Posts Tagged ‘Politics’

A first for North Carolina, now open for fracking

Monday, March 23rd, 2015 - posted by sarah
Fracking rig

In the face of widespread public opposition and demand for stronger rules, fracking permits can officially be applied for in North Carolina. Photo by Bob Warhover

March 17 marked the first day in history that North Carolina has been fully open to the oil and gas industry for the dangerous, environmentally destructive practice of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas.

Despite widespread public opposition, Governor McCrory and state legislators rushed to open the state to drilling, ignoring hundreds of North Carolinians who spoke at public hearings across the state and thousands more that sent written comments requesting stronger rules.

Despite legislators’ promises that the rules would be the strongest in the country, the final package leaves much to be desired. The rules lack any provisions to control air pollution and they do not clarify legal confusion about forced pooling, the controversial process by which landowners are pooled into a drilling unit without their consent.

Adding insult to injury, on March 18, the North Carolina legislature passed its first bill since the session began in January, which declares that it is optional for the state Environmental Management Commission to create rules regulating air emissions from fracking operations. Previously, the Energy Modernization Act, which paved the way for fracking in the state, required that the EMC develop regulations to protect communities from air pollution.

North Carolina has very small shale deposits and it is unclear where they are located and how much they will actually produce. What is known is that the shale deposits in North Carolina are closer to groundwater sources than the shale deposits in other states that have already experienced groundwater contamination from failed fracking well cases. Additionally, there are no facilities in North Carolina that can treat the toxic wastewater produced by drilling and there are currently no pipelines to transport the fracked gas.

Combine North Carolina’s weak rules, unclear picture of gas reserves, and a lack of infrastructure to transport what little gas the state can produce, with dropping gas prices and drilling companies operating in the red, and you can be sure that the only drillers North Carolina is likely to attract are wildcatters.

When multi-billion dollar oil and gas companies can’t even drill safely, it seems unlikely that small-time prospectors will take every precaution to protect groundwater and neighboring communities from harm.

Though the moratorium on fracking has been lifted, communities and environmental organizations across the state are prepared to continue fighting. We’ll be watching the Department of Energy Mineral and Land Resources closely for any applications to create a drilling unit or for a drilling permit. If a permit is applied for, we’ll be ready to fight it.

Learn more about the risks of fracking and stay up to date by signing up for “Frack Updates” from Frack Free N.C.

Virginia lawmakers act on energy bills

Monday, February 23rd, 2015 - posted by hannah
There has been no shortage of activity on energy policy during Virginia’s 2015 legislative session.

There has been no shortage of activity on energy policy during Virginia’s 2015 legislative session.

As the Virginia General Assembly enters the final days of its 2015 session, we can look back on five intense weeks.

Among the many issues our lawmakers labored over, a few were explosive enough to consistently make headlines. Energy policy was one of those issues thanks largely to electric utilities’ efforts to capitalize on worries about upcoming federal rules on carbon pollution.

Here’s a recap of the drama, along with a few important policies that received less fanfare.

>> First, a measure that shocked newspaper editorial boards, dismayed consumer groups, and stunned many of us who have challenged the utilities’ business-as-usual plans, but passed the legislature easily: under SB 1349, Virginia would see a five-year period when state regulators do not review rates set by Dominion Power and Appalachian Power, likely preventing any refunds of utility over-earnings to customers. The base portion of rates will be fixed, but other charges related to fuel costs can still rise during the period.

Political dynamics and election sensitivities made this legislation especially charged, and ultimately some of our top legislative champions for advancing clean energy stepped in and saw to it that the measure includes a designation for up to 500 megawatts of solar energy to be in the public interest, thereby authorizing state regulators to approve large scale solar farms — of which there are exactly zero in Virginia right now. The champs also added provisions for utilities to pay for low-income home weatherization programs.

Gov. McAuliffe signed the bill into law on Tuesday.

>> Last Wednesday, legislation passed both houses capping Virginia’s coal production and employment tax credits at $7.5 million annually. Appalachian Voices and other advocates have called for comprehensive study of whether such credits have their intended effects, including sustaining coal-related jobs in Southwest Virginia. A study by Downstream Strategies a few years ago suggests they do not. SB 741, which originally extended the tax credits by five years, is expected to come out of conference committee this week extending the credits for only two years while analysis is done by a reform-oriented panel.

