At the height of the tourism season in North Carolina, the state Division of Air Quality published this image online to celebrate improvements in North Carolina’s air quality. A deciview is a unit used to measure differences in visibility. Photo credit: NC Department of Environmental Quality / National Park Service
At the height of the tourism season in North Carolina, the state Division of Air Quality published this image online to celebrate improvements in North Carolina’s air quality. A deciview is a unit used to measure differences in visibility. Photo credit: NC Department of Environmental Quality / National Park Service

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Results from last week’s election, for president and for North Carolina governor, are likely to produce changes in environmental policy affecting this state.

By Catherine Clabby

When it comes to environmental policies with health implications, expect last week’s elections to bring plenty of change to North Carolina.

Smokestack in western NC along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Photo courtesy Rebecca Wilson, flickr creative commons

President-elect Donald Trump ran against many environmental policies that Barack Obama embraced, including the current president’s support of a broad regulatory agenda at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

That includes a drive to require states to reduce reliance on burning carbon dioxide-emitting coal as a power source in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions causing global climate change.

And if Attorney General Roy Cooper’s contested lead in the governor’s race holds, expect a shift in both leadership and priorities in state agencies and commissions enacting North Carolina’s environmental policies.

Even with the General Assembly remaining firmly in the control of state Republicans, that could alter management of multiple environmental issues, including the drive to force Duke Energy to clean up coal ash impoundments at 14 locations after a 2014 coal waste spill.

From D.C. to N.C.

The 2016 national Republican Party platform starts here regarding environmental regulation: “We believe that people are the ultimate resource — and that the people, not the government, are the best stewards of our country’s God-given natural resources.”

One of the substances currently under review at federal environmental agencies is bisphenol A, a common component of many plastics, such as sippy cups and other children’s utensils. Photo courtesy Kris Gabbard, flickr creative commons

The platform urges shifting responsibility for environmental management from the federal government to states and transforming the EPA into an independent commission, unlinking it from control by the executive branch of government.

During the campaign Trump harshly criticized the EPA for producing too many regulations he believed were harmful to business.

Based on those statements and other comments during Trump’s campaign for president, Ryke Longest of Duke University said he expects the president-elect will slim the agency’s focus dramatically, primarily to air and water quality topics.

“But they are not the only areas that are important in the world that we face,” said Longest, the founding director of the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic at Duke University and a former ranking attorney with the North Carolina Department of Justice.

For instance, Longest does not expect the same degree of attention to regulating “emerging contaminants,” compounds whose dangers – even in small amounts – are only beginning to be understood. Items on that list include pharmaceuticals released into drinking water supplies, consumer products such as bisphenol a and contaminants such as hexavalent chromium and vanadium, two pollutants with high profiles in North Carolina due to the debate on how to best clean up some of Duke Energy’s leaking coal ash impoundments.

Check out our other stories on the implications of the election on NC health issues:
What the Election Could Mean for Older North Carolinians
What the Election Means: Health Care in NC

The McCrory administration’s Department of Environmental Quality leaders, despite dissent from some state health experts, have said they favor relying on federal standards when judging dangers from those compounds. EPA had been expected to possibly impose stricter drinking water standards for vanadium and hexavalent chromium. But rulemaking over such issues in a Trump EPA could slow dramatically, if not cease altogether.

Clean coal?

A skeptic of overwhelming scientific evidence linking greenhouse gas emissions to global climate change, Trump has said he wants to “scrap” Obama’s Clean Power Plan. Introduced without congressional support, the plan would for the first time limit carbon dioxide emissions from this country’s coal and gas-fired power plants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In fact, Trump has selected Myron Ebell, a vocal critic of the Clean Power Plan who has said climate change is myth, to lead his transition at the EPA.

North Carolina is already on the path of reducing coal-fired plant emissions, said Robin Smith, an environmental lawyer and former assistant secretary for environment at the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, now called DEQ.

That’s because passage and implementation of North Carolina’s 2002 Clean Smokestacks Act, which required power plant operators to reduce smog-producing polluting air emissions, forced the shutdown of old coal-fired power plants, and cut emissions, she said.

At the height of the tourism season in North Carolina, the state Division of Air Quality published this image online to celebrate improvements in North Carolina’s air quality since the Clean Smokestacks Act. A deciview is a unit used to measure differences in visibility. Photo credit: NC Department of Environmental Quality / National Park Service

But if a Trump White House abandons a push to lower greenhouse gas emissions nationally, that could have an impact on how aggressively this state moves to push for expansion of other fuel sources, Smith said.

“That removes an additional incentive to continue on the path we are on to depend less on coal and more on renewable energy and somewhat cleaner natural gas,” Smith said.

A Trump presidency, Smith noted, could add more federal investment for updating wastewater treatment plants, which Trump has said he supports as needed public infrastructure improvements.

“People don’t think about that as an environmental issue. But it’s what allows smaller towns to keep their systems meeting EPA standards,” Smith said.

Increasing the supply of backup generators, for one, could help keep more small waste-treatment systems operating during power outages, such as those that occurred recently during floods from Hurricane Matthew. Millions of gallons of untreated human sewage spilled during that flooding.

The next governor?

If the final ballot count results in Republican Gov. Pat McCrory losing his keys to the governor’s mansion, Democrat Roy Cooper would likely change leadership of agencies such as DEQ and the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

He would also have power to appoint some members of influential commissions as well, including the Environmental Management Commission, a 15-member panel Commission appointed by the Governor, the Senate Pro Tempore and the Speaker of the House.

Marshall Steam Station, a coal-fired power plant in Catawba County, NC. EPA’s climate plan could have forced the closure of some coal plants across the U.S. But in a Trump presidency, many of these coal plants could remain open.  Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The Commission, guided by laws passed by the GOP majority in the General Assembly, is responsible for adopting rules intended to protect the state’s air and water resources.

Gov. McCrory has asserted repeatedly that his administration’s efforts to require Duke Energy to clean up coal ash has been more aggressive and comprehensive than what has been seen in any other state.

But Megan Davies, the state’s former epidemiologist, resigned this summer saying leadership of DEQ and DHHS distorted scientific findings about risks from contaminants found in coal ash and downplayed the dangers.

If Cooper is declared governor, Duke’s Longest said he expects he’ll push against allowing Duke Energy to pass along the cost of cleaning up coal ash to customers. Instead, Cooper said repeatedly during his campaign that shareholders should pay that bill.

Charging ratepayers, Longest said, could delay the cleanup. Legislators wary of voter anger might revise existing clean-up schedules so that the cost could be spread out over a longer period of time.

“They might say, ‘Yes, we did say do this as quickly as possible. But if it’s going to cost ratepayers more, then let’s move that out and let someone else deal with that pain.’ That could extend the life of coal ash pits and their problems of leakage, seepage and rupturing,” Longest said.

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Catherine Clabby

Catherine Clabby (senior environmental reporter) is a writer and editor. A former senior editor at American Scientist magazine, Clabby won multiple awards reporting on science, medicine and higher education...