It may not matter much in the end, but Chatham County commissioners have unanimously adopted a resolution opposing Duke Energy's plans to dump 3 million tons of potentially toxic coal ash in abandoned brick mines in Moncure and Sanford.
Board members called on state lawmakers to act to suspend the energy giant's proposal to dump in Chatham and Lee counties, which could be cleared as soon as early 2015.
However, as reported in the Indy last month, this year's Coal Ash Management Act leaves local government authorities virtually no decision-making power in the plan. State law allows the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources to grant the necessary permits to Duke. Also, the law specifically forbids local government ordinances intended to block coal ash dumping.
Both Chatham and Lee leaders have said they plan to fight the company's proposal, with Lee County Manager John Crumpton not ruling out legal action in the process.
Chatham County Board of Commissioners Chairman Jim Crawford said the two counties south of the Triangle are "being asked to assume a disproportionate risk in this current plan."
"The N.C. General Assembly, in its haste to prod Duke Energy to action, effectively stripped local authorities of any power to safeguard the health of our citizens," said Crawford. "Neither can we collect fees to offset costs imposed on local governments. This is politically and economically unfair."
The Indy reported last week that the plan could absolve Duke of any legal liability for environmental impacts stemming from the dumping, likely passing on the cost to the owner of the brick mines, a relatively unknown corporation named Green Meadow LLC. If Green Meadow can't pay the cost of environmental damage, legal experts said the liability could fall on the state and local governments.
Duke Energy spokeswoman Jennifer Jabon told the Indy that its proposal is part of a "comprehensive" plan to safely dispose of the coal byproduct, which contains carcinogens such as arsenic.
"We feel a responsibility for the safe and permanent storage of the coal ash, which is why we've partnered with experienced vendors," said Jabon.
After much back and forth, Chatham Park is back again.
Once again, Pittsboro town leaders will hold a public hearing tonight on the future of Chatham Park, the long-planned development in the rural county that figures to increase the county's population by a factor of twelve in the next three decades.
Developers Chatham Park Investors LLC have submitted a rezoning application that would add 46 acres to the development district and make a few amendments to the park's master plan, including offering the town more strength in approving or denying future portions of the development.
The rezoning comes after a group of concerned residents calling themselves Pittsboro Matters filed suit against the Chatham Park investors this summer, contending the plan clashes with the town's land-use plan and offers vague, unenforceable guidelines.
Many have criticized the development as failing to offer sufficient open space or buffers from the Haw River, a regional drinking water source.
As Pittsboro Matters pointed out last week, the public hearing will allow residents to weigh in on the entirety of the plan. Members of the town Board of Commissioners approved an earlier version of the plan in June.
"This is a chance for the Town Board to get it right this time," said Pittsboro Matters Chairwoman Amanda Robertson in a statement. "We view this new application and review process as an opportunity for the town, (Chatham Park Investors) and citizens to engage in a real discussion of issues related to the master Plan, in order to address any concerns now before it is too late."
The 7,120-acre plan represents the largest mixed-use development ever proposed in North Carolina. Tonight's hearing begins at 7 p.m. in the Chatham County Historic Courthouse in downtown Pittsboro.
As expected, the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission completed its proposed regulations for the natural gas drilling industry on Friday. Also expected, many environmental activists are not happy with the results, which state lawmakers are expected to finalize next year. Read the recommended rules here.
"With all of the challenges of NC’s shallow shale formations, high population density, no regulatory experience and a tiny gas supply, why would we do this?" said Hope Taylor, executive director of Clean Water for N.C. "It’s a waste of public effort and resources to benefit a handful of folks.”
After receiving more than 200,000 public comments this year on their proposed fracking regulations, commission members approved fewer than a dozen major changes. Among the approved changes, regulators will be able to schedule unannounced inspections at drill sites and order stoppages for drillers who violate the law repeatedly.
The commission also increased the size of required buffers between municipal water supplies and drill sites, but stopped short of banning outdoor pits for fracking fluids, despite reports of leaking pits in other states. Duke Energy's coal ash spill this February raised awareness of the controversial pits as commission members readied rules this year.
Meanwhile, last week, environmental activists scoffed at the commission's agreement to allow unannounced inspections at drill sites. “This change in language to allow—but not require—unannounced inspections is not the big deal the agency and media are making it to be," said Elaine Chiosso, a riverkeeper for the environmental nonprofit Haw River Assembly. "It falls far short of the protections that the public expects."
The Pittsboro Board of Commissioners made history Monday night.
They voted 4-1 to approve Chatham Park, which, at more than 7,000 acres is believed to be the largest development plan in North Carolina history. Bett Wilson Foley was the lone dissenter. Pittsboro Mayor Bill Terry also opposed it, but he does not have a vote.
