Thursday, December 31, 2020 - 00:00

RELEASE: Year in Review: DEQ works to protect the environment, public health of North Carolinians

Dec 31, 2020

This year, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) took key actions to protect the environment and health of all North Carolinians and to address the impacts of climate change.

“DEQ has met the unprecedented challenges of 2020 with continued dedication to the protection of public health and North Carolina’s valuable natural resources,” said Secretary Michael S. Regan. “The Department made significant strides on coal ash, climate change, emerging compounds and environmental justice. I am proud of the commitment of our staff to the science–based protection of the health and prosperity of all North Carolinians.”

Key Achievements

  • In January and February, 2020, DEQ secured the nation’s largest coal ash excavation of nearly 80 million tons of coal ash at six facilities in North Carolina through a settlement agreement and signed consent order with community and environmental groups and Duke Energy. After an extensive public process, as of November 1, DEQ had approved the closure plans for six facilities as well as plans for beneficial reuse at four facilities.
  • DEQ led the development of the North Carolina Risk Assessment and Resilience Plan, including the North Carolina Climate Science report, which is the state’s most comprehensive effort to date, based on science and stakeholder input, to address North Carolina’s vulnerability to climate change.  Work to implement the North Carolina Clean Energy Plan is underway. Both plans are part of Governor Roy Cooper’s Executive Order 80, North Carolina’s commitment to address climate change and transition to a clean energy economy.
  • DEQ continued to hold the Chemours Company accountable for PFAS contamination, including GenX, in the Cape Fear Region. As part of the signed Consent Order, DEQ sought public feedback on the proposed corrective action plan and determined that it needed significant revisions. In August, DEQ ordered Chemours to take significant additional actions to prevent PFAS pollution from entering the Cape Fear River as part of an addendum to the Consent Order, approved by the court in October. As part of its continued implementation of the Consent Order:
    • The Division of Water Resources (DWR) issued a permit for a water treatment system at the Chemours Fayetteville Works site to remove PFAS from a contaminated stream that currently flows into the Cape Fear River. 
    • The Division of Waste Management (DWM) staff continued to sample groundwater wells and analyze data submitted by Chemours’ third-party consultant in an effort to prevent further impacts and provide relief to the impacted citizens and communities.

Responding During a Pandemic

In response to the ongoing pandemic, DEQ adjusted public office hours and worked with regulated entities to ensure they remained in compliance; in instances of non-compliance, DEQ pursued enforcement actions on a case-by-case basis. Staff modified inspection processes to continue regulatory oversight of its permitted facilities. Divisions transitioned to online public hearings and meetings to provide permit information to residents across North Carolina, while several Coastal Reserve sites closed to visitors for a few months in accordance with state guidance to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

CARES Act Fisheries Assistance – The Division of Marine Fisheries staff accepted and are reviewing 271 applications for CARES Act assistance that were received by the November 30 deadline. Applications were received from all four eligibility sectors, but most came from the commercial fishing and marine aquaculture sectors. The Division is preparing to disburse $5.4 million in CARES Act assistance to fishermen. The assistance is available to commercial fishermen, for-hire fishing operators, seafood dealers and processors, and marine aquaculture operations who meet revenue loss criteria.

Protecting Our Environment

Opposing Offshore Oil Drilling and Exploration: The Division of Coastal Management (DCM) found WesternGeco’s federal consistency determination related to proposed seismic surveys inconsistent with North Carolina’s coastal program after which WesternGeco appealed this decision to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce. In June 2020, the state strongly objected to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce findings that the proposed survey is consistent with the objectives of the Coastal Zone Management Act. In August, the N.C. Department of Justice filed a complaint to challenge the U.S. Secretary’s decision to override DCM’s objection in the Eastern District of North Carolina. WesternGeco withdrew its BOEM seismic testing permit application after President Trump extended the moratorium on offshore energy proposals to North Carolina.

Supporting Fisheries: The Division of Marine Fisheries completed the Blue Crab Fishery Management Plan Amendment 3 and implemented harvest reduction measures in May to end overfishing and achieve sustainable harvest. A Revision to Amendment 1 to the North Carolina Estuarine Striped Bass Fishery Management Plan was completed in November and will be implemented in January 2021. The Revision was triggered due to adaptive management measures which must be taken when a stock assessment concludes the stock is overfished or overfishing is occurring. Total Allowable Landings for the Albemarle-Roanoke stock will be reduced and split evenly between commercial and recreational sectors. The Division also completed periodic reviews of the Kingfish and Bay Scallop fishery management plans. No management changes were needed.

