The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality announced Thursday that it will remove the controversial water-churning devices known as SolarBees from Jordan Lake because they aren’t working.
The move came as the department faced mounting scrutiny for how it has handled reports about the SolarBees and dealt with water quality advisers who have questioned their effectiveness.
The Republican-led General Assembly turned to SolarBees in 2014 as a cheaper water-cleaning alternative to establishing strict construction and development restrictions on upstream communities such as Greensboro that a Democrat-led legislature approved in 2009.
Donald van der Vaart, secretary of the state environmental agency, said Thursday that he’ll recommend that state lawmakers find an alternative to the SolarBees in Jordan Lake because they haven’t significantly improved the water quality after 21 months in operation.
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Jordan Lake, which provides drinking water to 300,000 Triangle residents, has been designated as impaired under the federal Clean Water Act. It often exceeds state standards for chlorophyll a, the green pigment in algae and plants that thrive off nutrient pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorus entering the lake.
The state spent $1.3 million to maintain 36 leased SolarBees on Jordan Lake and will save an estimated $1.5 million by removing them.
“I appreciate the work our staff has done over the last two years to evaluate the potential of the SolarBee technology to improve water quality at Jordan Lake,” van der Vaart said. “I’m discontinuing the SolarBee project after reviewing nearly two years of scientific data that show it will not yield the intended results.”
SolarBees are floating devices equipped with solar-powered pumps that churn the water in an attempt to reduce the effects of algae. DEQ reports they can make a difference in small- to moderately-sized water bodies but have yet to improve the water in Jordan Lake and have even floated away from their anchored positions.
Environmentalists praised DEQ’s decision and urged lawmakers to install pollution protections in upstream communities.
“SolarBees don’t work because they just move water around; they don’t actually treat or remove the pollution, and they are simply too small to have much impact in a large lake,” said Grady McCallie, policy director for the North Carolina Conservation Network.
“DEQ should move forward with implementation of the cleanup plan that was delayed while the SolarBees were in the lake,” McCallie continued. “It is past time to better control stormwater runoff from new development upstream.”
Van der Vaart’s announcement comes in the wake of allegations from environmentalists that his department doctors the work of experts to better fit the administration’s political agenda.
Earlier this week, DEQ published what it’s calling the final version of a report on SolarBees that it posted and then retracted in March. Unlike the March report, which called on DEQ to remove SolarBees from Jordan Lake, the final version doesn’t predict whether or not the devices will make a difference if given more time on the lake.
The revisions showed DEQ was trying to cover up the inefficiencies of the SolarBees in order to “support a politically predetermined conclusion,” said Dustin Chicurel-Bayard, spokesman for the N.C. Sierra Club.
Environmentalists and Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Henderson County Republican who co-chairs the legislature's Environmental Review Commission, criticized DEQ for retracting the March report and then misleading the public about missing the April 1 deadline for producing the report, which the General Assembly set last year when it approved the state budget.
A DEQ spokeswoman said the state’s Legislative Analysis Division granted the department an extension, but the division’s leader denied that claim and said his division had no legal authority to do so.
Environmentalists cried foul again after a water expert was demoted from his role on the Environmental Management Commission, a 15-member group of DEQ advisers responsible for adopting rules for protecting the state’s air and water.
Steve Rowlan, whom Gov. Pat McCrory appointed as EMC chairman in January, removed Steve Tedder from his role as chairman of the Water Quality Committee a few days after Tedder questioned DEQ for retracting the March SolarBee report. Tedder’s committee was scheduled to review the report, and his removal prompted another commissioner, Thomas Craven, to resign from his role as chairman of a separate committee in protest of Rowlan.
Rowlan rejected the notion that his decision to remove Tedder and two others from their committee assignments was a reaction to their opinions of SolarBees.
Several lawmakers from Guilford and Wake said Thursday that they haven’t identified other strategies for cleaning up the lake, but it’s clear they prefer different approaches.
Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Wake County Republican, said he thinks lawmakers should seek a solution that addresses the concerns of Jordan Lake users and upstream communities. McGrady, meanwhile, suggested taking a “polluter-pays” approach.
“I don’t want to be critical when I think they’ve done the right thing,” McGrady said, referencing DEQ’s “curious” past actions on SolarBee reports.
“I presume that they’re doing it (removing SolarBees from Jordan Lake) for the reason they suggested, which is science-based,” McGrady said. “Why don’t we make a science-based decision to keep pollutants out? ... As I understand the Jordan Lake Rules, that was the concept.”