Friday, November 21, 2014

Judge's orders set stage for N.C. v. Alcoa trial

A federal judge has issued a couple of orders in North Carolina's legal wrangle with Alcoa over ownership of the bed of the Yadkin River, in a prelude to a trial early next year.

The aluminum giant and the state, you'll recall, have fought for years over renewal of Alcoa's hydroelectric license for 40 miles of the Yadkin east of Charlotte. The state has argued Alcoa doesn't deserve free access to the state's resources after shuttering its Badin smelting plant.

Things got more interesting when North Carolina asserted that the state, not Alcoa, owns the riverbed under the Yadkin. Alcoa, which dammed the river nearly a century ago, claims it has longstanding title.

U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle issued an order Thursday on motions for summary judgment from both sides, granting some and denying others. He instructed both sides to be ready for trial on Jan. 15.

Ryke Longest, director of the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic at Duke University's law school, said Boyle made a couple of noteworthy decisions. Longest represents the Yadkin Riverkeeper, a former party to the case.

Most importantly, he said, the judge granted North Carolina's motion that it made a prima facie -- correct until proven otherwise -- case for ownership of the riverbed. That shifts the burden to Alcoa to prove at trial that it holds title.

Boyle denied Alcoa's claims that the company owns the riverbed by virtue of its long occupation there. He also ruled against Alcoa's argument that the river was not navigable at the time North Carolina became a state. States own the beds of navigable rivers, other courts have held.

In a second order, Boyle denied Alcoa's motion to strike the affidavits of four expert witnesses for the state, meaning they will likely be able to testify at trial.

"What it means is we're going to have a very interesting trial starting in January," Longest said.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

State approves new metals limits in water

North Carolina's Environmental Management Commission has approved long-overdue water quality standards that stiffen limits on metals, which can be toxic to fish and other aquatic life.

Federal law requires the updates every three years to recognize research on pollutants' effects. North Carolina is four years late, a delay state officials blame on the complexity of the standards and policy changes that made it harder to enact new rules.

The changes won't take effect until the Environmental Protection Agency approves, and EPA has already signaled some concerns.

The standards include a provision called the "biological trump" that allows some concentrations of metals to exceed the limits if there's no evidence aquatic life has been harmed.

EPA says biological studies are of little use in preventing water pollution and don't replace the need to enforce pollutant limits. We'll update when EPA rules.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Environmental advocates launch coal ash site

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and its partners have added an interactive tool to their website about the 450 coal ash ponds spread across nine states.

The site can now generate power plant-specific reports with data on coal ash capacity, dam hazard ratings and known contamination.

The feature was added as the Environmental Protection Agency prepares to release the first federal rules on ash in December. The agency's key decision will be whether to regulate ash as hazardous waste. EPA rules to be released next September, on wastewater discharges from power plants, could also limit use of ash ponds.

The coal-intensive Southeast was the scene of the two spills that drew federal attention to coal ash regulation -- the first by the Tennessee Valley Authority in 2008, followed by Duke Energy's spill into North Carolina and Virginia's Dan River in February.

The alliance worked with Appalachian Voices, the North Carolina Conservation Network and the Southern Environmental Law Center on the site.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Faulty shale-gas wells contaminate water, study finds

Poorly constructed shale gas wells, not hydraulic fracturing, are to blame for contaminated water in Pennsylvania and Texas, says a study by scientists at Duke University and four other schools.

The study was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers analyzed the gas content of more than 130 drinking water wells over the Marcellus shale formation in Pennsylvania and Texas' Barnett shale. They found contamination in eight clusters of wells. 

Hydraulic fracturing extracts gas from deep underground. The suspicion has been that methane -- the main component of natural gas -- from fracking or horizontal drilling had migrated up into drinking water aquifers.

The new study appears to rule that out. Instead it found, in four contaminated clusters, that the methane leaked at shallow depths from faulty rings of cement around gas-well shafts. Three more clusters suggested methane leaked through bad well casings.

While drilling has contaminated water, the scientists say, most of the causes can be prevented.

The researchers used noble gases such as helium to trace methane emissions because they mix with natural gas but aren't affected by microbes or oxidation. Measuring the noble gases determined the source of the methane and how it reaches drinking water aquifers. 

Scientists from Duke, Ohio State University, Stanford University, Dartmouth College and the University of Rochester took part in the peer-reviewed study. Funding came from the National Science Foundation and Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Opposition forming to Atlantic Coast Pipeline

Forces against the natural gas pipeline from West Virginia to Eastern North Carolina, announced last week, are quickly mustering.

A coalition of 22 conservation groups have formed the Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance. The groups say the pipeline route would disrupt ecologically sensitive areas, including parts of the Monongahela and George Washington national forests in West Virginia and Virginia.

The route would cross karst topography formed by soluble rocks such as limestone that form underground drainage systems, the alliance says, placing water supplies at risk.

Supervisors in Nelson County, Va., which includes part of the George Washington forest, passed a resolution opposing the pipeline on Tuesday.

Duke Energy and Charlotte's Piedmont Natural Gas, which solicited proposals for the $5 billion line, last week said Richmond-based Dominion Resources would build and operate it. The line, which needs federal approval, would tap gas deposits in the Marcellus and Utica shale basins.

The 42-inch diameter pipeline in West Virginia and Virginia would require a construction right-of-way 125 feet wide and a permanent easement 75 feet wide, Dominion says. In North Carolina, a smaller 36-inch pipe would need rights-of-way 110 feet and 50 feet wide.

Dominion says it expects to complete the route planning by December, with construction of the line in 2017 and 2018.

Open houses will start Monday at points along the pipeline route in all three states.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The other end of that new gas pipeline

Remember the news, a couple of days ago, that Duke Energy and Piedmont Natural Gas will partner on a new natural gas pipeline into Eastern North Carolina?

The Energy Information Administration published a chart today that illustrates the rich shale-gas reserves the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would tap. Pay special attention to the vast Marcellus basin in green. Gas would also come from the much smaller Utica shale, in red.

Hydraulic fracturing -- fracking -- and horizontal drilling explain the explosion in production from shale reserves. The controversial drilling techniques also raise questions about the potential for groundwater contamination, overuse of water supplies, wastewater disposal and the impact of fracking chemicals.

While the pipeline would deliver gas from several states away, the fracking debate is upon us too. Hearings began last month on North Carolina's version of fracking rules, and legislators decided that permits could be issued next spring.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

NC 10th nationally for 2Q clean energy jobs

North Carolina ranked 10th nationally for clean energy and transportation jobs in the second quarter, the business group Environmental Entrepreneurs said Thursday.

A report from the group says 272 new jobs, highest among states in the Southeast, were created by four announcements in the state.

The 12,500 jobs created nationally more than doubled the results from the first quarter, the group said. It attributed that to "new confidence about future clean energy growth" linked to the Environmental Protection Agency's carbon limits on power plants, announced in June.

Solar energy led all sectors with 5,300 U.S. jobs in the second quarter, followed by 2,700 in wind and major electric-car announcements by Tesla and General Motors.

Arizona led all states in new jobs, followed by California.