Wednesday, June 18, 2014

N.C. congressmen urge federal action on coal ash

North Carolina Congressmen G.K. Butterfield and David Price aren't leaving it up to N.C. legislative leaders to tackle the coal ash storage issue. They want stricter federal rules in place. So just at an N.C. Senate committee approves their Coal Ash Management Act of 2014, Senate Bill 729, requiring Duke Energy to close its leaky dumps at four high-risk sites within five years and 10 other less risky sites by 2029, the two sent a letter to the feds urging the U.S. government to get actively involved.

Price represents North Carolina's Fourth District - a rapidly growing, research-and-education-focused district that includes parts of Alamance, Orange, Durham, Wake, Harnett, Chatham and Cumberland counties.

Butterfield's First District is located in the northeastern corner of the state, stretching from Durham to Elizabeth City and including all or parts of 24 counties.

The letter, co-signed by 83 members of Congress, presses Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy for tougher standards regarding the storage and disposal of coal ash. The stricter standards and enforcement would come under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act by year’s end, and follows several recent coal ash spills, including the Dan River spill in North Carolina in March.

The letter, released Wednesday, reads in part:

“Coal ash can enter the watershed through the catastrophic failure of an impoundment wall or can slowly leach into groundwater and surface water when the impoundment is unlined. Our constituents deserve to be able to count on safe drinking water and to have their waterways protected from harmful contaminants.”

Butterfield and Price, both Democrats, emphasized that “it appears we are only now beginning to see the alarming truth about coal ash in our communities. It is troubling that it has taken large coal ash spills like those in North Carolina and Tennessee to mobilize stakeholders to engage in a frank dialogue about its dangers and propose changes to mitigate those hazards. Those catastrophes could have been avoided and we owe it to all Americans to put the necessary safeguards in place to ensure similar disasters do not occur in the future.”

"We encourage the EPA to finalize protections that phase out dangerous wet impoundments, including those at legacy sites, and ensure that facilities use protective liners and groundwater monitoring to safeguard against contamination."

North Carolina is moving toward putting long-needed protections in place but Butterfield and Price are right to ratchet up federal safeguards. Duke Energy is already trying to get removal deadlines taken out of the N.C. Senate bill - so far unsuccessfully and lawmakers views on holding utilities' to significant standards for protecting our drinking water and waterways could change in the future.

Editorially this week, we've already said there is little to stop the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources from designating most or all of Duke' ash ponds low-risk. And we've noted that DENR's relationship with Duke has been so cozy that it is being criminally investigated by federal authorities, suggesting it might not take the strictest approach.

Duke doesn't have to remove the ash from sites deemed to be low-risk. The company can leave the ash in place and just put a "cap" over those lagoons, which does not protect groundwater.

A strict nationwide standard is needed.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Is North Carolina a stressful place to live?

Think life is stressful here in North Carolina? For many it is, according to an interesting gathering of data from Chris Kolmar at the Movoto Real Estate blog, who attempts to determine the top 10 most stressful states in the U.S.

Spoiler alert: We're No. 9.

Kolmar got there by compiling data from the U.S. Census American Community Survey on six different causes of stress - hours worked, population density, unemployment, percentage of income devoted to housing, lack of insurance, and length of commute. Studies show that at least some of those indicators can contribute to stress in our lives. Other indicators like statewide population density are a bit more loosely linked to stress, but if you live in a dense, urban area, you can make a pretty good common sense case for the strain that brings.

Kolmar's results, in visual form:

Now, the numbers:

An obvious caveat: Kolmar's study is not about your life, but the collective life of people in each state. But there are policy implications here. A state that treats its unemployed comparatively poorly or makes it difficult to obtain medical coverage (ahem, North Carolina) adds to the stress of its citizens. North Carolina, of course, has climbed to the top of some lists of the most attractive states for businesses. That's good, but it doesn't necessarily have to be done by ending up at the wrong end of lists like these.

Peter St. Onge

(h/t - 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

How much sex are N.C. kids having?

Kids in North Carolina have sex and smoke tobacco and marijuana a little more than the rest of the country, but drink a little less.

That's according to a new survey out today -- the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance study that comes out annually from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. You can find detailed methodology at the link, but the report encompasses several surveys, more than 13,500 responses and is widely respected as statistically valid.

