State Epidemiologist Resigns in Wake of Well Water Debate

Questions regarding the safety of well water near coal ash ponds have led to the resignation of the state epidemiologist and a slew of accusations against state administrators and scientists.

The upheaval in the state’s Department of Health and Human Services has played out in a series of open editorials and public resignations.

According to NC state toxicologist Ken Rudo, North Carolina officials, including the state health director, misled homeowners about the safety of well water near coal ash ponds. During his deposition last Tuesday, Rudo claimed that McCrory was aware of unsafe readings in the well water but claimed it was suitable to drink.

During a late night press conference, Governor Pat McCrory’s Chief of Staff, Thomas Stith, called Rudo a liar, saying, “We’re not going to stand idly by while individuals make false statements and lies under oath.”

An editorial published by the Department of Environmental Equality also claimed that Rudo misrepresented the water’s readings.

“Rudo’s analysis is out of step with the federal government and 49 other states,” the open editorial said. “Rudo’s unprofessional approach to this important matter does a disservice to public health and environmental protection in North Carolina.”

These events contributed to the resignation of State Epidemiologist Megan Davies, as she wrote in an open letter.

She said, “I am resigning because the open editorial issued by this Department [NC Department of Health and Human Services] on August 9, 2016, misrepresents the process used by NC DHHS to set health screening levels and provide public health recommendations to well owners whose wells were tested under the Coal Ash Management Act.”

She also wrote, “The editorial presents a false narrative of a lone scientist in NCDHHS acting independently to set health screening levels and make water use recommendations to well owners.”

David McLennan is a professor of political science at Meredith College. He said that the recent upheavals in the administration are out of the ordinary.

“This is pretty unusual. If we get down to it, it’s really a personnel issue that’s being played out in the public,” McLennan said. “Rarely do you see something quite like this, which is about science versus the public interest versus public health.”

In Davies’ open resignation, she also wrote, “I cannot work for a Department or an Administration that deliberately misleads the public.”

She said the department misrepresented Rudo’s information and scientific process. This kind of out-right name calling, McLennan said, will not bode well for McCrory.

“The reason this has become so public is because this is an election year and the McCrory administration is so linked to the coal ash situation because of his ties with Duke Energy,” McLennan said. “I think the McCrory administration saw the testimony by the state toxicologist as being potentially something that could be used against McCrory in a reelection campaign.”

If McCrory is indeed concerned about his reelection, McLennan said, he should take immediate action.

“We’ve already seen environmental groups run ads against McCrory saying his actions surrounding the coal ash situation have not been appropriate,” McLennan said. “This is just going to contribute to those attacks. And I think the governor needs to do something to reassure the people around those coal ash ponds that the water they’re drinking is safe. If he can do that, that might tamp down some of the political backlash he’s receiving.”

Part of reassuring the public, McLennan said, means visiting the communities where the water is in question.

“I think the governor should consider going to those locations and talking to the citizens. And this is a case where the governor can show leadership by going to the communities and asking them, ‘Do you feel that your water is safe?’”

McLennan said that it’s too early to know whether this episode will largely impact McCrory’s reelection campaign.

“We’re still three months out from the election and this could be a very minor issue in terms of the reelection campaign, or if it continues to grow and citizens get sick, it could be a huge issue. So there’s a lot of uncertainty around this from both a public health and political perspective.”

But whether or not it impacts the campaign, McLennan said it doesn’t cast a positive light over the administration’s handle on state issues.

“If I were assessing the governor’s performance, just based on this, it wouldn’t get a very good grade.”

http://chapelboro.com/news/state-government/state-epidemiologist-resigns-in-wake-of-well-water-debate

Areas of Hillsborough to Experience Brief Power Outages

Several areas of Hillsborough will experience brief power outages at the end of the week, due to repairs of electrical infrastructure.

Duke Energy will be repairing failing infrastructure on Thursday and Friday. The repairs will take place between 11:00-11:30 Thursday night and 4:30-5:00 Friday morning. The outages will be rescheduled for Friday and Saturday should there be weather delays. Officials say customers who will be affected by the outages will be called before they occur.

The affected neighborhood is located near Orange High School and northern Hillsborough, bordered by NC-86. A complete list of the areas affected is available on the town of Hillsborough website here.

http://chapelboro.com/news/news-around-town/areas-of-hillsborough-to-experience-brief-power-outages

As Climate Tipping Point Nears, Duke Energy Lags Behind Other Utilities on Renewables

Global temperatures in 2016 are near the tipping point that could cause global warming to surge forward under its own momentum. The heating is happening much faster than scientists expected even a year ago.

It’s partly due to the natural gas industry’s leakage of methane, a super-potent greenhouse gas that’s now the key US driver of global warming.

And the mad rush to burn more and more gas – by Duke Energy and others – is the key driver of the fracking boom.

