Category Archives: Natural Hazards

Court Refuses to Stay EPA Rule Reducing Power Plant CO2 Emissions

January 24, 2016.     An earlier post described the basic requirements  of a new federal rule  (the Clean Power Plan) requiring existing  power plants to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.   Note: That post described the draft rule out for public comment in  2014; the final  rule approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in August  2015 differed from the draft rule  in some details — including the specific  state  CO2  reduction targets — but the basic requirements did not change.

North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality (formerly DENR)  opposed the rule early on and in October of 2015 joined 23 other states in a lawsuit challenging the final rule.  (More on the McCrory administration’s objections to the EPA rule here.)   Both the states and several business/industry groups  attacking the rule in separate lawsuits  asked the federal court to issue a preliminary injunction  (or “stay”) to prevent EPA from implementing  the Clean Power Plan rule until the lawsuits are resolved.

On January 21, the federal Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia denied all requests to stay implementation of the Clean Power Plan rule. The court’s  order did not discuss the basis for denial in detail; the court simply said the requests failed to meet the high standards for issuance of a preliminary injunction, citing the U.S. Supreme Court decision in  Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council (2008).  First,  the court must be persuaded that the plaintiff is ultimately likely  to win the case. A court will not give a  plaintiff the immediate advantage of a stay restricting the defendant’s actions if the plaintiff’s arguments are unlikely to win out in the end.  Even if the court finds the plaintiff has a likelihood of winning the case, the court will not issue a stay unless the plaintiff also shows that:

The plaintiff is likely to suffer irreparable harm if the court doesn’t issue a preliminary injunction. In this case, the plaintiffs  had to convince the court that allowing EPA to move ahead with implementation of the Clean Power Plan rule  would cause immediate harm to the plaintiffs and that  harm could not be remedied by a later ruling in the plaintiffs’ favor.

The balance of equities tips in the plaintiff’s favor.  In very simplified terms,  the plaintiffs had to show that a stay would do more good than harm.

An injunction is in the public interest.  The public interest standard can work in favor of either the plaintiff or the defendant depending on the case. In the Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council case, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that a preliminary injunction was not in the public interest because it would have restricted a particular type of military training exercise.

Since the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit did not provide specific reasons for refusing to stay the Clean Power Plan rule,  it is impossible to know exactly which of those standards the plaintiffs failed to meet.  The decision doesn’t necessarily mean the court thinks the state and business/industry plaintiffs have a weak case against the rule; failure to meet the other criteria could also lead to denial of a stay.  It is probably safe to say, however,  that the court did not believe the states or the business/industry plaintiffs  will  be harmed by allowing the Clean Power Plan rule to go into effect.

In asking for a stay, the states  identified two kinds of harm —  waste of state resources to comply with a federal rule that may be struck down by the courts and a much more nebulous harm to state sovereignty.  On the question of potentially wasted state resources, EPA pointed out: 1. the federal rule gives states until 2018  to develop a state plan to meet the CO2 reduction targets;  and  2. a state can also simply opt out and let EPA develop a CO2 reduction plan for its electric utilities.  The first actual CO2 reduction target comes several years after approval of  the state plans. The court seemed persuaded that the long planning and implementation timeline means states will not have to sink major, unrecoverable costs into Clean Power Plan compliance before the lawsuits are resolved.

It is hard to know what the court made of the somewhat novel argument that immediate implementation of the Clean Power Plan rule  would irreparably harm state sovereignty.  EPA pointed out that the Clean Power Plan rule gives states a lot of flexibility in developing plans to meet the  CO2 emissions reduction targets.  It is also difficult to argue the Clean Power Plan rule attacks state sovereignty without going to the next — much more radical step — of arguing that the federal government has no authority to regulate to protect air quality in the first place.   In any case, if the federal court strikes down the Clean Power Plan rule as either unconstitutional or beyond EPA’s statutory authority that would seem to adequately  remedy any hypothetical harm to  state sovereignty.

The Court of Appeals agreed to expedite the Clean Power Plan lawsuits and set the case for hearing on June 2, 2016.

Practical effects — States will continue to face a 2018 deadline for submission of  CO2 reduction plans. In one way, the impact on  N.C.  will be minimal  because the state  is  already on a fast track to submit a  plan to EPA in  2016.  The catch, however, is that the plan proposed by N.C.’s Department of Environmental Quality relies entirely on tighter emissions limits for a small set of existing coal-fired power plants and will only result in a fraction of the CO2 reductions the federal rule requires.  See another post  for background on the McCrory administration’s intent to submit a plan that does not take  credit for CO2 reductions associated with  increased renewable energy generation and energy efficiency improvements already required under  state law.  The shortfall in CO2 reductions in the plan being prepared by DEQ will almost certainly result in EPA disapproval.  Given the federal court’s denial of a stay, N.C.’s decision to deliberately fast track an unapprovable plan may mean  the state will have to revisit the plan sooner rather than later.

2015 in Review — Legislation

January 12, 2016. Some trends in environmental legislation:

Limiting Local Government Authority. After several years of legislation limiting the regulatory authority of state environmental agencies, the General Assembly turned to local government.

  Senate Bill 119  (Session Law 2015-264)  may have the practical effect of  eliminating local government  authority to regulate shale gas operations under  zoning, land use, stormwater, health,  and sedimentation control ordinances.  In 2014,  Session Law 2014-4  preempted local ordinances that  “would prohibit or have the effect of prohibiting oil and gas exploration, development, and production activities, or use of horizontal drilling or hydraulic fracturing for that purpose”.   But the 2014 law created a presumption that local zoning and land use ordinances applicable to other types of development  (such as zoning, setbacks, buffers  and stormwater standards) could also apply to shale gas operations.

Senate Bill 119  rewrites  the 2014 provision to completely  preempt  local ordinances.  The new Oil and Gas Commission (replacing the Mining and Energy Commission) now has power to preempt the application of  local development ordinances even if  the ordinance would not preclude shale gas development or conflict with state standards.  Although the presumption  in favor of zoning and land use ordinances still appears in the law, the 2015 amendments direct the Commission to preempt a local ordinance at the request of the shale gas developer if the  drilling operation has received  state/federal permits and the Commission finds that exploration and development

…will not pose an unreasonable health or environmental risk to the surrounding locality and that the operator has taken or consented to take reasonable measures to avoid or manage foreseeable risks and to comply to the maximum feasible extent with applicable local ordinances.

In effect,  the Oil and Gas  Commission can set aside any  local ordinance and substitute its judgment about risk for that of local elected officials. Preemption of local ordinances could have several implications —

1. Complete preemption of local ordinances may  leave gaps in basic regulation of shale gas activities  since state standards do not address a number of   issues normally dealt with by local government such as noise,  traffic, solid waste disposal (trash — not drilling waste), and open burning.