Here are some of the key findings about North Carolina students in grades 9 through 12 and how they compare to the national median (more complete definitions of these behaviors can be found at the link above):

  • 6.1 percent of N.C. students admitted to drinking and driving, below the national median of 8.6 percent.
  • 33.6 percent texted or e-mailed while driving, well below the national median of 43.3 percent.
  • 15 percent currently smoked cigarettes, above the national median of 13.8 percent.
  • 40.8 percent had ever tried marijuana, compared with the national median of 36.6 percent
  • 23.2 percent currently used marijuana, compared with the national median of 19.7 percent
  • 32.2 percent currently drank alcohol, slightly below the national median of 32.7 percent  
  • 14.6 percent drank five drinks in a row, below the national median of 18.3 percent
  • 47.3 percent had ever had sexual intercourse, compared with the national median of 43.4 percent
  • 32.1 percent described themselves as currently sexually active, compared with 30.9 percent nationally
Much more detail about these and other behaviors is available in the full report, including some Charlotte-Mecklenburg specific survey results.

-- Taylor Batten

Monday, June 9, 2014

The best thing the Hornets took from the Bobcats

Inevitably, when I talk to a group of young people about journalism, someone asks me if I've met any famous people. Inevitably, as part of my answer, I say: "I once spent the day with Michael Jordan." The kids are always very impressed.

That day was three years ago, when the then-Charlotte Bobcats held a "Day of Service" in which team officials and players fanned out across Charlotte to do good things for others. Jordan, who had owned the team for just more than a year at that point, made surprise visits to a middle school, a children's hospital, a Boys & Girls club and a men's shelter. He was close to 50 years old and hadn't played competitively in more than a decade. That didn't matter to anyone.

I remember the stop at Northridge Middle School most of all, how the gymnasium exploded with a joy so loud it seemed silent for a brief moment. Jordan was almost sheepish at the adulation then, and he was gracious throughout the day as children's - and adults' - eyes saucered when he walked into a room. It was a good day for the team, which hadn't had many of them, and I remember wondering if this Day of Service was something that would go away when the Bobcats no longer needed it.

Now they are the Hornets, of course, and they're a playoff team that seems to be on the upswing. Today, for the still-annual Day of Service, Jordan and crew are visiting Hornets Nest Elementary, where the team is rebuilding a playground and picnic area. The team also announced a fund to help Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teachers get money for classroom innovations.

There are a lot of companies in Charlotte that do fine things for others. Some have similar days of service - Wells Fargo had a huge one this past weekend. But there also are many that give it a try for a year or three until the concept loses its momentum. The Hornets haven't hit that point, and I hope they don't for a long while. Because while this Day of Service is still most definitely about marketing, it's also about the impact that franchises and athletes can have on their communities. If you happen to be at one of Michael Jordan's stops today, you might risk hearing loss, but you'll also see the real power some have to make someone's life better, even if just for a grand moment or two.

Good for Jordan, and good for the Hornets, that they didn't lose that when they lost the Bobcats name.

Peter St. Onge

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Claire Fallon on corruption

Charlotte City Council member Claire Fallon doesn't like being associated in any way with former Mayor Patrick Cannon's corruption case, and she's speaking out.

WBT radio host Keith Larson mentioned Fallon in a column he wrote for Wednesday's Observer. Larson referred to Fallon's earlier quote that the Cannon case "made everybody think we're all a bunch of crooks."

"No, not all a bunch of crooks, Ms. Fallon, but perhaps some," Larson wrote.

Fallon didn't appreciate any kind of mention, even if Larson was not suggesting she had done anything wrong. So she responded to Larson with her thoughts. She said she doesn't let anyone buy her even a cup of coffee. She argues there's far too much money in politics, and that as long as that's the case, and as long as there is "that thin line between money for influence and money to help someone you believe should be in office, we will have corruption."

Here's Fallon's full response (unedited) to Larson, which she also shared with the Observer editorial board:

"Good morning Keith, since you choose to quote me in your Observer article today, I would like to share with you some thoughts. I never ask anyone for campaign contributions, I do not make calls or send letters. I believe that its my job to respond as best I can to the public. If someone wishes to give me money fine but I am not obligated in any way to them. Consequently I have thru 2 election cycles raised the least amount of money, using much of my own. I won on 9000 the first time and 36,000 the second. I also do not let anyone pay for even a cup of coffee for me, If a council person cant afford to pay for themselves, we have the city offices and conference rooms where we can meet. This may seem like a small thing but sends a message that I got elected to serve not to benefit at the publics expense. I think that ethically we should be above reproach.
People will be people, but I remember the Commissioner in New York who had all the uniforms of the people who worked for him pockets sewn closed. It was a start and as long as people feel you have to raise a lot of money to run for office and that thin line between money for influence and money to help someone you believe should be in office, we will have corruption."
-- Taylor Batten

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Being in China and at Tiananmen Square

I’ve been to China and its capital of Beijing twice – in 2005 and 2011 - and both times I found myself with a need and a desire to stand in Tiananmen Square. Each time, even in a crowd of tourists, I could envision the lone pro-democracy demonstrator standing where I stood staring down a line of armed tanks 25 years ago today - the now iconic image of the Tiananmen Square massacre and the courage and fortitude of the young protesters.

