Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Justice for All?


I was among the many that attended an April 7th hearing held by the North Carolina Advisory Committee of the US Commission on Civil Rights in Walnut Cove. The testimony from the community and panelists (well at least some of the panelists) was moving and powerful, in fact more than one Commission member was moved to tears. Our own Mr. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder was a panelist! He didn't move anyone to tears, however he did give us one of the most fascinating interludes. He proudly announced that  DEQ would do an environmental justice analysis of any new Duke Energy coal ash disposal site and would not issue a permit for a Duke Energy landfill unless the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Commission approved it. DEQ followed this up with a letter. You can read it here: https://ncdenr.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/documents/files/4.14.16%20Letter%20to%20US%20Civil%20Rights%20Commission_0.pdf

The day before, at a seminar held by the UNC Institute for the Environment, Secretary Reeder stated "We're gonna make sure we do an environmental justice screening on all landfills that handle coal ash associated with these Duke facilities...whether we permit sites on Duke facilities or off..."

On its face, DEQ's announcement seems like a good step forward on environmental justice. However, upon closer examination it does not appear so. Let's unpack this and see what is really going on between the lines. Among other things:

1. The US EPA has few legal mechanisms and little legal authority to deny a permit on environmental justice grounds. 
2. The US Commission on Civil Rights only has authority to make recommendations. There are no federal rules that require any agency to enact policy/regulations based on those recommendations.
3. The Coal Ash Management Act (CAMA) does not give NC DEQ the legal authority to deny a permit on environmental justice grounds. There is no proposed rulemaking or legislation that would amend the CAMA to give them the authority to do so. DEQ is rather busy placing gag orders on state and local health officials.
4. I have asked several people within DEQ  for specific answers to the questions below. The answers re-stated the press release, which conflicts with some of the remarks made by Tom Reeder in public: 
  •  Will this apply to any new facility that accepts coal ash from Duke Energy? Including MSWLF's, new coal ash landfills owned by a third party, structural fills, or mine reclamations?
  • Will it apply to expansions or modifications of existing facilities that Duke Energy targets for coal ash disposal?
  • If a third-party waste disposal firm contracts with Duke Energy to dispose of coal ash, will this new policy apply to any a new or expanding facility that the third party selects to  dispose of the coal ash?
5. Why isn't DEQ looking at targeted communities, and communities already impacted by coal ash disposal?
6. What happens if Duke Energy ships coal ash out of state? Don't those communities deserve justice also? 
7. Lawsuits. Lots of them.
8. What if coal ash from other states is shipped into North Carolina? Will that make it "just?"

We need to open the drapes on DEQ's window dressing. They are setting up a straw man so that they can point fingers at the federal government and others; it is hard to know what the motivation is. If they really mean it- we will know. There will be a bill, or a rulemaking. Soon. 

#coalash #environmentaljustice #NCDEQ #DontExpectQuality

Thursday, April 14, 2016

UPDATE August 3: Coal Ash + Duke Energy=DEQ's Weird Science

So...what would you little maniacs like to do first? 

~Lisa, Weird Science, 1985


The story continues:

Testimony: McCrory called toxicologist Ken Rudo to his office to discuss do-not-drink letters for well owners near coal ash pits

Gov. Pat McCrory summoned state toxicologist Ken Rudo to his office in early 2015 for a meeting during which a McCrory staff member challenged the advisory Rudo had helped draft telling well owners near coal ash pits owned by Duke Energy not to drink their water, according to recent testimony given in a deposition by Rudo.

Friends, a recent headline:

Testimony: Duke Energy met with state officials to challenge water advisories

Duke Energy used its access at top levels of state government to challenge the do-not-drink warning and health screening level that had been vetted by state health experts for the carcinogen hexavalent chromium in private wells near the company’s coal ash basins, according to testimony by the state epidemiologist made public Thursday.


We have witnessed a true miracle in North Carolina! Hexavalent chromium (the toxic metal made infamous by Erin Brockovich)  has been rendered safe by sheer willpower and four magic words. Who, you might ask, is responsible for this feat? None other than our very own Mr. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder. Remember Tom? He was featured in a post from another blog of mine a while back: Water, Water Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink: Part One. Since then, Tom got a promotion! Let's get back to the subject of this piece, hexavalent chromium aka Cr(VI).

