The environment in 2018: Forecasting the state policy debates for the coming year

By: - January 2, 2018 12:58 pm
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Oh, Magic Eight Ball, will legislators step up in 2018 and pass meaningful laws to prevent contamination and to penalize polluters?

The House? Reply hazy, try again.

The Senate, which includes some of the most ardent anti-regulatory lawmakers (Trudy Wade, Harry Brown)? Don’t count on it.

Will the state Utilities Commission reject Duke Energy’s sky-high rate increase request?

Ask again later.

Will extreme weather, boosted by climate change, convince developers to stop paving the coast?

Outlook not so good.

Two-thousand and eighteen is the year in which North Carolina can be among the nation’s leaders in environmental protection or fall in line behind the anti-regulatory, anti-science leadership at the EPA.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is dismantling rules at the pace of a melting glacier, which is to say, quickly. Since the legislature several years ago re-enacted the Hardison Amendment, forbidding state agencies from passing stricter rules than their federal counterparts, the regulatory landscape now resembles an apocalyptic tableau from Mad Max: Fury Road.

Here are five environmental topics — water, energy, coast, air and waste — with a look at what could lie ahead over the next 363 days.

The Haw River flowing under the Bynum Bridge in Chatham County. High levels of the emerging contaminant 1,4 dioxane have been detected in the river. The Haw supplies drinking water for several communities, including Pittsboro. The river also flows into Jordan Lake, another major drinking water source. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Water: The water woes of 2017 will continue to spill over into this year and beyond. DEQ, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Secretaries’ Science Advisory Board are trying to get a handle on how to test for, regulate and clean up GenX and emerging contaminants in surface water, groundwater — and ultimately, the ostensibly clean water running from our taps.

Complicating matters, state regulators don’t know what to look for. That means they have to deploy very expensive “non-targeted monitoring,” which essentially tries to detect a multiverse of contaminants that we don’t even know exist in our water.

The problem isn’t limited to the Cape Fear River and the Chemours plant. We bid adieu to 2017 with the news that perfluoroinated compounds had been detected in Jordan Lake and in the Town of Cary’s drinking water.

The Haw River is contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, also an emerging contaminant. While some of the pollutant has been removed from Pittsboro’s drinking water, known technologies can’t eliminate it completely. That’s why it’s vital to pass and enforce regulations to keep it out of the environment in the first place.

Will this be the year that Amy Brown, Deborah Graham and dozens of residents living near Duke Energy’s coal ash impoundments finally get off bottled water? After nearly 1,000 days they still don’t have a permanent water supply to replace the water in their private wells that might have been contaminated with hexavalent chromium, also known as Chromium 6.

Adding to residents’ woes, Duke Energy asked the well owners to sign an agreement indemnifying the utility against future damages in return for $5,000 and payments covering monthly water bills (if they’re connected to a public system) or maintenance on filtration systems. There are several problems with this scheme: Not only would current well owners sign away their legal rights, but also their future (and even as-yet unborn) heirs. Now the case is headed to court.

And while all eyes are focused on water quality, don’t forget previous legislative sleights of hand have tried to pry open the door to privatization. For-profit companies, such as Aqua NC, woo financially strapped public systems to sell, offloading their ancient infrastructure and the expenses that come with it. Unfortunately, history has shown that the private companies then cut corners and hike the rates in the name of profit. No one’s happy except the shareholders.

ENERGY: Bracing themselves for a rate hike, Duke Energy Progress customers will learn how much extra money they’ll have to pony up for electricity and then decide whether to run their air conditioners this summer.

Within the next three months, it’s expected that the NC Utilities Commission will announce an amount it thinks is reasonable. Odds are, it won’t be a 13 percent increase for residential customers, lest citizens march en masse to the Dobbs Building in Raleigh. (The utility originally asked for a 16.7 percent increase, but negotiated a reduced amount with the commission’s public staff.)

Initial public hearings for Duke Energy Carolina’s 16.7 percent request are scheduled for Jan. 16, 24 and 30, and Feb. 19.