Today, people around the world are remembering those activists and the price they paid for their courage even as Chinese leaders have used intimidation to squelch dissent and discussion of the events in advance of the anniversary, as Sophie Richards, the China Director of Human Rights Watch, writes.

Chinese troops gunned down hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pro-democracy demonstrators in and around Tiananmen Square in June of 1989. The killings were capped on June 5 by that photo of the lone activist. CNN in a piece today tells what happened to some of the protest leaders who survived.

As I stood in the Square In 2005, I felt a smidgen of the discomfort they must have felt. Armed soldiers were visibly present all around. Not because of any hint of potential protests, I'm sure. But the mausoleum of China’s great hero, chairman Mao Zedong rests there. A huge picture of Mao is displayed on the Tiananmen gate leading to the Forbidden City.

Nothing in Tiananmen Square commemorates or acknowledges the massacre that took place there. That didn’t surprise me. Though Chinese officials were busily touting their phenomenal economic and physical changes – and they were/are real – some crucial things about China politically and socially seemed stuck on pause.

Many of the Chinese people I officially talked to seemed scripted – spouting feel-good propaganda for my benefit and the other journalists who were visiting – and those I spoke with unofficially were tentative and let me know they were probably being “observed.” I was told by some young people during my last visit to Bejing three years ago that Chinese “observers” were all around. And those who said too much or spoke out of turn were likely to find themselves invited for “tea” with Chinese officials – invited for tea is the euphemism given for what we might call a trip to the wood shed. For Chinese strayers though, that wood shed might wind up being jail.

The apprehension and furtiveness I felt from some of the Chinese young people I spoke to is echoed in a piece I read in Foreign Policy from a young person born after the Tiananmen Square killings ho didn’t want to be identified. He writes in part:

“I am a member of the jiulinghou generation; the roughly 135 million Chinese born in the 1990s. We are web-savvy, dig Western movies and pop music, and are the future leaders of China. And we were born after the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989, when Communist Party troops descended on Beijing’s central square to bring order to pro-democracy protesters, killing and injuring hundreds or thousands in the process. It was a pivotal moment in Chinese history. Yet a great many of us in this generation know almost nothing about it – and those who know don’t dare to discuss it.”

He goes on to say he learned about what happened from a 7th grade teacher who said that a few leaders had been “erased” from our recent memory, ousted for sympathizing with student protesters seeking democratic reform. When he asked his parents about the matter they gave him disapproving looks. So he tried to find out more for himself through the internet, which he said was less censored then than it is now in China.

“The key distinction between the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising and other politically sensitive events in modern China is the relative official silence about the former,” he writes. “For example, although the state prevents discussion of the full details of the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, a period of massive political turmoil that saw the persecution of intellectuals around the country, the event is nonetheless tested on high school and college entrance exams and depicted in popular books and movies. The 1989 Tiananmen protests, on the other hand, lack an official account or a chapter in our history books – not even a sugarcoated one for us to dispute. Baidu Baike, China’s Wikipedia, doesn’t contain an entry for the year 1989, and names and places such as Zhao Ziyang and Tiananmen Square are permanently or seasonally blocked on the Chinese Internet.”

He ends by saying “I’m not eager to argue which side was right on June 4, 1989, but rather to present the historical facts and discuss the best future for our country and our people.”

The article has  a poignant endnote: “Due to the possibility of Chinese government retaliation for speaking out about Tiananmen, this author has chosen to remain anonymous.”

What happened in Tiananmen Square 25 years ago is a troubling reminder of the lengths authoritarian governments will go to squash dissent and maintain rigid control. China has undergone remarkable and impressive changes since then. But today in China true freedom remains elusive as officials continue to suppress and repress its citizens. Any praise for China's economic changes must always be tempered by that knowledge.