>> On to one enormous highlight of the session: several bills containing extreme language against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Clean Power Plan — aimed at reducing carbon pollution from power plants — never made it out of committee. One was an effort to empower the General Assembly to sue the EPA. Another bill that is still alive directs the state Department of Environmental Quality to consider concerns and take the input of legislators, and requires the General Assembly to express its approval of DEQ’s compliance plan in the form of a resolution.

>> Lastly, a bill based on a central concept of Gov. McAuliffe’s Energy Plan creates a Solar Energy Development Authority for Virginia. In spite of some legislators’ concerns about growing government, the promise of boosting job growth in the solar industry propelled this measure through both houses. A net energy metering expansion bill also still stands a good chance of passing.

With some great concepts like the Virginia Coastal Protection Act unable to find sufficient support in committee to pass this year, the work to pave the way for next year’s legislative efforts lies before us. Citizen contact with delegates and senators can continue year-round, and there are many ways to stay engage.

In addition to calling or writing your elected officials, enrolling in an energy-efficiency program offered by your power company or going solar sends a clear signal to our legislators about Virginia residents’ preferences and expectations on important energy policy issues.

Turning Carolina Red

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015 - posted by molly

Reports from the Front of an Energy Culture War

E-Book by the Staff of Environment & Energy Publishing

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Five years ago, North Carolina veered from being a fairly moderate, progressive state and took a hard right when the Republican party gained control. The eBook “Turning Carolina Red: Reports from the Front of an Energy Culture War” examines the forces that shaped the sudden change in the state’s political ideology. With this innovative eBook, Environment & Energy Publishing provides a comprehensive look at how this political shift is affecting environmental and energy policies in the state and across the country.

Opening with the catastrophic Dan River coal ash spill in 2014, the book gives a detailed account of how the disaster influenced environmental policies in the new paradigm and explores the broader context of electricity generation in the state.

The book also studies the players shaping policy, from members of the General Assembly and state regulators, to environmental groups and conservative think tanks. Throughout, the authors weave a cautionary tale of the power of money in politics. You won’t find a better account of the changes and impacts on North Carolina than this. — Review by Amy Adams, Appalachian Voices N.C. Campaign Coordinator

Obama budget creates opportunities for Appalachian communities

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015 - posted by brian
The Obama administration's budget includes several proposals that would create economic opportunities in central Appalachian communities struggling to weather coal's decline.

The Obama administration’s budget includes several proposals that would create economic opportunities in central Appalachian communities struggling to weather coal’s decline.

Central Appalachian communities weathering coal’s long decline would see a boost in funding under the White House budget released on Monday.

The Obama administration’s 2016 budget calls for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds to be spent cleaning up abandoned strip mines, and to support economic development and workforce training in mining communities facing massive layoffs as coal is increasingly outcompeted in America’s energy mix. More than 13,000 coal jobs have been lost in central Appalachia since 2011.

One of the most significant proposals included in the budget is for an additional $200 million per year over the next five years for the federal Abandoned Mine Lands program to restore dangerous unreclaimed mines. According to the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, which administers the program, additional funds would assist communities most severely impacted by coal “in a manner that facilitates economic revitalization on reclaimed lands and restored waterways.”

The program is funded through a combination of a per-ton tax on coal production and discretionary spending, but has consistently fallen short of its goals. More than $3 billion worth of high-priority sites remain unreclaimed — most of which are in central Appalachia. The Kentucky Division of Abandoned Mine Lands, for instance, lists $445 million worth of unfunded projects. Groups working in the region have called on the administration to reimagine the way funds are distributed through the program by coupling workforce development and environmental restoration.

Other funding increases called for in the president’s budget include $20 million for the Labor Department’s Dislocated Workers program to provide employment services and job training specifically for laid-off coal miners and power plant employees to help them transition to jobs in other fields. The Appalachian Regional Commission would see its $70 million budget grow by roughly one-third, with $25 million in new funding directed to communities “most impacted by coal economic transition” to support a range of economic development initiatives.