More than 11,000 Division of Marine Fisheries licenses were issued during the annual license renewal period that ran from April 1 to July 31 this year. These licenses include various commercial, for-hire, and pier licenses that expire each year on June 30. The number does not include Coastal Recreational Fishing Licenses. The division extended the deadline to renew these licenses by a month in response to COVID-19.

The Division of Marine Fisheries’ Artificial Reef Program sank three vessels on artificial reefs, two of which were sunk during the pandemic. All projects were funded by donations from non-profit organizations, as well as Coastal Recreational Fishing License grants.

Protecting Air Quality: The Division of Air Quality awarded nearly $30 million to replace 111 school buses and 16 transit buses, and install 33 zero emission vehicle fast-charging stations across the state. The projects funded by Phase 1 of the Volkswagen Settlement Mitigation Plan will reduce 31.8 tons of nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions annually – which is equal to the annual NOx emissions of more than 51,000 passenger cars. The awards are the first phase of North Carolina’s $92 million share of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s settlement with Volkswagen for unlawfully cheating on vehicle emissions.

A new state emissions rule and amendments to North Carolina’s state air toxics rule were enacted November 1 to regulate the use of methyl bromide for log fumigation, making it the first time in 28 years that a toxic air pollutant was added to the state’s air toxics rules.

Infrastructure Investment

The State Water Infrastructure Authority approved 142 drinking water and wastewater projects across North Carolina during two funding rounds conducted within the challenges of the COVID-19 environment. A total of $360 million in loans and grants were awarded to communities across North Carolina to help them maintain and improve their drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, thus ensuring water quality and helping towns reach their economic potential.

The State Water Infrastructure Authority adopted criteria, identifying and designating four local government units as distressed – an important first step in allocating $9 million in funding made available through recent Viable Utility Reserve (VUR) legislation, signed into law by Governor Roy Cooper on July 1. The VUR program is a first and critical step in helping rural North Carolina communities meet their citizens’ needs for safe and reliable water and wastewater services by helping communities develop financial and managerial tools and providing funding for projects that will help establish long-term utility viability.  

Disaster Response

This year, DCM, in partnership with the N.C. Coastal Federation, removed more than 375,000 pounds of storm debris from public lands with plans to remove additional debris and 25 abandoned vessels. This federally funded project, the most extensive in North Carolina’s coastal history, is part of a larger coordinated storm debris and vessel removal effort. involving the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.

DWM provided $400,000 financial support to businesses and homeowners affected by multiple storm events through state and federal disaster assistance funding to help repair or cleanup disaster-related underground storage tank releases.

Hurricane Isaias – Hurricane Isaias made landfall at Ocean Isle Beach on August 3 as a Cat 1 hurricane with sustained winds around 85 mph. It coincided with a full moon high tide and carried significant storm surge, which caused substantial damages in coastal communities of Brunswick and southern New Hanover County. DEQ staffed virtual emergency operations centers to coordinate response. DCM issued an emergency general permit for coastal property owners in the affected counties who needed to replace docks, piers, bulkheads or similar structures damaged by Hurricane Isaias along sounds, rivers and creeks. The emergency permit expedited the approval process for rebuilding docks, piers, bulkheads and similar water dependent structures that meet state standards. The emergency permit was also used for dune reconstruction and maintenance dredging of existing channels.

Hurricane Florence – DWR awarded $11.5 million to eight North Carolina coastal communities for projects related to Hurricane Florence damage. The awards from the Coastal Storm Damage Mitigation Fund will fund beach nourishment, dune restoration, and other projects to remediate storm damage.

Earthquake Response: The North Carolina Geological Survey (NCGS) along with partners from the U.S. Geological Survey, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State University evaluated the August 9 earthquake that hit Sparta, North Carolina. NCGS documented the damage, collected data about the movement at the fault, and added information for inclusion in the NCGS database for the future preparation of landslide hazard maps. According to NCGS, it was the strongest quake to shake the state since 1926. There were no reports of significant injuries, but there was damage to structures and roads in the local area.

