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Thursday, October 3, 2013

Environmental nonprofit: Fracking a "nightmare"

Posted by on Thu, Oct 3, 2013 at 2:44 PM

In case there isn't enough negative publicity surrounding fracking, left-leaning nonprofit Environment North Carolina released its own report on the controversial drilling practice Thursday, dubbing the drilling an "environmental nightmare."

"In state after state, fracking polluted our air, water and landscapes," said Liz Kazal, a field associate for the Raleigh-based nonprofit. "If fracking is allowed in North Carolina, this is the kind of damage in store for waters like the Deep River."

The drilling, viewed as an economic boon by proponents despite its speculative job-creating numbers, has been dogged by claims that it's responsible for water and air pollution, as well as increased seismic activity. See a recent report that fracking wastewater is to blame for earthquakes in one Ohio town.

Environment North Carolina, which has long opposed the drilling, describes the report from its Research and Policy Center as the "first of its kind to measure the footprint of fracking damage nationally to date—including toxic wastewater, water use, chemical use, air pollution, land damage and global warming emissions."

Among the report's claims, the nonprofit says fracking is to blame for:

1. 280 billion gallons of toxic wastewater in 2012
2. 450,000 tons of air pollution produced in one year
3. 250 billion gallons of fresh water used since 2005
4. 360,000 acres of land "degraded" since 2005
5. 100 million metric tons of global warming pollution.

Download Environment North Carolina's full report, which reads like a Stephen King novel for environmentalists, here.

State officials are currently crafting regulations for drilling in North Carolina, which could begin as soon as 2015.

N.C. Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham
  • N.C. Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham
State Sen. Mike Woodard, a Durham Democrat, gets in on the frack-bashing in Environment North Carolina's release. "The dangers detailed in this report reiterate that a few short months of energy are simply not worth jeopardizing our water, our air and our rural landscapes," Woodard said. "In short, fracking is a bad deal for Durham and for North Carolina."

Official estimates say North Carolina has enough gas to power the state for about five years. Drilling is most likely to take place in central portions of the state such as Chatham, Lee and Moore counties.

Check back with Indy Week for pending reactions from drilling supporters and opponents.

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    Nonprofit's report blames drilling for toxic wastewater, air pollution and global warming emissions.

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Thursday, August 22, 2013

Chapel Hill leaders call for break with Russian sister city

Posted by on Thu, Aug 22, 2013 at 3:28 PM

Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt
  • Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt

Amid the continuing backlash to Russia's anti-gay "propaganda" law, two openly LGBT leaders in Chapel Hill are calling for the town to sever its "sister city" relationship with a Russian city.

Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt and Councilman Lee Storrow condemned the law in a joint statement Thursday afternoon, describing the news from Russia as "heartbreaking."

"Innocent individuals and families face persecution, violence and detainment for expressing themselves openly and non-violently in the public square," the statement reads. "These laws are deplorable and do nothing but create hardship, suffering, and in some cases death, for innocent people."

Chapel Hill currently has the "sister city" bond with Saratov, a port city in western Russia. Generally speaking, sister cities indicate mostly symbolic agreements to foster cultural understanding or, in some cases, business agreements.

Kleinschmidt and Storrow say the town's relationship with Saratov is "inactive" and should be eliminated.

Chapel Hill Town Councilman Lee Storrow
  • Chapel Hill Town Councilman Lee Storrow
"LGBT citizens in all societies represent a great source of talent and value, able to contribute immeasurably to the betterment of a nation and a people," the statement continues.  "Until Russian society is able to come to this basic truth, we see no ability to move forward in a productive sister city relationship with a Russian city or town."

Durham leaders are also under pressure to sever their relationship with the Russian city of Kostroma.

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    Kleinschmidt, Storrow condemn anti-gay Russian law

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Friday, August 9, 2013

Thom Tillis' curious fundraising for U.S. Senate (h/t Carolina Mercury)

Posted by on Fri, Aug 9, 2013 at 5:03 PM

Tsk, tsk, Thom.

The Carolina Mercury's Kirk Ross posted a fascinating story about the fundraising habits of House Speaker Thom Tillis, who is courting donors for 2014 U.S. Senate campaign.

As Ross notes, state lawmakers can't accept contributions for their state offices during a legislative session but they can raise money for federal offices, which is precisely what Tillis did—in the midst of the budget debate. Legal? Yes. Hinky? Also yes.

Ross names some big contributors to Tillis' Senate race, including DENR Secretary John Skvarla and several House members, Pat McElraft, Tim Moore and Chuck McGrady, according to federal election documents.

The INDY perused the documents as well and recognized the name of Raleigh attorney Tom Farr ($500). He is notable for his expertise in legislative apportionment and voting rights cases—on the side of Republicans—as the INDY's Bob Geary reported in January 2010.

In 2010, Farr was hired by the Republican majority of the Wake County school board, which at the time was under fire for drawing up new school assignment zones that faced a potential legal challenge by the NAACP.

Geary wrote: "Farr was lead counsel for some of the plaintiffs in Shaw v. Hunt, the 1990s case that landed North Carolina's gerrymandered congressional districts before the U.S. Supreme Court. A decade later, Farr represented the plaintiffs who overthrew a state legislative districting scheme in the N.C. Supreme Court.

"Drawing up districts, and defending them against challenges of racial bias under the federal Voting Rights Act, would be right up his alley."