The sticky wicket, of course, is that the utility wants ratepayers in both territories to cover costs for the massive coal ash cleanup. In evidentiary hearings held this fall, Duke Energy Progress argued that since our ancestors enjoyed the benefits of coal-fired power plants, current generations should pay.

A counter-argument: Those living on Earth are already paying for coal: In climate change, air pollution, mercury in fish, etc. In other words, we need to pay ’til it hurts — really hurts.

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Barring any more 11th-hour surprises — by no means, a given — the legislature’s wind energy moratorium is scheduled to expire at the end of the year. Maps crafted in secret by a firm hired by Legislative Services Director Paul Coble (also unprecedented: the Environmental Review Commission is usually in charge) should be released some time this year.

We could also begin to see how last year’s renewable energy bill plays out, and whom the compromises between Duke Energy and the solar energy industry will favor.

As many stop-sticks as the state is tossing in front of the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline, the $5.5 billion project could be delayed and it’s already a year behind. Even if DEQ eventually approves all of the permits, that action will merely trigger environmental litigation, which could further postpone or even derail the deal.

(Graphic: Randall Santiago, Sylvia Liu,

Last April, President Trump opened the mid-Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf, which includes North Carolina, to offshore drilling and seismic testing. Since then, energy companies have been salivating over the prospect of firing harmful seismic air guns beneath the sea surface and poking deep holes in the sensitive ocean floor.

Gov. Roy Cooper and DEQ Secretary Michael Regan have officially filed their opposition to the plan. And the state Division of Coastal Management recently asked four drilling companies to address in their applications the damaging effects of seismic testing.

COASTAL ISSUES: Speaking of the state’s magnificent coastline, as long as there are buyers and sellers of seaside property, the stubborn problem of overdevelopment in environmentally sensitive and flood prone areas will persist. Case in point: A nine-acre maritime forest — key to controlling coastal flooding — in Pine Knoll Shores will be all but mowed down to build more houses.

The legislature is only encouraging such folly by relaxing rules on the amount of impervious surface — aka pavement and concrete — developers are allowed to build.

North Carolina dodged major hurricanes in 2017, but the relentless global increase in greenhouse gases — the planet blew through 400 parts per million years ago — is already changing the state’s climate. Hotter summers, more intense hurricanes and droughts: The coast is the canary in the coal mine — and she’s singing.

We should also receive some initial data from the UNC Ferry Monitoring Program. With a one-time $150,000 appropriation from state lawmakers, FerryMon, as it’s known, uses sensors attached to NC DOT ferries to measure certain parameters in the soundside waters: temperature and pollution, for example.

The data, which have been collected for several years, (although unfortunately, the program ran out of money shortly before Hurricane Matthew) could tell us how climate change is affecting the health of the state’s inlets and sounds.

AIR: Now that North Carolina has been allocated $92 million from the VW Mitigation Trust Fund, the primary focus for DEQ is how to spend the windfall. The plan is in its earliest phases, with state environmental officials recently collecting public comment on potential projects to reduce nitrogen oxide levels from diesel engines throughout North Carolina.

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This will be a protracted, multi-year process. If state lawmakers meddle with DEQ’s spending priorities (and even if they don’t), it will be important to follow the money.

WASTE: None of the state’s 39 Superfund sites made EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s priority list, but clean up has begun at CTS, an old electronics plant, in Asheville. In 2018, the EPA is supposed to release a proposed plan to wrangle a plume of contaminated groundwater at a site in Aberdeen, possibly from an old metals facility.

Clean up strategies are also expected at Kerr-McGee, a former wood-treating plant in Navassa, and ABC Cleaners in Jacksonville.

DEQ is also expected to remediate 16 more old unlined landfills, aka dumps, over the next two years. If the agency sticks to its schedule — the process is expensive, and money is always an issue — the number of clean ups would total 28. That’s only 4 percent of the 677 sites.

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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.