a new proposal.”

Vander Borgh reportedly had reviewed the second go-round, and according to Culpepper, “indicates the package does not provide information to resolve his initial questions/concerns sent to them.”

Culpepper’s email says that the new proposal focused on “SeClear Algaecide and Water Quality Enhancer” technology. Its active ingredient, 16.2 percent copper sulfate pentahydrate, is, according to SePro, “proven to be an effective solution to control cyanobacteria and subsequently reduce taste and odor compounds in drinking water supplies.”

The pilot program would have entailed three SeClear treatments between March and September 2017 in the Upper New Hope arm of the lake. However, that pilot has not launched. No contract has been signed, nor has the US Army Corps of Engineers approved of the program.

An Army Corps spokesman told NCPW that a meeting with SePro is scheduled for June 6.

But there are scientific and even legal questions about using  chemical treatments on large water bodies. Jordan Lake, for example, is 46,000 acres. In a Nov. 14, 2016, letter to DEQ, the EPA Region 4 office dismissed this method, used alone, as inadequate. “This [chemical] approach is generally inconsistent with the Clean Water Act,” the letter read, which calls for “controls at the source of the pollution to address water quality impairments.”

Federal discharge permits could also be in jeopardy. The Clean Water Act doesn’t allow permit holders to delay meeting their pollution requirements for the purposed of evaluating experimental approaches” to cleaning up contaminated waterways, the letter read.

Even if SePro tested its products on a small area, like the upper New Hope branch, which is particularly vulnerable to algae development, there are environmental risks. Hans Paerl, distinguished professor of Marine and Environmental Sciences at UNC, sits on the NC Collaboratory’s Jordan Lake Study Group, funded by a $500,000 budget appropriation last year.

Through a UNC spokesperson, Paerl told NCPW that he could not comment on specifics of SePro’s proposal until he had seen it. (NCPW has requested the proposals and contracts from DEQ.) But he did provide a scientific paper he co-authored that gives insight into the pros and cons of chemical treatment in large water bodies.

Copper sulfate, the paper says, is effective in killing algae, “but is toxic to a wide variety of plants and animals.” Its “residue in sediments is problematic” because the chemicals can linger there and emerge long after they’ve been applied.

Toxic algae presents additional challenges because when the bacteria die from the chemical treatment, they release toxins that contaminate drinking water and irrigation supplies.

The “phoslock” technology can help reduce phosphorus levels, but is very expensive, especially for large lakes. And, according to the paper, it doesn’t touch nitrogen, the other primary feeder of algae.

Chief Deputy Secretary John Evans told DWR Deputy Linda Culpepper that the only way he would entertain a SePro pilot program was to apply the treatment to a very small area, and that the company would have to “tell us exactly what they would propose to add to the water and how much.”

“The real issue continues to be [Division of Water Resources] scientists,” he added. “They have to be convinced that this has a chance of working.”

EPA letter to DEQ by LisaSorg on Scribd

Paerl study on algae by LisaSorg on Scribd

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.