- Associate Editor Fannie Flono

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Michael Barnes letter: What I did and did not do

From Michael Barnes, at-large member of the Charlotte City Council. This letter will appear on Wednesday's Charlotte Observer Opinion page: 

Recent articles in the Charlotte Observer regarding my work as the Charlotte City Council District 4 representative and Twin Peeks nightclub have compelled me to clearly state what I did and did not do. As detailed planning and other work on the Blue Line Extension light rail project got underway in 2012, a number of businesses along the corridor – from a hardware store to a bakery - began contacting me because of the impact the project would have on their businesses. They were generally concerned about limited access, limited visibility or the complete demolition of their businesses. Put simply, the business owners were concerned about whether the work on the light rail project would put them out of business.

My actions on behalf of all those businesses were the same. I tried to develop an understanding of the problems and I then asked our staff to contact the businesses to determine whether there were any solutions to their problems. Sometimes we were able to provide better access to the businesses. Sometimes we were able to provide supplemental signage. In the case of Twin Peeks, I was told by our staff that the timetable for the light rail project did not leave any options for keeping that business open. I then asked our staff to discuss that with the business owner and my work ended there. I never pressured or persuaded our staff to arrive at any particular conclusion or to do anything special for Twin Peeks or any other business. I asked our staff to contact the businesses, develop an understanding of the scope of the problems and determine whether there was anything we could do to help.

My conduct was consistent with what I believe almost all elected officials strive to do for their constituents. Whether it has been a concern about a neighbor’s tall grass, a broken street light, a pothole or in this case, the light rail’s impact on businesses, since 2005 I have always made an effort to lawfully assist people when I can.

Another bruise for a big Charlotte business

A peril of being a Fortune 500 kind of city: Sometimes, the companies we call neighbors behave in less-than-exemplary ways. There's been a bit of that going around lately, with Duke Energy and coal ash, plus Bank of America's perpetual legal troubles over unfair lending practices. Now, there's some pending bad publicity for Chiquita Brands International, also based (for now) in Charlotte.

A report today in The Daily Beast says Chiquita has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying against a bill that would allow 9/11 victims to collect damages in lawsuits from the "sponsors of terrorism." 

Chiquita has no connection to 9/11 terrorism, so why would the company care?  Writes The Daily Beast's Tim Mak:

In 2007 (Chiquita) pleaded guilty to making over 100 payments to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a right-wing paramilitary group designated by the United States as a terrorist organization.
Chiquita, which had operated in Colombia for over 100 years, began making payments to the terrorist organization after a 1997 meeting between an AUC leader and a senior executive of its Colombian subsidiary. Nearly every month, additional payments followed. The fruit company has maintained that it only made payments due to extortionary threats of violence, and reacted to protect the lives of its workers.
Through a deal in which Chiquita was represented by now-Attorney General Eric Holder, the fruit company agreed to pay a $25 million fine. Chiquita acknowledged that between 1997 and 2004, it made over $1.7 million in payments in cash and checks to the terrorist group.
“Does [AUC] financing make Chiquita liable for the acts of terrorism and murder committed by those terrorists? That’s the question,” said Terry Collingsworth, a lawyer involved in a lawsuit against Chiquita. “To the extent that (the bill) changes that or clarifies that standard, it would present a threat to Chiquita.”
And so, Mak reports, Chiquita responded to the perceived threat. The company hired a high-powered Washington lobbying firm. It approached members of Congress with Chiquita facilities in their districts, and it apparently found one lawmaker with a sympathetic ear, Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia.

What follows is some rude treatment of 9/11 families and, ultimately, legislation that has been stalled by the lobbying effort. Add it up, and it's a bruise on the banana company, plus Charlotte getting a mention in the wrong kind of way. That's an unpleasant, but survivable, byproduct of being a good place to do business. Besides, we have bigger headlines to wince at today.

Peter St. Onge

Monday, June 2, 2014

Westboro Baptist to protest Angelou funeral

Talk about Sisyphean. The Westboro Baptist folks are at it again, to no end. This time they plan to protest Maya Angelou's funeral.

You'll remember the small, misguided band from Topeka from their protesting at military funerals. Their twisted rationale there was that God was punishing America and the soldiers for fighting for gay rights.

Now, the group plans to protest with signs at Angelou's funeral because she supported same-sex marriage and gay rights. A private service will be held Saturday at Wake Forest University.

The Rev. Serenus Churn, pastor of the church where Angelou was a member for more than 30 years, has it right.

"It is unfortunate that they are some sick people filled with hatred and malice," Churn told the (Winston-Salem) Journal. "They are trying to desecrate the memory of someone who spoke for fair play and justice."

The Westboro folks can safely be ignored. Says Churn: "Nothing that they will do will diminish her stature."

Observer cartoonist Kevin Siers gave his take on Westboro Baptist three years ago: