As expected, fast-track fracking legislation, Senate Bill 76, passed the House Commerce and Job Development Committee Wednesday morning, although with several notable departures from the version passed by Senate leaders in February.
Those differences, according to fracking opponent and Environment N.C. Director Elizabeth Ouzts, include stripping the legislation of language allowing the injection of fracking waste underground. The House version also removes a provision booting environmental and geological experts from the regulatory Mining and Energy Commission, the panel tasked with preparing the state's regulatory structure for drilling.
The bill's key point—authorizing the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources to issue fracking permits in March 2015—remains, although with the addendum that permits will require another legislative vote for them to take effect, Ouzts said.
"It is much better than the Senate version," Ouzts said. "But it is still bad for water quality, and it breaks the promise that the legislature made last year that they would allow the Mining and Energy Commission to develop rules before setting a date for permits to be issued."
Senate Bill 76 now heads for the House Environment Committee. The legislation is sponsored by Senate Republicans Buck Newton, Bob Rucho and Andrew Brock. All three senators received substantial campaign contributions from energy companies in recent years.
Working could be hazardous to your health.
In "Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect," an annual report released last week, the AFL-CIO evaluated the health and safety of American workers. The report examines occupational fatalities, injuries and illnesses on state and federal levels, categorized by type, industry, race and gender. It also includes information about Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) funding, inspections, violations and penalties.
According to the report, 148 workers were killed on the job in North Carolina in 2011. With a fatality rate of 3.7 per 100,000 people, North Carolina ranks slightly higher than the national average. Over the last several years, this rate has stayed steady, both in North Carolina and nationwide.
About one-third of worker deaths resulted from transportation incidents. Jobs in transportation, along with construction and agriculture, are some of the most dangerous industries, according to the report.
These industries tend to rely on Latino workers, who are disproportionately at risk for work-related death or injury. Latinos accounted for about 28 percent of workplace fatalities in 2011—2012, but they make up about 9 percent of the state’s population, notes a recent report on North Carolina worker fatality by the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (NCOSH).
Undocumented immigrants may be hesitant to report injuries or unsafe work conditions for fear of drawing unwanted attention. They may also have trouble understanding training materials or instructions due to language barriers, says Marybe McMillan, secretary-treasurer of the N.C. AFL-CIO.
Another major cause of occupational death and injury in North Carolina is workplace violence, which can occur in health care settings, such as nursing homes, residential care facilities, psychiatric institutions and hospitals. Seventy percent of workplace violence victims were women, according to the report, and patients were responsible for more than half the injuries.
“You really think of the hospitals and nursing homes as places of healing … but it’s just the opposite,” says Bill Kojola, industrial hygienist for the AFL-CIO’s Safety and Health Department and one of the report’s co-authors. OSHA lacks standards for addressing workplace violence, according to Kojola. “It’s a real problem that we’re not really addressing in a policy way.”
The shortfalls of OSHA are discussed prominently in the report. The agency was created to uphold the Occupational Health and Safety Act in 1970, but the AFL-CIO contends the law is out of date and needs revision. It urges Congress to pass the Protecting America’s Workers Act “to extend the law’s coverage to workers currently excluded, strengthen civil and criminal penalties for violations, enhance anti-discrimination protections and strengthen the rights of workers, unions and victims.”
OSHA is profoundly under-resourced and under-staffed, Kojola says. The report describes the number of workplace inspectors—and therefore the number of inspections—as “woefully inadequate.” In North Carolina, there was one inspector for every 38,771 workers in 2011. At that rate, it would take 59 years for the current staff to inspect each worksite once.
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.
Expect the debate of local vs. state control over fracking to only swell.
Tuesday night, commissioners in Anson County approved a 5-year fracking ban as they gather more information on the drilling and its prospective pros and cons.
Leaders in the rural county east of Charlotte were pushed to approve the moratorium by at least one local environmentalist, according to Hope Taylor, an anti-fracking activist with Clean Water for North Carolina. Anson joins the Granville County town of Creedmoor in passing an anti-fracking ordinance, although it's unclear whether state lawmakers will eventually trump local control in fracking legislation.
Fracking is a drilling technique used to extract natural gas from underground shale deposits. Proponents say the drilling will bring jobs and commerce to North Carolina. Opponents say the practice poses environmental hazards, including groundwater contamination. Anson sits at the southern end of a North Carolina corridor targeted for future drilling, which could be cleared for permitting in the next two to three years.
INDY Week has written extensively about fracking in the past, as well as the work of the state's Mining and Energy Commission, a panel charged with readying the state's fracking regulations. We've also spent some time looking into the online activities of commission Chairman Jim Womack, which you can read about here and here.
It may have taken a few decades, but the landfill-blighted Rogers Road community in Chapel Hill is getting some recompense.
Orange County commissioners unanimously approved a vote Tuesday night authorizing County Manager Frank Clifton to award a construction bid for no more than $650,000 to build a long-promised community center in the historically black, low-income neighborhood. Officials said construction could begin this summer with hopes of having the center open by summer 2014. It coincides with a plan to close the county landfill at June's end.