By contrast, many US utilities are rapidly expanding solar and wind power.  Sempra Energy gets 36 percent of its power from renewables.

But Duke Energy, the nation’s largest utility, is near the bottom – under 3 percent – even as it spends millions to make people believe it’s green.

Tragically, Duke leaders are holding back the shift to renewables – while ramping up fracking and moving us all closer to chaos.

Climate change is terrifying.  But, the climate responds quickly to methane, so cutting methane leaks and fracking can slow global warming in the short term.  In fact, it’s the only way to avert the climate tipping point.

NC WARN is pushing Duke Energy to stop its fracked gas expansion and join the Clean Energy Revolution.

 

— Jim Warren
Executive Director
NC WARN

 

http://chapelboro.com/columns/the-commentators/as-climate-tipping-point-nears-duke-energy-lags-behind-other-utilities-on-renewables

Backroom Dealing in Duke Energy – PNG Merger

State regulators have cut another backroom deal with Duke Energy – in the $6 billion merger with Piedmont Natural Gas.

The July 18th hearing will allow statements from the public and parties to the case. But – as in past rate cases and the Duke-Progress Energy merger – the Utility Commission’s Public Staff (which supposedly represents the public) has already rubber-stamped Duke’s request, helping the corporation avoid scrutiny as it pursues a high-risk, climate-busting expansion of fracked gas.

Duke Energy even convinced the regulators to block testimony by NC WARN’s two witnesses: a shale gas expert who warns the natural gas industry is unstable and shale gas reserves badly overstated, and a methane emissions expert who points out the severe climate impacts of methane leakage from gas operations. Bizarrely, the Commission said their testimony isn’t relevant to Duke’s purchase of a natural gas utility.

The regulators have silenced anyone questioning the merger, telling interested parties: “don’t bother.”

Same old game. Duke Energy bids high and settles lower in a backroom deal; the Commission avoids the bother of a full-blown proceeding; and watchdogs investing time and resources to prepare legal cases are virtually ignored.

The People of this state pay the regulators’ salaries.  We need them to put our interests above those of Duke Energy bosses.

— Jim Warren
Executive Director
NC WARN

 

Have a comment or opinion you would like to share? Submit your commentary or column for the Commentators, on WCHL 97.9FM and Chapelboro.com.

 

 

http://chapelboro.com/columns/the-commentators/backroom-dealing-in-duke-energy-png-merger

Power Restored to Many in Chapel Hill and Carrboro

***UPDATE: Duke Energy is reporting the majority of the outages have been restored as of 6:30 Saturday evening.***

More than 1,800 residents in Chapel Hill and Carrboro are without power Saturday evening.

Most of the outages run along Greensboro Street and continuing up Estes Drive to the west of Martin Luther King Junior Boulevard.

The outages were reported around 5:30 on Saturday evening, according to Duke Energy. The utility estimates that power will be restored at eight o’clock Saturday night.

There is no word on what caused the outage.

http://chapelboro.com/featured/nearly-2000-without-power-in-chapel-hill-and-carrboro

Franklin Street Reopens, Power Restored

***Chapel Hill Police say that the downed tree that closed traffic and knocked out power to some has been removed. Power has been restored and traffic is back to normal.***

A downed tree is blocking all travel lanes on East Franklin Street Saturday evening, according to police.

A release says the roadway is closed between Boundary Street and Park Place.

An earlier tweet from law enforcement said that emergency crews and Duke Energy were working to clear the area.

The Duke Energy Outage Map currently shows a small outage in the area of the downed tree with power restoration estimated by 8:30 Saturday night.

Motorists and pedestrians are being encouraged to avoid the area until further notice.

 

http://chapelboro.com/featured/downed-tree-closes-franklin-street

State Environmental Agency Reclassifies Duke Energy Ash Basins

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality announced Wednesday that 25 Duke Energy coal ash basins across the state have been deemed an “intermediate” risk, along with eight high priority sites identified under state law.

The high-risk ponds must be dug up and closed by 2019 and the same must be done at the intermediate ponds by 2024.

The designation is significant because it changes the status of some basins from low risk. Under that classification, Duke would have the option to dewater the basin and then cap the remaining ash, and the utility would have until 2029 to reach that end.

Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good said in a press conference on Wednesday that the energy giant disagreed with the decision from DEQ to reclassify some of the basins.

“We do not believe the Coal Ash Management Act intended a point-in-time ranking that excludes the best and most current information,” Good said.

Good said that the classifications announced Wednesday would exclude new information that Duke may discover to safely close the basins.

“If DEQ’s recommendations are allowed to stand without review and possible adjustments based on additional new information, the state will have chosen the most extreme closure option, costing customers the most money and decades of disruption without additional, measurable environmental benefit,” Good told reporters.