Colonial Pipeline Spill: DWM staff responded to and continue to manage the cleanup actions by Colonial Pipeline following the state’s largest gasoline spill near Huntersville, North Carolina, which was reported to the Department on August 14. Following initial emergency response efforts, DEQ issued Colonial Pipeline a notice of violation for impacts to groundwater quality. Cleanup actions are ongoing, and DEQ continues to hold Colonial Pipeline responsible for harm to North Carolina’s natural resources.

Resiliency Efforts

As directed in Executive Order 80, DEQ led the development of the North Carolina Risk Assessment and Resilience Plan, including the North Carolina Climate Science report, to address North Carolina’s vulnerability to climate change.

With funding from National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) and the State Legislature, DCM formally launched the Resilient Coastal Communities Program in November with an invitation to local governments to apply for no-cost technical assistance. DCM will select up to 20 local governments to receive $30,000 each in contracted planning services for vulnerability assessments and community engagement.

The Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Partnership partnered with the N.C. Commission of Indian Affairs and others to develop a project designed to increase engagement among Tribal communities, government agencies and universities as well as to acknowledge the unique knowledge and cultural perspectives of these communities surrounding impacts associated with climate change. 

Coastal Research: DCM’s North Carolina Coastal Reserve and National Estuarine Research Reserve program collaborated with 22 partner organizations to conduct and support 31 active research projects at Reserve sites up and down the coast. The Coastal Reserve collected more than 264,000 water quality, meteorological and nutrient measurements as part of the Reserve’s System-Wide Monitoring Program. It also worked with partners to develop an Unoccupied Aerial System (UAS) based tidal wetlands monitoring protocol to complement the current NERRS System Wide Monitoring Program. This effort will result in the production of step-by-by protocols and best practices for incorporation of UAS in wetland monitoring programs to help facilitate the widespread adoption and routine use of UAS in wetland monitoring efforts both within the NERRS and beyond.

Environmental Justice

Progress on Community Engagement: DEQ successfully increased equity, transparency and environmental protection in the permitting of swine operations under the 2018 Title VI settlement agreement with citizen groups, which expired on May 3, 2020.The final report details DEQ’s enhancements over the past two years to ensure meaningful public involvement of affected communities in decision-making related to the Swine General Permit program.

The state’s Environmental Education Program expanded its environmental justice, equity, diversity and inclusion offerings as part of the DEQ’s efforts to address the goals set in Governor Roy Cooper’s Executive Order 143 on addressing racial disparities. The EE program is also leveraging existing university relationships and reaching out to historically black colleges and universities and minority-serving organizations discuss ways to better support minority students. 

As part of the Andrea Harris Social, Economic, Environmental and Health Equity Task Force’s Environmental Justice and Inclusion Subcommittee, stakeholders including DEQ Secretary Michael Regan provided recommendations to increase the consideration of environmental justice and equity concerns in state decision-making and address environmental and economic impacts in disadvantaged communities.

Celebrating Stewardship

The department’s Environmental Stewardship Initiative (ESI) recognized eight new members this year for their outstanding environmental performance. The program currently has 190 member sites across North Carolina: 29 Stewards, 12 Rising Stewards and 149 Partner sites. ESI members reported savings totaling $11.3 million in 2019 from their implemented environmental projects. Through their efforts, members saved one billion gallons of water, avoided the discharge of three billion gallons of wastewater, recycled more than 186,000 tons of reusable materials, prevented the release of 24,190 metric tons of CO2 equivalent and reduced their energy usage by almost 840,000 mmBtu.

The Waste Reduction Partners (WRP) team provided onsite waste reductions and energy efficiency assessments for 98 clients across 39 counties, helping businesses and institutions save $1.07 million in FY2020. The WRP team is placing special focus on assisting North Carolina organizations in curbing utility costs and addressing climate goals by reducing greenhouse gas through energy efficiency programs.

In late June, DEQ, along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acting as Natural Resource Trustees, released the final Phase 1 Restoration Plan and Environmental Assessment that identifies 10 projects, totaling $12 million, to offset environmental harm due to releases at the Kerr-McGee Chemical Corp. Superfund site in Navassa, North Carolina.

Grants and Recognitions

  • The Brownfields Program signed the 600th agreement in November, totaling more than $1 billion dollars in investments across the state, along with more than 1,000 acres that have been returned to productive reuse.
  • DEQ and N.C. Department of Information Technology (NCDIT) won the National Association of State Chief Information Officers’ (NASCIO) award for Business Process Innovations for NCDEQ’s “Modernizing Environmental Mapping with Unmanned Aerial Vehicles” program.
  • The N.C. Weatherization Assistance Program (NCWAP) dispersed more than $21 million in federal grants, allowing more than 1,100 homes to be weatherized and more than 900 Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) units in homes to be repaired or replaced throughout the state. The program helps low-income residents save energy, reduce their utility bills and stay safe in their homes.
  • DCM awarded more than more than $1.2 million to 11 local governments and the N.C. Coastal Reserve to improve public access to coastal beaches and waters for the 2020-21 fiscal year. The awards range from $27,000 - $191,000, and include projects such as a fully handicap accessible kayak launch, solar powered restrooms boardwalks, floating dock and urban waterfront renovation.
  • DCM also purchased 35.6 acres in Dare County to be added to the Kitty Hawk Woods Coastal Reserve. The acquisition of the Little Colington Island peninsula, known as Meter Point, took place in January and will conserve critical habitats and the benefits these natural communities provide. The Kitty Hawk Woods Reserve protects nearly 1,900 acres of one of the largest remaining high-quality maritime forests in North Carolina.
  • A total of 55 facilities received the N.C. Area Wide Optimization Award from DWR. More than 2.2 million North Carolinians were served by optimized water treatment plants, which means that these water treatment facilities met voluntary performance goals that are significantly more stringent.
  • DWR awarded more than $1.3 million from the federally-funded 319 grant program to seven North Carolina organizations. This grant provides funds to support small projects in underserved areas to help restore waters impaired by nonpoint sources of pollution. Funded activities include agricultural BMPs, stormwater retrofits, stream restoration, and educational and community mobilization activities, all of which will help restore waters impaired by nonpoint sources of pollution.
  • The Division of Environmental Assistance and Customer Services’ Recycling Program provided $665,630 in recycling business development grants to 20 North Carolina recycling companies. The grants are projected to create 61 jobs and generate more than $2 million in new, private business investments while reducing the state’s dependence on landfill disposal.
  • DWM awarded $500,000 to 64 county governments to support local electronics management programs, which provide residents with opportunities to recycle electronics like televisions and computer equipment, diverting almost 27 million pounds of electronics from the state’s landfills this past fiscal year.
  • DWM’s Underground Storage Tank Section continued to meet its goal of processing all complete claims within 30 days, resulting in more than $15 million flowing back into the state economy during the pandemic.
  • The Division of Mitigation Services (DMS) staff, working with the Interagency Review Team, completed credit release review for 78 projects with credit value of more than $30 million using virtual technology and onsite field reviews. Additionally, four compensatory mitigations sites with a credit value of $9.4 million are currently in the process of completing closure.
  • DMS, using private mitigation providers, restored or enhanced 56,980 feet of stream, 58 acres of wetlands, and 203 acres of riparian buffer in 2020. These contracts to private mitigation providers totaled $28.4 million. Stream and wetland mitigation projects constructed and closed this year should reduce an estimated 54,409 pounds of Total Nitrogen and 4,635 pounds of Total Phosphorus that enters North Carolina’s streams and waterways each year.
  • DMS made tremendous progress in 2020 developing a digital monitoring application. When completed, the application will allow digital monitoring data submissions by mitigation providers greatly reducing the need for paper reports. The incorporation of 360-degree camera and drone technology will be used for visual analysis of in-stream conditions. DMS hopes to roll out this application in mid- to late-2021.
  • Recent legislation established the Natural Infrastructure Flood Mitigation Program within DMS. The new program, once fully funded, will allow DMS to utilize natural infrastructure to address flooding within small watersheds.
  • In 2020, 41 educators completed the Office’s Environmental Education Certification Program while 147 individuals enrolled in the program. The certification is a professional development program for both non-formal educators and classroom teachers that requires a commitment of 200 hours of training, teaching, and community leadership. Throughout the pandemic, DEQ’s environmental education program pivoted to provide online options for teachers, students and parents, including virtual workshops, field experiences, webinars, conferences and online programming. These resources were accessed more than 14,000 times since March 15.

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