"It's a great opportunity for our kids to learn that, through perseverance, anything can be done," said David Caldwell Jr., organizer for the community center.
Commissioners seemed spurred last year to make progress on the center when Chapel Hill officials moved in August to close a Purefoy Drive home that Rogers Road residents had made into something of a makeshift center. Town leaders cited permitting and building code concerns for shutting down the center.
The new center will be situated on a roughly half-acre plot near the intersection of Purefoy Drive and Edgar Street. It is expected to include classrooms, a kitchen and a computer lab.
The future of Orange County's celebrated recycling program is before county commissioners tonight.
County commissioners will consider a number of proposals—including the widely-reviled prospect of privatization—when they meet at 7 p.m. in Hillsborough.
Expect a full story on the recycling program and its funding challenges in Wednesday's print edition of INDY Week, but in the meantime, sit in on tonight's meeting if you want an admittedly complicated primer. The program touts an unprecedented 59 percent waste reduction rate in the last two decades, but a 2012 court decision has put the program's funding in jeopardy.
Obtain tonight's agenda here.
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.
Much-discussed plans for a two-story CVS in downtown Carrboro will be back before town leaders Tuesday night.
The pharmacy bigbox's latest plans for a 24,590 square-foot store at the intersection of Greensboro and Weaver streets are likely to draw the usual share of ire from some Carrboro protesters, who argue the store will clog the town's center with traffic congestion, destroy historic homes and otherwise disrupt town life.
CVS officials say their current location near Carr Mill Mall is too small to support demand in the Orange County town.
Pharmacy plans have been through various phases, although the slight modifications in the newest CVS plan, which include a small partially enclosed park and a reduction in parking spaces from 65 to 61, don't seem likely to satiate the store's chief critics.
Tuesday's meeting begins at 7:30 p.m. at Carrboro Town Hall. View the meeting agenda here.
Some of the most inflammatory entries on N.C. Mining and Energy Commission Chairman Jim Womack's blog—in which right-wingers posing as long-dead founding fathers take shots at their political enemies—are, as of this writing, down. The posts were among those cited in this week's story, in which Womack was outed as an author.
Those posts included sharp attacks on former Lee County blogger Keith Clark, a Womack enemy, that labeled him a "psychopathic liar," a "pitiful and desperate person," "fat," and a "freak." One post, apparently written by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Jay, includes unproven allegations that Clark faked a mental illness in order to receive disability checks.
Don't worry, you can't see them there, but you can still see them below.
In the meantime, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, the lawmaker who appointed Womack to the pivotal Mining and Energy Commission, has yet to comment.
Has Gov. Pat McCrory been hypnotized by The Beverly Hillbillies?
Specifically, the opening sequence in which Jed Clampett Is "shootin' at some food" when, as the ballad goes, "up through the ground came a bubblin' crude."
Oil, that is, black gold, "Texas Tea."
You might think McCrory has drunk the Texas Tea if you heard him crow about the financial benefits of tracking offshore drilling in his State of the State address last night: "Think what we can do with future revenue."
Yes, let's think about it: Besides the obvious environmental hazards (have we forgotten the BP disaster already?), it is unknown how much "economically recoverable" deposits—those that can be accessed cheaply enough for energy companies to turn a profit— lie in federal waters in the mid-Atlantic. (Federal waters extend from three to 200 miles from shore, yet fall under a state's administrative areas.)
Even if sizable deposits were discovered, it would require a change in federal law for North Carolina or any mid-Atlantic state to receive royalties. Currently, only the Gulf states and Alaska share in revenue from drilling operations in federal waters; lawmakers from those states are lobbying for more money from the feds.
And as the INDY reported in 2010 in a story about the prospects of off-shore drilling, those discoveries would only briefly sate Americans' appetite for oil and gas. Overall, Americans use about 840 million gallons of oil per day, according to the Energy Information Agency, meaning even on the high end, the amount of oil in the mid-Atlantic would feed our habit for roughly seven weeks. As for natural gas, the deposits would provide about six months' worth.
McCrory's push to put rigs in the Atlantic is in part a response to last year's Senate Bill 709, which Gov. Beverly Perdue vetoed. That bill would have requested Perdue to join a compact with other states, including Virginia and South Carolina to develop and implement a strategy to increase exploration and production of offshore oil and gas.” In his State of the State address, McCrory said he would enter into such an agreement.
Inland, where fracking could begin as early as next year, preliminary estimates of North Carolina's gas potential are "wildly optimistic," according to Ken Taylor, assistant state geologist with the N.C. geological survey.
(Senate Bill 76, the Domestic Jobs Act, will be heard in the Commerce Committee today at 11 a.m. in Room 1027 of the Legislative Building.)
And as INDY Week reported last spring, an N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources study showed that drilling activities in the 59,000-acre Sanford sub-basin would sustain an annual average of 387 jobs over seven years, peaking with 858 jobs in year six. These jobs would be temporary and it would be unlikely that highest-paying positions for experienced drillers would go to North Carolinians, who have not been trained for that work.
So, governor, set a spell. Take your shoes off. Y'all come back now, y'hear?