Good was arguing the cap-in-place method that is available to Duke if the sites were to remain classified as low risk is as environmentally safe and cheaper than excavating the ash and moving it to a lined landfill.

The announcement from DEQ said that the agency was asking for the General Assembly to allow the reconsideration of the classification in 18 months. Secretary of the environmental department Donald van der Vaart said in a release that the reevaluation period is being asked for to allow for a reassessment after repair work is completed by Duke.

DJ Gerken is the managing attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Asheville office. He said in a statement the classifications announced Wednesday should remain in place.

“This administration’s determination to bail out Duke Energy knows no end and, rather than stand up for impacted communities, DEQ now wants the law changed to give Duke Energy a do-over in 18 months.”

Good said the reassessment is the best way to determine the effectiveness of the work Duke Energy is doing.

“We are continuing, for example, to complete facility improvement repairs; we have 200 wells that we are continuing to drill around our basins to provide additional information,” Good said. “I think it only makes sense to allow all of that work to be considered in developing final rankings for the basins.”

Good said that repair work could be completed in the next six months. Duke hopes that completion could cause the classification of some facilities to drop from intermediate to low risk, which would reopen the option to cap-in-place.

“I was at our Marshall station just a few weeks ago,” Good told reporters, “and some of the metrics on what would be required to excavate our Marshall station – it’s something like 800,000 truck loads.

“And if you considered that you can move about 100 trucks a day, 365 days a year, it would take you 20 years to move all of that ash.”

Good said those numbers call the 2024 deadline associated with the intermediate basins into question.

“We believe there would be significant risk to meeting that deadline for a number of our sites.”

Before the reclassification, Duke had maintained it could meet the proposed deadlines.

Good added the cost could grow exponentially through excavating and moving the ash as well.

“I do think it’s fair to say, with a constrained time frame and with the amount of material that we’re talking about, it would be significantly more expensive,” Good said. “And when you consider that the estimate that we’ve developed so far for our accounting records is in the range of $4 billion, it would be greater than that.”

The statement from the Southern Environmental Law Center said, “It’s past time for Duke Energy to clean up its leaking, unlined coal ash sites that threaten North Carolina’s communities, rivers, and drinking water sources.”

The proposed classifications from DEQ will become final in 60 days. Good said the company would push for clarifications before that deadline passes.

http://chapelboro.com/featured/state-environmental-agency-reclassifies-duke-energy-ash-basins

Fracking Forum at the Friday Center

On Tuesday at the Friday Center at 7 pm, scientists and civic leaders will discuss the climate and economic impacts of a massive expansion of fracking gas by the nation’s largest electric utility.

Duke Energy is planning to build 15 large gas-burning power plants.  This would accelerate the global climate crisis at the worst possible time.

That’s because methane leakage throughout the gas industry – and especially from fracking – is now the key driver of US greenhouse emissions.

State politicians and regulators have shielded Duke from debating experts who have grave concerns about the expansion.

So NC WARN and allies are bringing the experts to the public.

A key topic at the Friday Center on Tuesday will be the corporate influence that continues to prevent North Carolina from making an urgently needed shift to clean, competitive and affordable energy.

The NAACP’s Rev. Rodney Sadler will point to North Carolina’s moral duty to help slow the climate crisis and promote energy justice.

A growing alliance is driving these issues into an open, public debate.  We intend to move this state into an energy future based on clean, job-creating energy that helps slow global warming and promotes economic and environmental justice.

— Jim Warren

http://chapelboro.com/columns/the-commentators/fracking-forum-friday-center

Can Duke Energy Meet Coal Ash Cleanup Deadlines?

Duke Energy has until 2019 to shut down four high-risk sites across North Carolina and 2029 to close all of the ash basins, according to the Coal Ash Management Act passed in 2014 by the state legislature.

Duke itself admits this is an ambitious deadline but continues to reiterate the nation’s largest energy company is prepared to meet each benchmark.

As part of the closure process, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality issued a permit to Duke Energy in mid-February to allow for Duke to discharge wastewater from the utility’s Riverbend Steam Station in Gaston County into the Catawba River.

The permit does contain protections that Southern Environmental Law Center senior attorney Frank Holleman says were included after citizen input.

“Local conservation groups, in the Charlotte area, had to fight to get this dangerous site overlooking Charlotte’s drinking water reservoir cleaned up,” Holleman says. “Duke and the state agency fought a cleanup. But, in the aftermath of the Dan River spill, Duke agreed to clean this site up.

“And, in fact, later pleaded guilty to committing a crime there for the way it stored its coal ash.”

Duke Energy spokesperson Catherine Butler says that this permit allows Duke to go forward “dewatering” the ash basin at Riverbend. Butler says this permit was initially requested by Duke more than 18 months ago.

