On Monday, Sen. Stan Bingham, a seven-term Republican lawmaker from Davidson County, thanked a Duke Energy executive for the energy giant's "pro-active" response to the ongoing controversy over its coal ash spill in the Rockingham County city of Eden.
Not everyone at Monday's session of the N.C. General Assembly's Environmental Review Commission was so forgiving, just over two weeks after Duke apparently dumped more than 30,000 tons of toxic coal ash into the Dan River, which provides drinking water for neighboring towns in North Carolina and Virginia.
"This legislature and the people of this state have no reason to rely upon what Duke Energy tells you about coal ash in this state," said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center who specializes in water quality regulation.
Duke Energy estimates of the amount of coal ash spilled in the Dan River have varied between 30,000 to 82,000 tons, the result of a ruptured metal pipe at the Rockingham County site on Feb. 2. Coal ash is the toxic byproduct of coal energy plants, most of which Duke Energy has retired in North Carolina. The Eden plant was retired in 2012, and environmental groups have been pushing the energy company to offer a plan for disposing of the leftover ash.
Coal ash ponds have long been a source of environmental concern in this state. Environmental groups say the energy company has been using unlined, leaky ponds to store the ash, which contains potentially harmful heavy metals such as arsenic.
George Everett, Duke's director of environmental and legislative affairs, said the company has been readying plans to safely empty the ponds, although he offered no clear timeline on the subject Monday.
Tom Reeder, director of DENR's Division of Water Quality, said initial samples taken from the Dan River following the Feb. 2 spill exceeded safe standards for arsenic, aluminum, copper and iron, but waned in the days after. However, Reeder said concerns remain about the deposition of heavy metals settling into the river bottom, which will kill some aquatic life.
"Our biggest job ahead of us is trying to return the Dan River to what it was like before Feb. 2," Reeder said.
The Duke Energy spill was not the only environmental headache discussed at Monday's lengthy committee meeting. Reeder and local government officials also explained how a Burlington sewer leak on Jan. 27 dumped about 4 million gallons of untreated liquid sewage into the adjacent Haw River, which feeds into the water supply for about 300,000 Triangle residents.
A force main used to pump sewage uphill to the wastewater treatment plant failed, causing the sewage to back up and eventually spill out of manholes and into the Haw River.
The spill, which Reeder ranked in the top 50 of North Carolina's sewer spills, was stopped two days later, but prompted additional questions about why Burlington officials failed to publicly disclose the spill in a press release within the 48 hour timeframe required by state law.
"That wasn't Burlington's fault. That was our fault," said Reeder. Reeder said an on-site DENR section chief made an unauthorized decision to allow city sewer chiefs more time before making a public statement. According to Reeder, the section chief wanted to give the city more time to calculate the amount of sewage that had been spilled.
Check back in Wednesday's INDY for a full recap of North Carolina's sewage mishaps.
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.
Incumbents coasted and a few plucky newcomers were winners in last night's elections in Orange County.
In the race for four seats on the Chapel Hill Town Council, the clear winners were current Mayor Pro Tem Ed Harrison, Councilwoman Sally Greene and two challengers in local pastor Maria Palmer and Duke University pathologist George Cianciolo.
In Carrboro, the three incumbents—Jacquelyn Gist, Randee Haven-O'Donnell and Sammy Slade—were the victors.
In Hillsborough, Jenn Weaver and Kathleen Ferguson won seats on the Hillsborough Board of Commissioners.
And in the race for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education, information technology specialist Andrew Davidson joined incumbents Michelle Brownstein and James Barrett in victory.
Meanwhile, Lydia Lavelle, Tom Stevens and Mark Kleinschmidt ran unopposed for mayor in Carrboro, Hillsborough and Chapel Hill, respectively.
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.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.
The N.C. House voted to override Gov. McCrory's vetoes of two bills Tuesday afternoon, following a very short discussion.
The House sustained House Bill 392, a bill requiring people applying for public assistance to undergo drug testing, in a 77-39 vote.
The House also sustained House Bill 786, a bill expanding the seasonal worker E-Verify system exemption from 90 days to nearly 9 months, in 84-32 vote.
The vote to override the gubernatorial veto of HB 392 came after bipartisan pleas to keep the veto in place.
Under the bill, people applying to receive welfare benefits (TANF) will be drug tested. In a "reasonable suspicion" clause that is particularly unfair, anyone with a criminal record from the last years three years will be subjected to a drug test before receiving benefits as well.
"This bill meets the definition of kicking a man while he's down," said Rep. Jim Fulghum, R-Wake, a Raleigh neurosurgeon.
Fulghum called the bill "unclear" and said that it unfairly punishes the poor.
Several House Democrats—including Rep. Valerie Foushee, D-Durham/Orange, Rep. Duane Hall, D-Wake, Rep. Darren Jackson, D-Wake and Rep. Deb McManus, D-Chatham—voted for the bill in session.
Republican representatives from rural counties had strong and contrasting feelings on the seasonal worker bill.
Gov. George Cleveland, R-Onslow, called the bill "a jobs bill for illegal aliens" and said that if the bill becomes law, North Carolina will become a "magnet" for illegal workers as it has been in the past. Cleveland urged his colleagues in the House to vote against overriding the governor's veto.
Rep. Jeff Collins, R-Franklin/Nash, said that the bill would "provide parity for North Carolina agriculture businesses, with outside businesses." Collins said that states use the longer E-verify exemption period and that North Carolina should do the same to remain competitive. He encouraged his colleagues to vote to override McCrory's veto.
House Speaker Thom Tillis said he will notify the Senate of the House decisions to override both vetoes, the only vetoes Gov. McCrory made this session.
The N.C. Senate session will commence Wednesday at 9 a.m.
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.
Sometimes a plate of cookies is not a plate of cookies, Gov. McCrory. Ask Blanche Taylor Moore.
There was plenty of outrage over McCrory's hollow—and sexist—gesture of handing a plate of cookies to women who were protesting in Raleigh over his signing of the abortion bill. But the Guv was only continuing a tradition of North Carolinians who hide agendas among the chocolate chips.
The bodies of her father, mother-in-law and first husband were exhumed and tests showed they suffered from arsenic poisoning. Although she faced an additional murder charges, the prosecution chose not to pursue those cases.
A made-for-TV movie, Black Widow Murders: The Blanche Taylor Moore Story, aired in 1993. It starred starring Elizabeth Montgomery of Bewitched fame.
Hat tip: Robb Kehoe
The Washington Post is reporting that the U.S. Justice Department intends to sue states to prevent them from enacting parts of new voting rights laws, including requiring specific forms of photo identification.
North Carolina could be one of those states if House Bill 589 becomes law.
All but one of the Triangle’s U.S. House members voted against a measure that would have curbed the National Security Agency's collection of telephone call records and data on people in the U.S.
The vote margin was narrow, 217—205 with the majority of House members rejecting a check on NSA's surveillance program. Among those in the majority were Republicans George Holding and Renee Ellmers and Democrats David Price and G.K. Butterfield.
Howard Coble, who represents the 6th District that includes parts of Durham and Orange Counties, did not vote. He is in a Washington, D.C. hospital recovering from hernia surgery.
Politico has an interesting analysis of how dissent over the spying program split both parties. Those in favor of curbing NSA’s power argue that it has overstepped its constitutional boundaries and is tantamount to domestic spying. Those against counter that the intrusions are necessary to fight terrorism.