2.  The law potentially allows preemption of local  stormwater ordinances needed to  meet state water supply watershed protection standards; comply with federal stormwater permits; or  minimize flooding.    The Environmental Management Commission has adopted stormwater rules  for shale gas operations, but those  rules expressly recognize that additional stormwater standards may apply to a particular operation and reserve the right to apply those standards — whether implemented by DEQ or by a local government.  The new preemption language in Senate Bill 119 does not recognize the possibility that local stormwater ordinances may be required under state or federal law.

3.  The provision  raises a question about implementation of  sedimentation control requirements through local sedimentation programs. The state’s Sedimentation Pollution Control Act allows cities and counties to take over implementation of the sedimentation program. In areas with local programs, sedimentation control requirements are set and enforced through local ordinances.  Nothing in Senate Bill 119 prevents the Oil and Gas Commission from preempting a local sedimentation ordinance.

♦  House Bill 44  included two provisions limiting local government authority to adopt or enforce other types of development ordinances —

Section 2 bars  local governments from enforcing a “voluntary” state environmental rule,  but defines “voluntary” rule in a creative way to include any state rule  that has  been repealed;  has been adopted, but is not yet in effect; or has been “temporarily or permanently held in abeyance”.  The last category would cover the  Jordan Lake water quality rules that have been delayed by legislative action.  Preventing  local enforcement  of existing Jordan Lake stormwater ordinances  may have been the main purpose of the provision, but it could also raise questions about the enforceability of other local ordinances. No one has  attempted to catalog all of the local ordinances that include requirements that once appeared in a now-repealed state rule or are proposed to be included in a new state rule that has not yet been adopted.   The House Bill 44 provision seems to assume that local environmental ordinances always follow  state regulatory action; it  ignores direct grants (by the General Assembly) of local government authority to  adopt ordinances to protect  public health and the environment.  For more on the implications of this provision,  see an earlier post.

Section 13  limits local government authority to adopt riparian buffer requirements.  The bill defines “riparian buffer”  to mean any setback from surface waters —  which could include a setback imposed for flood control.  (The definition seems broader than other  language in the provision  specifically referring  to  riparian buffers for water quality protection.) Under the bill, a local government cannot adopt and enforce a riparian buffer ordinance for water quality protection  that  goes beyond requirements of state or federal law or the conditions of a state or federal permit unless the EMC  approves the ordinance.

Shielding Evidence of Possible Environmental Violations

♦  House Bill 765  (the Regulatory Reform Act of 2015)  creates a new legal  privilege for information contained in an environmental audit report. (Companies use environmental audits  to identify  compliance problems;  opportunities for waste reduction;  and operational changes to reduce environmental impacts.)   Information covered by the privilege does not have to be shared with regulators and cannot be used by  regulatory agencies to document an environmental violation in  a civil enforcement case.   The privilege does not apply in a criminal  case, but the vast majority of environmental enforcement actions rely on civil rather than criminal penalties. See the section on environmental audit privilege/self-disclosure immunity in this earlier post for more on the scope of the privilege.

♦   House Bill 405    allows an employer to take legal action against an employee who 1. enters a “nonpublic” area of the workplace;  2.  takes photographs, makes recordings, or copies records without permission; and 3.  uses those documents “against the interest of the employer”.   The employer can sue the employee  for  monetary damages,  including legal fees and a $5,000 per day penalty.   Animal rights activists referred to House Bill 405  as the “Ag-Gag” bill — a term used for legislation targeting activists who go undercover on farms and in  processing facilities to document animal cruelty violations. But House Bill 405 is not limited to agricultural workers or documentation of animal cruelty. The bill could also be used to punish an employee who documents  illegal dumping of hazardous  waste and shares the evidence with regulators or the media.  See an earlier post for more on House Bill 405.

Lessening the Consequences for Some Environmental Violations.

♦  House Bill 765 grants immunity from civil penalties and fines for environmental violations that are voluntarily disclosed to state regulators.  The bill defines “voluntary” disclosure;  immunity would not apply to violations  documented  through information the company has a legal duty to report under state or federal law, for example. The bill limits how often a person (or company) can claim self-disclosure immunity — no more than once every two years; twice in a five-year period; and three times in a ten-year period.  The bill never defines “civil penalties and fines”, leaving a question about the breadth of the immunity.  For example, the bill is silent on whether “civil penalties and fines” includes natural resource damages such as  fish kill damages assessed for a wastewater spill. For a more detailed comparison to past state and present U.S. Environmental Protection Agency enforcement policies on self-disclosed violations, see an earlier post.

♦  A provision in the budget bill (S.L. 2015-241) limits the total civil penalty for ongoing  violations of the Sedimentation Pollution Control Act to $25,000 if: 1. the violator had not previously been assessed a penalty for a sedimentation violation (which does not necessarily mean the person has not previously violated the law); and 2. the violator addresses damage caused by the violations within 180 days.  Previously, the law allowed the Department of Environmental Quality to assess a maximum penalty of $5,000 per violation, per day for continuing sedimentation violations. The fact that the meter on civil penalties could run until the violator addressed the problem created a powerful incentive for quick response — even though DEQ rarely assesses the maximum penalty. Quick action to correct a violation  translates to  less stream damage from uncontrolled erosion and sedimentation.  The recent amendments have the somewhat perverse effect of assuring the violator that  sedimentation violations can go uncorrected for nearly six months without resulting in an increased penalty.  The provision also means that committing numerous sedimentation violations on the development site will result in the same penalty as a single violation.  The new cap on continuing violation penalties also applies to penalties assessed by local sedimentation programs.

♦ House Bill 765  amends existing state laws to allow broader use of “risk-based”  cleanup  of environmental contamination. In a risk-based cleanup, the person responsible for environmental  contamination is not required to fully restore contaminated soil and groundwater. A risk-based  cleanup plan relies on a combination of limited remediation and land-use controls (such as deed restrictions) that prevent exposure to contamination  remaining on the site after the partial cleanup.  Groundwater cleanup costs represent a significant consequence of violating environmental laws — often exceeding penalties assessed by regulators — so  allowing a  more limited cleanup reduces the cost of violating the law.  (It also means the groundwater may remain contaminated and unusable for a very long time.)