The need for job creation and economic diversification in Appalachia could not be clearer. As Congress debates the president’s budget and puts forward its own proposals in the coming months, we hope they will carefully consider ways to build a truly sustainable economy in the region.

A statement from Appalachian Voices Legislative Associate Thom Kay:

There’s a great deal the president must do to help build a robust clean energy economy and ensure that disproportionately impacted areas like Appalachia are not left behind. The Obama administration’s proposed budget shows that the White House understands the need for economic diversification in Appalachia. It shows that the calls of Appalachian communities for new opportunities have been heard.

Proposals are not actions, however, and the proposed budget may never become law. The good news is that not every action to diversify the Appalachian economy requires changes to the federal budget. We will continue to use every tool available to urge the White House to commit to turning the proposals in this budget into realities, regardless of the actions of Congress.

Update from the Virginia General Assembly

Monday, February 2nd, 2015 - posted by hannah

Attacks on the EPA escalate, and rate freezes don’t consider customers.

A slew of bad bills to stymie the EPA and safeguard corporate polluters have been brought up in the first weeks of Virginia's brief legislative session.

A slew of bad bills to stymie the EPA and safeguard corporate polluters have been brought up in the first weeks of Virginia’s brief legislative session.

Virginia’s legislative session may be brief, but many bills with major implications for our future energy mix have already been acted on. Two weeks into this year’s session, here is a look at where our top issues stand.

Rate freeze controversy heats up

It’s been in the news around the state: Dominion Power has enlisted the help of utility-friendly legislators, in particular Senator Frank Wagner of Virginia Beach, in an effort to pause regulators’ scrutiny of the utility’s revenue for eight years.

The legislative patron says his bill is necessary to keep customers from seeing rising energy costs due to the mythical high price of compliance with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s carbon pollution standard. Attorney General Mark Herring, who is tasked with looking out for ratepayers, notes that the measure would actually prevent rebates of overcharges to customers.

Anyone familiar with the system in which Virginia’s investor-owned electric providers operate will be struck by the way this would remove State Corporation Commission oversight and, with it, Dominion’s accountability to customers. In another troubling wrinkle, if cost-effective clean energy resources such as energy efficiency are deployed over this time resulting in saved energy and Dominion over-earns on its rate of return then customers are deprived of the those savings. Despite opposition from many sides, the bill has passed out of subcommittee.

Attacks on Virginia potential to achieve large-scale carbon-free power

For reasons ranging from pure political grandstanding to reactions to a perceived federal overreach in state affairs, many legislators are taking part in the rush to apply tactics pioneered by the American Legislative Exchange Council and Americans for Prosperity to stymie the implementation of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan in Virginia. One strategy is to interrupt what would be a smooth process of the Department of Environmental Quality preparing and sending Virginia’s implementation plan to the EPA. Legislation of this type gives the General Assembly a middle-man role able to approve the plan, which effectively obstructs the process and robs the executive branch of its control.

Other ways of slowing or stopping the EPA’s efforts to limit carbon pollution and drive investment in clean energy are plentiful: from Senator Wagner’s proposition prohibiting action in response to the standards until 18 criticisms of the standards are rectified, studying whether the plan on the whole benefits Virginia at all before taking action, or giving the General Assembly power to do what the Attorney General has not done: sue the EPA on behalf of Virginia.

Common-sense steps to make solar accessible and affordable for more Virginians

The main piece of legislation we’ve watched that would put an end to indiscriminate carbon pollution and lead to investments in clean energy and climate adaptation is the Virginia Coastal Protection Act. The bill did not manage to get the support it needed this year to make it out of committee.

Still, as we fight the bad bills above, we have a chance to make progress on several clean energy bills that will make a real difference to bring more renewable energy online in Virginia. Several will be heard in the House Energy Subcommittee on Tuesday, Feb. 3, be there to support solutions like community solar, larger net metering, and more!