The project, which will create dense residential development clustered around five “village centers” in the largely undeveloped tracts of eastern Chatham County, is expected to increase the small Chatham County town’s population from 4,000 to 60,000 people by 2050.
Commissioners approved a master plan Monday that survived changes in town leadership, multiple rewrites and a blistering consultant’s evaluation. Its last hurdle Monday was a determined band of protesters, who gathered early at the Historic Chatham County Courthouse to denounce the massive development. Many wore shirts with the sarcastic motto “Pave Chatham” and carried signs reading “Table the vote.”
They distributed a cartoon depicting Chatham Park developer Tim Smith at the wheel of a speeding car while complicit town officials, with the exception of Foley, seem to sit willingly in the rear. Angry Pittsboro residents are crammed rudely in the trunk. “Who’s in the driver’s seat?” reads the caption.
Smith is with the Cary-based Preston Development, which, with the financial backing of software executives Jim Goodnight and John Sall of S.A.S. Institute, envision the vast mixed-use Chatham Park as a sequel to Research Triangle Park. When fully built, it would include 22,000 homes, plus office and retail space.
Developers made several concessions with Monday’s final master plan, agreeing to increase the minimum amount of open space to 1,320 acres. Earlier versions of the plan called for as little as 667 acres, despite a 2008 conservation report from the Triangle Land Conservancy (TLC) that recommended town officials set aside at least 2,400 acres.
Builders also agreed to buffers of 500 feet and 300 feet near two portions of the development abutting the Haw River. An earlier draft maintained an average buffer of 200 feet, although TLC called for buffers of at least 1,000 feet.
The master plan also included a stipulation that the developer will “help defray” the town’s additional costs associated with the growth, which would require massive infrastructure investments in Pittsboro, including more schools, police officers and fire departments.
Town commissioners tabled the plan in November following a heated public hearing. In February, an outside consultant panned the development for lacking sufficient detail and failing to provide sufficient open space. Meanwhile, the builders have been assembling the land for the project for most of the last decade.
As it turns out, Jeff Starkweather, a civil rights attorney and former newspaper publisher from Pittsboro, will not be seeking the Democratic party nomination for the vacant District 54 seat in the N.C. House of Representatives.
As reported in INDY Week last week, party leaders had indicated Starkweather would be seeking to replace Deb McManus, a first-term lawmaker who stepped down in December after state revenue officials accused her of embezzling more than $47,000 in state tax revenues. But in a statement delivered to party leaders Thursday, Starkweather—who ran against McManus for the party nomination in 2012—said he would instead be supporting former Chatham County Commisssioner George Lucier for the post.
"I will certainly be getting back to you for help with the 2014 critical county commissioner and school board races," Starkweather said in the statement. "But it is critical now that we put someone in this seat that can provide experienced and knowledgeable progressive leadership."
Lucier would appear to be one of a handful of Democrats jousting for selection by the party's Executive Committee. The district, which includes Chatham County and a small portion of neighboring Lee County, will need a replacement for the remainder of McManus' term, which expires at the end of 2014.
Other Democrats in the running include James Heymen, a mental health counselor from Pittsboro; Cedric Blade of Siler City; Robert Reives II, an attorney from Sanford; Kathie Russell, a former Chatham school board member from Moncure; and Tim Weiner, a physician from Siler City.
The Executive Committee is set to pick McManus' fill-in on Jan. 24 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Historic Chatham County Courthouse in Pittsboro. Gov. Pat McCrory is expected to accept the party's nomination.
As an addendum to today's story, Cardinal Innovations spokeswoman Rachel Porter confirmed after deadline Tuesday that her agency—known in official lingo as a managed care organization—does indeed receive federal funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
That information is key because it confirms the state-funded Cardinal Innovations, formerly known as Piedmont Behavioral Health, is subject to the findings of a federal investigation into whether Cardinal has broken federal law by denying mental health care reimbursements for the treatment of undocumented immigrants in its 15-county service area, which includes Orange and Chatham counties.
As reported in today's INDY Week, HHS' Office for Civil Rights is probing the Kannapolis-based organization. Latino advocates say Cardinal's policy is effectively cutting off treatment for the undocumented community, a possible violation of federal discrimination laws.
Managed care organizations such as Cardinal Innovations are tasked with disbursing state mental health care dollars for the treatment of low-income residents. Undocumented immigrants do not qualify for Medicaid cash. But the state has deployed an alternate form of funding, known as integrated payment and reporting system (IPRS) dollars, to cover Medicaid gaps in the past.
Activists say Cardinal Innovations is declining the use of IPRS funds for that purpose today, and the impact has been felt in nonprofit organizations such as El Futuro that offer mental health care and substance abuse treatment for the undocumented community.