House Bill 765 extends the benefits of lower cost, risk-based cleanup to several categories of  contaminated sites that had been  excluded  under  the state’s  2011  law  allowing risk-based remediation of  industrial contamination. Two of those categories broaden the use of risk-based remediation in ways that may undermine incentives for present environmental compliance:

—  New contamination incidents.  House Bill 765 repeals statute language  limiting use of risk-based remediation to contamination  reported  before the 2011 risk-based remediation law went into effect.  In 2011, allowing risk-based cleanup of industrial sites was seen as an incentive for remediation of properties with longstanding contamination  —  often resulting from activities that had been lawful at the time. Remediation costs remained  a significant incentive for present-day compliance with environmental standards. Removing the date restriction means that a  risk-based cleanup will now be an option for new contamination incidents resulting from activities violating current environmental laws.

—  Sites contaminated by petroleum releases from above-ground  storage tanks (ASTs).  There has long been a risk-based cleanup program for petroleum underground storage tanks (USTs),  but UST operators also have to meet extensive regulatory standards to  prevent future pollution incidents.  House Bill 765 gives AST owners  the benefit of risk-based cleanup without regulatory standards to prevent future releases.

Eliminating or Streamlining State Permit Requirements for Environmental Infrastructure

♦ The state budget (S.L. 2015-241)  includes a provision that changes landfill permitting, allowing issuance of a single “life of site” permit to cover construction and operation of a landfill that  often has a 30-year lifespan.  State rules had previously  required review and approval of the entire landfill site before construction, but also required each 5 or 10-year phase of the landfill to have a construction and operation permit.   Landfill construction will continue to be done in phases for economic and practical reasons,  but the “life of site permit” eliminates state compliance review for each new  phase of the landfill.   The change also seems to close the door on  new permit conditions for construction or operation of later landfill phases in response to scientific or  technological developments. The budget provision does not set minimum landfill inspection requirements in place of the 5 and 10-year phased permit reviews.

♦ House Bill 765 creates a new private permitting option for septic systems and other small on-site wastewater systems now permitted by local health departments. The provision  allows  a property owner to hire an engineer and soil scientist to approve the location and design of the system. The local health department will receive information about the system, but the engineer’s approval substitutes for a permit. It isn’t clear that  the laws allows the health department to prevent construction of an engineer-certified system based on inconsistency with state siting and design standards.

Skepticism about State Water Quality Rules. The 2015 General Assembly continued to focus on water quality rules and particularly those affecting real estate development activities — such as stormwater standards, wetland and stream mitigation requirements, and riparian buffer protection rules.

The state budget includes a special provision further delaying implementation of the Jordan Lake water quality rules for  another 3 years or one year beyond completion of the Solar Bee pilot project (whichever is later). See an earlier post  here on the  2013 legislation creating the pilot project. The rules had been developed by the state’s Environmental Management Commission to address poor water quality  caused by  excess nutrients reaching the lake in wastewater discharges and  runoff from agricultural lands and developed areas.  Since adoption of the rules, the legislature has taken repeated steps over several legislative sessions to delay compliance deadlines in the rules. This session,  the  legislature also barred local government enforcement of stormwater ordinances adopted to comply with the Jordan Lake rules.

♦ House Bill 765  limits  regulatory authority and mitigation requirements for isolated wetlands and intermittent streams. (Isolated wetlands are wetlands that fall outside federal permitting jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act because the wetlands lack a connection to “navigable waters”.)  These provisions continue a several-year legislative trend toward limiting  protections for wetlands and waters to the minimum required under federal law.

♦ Some proposals to significantly roll back other water quality rules (particularly stormwater and  riparian buffer rules) failed this session, but became the subject of legislatively mandated studies. Among the studies required before the April 2016 legislative session: a study of coastal stormwater rules; a study on the feasibility of entirely exempting linear utility projects (such as pipelines) from  environmental standards;  and an Environmental Review Commission study of the  state stormwater program.

Expanding Use of Erosion Control Structures on Ocean and Inlet Shorelines

♦ A   provision in the budget bill  (S.L. 2015-241)  changes state rules on use of sandbag  structures on the oceanfront.  Rules adopted by the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission have limited use of protective sandbag structures to situations where a building faces an imminent erosion threat. (These sandbag  structures are substantial in size and can have many of the same long-term impacts as permanent seawalls; the rules do not apply to sandbags used to prevent water from entering a building during a flood event.)   The budget bill changes the standards to allow an oceanfront property owner to install a sandbag  structure to align with an existing sandbag structure on adjacent property without showing an imminent erosion threat to a building on their own property.

♦ The budget bill also increases the number of terminal groin structures that can be permitted at the state’s ocean inlets from four to six and identifies New River Inlet for location of two of the additional structures. See an earlier post  for more on earlier legislation allowing construction of terminal groins as a  pilot project. The latest provision continues a several-year trend of reducing regulatory requirements for approval of terminal groin projects and increasing the number of projects that can be permitted.

N.C. Environmental Legislation 2015: The Budget

October 9, 2015. Now that the General Assembly has adjourned, a look at legislative actions affecting the environment. First, the state budget for 2015-2017.

Among the most significant impacts:

♦  REORGANIZATION.   The Clean Water Management Trust Fund and the Natural Heritage Program — originally intended to protect and restore water quality and identify important natural areas — have been separated from the environmental protection programs in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). The budget transfers the CWMTF, Natural Heritage Program, Museum of Natural Sciences, state park system, N.C. Aquariums and N.C. Zoo from DENR to a newly organized Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. The move combines conservation  and ecological education programs with state historic sites and cultural resources. The new department appears to be organized around management of the programs as public attractions rather than as research and education partners to state environmental protection programs.  As a result of the reorganization, DENR becomes the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

Whatever the merits of the move for facilities like the Museum of Natural Science and N.C. Zoo,  the Clean Water Management Trust Fund and Natural Heritage Program do not  fit the new department’s basic organizing principle. Unlike the “attractions”,  the  CWMTF and Natural Heritage Program provide no public facilities and exist primarily to protect  water quality and identify important natural resources.

The General Assembly created the Clean Water Management Trust Fund (CWMTF) in 1996 to fund projects to prevent water pollution and to restore water bodies already impaired  by pollution.   CWMTF’s  non-regulatory approach complemented water quality rules  protecting state waters.  Originally,   CWMTF grants funded acquisition of riparian buffers to reduce polluted runoff into streams and rivers and  extension of sewer lines where failing  septic  systems threatened surface water quality.  In moving CWMTF, the 2015 budget severs its connection with other state efforts to restore and protect water quality.  The move follows 2014  legislation diluting the original CWMTF  focus on  water quality protection by authorizing use of the Trust Fund for acquisition of historic sites and buffers around military bases.

The  Natural Heritage Program researches, classifies and inventories the state’s natural resources, including endangered and rare plant and animal species. Information collected by the program can be used to document the conservation value of property and to assess the environmental impacts of projects requiring state and federal environmental permits.  The program has a much closer working relationship to the environmental  protection programs that remain in DENR than to public attractions like the N.C.  Zoo and Aquariums. (Note: The 2013 state budget eliminated the Natural Heritage Trust Fund which had been a source of funding for conservation of important natural areas;   the CWMTF  has become the funding source for those projects as well.)

♦  LANDFILL PERMITTING. The budget changes landfill permitting, allowing issuance of a single “life of site” permit to cover construction and operation of a landfill that may have a 30-year lifespan.  State rules had previously  required review and approval of the entire landfill site before construction, but also required each 5 or 10-year phase of the landfill to have a construction and operation permit.  Moving to a “life of site” permit  reduces the number of permit reviews for each landfill operation, changing the permit fee schedule and cutting funding for the state’s solid waste management program by 20%.  The change also reduces state oversight of landfill operations.  Landfill construction will continue to be done in phases for economic and practical reasons,  but the “life of site permit” eliminates state compliance review for each new  phase of the landfill.   The change also seems to eliminate the possibility of imposing additional permit conditions for construction or operation of later landfill phases in response to  technological developments  or new knowledge  of  risks to groundwater and other natural resources. The  budget provision does not set minimum inspection requirements in place of the 5 and 10-year phased permit reviews.

The bill also creates a legislative study of local government authority over solid waste collection and disposal, including ordinances on solid waste collection;  fees for waste management services; and potential for privatization.  The study suggests the General Assembly may focus next on reducing local solid waste regulation.  That will be a somewhat different discussion, since solid waste disposal has long been a local government responsibility so  local fees and ordinances have a direct connection to city/county collection and disposal services.

 LEAKING PETROLEUM UNDERGROUND STORAGE TANKSThe budget eliminates a state fund for cleanup of petroleum contamination from small  petroleum underground storage tanks (USTs) such as home heating oil tanks.   The Noncommercial UST Trust Fund has assisted property owners with the cost of soil and groundwater remediation caused by leaks from farm, home and small commercial USTs.  The budget allocates additional money to the Noncommercial UST Trust Fund to cover pending claims, but  limits use of the Fund to  cleanup costs associated with leaks reported to DENR by October 1, 2015.  All claims for reimbursement of those costs must be filed by July 1, 2016.

The budget provision also prohibits DENR from requiring removal of petroleum-contaminated soils at noncommercial UST sites that have been classified as low risk.  The  problem —  risk classifications  have been based on groundwater impacts;  a low-risk classification does not mean that contaminated soils on the property pose no health hazard. Current UST  rules require remediation of contaminated soils to levels safe for the intended land use (residential versus nonresidential) without regard to the overall risk classification of the site.  Soil remediation standards have been based on the potential health risks associated with exposure to petroleum-contaminated soil. Adverse health effects may include increased cancer risk since petroleum products contain a number of carcinogens. The budget provision may allow petroleum-contaminated soils to remain on residential properties at levels putting children at particular risk of adverse health effects.

♦ JORDAN LAKE WATER QUALITY RULES. The budget allocates another $1.5 million (from the Clean Water Management Trust Fund) to continue the 2013 pilot project to test use of aerators to improve water quality in the Jordan Lake system. The budget also has a special provision further delaying implementation of the Jordan Lake water quality rules for  another 3 years or one year beyond completion of the pilot project (whichever is later). The rules had been developed by the state’s Environmental Management Commission to address poor water quality  caused by  excess nutrients reaching the lake in wastewater discharges or in  runoff from agricultural lands and developed areas. See an earlier post  here on the  2013 legislation creating the pilot project.

♦ COASTAL EROSION CONTROL.   A special provision in the budget also changes state rules on use of sandbag seawalls and terminal groins in response to coastal erosion.  State coastal management rules have only allowed use of  temporary sandbag seawalls to protect a building facing an imminent threat from erosion. The same rules prohibit construction of the seawall more than 20 feet seaward of the threatened building. (These sandbag seawalls are substantial structures built on the beach in response to oceanfront erosion; the rules do not apply to sandbags used to prevent water from entering a building during a flood event.) The budget bill allows an oceanfront property owner to install a sandbag seawall to align with an existing sandbag structure on adjacent property without showing an imminent erosion threat to any building on their own property.  Since the bill allows construction to align with the adjacent sandbag seawall, the new seawall  may  also be more than 20 feet seaward of any  building. The irony here — a property owner may want to install a sandbag seawall in these circumstances  out of concern that the adjacent sandbag seawall may itself cause increased shoreline erosion.

The budget bill also increases the number of terminal groin structures that can be permitted at the state’s ocean inlets from four to six and identifies New River Inlet for location of two of the additional structures. See an earlier post  for more on earlier legislation allowing construction of terminal groins as a pilot project. Note: No terminal groins have been completed under the original pilot program, so the state does not yet have any data on the actual impacts of these structures.

♦ RENEWABLE ENERGY TAX CREDIT.  The budget bill allows the state’s 35% tax credit for renewable energy projects to sunset on December 31, 2015. A separate bill provides a “safe harbor” for renewable energy projects already substantially underway by that date. Those projects may qualify for a one-year extension of the tax credit. See Senate Bill 372 for more on conditions that apply to the safe harbor extension.

The North Carolina Response to EPA’s Clean Power Plan Rule

July 26, 2015.  In one way, the proposed  U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule to limit carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from power plants  — expected to be final in August — looks like a typical air quality rule. The Clean Power Plan rule sets state by state reduction goals for a pollutant (CO2) from a particular set of of sources (electric generating facilities).  But the rule takes an unusual and  innovative approach to meeting those goals. The rule identifies  four components  (or “building blocks” in EPA rule-speak ) of a plan to reduce CO2 emissions associated with power generation : 1. reducing power plant CO2 emissions (the traditional Clean Air Act approach); 2. energy efficiency measures; 3. increased  electric generation from renewable energy sources;  and 4. transition of electric generation facilities from coal to natural gas.   In effect, the rule aims to lower CO2 emissions per kilowatt hour used and allows the  states to take credit for CO2 emissions avoided through increased energy efficiency and by shifting electric generation to energy sources with low or no CO2 emissions.

The proposed EPA rule requires each state to submit a plan for meeting its CO2 reduction target by June 30, 2016. The state plan can rely on any or all of the four “building blocks” in the EPA rule; it can also include measures that fall outside those categories as long as the plan achieves the CO2 reduction target for regulated electric generation facilities. If a state fails to develop a plan, EPA can create a federal plan for the state.  An earlier post  provides more detail on the  proposed federal rule.