Well, that was quick

Thursday, January 15th, 2015 - posted by thom
Rep. David Vitter

Sen. David Vitter

The new U.S. Senate couldn’t even make it one week before introducing a horrible bill. The 114th Congress began on January 6, and Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) only managed to restrain himself 24 whole hours before introducing legislation to weaken the Clean Water Act.

Sen. Vitter’s bill, S.54, would limit the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to veto permits for mountaintop removal valley fills. It is our view that valley fills—in which the dirt and rock from blasting the tops off the mountains are dumped into streams and valleys—should not even exist. We’ve got the science to back that up. But Vitter and other coal industry allies in Congress want the fills to continue to be permitted, and want them regulated exclusively by the Army Corps of Engineers, completely removing the EPA from the process.

These coal industry advocates want the Corps in charge not because they think the agency has the same level of water quality expertise as the EPA, but because the Corps does not have the same expertise, and is therefore more likely to just hand out permits that pollute our water.

The big difference between this Congress and last Congress is that bills like S.54 have a chance at passing the Senate. Vitter’s bill is virtually identical to multiple bills that have been introduced in the past, but they didn’t get committee hearings, and never even came up for votes. This year, they probably will.

Thanks to years of hard work by Appalachian Voices and our coalition partners, we have champions in the Senate who will work to stop these dangerous bills from becoming law. Senate Republicans established a precedent over the past eight years that all bills need 60 votes to pass, and the coal industry will have a very difficult time finding 60 senators to vote for more mountaintop removal mining pollution. But we will have a fight on our hands.

President Obama is also expected to use his veto power to stop the worst bills from becoming law. We hope not to depend on vetoes, but if we can’t stop something bad from passing the Senate, the President is our backstop.

Our greatest hope for the next two years is that the White House takes advantage of its veto power and doesn’t let the threat of coal industry bills to prevent strong actions to stop mountaintop removal. Because there’s a lot left to do, and not a lot of time in which to do it.

Fighting Mountaintop Removal During the Obama Years

Friday, December 26th, 2014 - posted by molly

Fighting Mountaintop Removal During the Obama Years

Friday, December 19th, 2014 - posted by allison

It’s Still Happening

Editorial by Thom Kay, Appalachian Voices Legislative Associate

In 2009, after President Obama took office, there was a great deal of optimism among Appalachian Voices and our allies. New agency heads and White House spokespersons parroted the talking point that “the administration will do what the science calls for.” In Appalachia, the science calls for an end to mountaintop removal coal mining.

It’s been nearly six years since the Obama administration took over. In that time, together with those who have been directly impacted by mountaintop removal, Appalachian Voices staff has met with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Interior, the Army Corps of Engineers, the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement more times than we can count. On top of that, our supporters have sent tens of thousands of letters to these agencies.

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A series of Google Earth images of Magoffin County, Ky., shows the growth of the Right Oakley Surface Mine operated by Licking River Mining, LLC. The images are from June 2008, June 2010 and October 2013, which is the most recent date available.

So what has all of that gotten us? The administration has fallen woefully short of what we had hoped. Of all of the ways to gauge success, one simple question sits atop the list: is mountaintop removal coal mining still happening in Appalachia? Sadly, the answer is “Yes.”

I don’t want to be unfair to the people in these agencies who have worked tirelessly to limit the pollution from mountaintop removal. Indeed, they have done far more to curtail the destructive mining practice than either the Clinton or Bush administrations. While that’s a low bar, they have made significant changes, and there is less mountaintop removal mining today then there was between 2002 and 2008. Part of that is due to market forces, and part of that is due to the actions of the Obama administration. These actions, however, have not been enough.

There is only one sufficient solution to the problem of mountaintop removal, and that is total abolishment. Anything short of that is a failure. At first glance, this may sound extreme, and even unreasonable. But there is never a time when it is okay to blow up a mountain, dump the waste into valleys, and put the health of local communities at risk by filling their air and water with dangerous chemicals, heavy metals and particulate matter. There is a right and wrong way to do many things, but there is no right way to do mountaintop removal coal mining.

The Obama administration should allow the science around mountaintop removal to drive their policy making. Regrettably, they have chosen politics and public perception as their top priorities. They want people to think they are moderate and reasonable, and they are willing to sacrifice good policy in order to maintain that appearance.

When I have met with administration officials, they seem to believe they have done enough work on mountaintop removal. They have taken steps to limit the amount of mines, valley fills and overall pollution. But modest steps are not good enough for us, and they are not good enough for communities in Appalachia who continue to live with the nightmare of mountaintop removal.

Since the beginning of the administration’s first term in 2009, Appalachian Voices has advocated for them to stop issuing any permits for mountaintop removal mines. Instead of refusing all permits associated with mountaintop removal mining, they have chosen to issue permits for mines and valley fills. The Obama administration has issued fewer permits than its predecessors, but permits have been issued nevertheless.

Our next goal was for the EPA and the Army Corps to work together to change the definition of the term “fill material” in the Clean Water Act to exclude mining waste, which would eliminate the use of valley fills, and, thus, eliminate the biggest mines in Appalachia. From the first meeting we had with them, the White House has refused to change the definition of “fill material.” While we pushed at the beginning of the president’s first term, it soon became clear that they would never even consider taking action.

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Members of the Alliance for Appalachia rally outside the Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. in 2013. During the citizen lobby week, members of The Alliance, which is comprised of 15 organizations including Appalachian Voices, met with representatives of the EPA, Army Corps of Engineers, and Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement.

Right from the start, we were met with disappointment, but there still are alternative paths forward. There are several things the administration can do between now and the end of Obama’s term in January of 2017. In order to make long-lasting changes that benefit Appalachia, the EPA, OSMRE, Army Corps and DOI will all need to be involved, and it will take White House leadership to make that happen.

Since 2009, OSMRE has been developing a much-needed Stream Protection Rule. A draft is not expected to be released until the middle of 2015, so the precise contents of the rule are unknown. What we do know is that the rule will regulate surface coal mining in or near streams, and would replace an outdated 1983 rule. It has the potential to be the most important action the administration takes to curtail mountaintop removal, if they choose to include strong safeguards against mining waste polluting Appalachian streams.

Politics will of course play a big role in the final version of the Stream Protection Rule. Coal industry allies in Congress have already put enormous pressure on OSMRE and Department Director Joe Pizarchik. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill in spring of 2014 that would prohibit OSMRE from completing the rule-making process. While that effort has been blocked from moving forward in the Senate by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), next Congress will be different, as Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), an ardent ally of the coal industry, is expected to take over as majority leader. It’s almost certain we will have a fight on our hands in the Senate at some point next year.

The administration’s next opportunity is for the EPA to create a water quality standard for conductivity. For years, the EPA has known that conductivity, a measure of the amount of dissolved solids in water, is a critical indicator of stream health. Based on the best science, mountaintop removal mining results in conductivity levels elevated beyond what is healthy for streams, and a science-based water quality standard for conductivity would result in violations for practically all mountaintop removal mines.

A rule-making can take years, and at this point the current EPA may have already blown their opportunity to do a full water quality standard for conductivity. With the knowledge that mountaintop removal mines result in unhealthy conductivity levels for nearby streams, the EPA should, at the very least, refuse to issue permits for new mines.

The EPA also has an opportunity to create a federal standard for selenium pollution. Selenium bioaccumulates within fish, birds and reptiles, where it causes serious deformities, reproductive failure and death.

Grassroots Progress Report

The agency is currently considering a new selenium standard, but their latest proposal for a standard is convoluted, unenforceable, and may take away one of our most reliable tools in fighting water pollution from mountaintop removal. Instead of relying on regulators to handle monitoring for the thousands of cases of water pollution from mountaintop removal — a task they have repeatedly proven incapable of doing — citizens need to be able to monitor water in their own communities. Together with community members, we have been able to do that monitoring, but rules that make such monitoring more difficult are a huge step backward. EPA needs to implement a protective selenium standard that is enforceable by citizens and regulators alike.

The coal industry will continue doing everything in their power to prevent strong conductivity and selenium standards. Most industry resistance has been in the courts, but in several congressional hearings over the past few years, members of Congress have spewed coal company talking points in an attempt to put political pressure on the administration. The industry and their allies in Congress will continue to push back against effective safeguards. They will use every dollar and every trick they have to maintain their grip on the region. And they will do everything they can to hold off the day Appalachia can move past mountaintop removal.