“And in addition to the permit, we will also be installing a water treatment system at the site to treat the water that is mixed with the ash,” Butler says, “before it is turned to Mountain Island Lake, which is the lake near the Riverbend Steam Station.”

Holleman says this discharge has the highest restrictions of any discharge into the river.

“Because Duke stored coal ash in this way – and because the state agency, DEQ, allowed them to – this egg has got to be unscrambled in order for the site to be cleaned up,” Holleman says.

Butler says Duke has been able to continue working to remove the dry ash that is sitting in ash stacks on the site while awaiting the permit to remove the water from the ash lagoons.

“We recently began moving ash by rail from Riverbend to a lined, structural fill project at the Brickhaven mine site, which is located in central North Carolina,” Butler says. The Brickhaven site is located in Chatham County.

Butler says that work has been underway since May of 2015 and that moving the ash by train increases the amount of ash that can be moved.

“One train moves about the same amount of ash as 420 trucks,” Butler says. “That’s a big difference.”

But if every permit takes 18 months to be vetted and cleared, that will clearly impact the initial 2019 deadline.

“In order to be able to excavate all of the ash and meet the aggressive deadlines that are outlined in the state law, it is very important that we have these permits to move forward with our work and remove the water from the basins and excavate the ash and move it to lined solutions,” Butler says. “This is a check in the box. But, again, it has been through many changes over the past year and a half – and even since the public comment period.”

Holleman says that the burden falls to DEQ to put the proper restrictions in place from the beginning rather than waiting for public outcry to strengthen the permits.

“If we could get our state agency shaped up to do the job right to start with, we wouldn’t have any delays,” Holleman says. “But the important thing is we’ve got to make sure we do this right, and we get the coal ash cleaned up in a way that will protect not only us today but future generations, also.”

Holleman says that if the permitting process went quicker, he takes Duke at its word that the utility can meet the aggressive deadlines.

“I grew up near Clemson University, in South Carolina, and I saw in the ‘60s and ‘70s, what was then Duke Power – before we had sophisticated computers and technology – cut the trees off of thousands of acres, build several huge dams and construct a major nuclear plant and two huge reservoirs in just a few years,” Holleman remembers. “And when Duke Energy and its engineers put their mind to doing something, they can get it accomplished.”

Meanwhile, Governor Pat McCrory, who worked for Duke Energy for nearly three decades before being elected governor, shut down the Coal Ash Management Commission earlier this month, after the state Supreme Court ruled the composition of the group was illegal. The group was established by lawmakers to monitor the cleanup of the unlined ash basins in North Carolina. WRAL is reporting that work will now shift to the Department of Environmental Quality.

http://chapelboro.com/featured/can-duke-energy-meet-coal-ash-cleanup-deadlines

Power Still Being Restored Throughout Orange County

***UPDATE: Duke Energy is reporting that less than 100 Orange County residents are without power as of Thursday afternoon. Power is not estimated to be completely restored until close to midnight.***

Severe weather ripped through our community on Wednesday evening.

Nearly 500 Orange County customers are still without power as of Thursday morning, according to the Duke Energy outage map and power is not expected to be restored until seven o’clock Thursday night. At the peak of the outages more than 2,000 Orange County residents were without power late Wednesday night.

A tree nearly hit this house west of MLK and Umstead. Photo via Mark Schoeman.

A tree nearly hit this house west of MLK and Umstead. Photo via Mark Schoeman.

The timing of the storm caused problems as students were forced to remain in local schools because conditions were too hazardous for school systems to allow students to board buses and leave the campuses. The severe weather approached and tornado warning went into effect during the three o’clock hour Wednesday afternoon and did not let up until nearly five o’clock.

Trees were down across the community causing traffic delays, and Orange County crews were working in conjunction with the municipalities to clear debris from various roadways.

The National Weather Service did report a funnel cloud being seen as the storm passed over Orange County. The weather service then reported a tornado touched down from the same system as it proceeded to the north and east of Orange County.

Large hail was reported throughout the county as well.

An e-mail from Orange County deputy manager Travis Myren to the Board of County Commissioners said that there were no injuries reported due to the storm and that one home in Chapel Hill sustained “major damage.” The e-mail said the Red Cross was assisting in that case.

Tree down just north of the UNC campus. Photo via TwigLiving Twitter account.

Tree down just north of the UNC campus. Photo via TwigLiving Twitter account.

With all of the severe weather, Orange County Emergency Management Coordinator told WCHL Wednesday evening that officials had only received sporadic calls reporting damage.

Officials want to remind residents that if you see a downed power line or another electrical danger, please call 911. Residents are also encouraged to handle any chainsaws or other equipment safety when cleaning up any fallen trees or other debris.

http://chapelboro.com/featured/nearly-500-in-orange-county-still-without-power