The McCrory administration has opposed the Clean Power Plan rule in  written comments and in testimony before Congressional committees. In part,  the administration has argued that the Clean Air Act does not authorize EPA to issue  a rule that relies on measures — such as energy efficiency and increased reliance on renewable energy — that go beyond limiting  pollutant emissions from regulated power plants.  Last week,  the practical implications of  that   position became more clear when DENR  Secretary Donald van der Vaart  told a Senate committee that  the McCrory administration intends to resist the flexibility offered under the federal rule and submit a CO2 reduction plan  based entirely on requiring additional CO2 emission reductions at  power plants.

The Secretary’s comments came  as a state Senate committee debated House Bill 571, which requires DENR to develop  a state CO2 reduction plan with the participation of the public and the electric utilities. DENR did not support House Bill 571, but the bill passed the House with a bipartisan majority and the support of  the state’s major electric utilities and environmental organizations. Last Wednesday, the  Senate Agriculture and Environment Committee took up a substitute draft of  H 571 that would prohibit DENR from taking any action or expending any state resources on development of a CO2 reduction plan until all legal challenges to the federal rule had been resolved or until July 1, 2016 (whichever came later).  Asked to comment on the proposed substitute bill,   Secretary van der Vaart  indicated that DENR  would prefer to submit a CO2 reduction plan by June 30, 2016 as required under the federal rule — but a plan based entirely on reducing  power plant emissions.

Based on the Secretary’s statement, the McCrory administration response to the Clean Power Plan rule puts the state in a strange place:

♦  DENR has argued for an interpretation of  the Clean Air Act that would force the federal rule to be more rigid and offer the state less flexibility to meet CO2 reduction targets.   (A number of environmental law experts disagree with this narrow interpretation of EPA authority; the issue will likely have to be settled in court.)

♦  Based on this narrow interpretation of EPA authority, DENR intends to develop a state CO2 reduction plan that relies entirely on further reducing  CO2 emissions from power plants even though existing  state policies have North Carolina on a path to achieve much (if not all)  of the necessary reductions through increased renewable energy generation, greater energy efficiency, and  transition of power plants from coal to natural gas.  Although DENR has not provided an analysis of the state’s ability to meet the state’s CO2 reduction target based on those existing policies, others have. You can find one (an analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council)  here.

♦  Relying  entirely on lowering power plant emissions could  make meeting the CO2 reduction target more difficult and more costly for electric utilities and consumers. Again, DENR has not provided a comparative analysis of the cost of relying entirely on power plant pollution controls versus  a comprehensive CO2 plan that takes credit for energy efficiency measures, renewable energy generation and transitioning power plants from coal to natural gas.

Most states have started planning to meet the  CO2 reduction targets. Even in coal-producing states where political opposition to the EPA rule tends to be highest,  state air quality agencies have begun sketching out CO2 reduction scenarios in case the rule survives the expected legal challenges. Only one state — Oklahoma — has prohibited its environmental agency from developing a plan. A recent Washington Post story  reported that even coal-dominated states like Kentucky seem confident of meeting the  CO2 reduction target thanks in part to recent investments in renewable energy generation. It isn’t clear that any state other than North Carolina has decided to develop a plan based solely on CO2 reductions at coal-fired power plants.

Which leaves something of a public policy mystery. A state with significant advantages in renewable energy, energy efficiency and already on the road to transitioning power plants from coal to natural gas seems to have settled on a policy that throws those advantages away. Instead of working with electric utilities, consumers and environmental organizations to develop the most cost-effective  CO2 reduction plan for the state, DENR intends  to unilaterally develop a plan based entirely on reducing power plant emissions.  It isn’t clear why or what that policy choice could cost the state.

Note: The Senate committee approved the substitute draft of House Bill 571 on Wednesday, but offered to continue talking to DENR about the content of the bill. The bill was pulled off the Senate calendar last Thursday; when the bill  reappears on the Senate calendar, there may be amendments as a result of the ongoing discussions.

Update: The original post has been revised to make it clear that state CO2 reduction plans can also rely on measures other than those covered by the  four “building blocks” identified in the EPA rule.

A Citizen’s Guide to Climate Change, Part II: The “Greenhouse” Effect

February 16, 2015.  At its most basic, the theory that human activity can affect the climate has  two parts: 1. Changes in  Earth’s atmosphere can affect surface temperature;  and 2. Human activity can alter the makeup of Earth’s atmosphere. This post provides an overview of the science behind both principles, relying on scientific reports and a number of  sources that collect and report data on the link between atmospheric gasses and climate.  This post  focuses on carbon dioxide (CO2) as one of the most significant contributors to warming; other “greenhouse” gasses include methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gasses.

How the atmosphere affects temperature; the history of the  “greenhouse effect” The scientific  theory  that Earth’s atmosphere affects  the planet’s surface temperature — the “greenhouse effect” — goes back nearly 200 years. As early as the 1820s,   French scientist Jean Baptiste Fourier  theorized that gasses surrounding the Earth retained heat,  allowing the planet to warm more than the sun’s influence alone could explain. British physicist  John Tyndall did some of the earliest experimental work to prove the relationship,  demonstrating that water vapor and carbon dioxide  hold more heat than oxygen and nitrogen.  In 1861, Tyndall published the results  in a  paper titled On the Absorption and Radiation of Heat by Gases and Vapours, and on the Physical Connexion of Radiation, Absorption, and Conduction.  In 1896, Swedish  scientist  Svante Arrhenius published  a  paper  that for the first time quantified the  relationship between CO2  in the atmosphere and  Earth’s surface temperature.

Tabletop experiments:  A number of educational and scientific websites provide instructions on how to do your own table-top experiment demonstrating how changes in the atmosphere affect temperature. For a demonstration, see this BBC video.

Sources:  Discovery of Global Warming  website (maintained by Spencer Weart  and hosted by the American Institute of Physics); the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA); the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA);  the University of York’s Tyndall correspondence website;  and the Tyndall Centre  for Climate  Change Research. For an overview of the history of climate science carried forward through the 20th century, see a post by John Mason on the Skeptical Science website.

Trends in Atmospheric CO2. Scientists have been taking monthly measurements of  CO2 at the Mauna Loa Observatory  (Hawaii) since 1958. The chart below shows the trend line.

co2_data_mlo

 

The red line plots the CO2  measurements; the black line represents the seasonally adjusted CO2 level. In 2014, CO2 levels measured at Mauna Loa reached 400 parts per million for the first time since modern record-keeping began.   Research indicates that current CO levels are the highest in  hundreds of thousands of years. Or as science writer Andrew Freedman put it more colorfully in an article for Climate Central:

The last time there was this much carbon dioxide (CO2) in the Earth’s atmosphere, modern humans didn’t exist. Megatoothed sharks prowled the oceans, the world’s seas were up to 100 feet higher than they are today, and the global average surface temperature was up to 11°F warmer than it is now.

