Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Greensboro takes Duke Energy tree complaint to regulators

Continuing a dust-up that began months ago, the city of Greensboro this week filed a formal complaint about Duke's tree-trimming practices with the North Carolina Utilities Commission.

Residents of some of the city's oldest, leafiest neighborhoods began complaining last December that Duke was over-pruning trees that could hit power lines. So many complaints poured in that Duke, under threat of legal action by the city, agreed to a temporary halt to work out their differences.

"Vegetation management," as utilities call it, is a hot-wire because it can disfigure trees. Utilities say it's necessary to reduce power outages.

In June, after months of meetings, Greensboro's city council adopted a new ordinance regulating tree-trimming by utilities. But the measure didn't resolve all issues, and Duke and the city agreed to take their differences to the Utilities Commission.

The city wants Duke to remove large wood trimmings when property owners ask; agree to a local appeals process; apply pruning standards citywide; and shorten the period between trimmings to four to five years, making them less severe.

Duke hasn't yet replied to the city's complaint.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

NC budget fires Environmental Management Commission

North Carolina's base appropriations budget, ratified Thursday, fires all current members of the state's environmental rule-making board effective next Wednesday.

The move gives Gov. Pat McCrory and the Republican-led legislature, which has targeted environmental regulation as a drag on business, a clean slate to remake the powerful Environmental Management Commission. The commission is charged with adopting rules protecting air and water resources.

The budget pares the commission's 19 members to 15, nine appointed by the governor and six by legislators. It retains most of the specialty positions on the board, such as experts in air and water pollution, biology, agriculture and manufacturing.

McCrory named Charlotte attorney Benne Hutson, whose term was scheduled to end in mid-2014, as EMC chairman effective July 8. Ten members' terms expired June 30.

The budget also fires all but four members of the 15-member Coastal Resources Commission, which adopts rules and policies on coastal development.

Expertise to be represented on the board would continue to include coastal development, engineering, agriculture, fishing and forestry. The board will no longer have designated seats for marine ecology and conservation.

The legislation also pares the state Clean Water Management Trust Fund board from 21 to nine members, but adds language charging the board with land preservation in addition to protecting water resources. The fund had been the state's largest conservation grant source until recent years, when appropriations to it were slashed.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Charlotte commuters drive more than most Americans

Charlotte-area commuters log 1,000 more miles a year and urbanites use public transit half as much as average Americans, says an analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

That pattern means local commuters spend some $350 more a year on driving than most Americans, says the analysis of National Household Travel Survey data.

The NRDC's point in all this, of course, is that drivers could save money -- and carbon emissions -- by using transit, carpooling and combining trips more often. Urban commuters in the Charlotte area could save $931 and rural residents $2,163 a year if they took transit, it found.

Shannon Binns, executive director of the nonprofit Sustain Charlotte, said "it is critical that we expand our transit system while also encouraging more carpooling, telecommuting, and moving closer to work, if possible."

In that vein, officials broke ground Thursday for the Lynx Blue Line light-rail extension from uptown to UNC Charlotte. The 9.3-mile line is expected to open in 2017.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Duke gets thumbs-up on endangered fish

The National Marine Fisheries Service says Duke Energy's Catawba River hydroelectric dams won't snuff out two endangered fish species, inching Duke toward a new, 50-year license to manage the river.

Shortnose sturgeon
The fisheries service's final biological opinion says Duke's 11 dams "is likely to adversely affect but is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of shortnose sturgeon and Atlantic sturgeon." That's good news for Duke, whose hydro license expired in 2008 and has operated on yearly extensions since then.

An ancient species, sturgeon swim upriver to spawn but can't get past dams. The fisheries service estimates their adult spawning populations at only about 300 of each species.

Duke has agreed to start trapping two other migratory species, American shad and blueback herring, and truck them around its Wateree Dam in South Carolina by 2018. The trapping system isn't supposed to capture sturgeon.

Duke says it's reviewing the fisheries service opinion, which has been years in coming. But it still has to resolve legal issues in South Carolina.

The S.C. Court of Appeals ruled last December that state environmental officials had not missed a deadline to oppose a water-quality permit Duke also needs to renew the federal license. Duke asked the S.C. Supreme Court in June to review that ruling.

Once those issues are resolved, Catawba licensing manager Mark Oakley said last month, Duke expects the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to take about six months to review the license. If the review begins this summer, Duke could finally have its license in the first quarter of 2014.

Approval will unleash millions of dollars in recreational improvements and land conservation Duke promised in negotiating the license terms.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Air study looks at the Southeast's cooling trend

Part of the largest U.S. air-quality field study in decades is examining whether human-caused pollution and natural chemical emissions explain a cooling trend in the leafy Southeast.

The Southern Oxidant and Aerosol Study began last month and runs through July 15. It's part of a five-pronged air study that will deploy airplanes and ground-based instruments from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic.

The study will look at how interactions between natural and human-made emissions affect air quality -- and how they relate to climate change. Unlike much of the world, the Southeast has seen a cooling trend over the past century.

The region saw a warm period during the 1920s to 1940s, says the U.S. Global Change Research Program, followed by a downward trend through the 1960s. Temperatures have been rising again since the 1970s.

Pollutants interact with volatile organic compounds that come from plants, turning them into airborne particles called aerosols. So-called black aerosols absorb solar radiation and warm up temperatures. But lighter-colored ones, typical of the Southeast, reflect sunlight and have a cooling effect.

Light aerosols have a dark side. They can make ground-level ozone -- which cities such as Charlotte and Atlanta have wrestled with for decades -- worse.

The larger study is supported by the National Science Foundation, Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Electric Power Research Institute, with researchers from 30 U.S. and international institutions.