It’s true, the Obama administration has taken steps to limit the pollution from mountaintop removal. But mountaintop removal coal mining is still happening, and that is unacceptable. If the White House fully commits over the next two years, they can make huge changes that will benefit Appalachia for generations. If they continue to take half measures, however, it will be an enormous opportunity lost.

Appalachia’s Environmental Votetracker: Dec.-Jan. 2014 issue

Friday, December 19th, 2014 - posted by molly

Double-click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Hey North Carolina, New York just banned fracking

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014 - posted by brian
Before rushing into fracking, North Carolina could learn something from New York, which just announced it would ban the practice, citing health concerns and uncertain economic prospects.

Before rushing into fracking, North Carolina should look to New York, which just announced it would ban the practice, citing health concerns and uncertain economic prospects. Photo by Daniel Foster/Creative Commons.

New York’s debate over whether or not to allow fracking came to a close today when Gov. Andrew Cuomo sided with the state’s top public health and environmental officials in calling for a ban on the practice.

The governor’s end-of-year cabinet hearing, where the announcement was made, looked like so many other meetings that often end in disappointment. But this one was exceptional for inserting some much-needed truth into the fracking fight that could, just maybe, help other states come to their senses.

During the portion of the meeting on fracking, Joseph Martens, the commissioner of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, set the stage during a 10-minute presentation that pretty much served as a debunking of the best arguments for fracking. It was clear that Martens had done his homework before concluding that fracking should not be done anywhere in New York.

Just in terms of practicality, Martens told Cuomo and his fellow cabinet members, more than 63 percent of the Marcellus Shale deposits in New York would be off limits under state rules and local zoning. On top of that, dozens of New York towns — most famously the upstate town Dryden — have already approved their own bans on fracking and took their case before the state’s highest court, which ruled in their favor earlier this year.

Following the court’s decision in June, Dryden Town Supervisor Mary Ann Sumne told the New York Times, “I hope our victory serves as an inspiration to people in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Florida, North Carolina, California and elsewhere who are also trying to do what’s right for their own communities.”

Despite the fact that North Carolina’s law prohibits local ordinances that “directly or indirectly” restrict oil and gas drilling operations, towns across the state have approved ordinances or resolutions to discourage or prevent fracking in their limits.

According to Martens, the prospects for fracking in New York are “uncertain at best.” The same could be said of North Carolina, where supporters’ visions of economic grandeur don’t always follow the limitations of the state’s geology.

Martens’ rundown was refreshing for this North Carolinian — it was also a reminder of the disregard and misplaced priorities of many pushing to bring fracking to my beloved state. But New York’s acting health commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, who spoke next, might truly be the voice of reason we’re missing in North Carolina.

Zucker, with a stack of reports on fracking’s health impacts in other states piled behind him, said he would not allow his family to drink tap water in an area where fracking took place. The point hit home with Cuomo, who said if Zucker believes fracking could put his children in harm’s way, then no child living in New York should be put in that position.

If no child in New York should be put at risk of contaminated water and the other threats that come with fracking, neither should North Carolina’s kids, nor those living in areas already ravaged by poorly regulated drilling.

Former New York Gov. David Paterson first imposed the state’s moratorium in 2008 while the state Department of Environmental Conservation studied fracking in the years leading up to today’s decision. North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory and the state General Assembly, on the other hand, have rushed headlong toward fracking while requiring surprisingly little study for a state with no experience regulating it. Drilling could begin in North Carolina as early as this spring.

The latest fumble related to fracking in North Carolina came today too. Just as New York announced its ban, controversial fracking regulations in North Carolina sailed through final review against the recommendations of the Rules Review Commission’s staff attorney, who said Mining and Energy Commission staff emailed her 100 rules that were riddled with errors at 2 a.m. on the day of the deadline.

Mary Maclean Asbill, a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, who attended the review told the News & Observer the latest misstep is basically par for the course at this point.

“All of the issues just highlighted how rushed the whole process was,” she said.