Englishman seated on jaw of megatooth shark.

Englishman seated on jaw of megatooth shark

Most of the increase in atmospheric CO2 has occurred since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution (in the late 1700s) when atmospheric levels were around 280 parts per million and the rate of change has increased in the last 50 years. The upward curve in CO2 looks very similar to the upward curve in mean global temperature since 1960 shown in the previous post:

Mean Surface Temps

 

Questions about human activity and  increased CO2 levels

Haven’t CO2 levels on Earth been higher in the past? Yes, but the highest levels occurred around 500 million years ago when Earth was a very different place.  The last time CO2 levels were similar to those being measured now was about 7,000 years ago. CO2 levels fell over  several intervening  centuries; then the curve  reversed  and the rate of increase accelerated  within the last 50 years.

How do we know human activity has caused the recent increase in CO2Scientists have looked at the relationship in several different ways. Two indications of human influence:

1. Mathematical accounting for the conversion of carbon to CO2.   CO2 comes from both natural processes and human activity.  People convert carbon to CO2 by burning fossil fuels and by clearing and burning forested areas.    Scientists can  calculate both the amount of CO2 produced by human activity (which has greatly increased in the last 150 years) and the capacity of oceans and forests to absorb CO2.  Excess CO2  — the difference between the amount produced and the amount taken up by  the oceans or by plant life — goes into the atmosphere. Atmospheric CO2  significantly increased  as CO2 emissions from industry and energy generation spiked,  indicating a large human  contribution. Human  activity  also  overwhelms   CO2  increases associated with  natural sources like volcanic eruptions.

2. Studying the atomic “fingerprints” of atmospheric CO2. Not all carbon atoms are created the same. Elements like carbon can occur in different forms (called “isotopes”) based on the number of neutrons in each atom. Carbon occurs as three isotopes — 14C (radioactive and least common), 13C (about 1% of carbon isotopes) and 12C (the most common).  Fossil fuels like oil and coal contain  no 14C because the radioactivity has long since  decayed.  Both plants and fossil fuels  tend to have a low ratio of 13C to 12C. Scientists have found that the mix of atmospheric CO2 has become “lighter” in the last 150 years. An increase in carbon associated with plant-based fossil fuels seems to  have changed the ratio of “light” carbon to “heavy” carbon in the atmosphere. The change has tracked the significant increases in CO2 emissions from combustion of  fossil fuels for industrial purposes and electricity generation.

What kinds of human activities contribute to atmospheric CO2? Based on reporting of greenhouse gas emissions, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has created a chart showing the most significant sources.

gases-co2

Sources:  “How do we know that recent CO2 increases are due to human activities?”, www.realclimate.org, (December 22, 2004); Andrew Freedmen: “The Last Time CO2 was this High,  Humans Didn’t Exist”,  www.climatecentral.org, (May 2, 2013); World Meteorological Organization: 2013 Global Greenhouse Gas Report; NOAA Earth Science Research Laboratory, Global Monitoring Division website; Scripps CO2 Program website; “Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions”, U.S Environmental Protection Agency website; NASA:Vital Signs of the Planet: Carbon Dioxide; Caitlyn Kennedy: “Earth’s Hottest Topic is Just Hearing Up”, www.climate.gov (2009).

A Citizen’s Guide to Climate Change, Part I: Temperature

January 30,  2015. Controversy over EPA’s proposed carbon reduction rule (see an earlier post)  has again focused attention on the  climate change debate.  This post will look at global  temperature trends as reported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA).

The most recent temperature data. In  2014, the average combined land and sea surface temperature on Earth reached the highest level since modern record-keeping began in the 1880s.   The latest temperature data can be found in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)   2014  Global Climate Report here. Similar results reported by  NASA can be found here. Although NOAA and NASA use somewhat different baselines and methods, the two agencies reached very similar results. NASA calculated an increase of 1.4 ° (F) over the historical baseline; NOAA found an increase of 1.24° (F). Both found that higher ocean temperatures made a slightly greater contribution to the total increase than land surface temperatures.

The  chart below has been adapted from a NOAA Chart showing the ten warmest years on record based on the global average temperature. All of those years, with the exception of one, have occurred since 2000.  The third  column shows the increase in temperature by reference to the historical average (1880-2014).

Rank (1=Warmest) Year Increase (Fº)
2014  +1.24
2 (Tie) 2010/2005  + 1.17
4 1998  +1.13
5 (Tie) 2013/2003  +1.12
7 2002  +1.10
8 2006  +1.08
9 (Tie) 2009/2007  +1.06

Some temperature fluctuation from year to year can be accounted for by El Nino (warming) and La Nina (cooling) trends in the Pacific Ocean, but the 2014 high occurred under neutral El Nino conditions.  Find the original NOAA chart and other information about NOAA’s  2014 temperature analysis here.

NOAA also provides a bar chart showing the trend in global temperature over the entire period

Comparison to past temperature variation on Earth. Scientists have estimated average global temperature during past warming and cooling  periods based on a variety of natural records — glacial ice, tree rings, geological formations, and fossils. There have been periods in the past when Earth’s average temperature was much higher than it is now.  But once Earth cooled down from a hot rock to  a planet capable of supporting life,  the warming event that followed the last ice age occurred  very slowly.  See NOAA’s  introduction to  climate history here.   The overviews of historical climate studies provided by NOAA and by NASA’s  Climate Observatory  put  context around recent temperature increases:

♦  Earth’s average temperature varies from year to year in response to many influences,  but in recent  decades, the cooler years have represented “noise” in an overall upward trend.

♦ Earth’s climate has been relatively stable for much of the history of human civilization (the past 10,000 years).

♦ The last significant warming period (which  began around 11,000  years ago) led to an increase in the Earth’s average surface temperature of between 7° – 12° F.  That warming occurred very gradually  over a period of about 5,000 years and then another cooling trend began.

♦  The current warming trend began in the 20th century and temperature increases are happening  10  times  times faster than the last  ice age  warming period. (NASA).

For more detail on climate history, both the NASA and NOAA  sites provide links to the scientific studies used as references.

Do these increases in global temperature matter?  An increase of 1.4° F over the average global surface temperature seems — and is —  small, but  even small increases can affect patterns of plant and animal life.  In 2012,  the  U.S. Department of Agriculture released an updated U.S.  plant  hardiness zone map.  The map divides the U.S. into  zones based on the average annual low temperature;  going from north to south, each zone on the map represents  a 10° increase in the average low temperature. By comparison to the 1990 map, the new map shows a half-zone shift (or  5° F) toward the warmer zones. USDA has been careful to say the data sets for the 1990 and 2012 maps differed in a number of ways — the new map reflects data from more  locations and use of more sophisticated technology as well as additional years of data.  But the shifts are consistent with the general trend in global temperature data since the 1980s and suggest that farmers and gardeners  may already be seeing changes affecting plant life.

While a  1.2°- 1.4° increase in the average temperature over 30 years may already be affecting   the environment, concern about rising global temperature really focuses on the future. Two of the greatest concerns:

1. The rapid pace of warming and the unknown stopping point. Earth’s last major ice age warming event took place over a period of 5,000 years and at a time before modern human civilization and reliance on large-scale agricultural production.   Earth’s current  warming  is occurring  at a much faster rate (as much as 10 times faster), increasing the risk that plant and animal life may not be able to adapt quickly enough to changing temperature regimes. While Unites States agriculture has not been harmed by  the  1.2 – 1.4 ° (F) increase in recent decades,  it could be much more difficult to maintain agricultural productivity in the face of continuing, rapid temperature increases.  Other, warmer,  parts of the globe will be much more vulnerable to agricultural disruption because of temperature increases. Temperature increases can also   affect other human food sources like fisheries.

2. The chain-reaction effect of rapid warming on other parts of the human environment. The chain reaction talked about most often:

Higher global temperaturemelting of land ice ⇒more rapidly rising sea levelsflooding of coastal areas.

The potential for accelerated sea level rise gets attention because of the direct risk to human populations. In 2010, 39%  of the population of the U.S. lived in a shoreline county;  more than half of the population lived within  50  miles of an ocean shoreline. (Source: U.S. census data as reported in NOAA’s State of the Coast Report.)  As a result, accelerated sea level rise could affect some  of the most highly populated areas in the United States.

Note: NASA’s Vital Signs of the Planet website provides visualizations of  changes in the extent of sea ice and land ice.

How reliable is the data?   Temperature records date back to the 1880s and the amount and quality of the data has only gotten better.  NASA describes the records used in the Goddard Institute of Space Sciences temperature calculations this way:

The GISS analysis incorporates surface temperature measurements from 6,300 weather stations, ship- and buoy-based observations of sea surface temperatures, and temperature measurements from Antarctic research stations. This raw data is analyzed using an algorithm that takes into account the varied spacing of temperature stations around the globe and urban heating effects that could skew the calculation. The result is an estimate of the global average temperature difference from a baseline period of 1951 to 1980.

Next: The role of carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse” gasses in raising global temperature.

N.C. Senate Budget 2014: Environment

The most significant changes:

Oregon Inlet. The single largest allocation of new money ($15 million) would fund an effort to acquire  federal lands surrounding Oregon Inlet and the erosion-threatened  segment of N.C. Highway 12 on Hatteras Island.  The lands targeted for acquisition now make up parts of  Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.  The newly acquired lands would be designated as a state park, but the special budget provision tied to the funding describes the purpose of the acquisition as managing “existing and future transportation corridors” on the Outer Banks.  An earlier post describes the cost (as of 2013) of maintaining Highway 12  in the face of high erosion rates and inlet movement.

Continuing  erosion and storm damage have  made it increasingly difficult to maintain Hwy  12 within the  original right of way.  Going outside the right of way means working on federal lands. The National Park Service and federal wildlife refuge  managers have worked with the state to reach agreement on a number of  previous Hwy 12 maintenance and relocation projects, but conditions have now deteriorated to the point that future projects could involve much more significant impacts to lands in the national seashore and wildlife refuge. Some of the proposed maintenance and relocation options for Hwy 12 also conflict with  the conservation purposes  of the federal  lands.  Management plans for national seashore and wildlife refuge give high priority to maintaining a natural, unobstructed shoreline and  protecting wildlife habitat.

The bill directs the state Department of Administration to begin negotiating an agreement to acquire the federal lands by purchase or exchange of state land for federal land. If efforts to negotiate an agreement fail, the bill directs the department to begin  efforts to acquire the lands by condemnation next year,  Not surprisingly,  the budget provision allows use of some of the funding for litigation expenses. The budget cobbles together the $15 million allocation by transferring a total of  $7 million  from two specific  DENR  fund accounts ($3.5 miilion from each);  appropriating $5 million in new money;  and earmarking an additional $3 million in capital reserves.  One of the two DENR fund accounts  appears to be a Marine Fisheries fund for license revenue;  the budget provision identifies the  fund by  number and  title (the “Advanced License Sales Fund”).

The bill also has language (similar to a provision in the Senate regulatory reform bill) authorizing the Governor to  waive  state coastal development permits and environmental impact statements for projects needed to maintain transportation access to Hatteras Island. As noted in an earlier post, waiver of state environmental review may not actually shorten the permitting process –the Governor’s action cannot affect  federal permits needed for the Hwy 12 projects  and  the state and federal permit reviews have been coordinated for many years to streamline  review. On the other hand, waiving state permits for the project will remove any influence the state might otherwise have on the federal permitting process — taking state environmental permitting staff out of the negotiation entirely,

Coal  Ash. The Senate has proposed to appropriate $1.75 million to DENR to support activities related to regulation of coal ash, including 23 new staff positions. The staff positions would be allocated among the Division of Energy, Mineral and Land Resources (7 total positions – 2 in stormwater and  5 in  dam safety); Division of Waste Management (2 positions); Division of Water Resources (8 positions) and the DENR Secretary’s Office (6 positions). Funding is contingent on passage of Senate Bill 725 (Governor’s Coal Ash Management Act) or similar legislation,

Shale Gas.  The Senate budget appropriates an additional $1.17 million dollars for shale gas activities. Most of the funding ($973,324) would be used for additional geological and geophysical analysis of the shale basins in the state. The remaining funds have been identified for marketing and promoting  the state’s shale gas resources ($100,000); digitizing data ($50,000); and doing more chemical analysis of gas wells  ($50,000).

Transferring Interest Income from DENR Special Funds. DENR has a number of interest-bearing special funds. Some were created to provide a  source of revenue for conservation programs; others receive a combination of fees and tax revenues to fund cleanup of environmental contamination. The Senate budget would transfer all of the interest earned by these funds to the state’s General Fund, reducing the funds available for the originally intended purpose and allowing the legislature to reallocate the interest income for other uses. The conservation  funds affected include the Clean Water Management Trust Fund; the Marine and Estuarine Resources Conservation Fund; the Ecosystem Restoration Fund; the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund; and  the N.C. Marine Resource Fund.