And whaddya know? HB 589—the ominbus election reform bill deemed repressive, draconian and extreme by legal experts, political media and "regressive" by N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper—completely upended all notions of fair and equal voting protocols in North Carolina.

Tillis voted for HB 589.

Ross noted that two contributors, the National Finance Company, based in Little River, S.C., which is near the N.C border, gave $1,000; Century Finances' Ronald Smith kicked in $500.

That's important because Senate Bill 489 gave big breaks to the consumer finance industry, allowing it to raise the maximum loan amounts and the time limits of the loans. In other words, borrowers will have to pay more and for longer. Tillis voted for it.

Another prominent name in the news includes Julian White Rawl ($1,000) of Preston Development, which is trying to build a controversial 7,000-acre mixed use development, Chatham Park, near Pittsboro.

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    Thom Tillis courted campaign contributions for Senate run during budget debate; interesting names pop up

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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Duke study finds elevated gas levels near fracking sites

Posted by on Tue, Jun 25, 2013 at 2:47 PM

Major news for frack-followers: A Duke University study published this week finds homeowners living near fracking wells may be at an elevated risk of drinking water contamination.

The study, performed by researchers at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment, analyzed 141 drinking water samples from water wells in northeastern Pennsylvania, prime fracking country.

According to the study, methane concentrations were six times higher and ethane concentrations were 23 times higher at homes within a kilometer of shale gas operations. Propane was found in 10 samples, all of them within a kilometer of fracking sites.

Robert Jackson, a study co-author and Nicholas School professor, suggested in a school statement that "poor well construction" may be to blame for the contamination.

“Distance to gas wells was, by far, the most significant factor influencing gases in the drinking water we sampled,” Jackson said.

While a previous Nicholas School study has found methane contamination near fracking wells, the new study is the first to link drilling with ethane and propane contamination, according to the statement.

All three gases are considered to be flammable with a risk of explosions. Methane is generally thought to be non-toxic, although propane and ethane can pose health risks, such as asphyxiation, in high concentrations.

The study is released as North Carolina lawmakers continue to debate the contents of Senate Bill 76, a bill that may ultimately authorize the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources to begin issuing fracking permits in March 2015.

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    Study finds homeowners near shale gas wells may be at higher risk of drinking water contamination.

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Thursday, June 6, 2013

Fracking bill passes House environment committee

Posted by on Thu, Jun 6, 2013 at 12:18 PM

Sen. E.S. Buck Newton, R-Johnston, Nash, Wilson, sponsored Senate Bill 76.
  • Sen. E.S. "Buck" Newton, R-Johnston, Nash, Wilson, sponsored Senate Bill 76.

Fast-track fracking legislation, Senate Bill 76, is headed for the House floor after the chamber's Environment Committee gave its approval of the measure Thursday morning.

Sen. E.S. "Buck" Newton, a Republican from Johnston, Nash and Wilson counties who co-sponsored the bill, said the drilling has the potential to create thousands of jobs and billions in revenues (for more on those expectations, see here).

"Do we want to sit around and twiddle our thumbs for another 15 to 20 years and do nothing when other states have been doing it for decades safely?" Newton said.

The practice is seen as an economic driver by proponents, but critics point to numerous reports of environmental contamination associated with drilling across the country.

The original Senate legislation authorized the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to issue fracking permits starting March 1, 2015, although the House version approved Thursday morning requires another vote from the N.C. General Assembly for the permits to become valid.

The House version also strips language allowing for the injection of fracking waste underground and would retain a state registry of landmen. As reported recently in INDY Week, the Senate bill's sponsors received significant campaign contributions from energy interests.

Committee Democrats questioned whether the state would be allowing permits to be issued before fracking regulations are finalized. Newton, however, called the March 2015 deadline "more than adequate time" to finish the rule-making process, which is ongoing in the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission. The commission has an October 2014 deadline for completing its work.

During Thursday's meeting, DENR Secretary John Skvarla indicated his support for the controversial legislation.

"The bill is a giant step forward to all of us who demand environmental protection and certainty to the people willing to spend tens of millions of dollars in the hydraulic fracturing process," Skvarla said.

Not so, according to environmental opponents.

"It is much better than the Senate version," Environment N.C. Director Elizabeth Ouzts told INDY Week Wednesday. "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."

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    Next stop is the House floor

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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Fast-track fracking bill passes House commerce committee

Posted by on Wed, Jun 5, 2013 at 12:01 PM

Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, sponsored Senate Bill 76.
  • Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, sponsored Senate Bill 76.

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.

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    Key fracking legislation now heads to the House Environment Committee

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Monday, May 20, 2013

New AFL-CIO report evaluates worker health and safety

Posted by on Mon, May 20, 2013 at 10:08 AM

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.

Continue reading…

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    According to the report, 148 workers were killed on the job in North Carolina in 2011, a rate slightly higher than the national average.

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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Indeed, Cardinal Innovations receives federal funding

Posted by on Wed, May 15, 2013 at 12:32 PM

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.

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    The news confirms the agency is subject to a federal investigation into discrimination against the undocumented community.

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Thursday, May 9, 2013

One N.C. county says "no" to fracking

Posted by on Thu, May 9, 2013 at 5:03 PM

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.

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    Anson County joins the town of Creedmoor in passing an anti-fracking ordinance.

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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Better late than never for Rogers Road community center

Posted by on Wed, Apr 10, 2013 at 11:22 AM

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.

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    The landfill-saddled Rogers Road community in Chapel Hill is getting its community center.

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