If the Office for Civil Rights inquiry finds Cardinal Innovations in the wrong, Cardinal can be forced to alter its policy or risk losing federal funding. Porter could not specify how much HHS funding the agency receives as of Tuesday night.
Addendum: It seems that Cardinal Innovation's approach on mental health care for the undocumented community is not unique.
N.C. Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Julie Henry notified INDY Week after its print deadline Tuesday that undocumented immigrants are only eligible for emergency service coverage under Medicaid rule, echoing the comments of Cardinal leaders in today's story. That indicates managed care organizations such as Cardinal—which is charged with dispensing public dollars for mental health treatment—are following the rule statewide to deny Medicaid reimbursements to providers treating mental illness among undocumented residents.
Today's story investigates the impacts of the policy on the undocumented community and general public health—in particular, the impacts on nonprofits such as El Futuro that provide mental health services for the undocumented and Latino population. An El Futuro board member argues that the rule is stressing nonprofit finances and may clash with federal laws that order healthcare providers to offer services regardless of citizenship.
It is unclear whether federal law requires a denial for undocumented reimbursements. Medicaid is a joint spending venture primarily paid for by the federal government, but many North Carolina lawmakers have been targeting Medicaid for cuts since state spending peaked at higher than $3 billion in 2009.
Cardinal Innovations serves a 15-county region in the state that includes Orange and Chatham counties.
The private water company Aqua North Carolina has asked to buy water from Chatham County that could be used for the 751 South project.
Chatham County Commissioners voted 4-1 to direct staff to draft a contract that would allow Aqua North Carolina to buy 850,000 gallons per day from the county. Sally Kost was the lone no vote at the Nov. 19 meeting—the Monday before Thanksgiving.
Kost told the Indy tonight that she specifically asked an Aqua representative if the the water allocation had anything to do with 751. Kost said the Aqua representative responded, "We've talked with them," adding that the company would take a "regional approach," including Durham, to reselling the water.
Here's another twist: Chatham County buys its water allocation from Durham. So in effect, Aqua would sell Durham water to not only Chatham customers, but it could also sell the water back to Durham customers, possibly to those in the proposed 751 development. The water allocation comes from Jordan Lake.
Durham has not finalized an agreement with Chatham County on water allocations.
Kost also blogged about the meeting on her website.
The controversial 751 South development would include 1,300 homes and as much as 600,000 square feet of retail development on 167 acres in the sensitive Jordan Lake watershed. In February, the City of Durham rejected a request from SDD to provide water to the development.
In June SDD and its lobbyist approached a state lawmaker, Tim Moore of Cleveland County, to sponsor a bill forbidding a city from denying water and sewer service to a project in its designated “urban growth area” outside municipal limits.
751 South lies in such an area in southern Durham County. The bill failed.
In July, Durham County Commissioners agreed to provide sewer to 751 South.
Kost told the Indy that she advised her fellow commissioners that "before we do anything we need to talk to Durham."
The Indy has confirmed with a Durham official that Chatham County contacted Durham's utilities department about the issue today.
It's notable that such a significant request was put on the agenda for a meeting just days before Thanksgiving. In addition, Kost noted, the title of the agenda item was vague: "A discussion and vote on Aqua North Carolina's request to purchase capacity in the county's water facility."
This post originally stated that Cal Cunningham, an attorney for SDD, approached Tim Moore. The story has been corrected.
Check back for updates.
The N.C. League of Conservation Voters just sent out an announcement about three upcoming meetings and public forums on the topic of hydraulic fracturing or "fracking," the process of mining for natural gas.
- March 14, 6 p.m., Cary (no address provided) — 'citizen activists' training by Environment NC and Public Interest Network; for info, contact email@example.com
- March 15, 7 p.m., Raleigh — talk on 'Facts About Fracking'; hosted by Capitol Group Sierra Club at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh, 3313 Wade Avenue; click here for more info.
- March 23, 7:45 p.m., Buies Creek — “Exploration for Natural Gas and the Future of NC, a Scientific Perspective," a moderated forum; sponsored by Campbell University, 56 Main St., Buies Creek, at the Turner Auditorium in D. Rich Hall
The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources will also hold two meetings this month to present its draft report on fracking and take public comments:
- March 20, 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. at the Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center, 1801 Nash St., Sanford
- March 27, 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. at East Chapel Hill High School, 500 Weaver Dairy Road, Chapel Hill
N.C. House Minority Leader Joe Hackney announced his retirement this morning, opting not to wage a re-election campaign against long-time colleague Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange.
The two veteran legislators were drawn into the same district, the 56th, by the Republican-produced new maps last year.
Hackney has served 16 terms, 32 years, in the General Assembly representing the 54th district, which includes Orange, Chatham and Moore counties. He was elected Speaker of the House in 2007 following Jim Black’s removal. He severed as president of the National Conference of State Legislatures.