The environmental cleanup funds affected by the transfer of interest income include the Dry-Cleaning Solvent Cleanup Fund;  the Commercial Underground Storage Tank Fund;  the Non-Commercial Underground Storage Tank Fund;  the Inactive Hazardous Sites Fund; the Bernard Allen Emergency Drinking Water Fund;  and a fund supporting the state  Brownfields program for redevelopment of contaminated sites.  Some of the special funds receive revenue from fees and taxes  imposed on a particular commercial activity (such as dry-cleaning and operation of petroleum underground storage tanks)  to address contamination associated with the activity. The proposed transfer would  allow use of the interest income on those fees and taxes for unrelated purposes.

The state Brownfields program (which assists in the redevelopment of contaminated sites)  operates entirely on federal  funds and fees paid by the prospective developers.  The program receives no state appropriations, so the special fund provides the only source of operating funds.  A number of the  environmental cleanup funds (including the Commercial UST Fund) have been chronically underfunded and transfer of the interest income will only further reduce the resources available for assessment and cleanup of contamination.

Marine Fisheries. It is hard to find a plan behind the many changes to the marine fisheries budget. The bill increases a significant number of commercial and recreational fishing  license fees and fees for fish dealers, while slightly  reducing  fees for commercial fishing vessels.  The budget reduces  funding for fisheries conservation by transferring interest income from several special funds to the General Fund and transferring $3.5 million from one  license fee fund account to  a fund  to acquire property on the Outer Banks.  At the same time, the bill eliminates  appropriations for  the At-Sea Observers program (necessary under a state-federal agreement keep some N.C. fisheries open by monitoring the impact on  endangered sea turtles) and shifts  the costs of the program to license fee revenue.  The bill also directs a portion of the higher commercial fishing fees to a new  Commercial Fisheries Resource Fund. The result of all of the moving pieces seems to be higher fees, reduced appropriations, and at the same time a transfer of fisheries fee revenue to other purposes.

Landslide

April 7, 2014.   The recent mudslide in Oregon that killed at least 30 people  occurred in an area with a history of slides extending back to the 1940’s.  A series of studies, including  a 1999 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report,  warned of  the potential for catastrophic failure of the slope.  After receiving another report on the landslide risk from private consultants in 2004,  Snohomish County considered  creating a program to buyout  homes in the area at greatest risk. In the end, the county chose to do a slope stabilization project instead.  (See this Seattle Times article for a history of the Oregon slide area.)

The Oregon disaster has raised (again)  questions about landslide risk and the role of  state and local government in responding to those risks. The questions about availability of landslide hazard information;  communication of risk to property owners and homebuyers;  and the need for regulation of development  on steep slopes have very recent echoes in North Carolina policy debates.

North Carolina can have  hundreds of landslides a year — most in the mountainous western part of the state.   According to this report by WSPA news, the N.C. Geological Survey  estimated 300  landslides, rock slides and slope failures in 2013. Slides in uninhabited areas may do little damage, but the state also has a history of large, dangerous landslides  causing  millions of dollars in property damage and  a number of deaths.  Rock slides periodically close interstate highways and sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway, impeding transportation in western counties for months and requiring costly repairs.

PANORAMIC PeeksCr

Panoramic photo of 2004 Peeks Creek landslide, Macon County, N.C. (noaa.gov)

In 2004, the state experienced over 100 landslides  triggered by just two heavy rainfall events associated with  back-to-back hurricanes (Frances and Ivan).  In September 2004, a slope failure following Hurricane Frances  destroyed one home in a subdivision near Boone and caused eight others to be condemned for occupancy.   The same storm caused a slope failure and debris flow that destroyed a home in Burke County and left a  home in McDowell County on  the edge of an eroded slope. A  week after  Frances, Hurricane Ivan rainfall caused slope failures and debris flows that destroyed homes in Buncombe and Macon counties. The Macon County event  (known as the  Peeks Creek landslide) began near the top of Fishhawk Mountain  and barreled 2.25 miles down the mountain at an estimated  30 miles an hour.  The Peeks Creek disaster  destroyed fifteen homes, killed five people and injured two others.  The event also  caused state and local officials to take steps toward identifying landslide risk for the first time.

PeeksCreek

Photo of Peeks Creek slide damage (N.C. Dept. of Public Safety)

For more information on the Peeks Creek disaster, see the N.C. Geological Survey report and an  analysis by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

After the Peeks Creek slide, the N.C. General Assembly earmarked  funds from the 2005 Hurricane Recovery Act  to start a state landslide hazard mapping program focused on 19 western counties.  Five N.C.  Geological Survey employees began mapping landslide hazard areas in the counties considered to have the greatest landslide risk. By 2010, state geologists had completed landslide hazard maps for four counties (Macon, Henderson, Watauga and Buncombe), using information on historic landslide locations,  soil types and slope data.   The maps can be accessed through links on the N.C. Geological Survey homepage.  

As  state geologists worked on the first landslide hazard maps, the N.C. General Assembly considered several bills to address development on steep slopes.   The 2007 Safe Artificial Slope Construction Act (House Bill 1756)   would have required local governments to  set standards for development on artificially-created steep slopes. The bill also proposed to amend real estate disclosure laws to require notice  to a prospective purchaser of  location  in a landslide hazard area  identified on N.C. Geological Survey maps. The bill encountered resistance from some mountain-area local governments as well as realtors and developers and  never got out of committee. A 2009 bill (also titled the Safe Artificial Slope Construction Act) took a step back and simply proposed a legislative study committee to look at the need for statewide artificial slope construction standards  and disclosure of natural landslide hazards to prospective purchasers. The 2009 bill also failed to get out of committee.

Against this background of resistance to state action on steep slope construction standards and disclosure of natural landslide hazards, the 2011 General Assembly defunded the landslide hazard mapping program. The budget cut  eliminated four of the five landslide hazard mapping positions and brought state mapping efforts to an end.

As the state backed away from any role on landslide hazard mitigation, some local governments in the western part of the state  (including Macon County)  moved ahead with  ordinances on steep slope development.  A few of the 15 counties the N.C. Geological Survey mapping program did not reach have  attempted to map landslide hazard areas using other funding sources.  

The state has returned to the more limited  role of emergency response and disaster relief.   Basic property insurance does not cover landslide damage.  In the 2005 Hurricane Relief Act, the N.C. General Assembly allocated over $200 million in state funds for disaster relief largely focused on western counties that experienced flooding and landslide damage from Frances and Ivan. Uses of the disaster relief funds included “housing buyout and relocation assistance for those persons whose homes were destroyed or severely damaged by debris flows or whose homes are located in a landslide zone”.