Cr(VI) is an endocrine disrupting and carcinogenic toxic metal that is almost always produced by industrial processes, and is found in coal ash (magic words). The US EPA has been avoiding requirements to control this substance in drinking water, not because it isn't dangerous, it is-their own research shows that. After EPA proposed limits for Cr(VI) in 2010, the industry push back was so fierce it sent EPA running to put their recommended level back on the shelf.

Fast forward to North Carolina in 2014. The Coal Ash Management Act (CAMA) was passed in 2014 following the Dan River spill. Testing private wells around Duke Energy (two more magic words) coal ash impoundments was one of the provisions of the law. Because Cr(VI) and vanadium had no established limits in North Carolina, DEQ and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) were tasked with coming up with recommendations, which they did. Testing began around the coal ash impoundments, and, among other nasty things, surprise, surprise Cr(VI) and vanadium started showing up above safe levels in people's wells.  Also under the enchantment of the magic words, baseline testing of private wells near Duke Energy's proposed coal ash landfill in Lee County started showing high levels of Cr(VI). This site has possible legacy contamination which was not investigated prior to the permitting of the landfill- although concerns were raised about it. DHHS sent out "do not drink" letters. Then...the magic happened. The combination of those four magic words coal ash + Duke Energy was so powerful that hexavalent chromium began to be detoxified. Amazing! Astounding!

Wait a minute- toxicologists and epidemiologists with DHHS and DEQ collaborated on the assessment of Cr(VI), using established risk-assessment methodology- including the process that the DEQ uses to analyze the public health risk of chemicals in groundwater. North Carolina law requires that toxic constituents in groundwater pose no more than a one-in a-million risk of cancer to the public. But they were no match for those four magic words, coal ash+Duke Energy. From emails obtained through a public records request:
"The MCL and the N.C. 2L standard for total chromium are dated and no longer protective of public health based on the principles by which the N.C. 2L standards are based.
 The excess life-time cancer risk estimates for the MCL and the N.C. 2L standards calculated using the 2L rule method result in an unacceptable level of excess life-time human cancer risk."

Health experts in North Carolina are not alone in their concern about the levels of Cr(VI) being found. In a recent article, Max Costa, professor of environmental medicine at New York University said of the amounts being found around coal ash (magic words) pits here: I wouldn’t want to drink water with 21 parts per billion hexavalent chromium. You’re drinking a carcinogen.” A year of fear and distrust in Dukeville- Environmental Health News April 18, 2016

Enter Dr. Randall Williams, state health director. He's a likeable kind of guy- he delivers babies for heaven's sake! (Full disclosure I have never trusted someone wearing a bow-tie...) Dr. Williams went on the road with Reeder. I caught their magic act in Lee County: 

What Reeder would have us believe is that municipalities all across North Carolina have Cr(VI) levels higher than the private wells around Duke Energy's coal ash impoundments. The snake oil Dr. Williams is selling is that vanadium is good for us, and that we should ignore the state's public health experts on Cr(VI). 

The "do drink" letters began arriving in communities across North Carolina. 

The media has done an excellent job of explaining:

Winston-Salem Journal: 

By lifting do-not-drink warning, state water and health regulators choose 1 in 700 cancer risk


Well owners say new guidance raises old coal ash concerns Read more at http://www.wral.com/well-owners-say-new-guidance-raises-old-coal-ash-concerns/15626269/#v65eWudyXvxdTPvj.99

Also deeply disturbing, a legislative committee, the Environmental Review Commission  is considering a bill that is frankly a gag order that will limit the ability of DEQ and DHHS to notifiy private well owners unless a contaminant exceeds a federal level- which ignores North Carolina's health based screening levels.

The public deserves a state agency that protects public health and the environment, not polluters. Recently, the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources changed their name to the Department of Environmental Quality. We have a better idea DEQ: Don't Expect Quality.

#coalash #NCDEQ #DontExpectQuality #DukeEnergy #ncpol

Meet the New Boss-Same as the Old Boss: Governor Cooper's "Kinder, Gentler" North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality

~  The Who: Won't Get Fooled Again Friends, This recent article caught my eye: "After years of unsafe practices, North Car...