Wake County

NC legislators may see dueling reports on SolarBees, water buffers

One of the 36 SolarBee units deployed on Jordan Lake.
One of the 36 SolarBee units deployed on Jordan Lake. 2014 NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

A committee of expert water quality advisers on Wednesday rejected a pair of reports that the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality posted, retracted and then revised on natural water buffers and SolarBees, the controversial water-churning devices that will soon be removed from Jordan Lake.

The Environmental Management Commission’s water quality committee will seek to send the original reports to the N.C. General Assembly because they’re clearer and provide more details on their respective subjects than the revised versions, said Julie Wilsey, who chairs the committee.

The move sets the stage for state lawmakers to receive competing reports on SolarBees and natural water buffers, which are typically strips of natural land next to waterways that filter out pollutants before they reach the water.

The EMC, if it votes to follow its committee’s advice at its 9 a.m. meeting Thursday, will send reports that DEQ retracted in March and that environmental groups favor. DEQ will send revised versions that it says are more in line with what state lawmakers are looking for, according to department spokeswoman Stephanie Hawco. But environmental groups say those versions have been diluted to favor a more business-friendly political agenda.

“By statute, DEQ is staff to the Environmental Management Commission,” said Dustin Chicurel-Bayard, spokesman for the N.C. Sierra Club. “DEQ’s apparent disregard for the Commission’s authority is inappropriate and suggests that the Department’s top leadership is still focused on political gamesmanship – even after today’s unanimous Water Quality committee vote.”

Sending two competing reports to state lawmakers would be an unusual move, said Robin Smith, a former assistant secretary at DENR, now known as DEQ.

“There were certainly times when not everyone agreed with everyone else,” Smith said, referring to DEQ and the EMC. “But we’d always worked out our issues so that we’d send one report.”

The committee’s move comes as DEQ faces scrutiny for retracting the reports and missing the April 1 deadline for producing the SolarBee report. The Sierra Club and N.C. Conservation Network on Wednesday praised the EMC committee for favoring the original reports, which they say are more supported by science.

“We appreciate the EMC’s commitment – with respect to both the in-lake treatment report and the riparian buffer report – to bringing science-based, non-politicized recommendations to the state legislature,” said Grady McCallie, policy director of the conservation network. “The EMC has reinforced that pollution should be controlled at the source, and that North Carolina’s riparian buffer protections are effective tools for guarding our rivers, lakes, and estuaries.”

SolarBees, floating devices that churn the water in an attempt to reduce the effects of algae, have been controversial since 2014 when state lawmakers required that they be used in Jordan Lake. The Republican-led General Assembly turned to SolarBees as a cheaper alternative to enforcing strict construction and development restrictions on upstream communities that a Democrat-led legislature approved in 2009.

DEQ announced last week that it plans to remove SolarBees from Jordan Lake because they’re not working. But that announcement came after DEQ faced criticism for revising its SolarBee report to exclude criticisms of the devices in the earlier version.

The March version of the SolarBees report, which Wilsey’s water quality committee sent to the full EMC on Wednesday, said that deployments of SolarBees in “larger waterbodies to mitigate nutrient impairments have not resulted in improved water quality conditions.”

“The initial two year Pilot Project on Jordan Lake cost $1.3 million and has shown no improvement in water quality in impaired areas,” says the report the committee approved. “The extension of the project is funded at $1.5 million and will continue through 2018. With the quickly changing nature of Jordan Lake and continual high input of nutrients, it is not likely that improvements in water quality will be realized.”

DEQ published and retracted a report on the state’s Riparian Buffer Protection Program just days before it did the same with the SolarBees report.

The first version of the buffer report, which the EMC committee endorsed Wednesday, included a recommendation to maintain the current process for creating buffer protections. That recommendation doesn’t appear in the second version, which instead offers additional options for providing “regulatory relief.”

The first buffer report also included a paragraph about how buffers help prevent potentially harmful contaminants from draining into a body of water, and how waterfront property owners benefit financially from keeping the buffers in place. The second report excluded that information, as well as a graph from the first report showing how forest buffers are more cost-effective than wastewater treatment plants in removing nitrogen, a pollutant.

DEQ officials didn’t comment on the committee’s action, saying only that the revised reports better respond to what state lawmakers were asking for.

“The reports developed and finalized by DEQ staff are consistent with the content mandated by the legislature and reflect conclusions that were developed and finalized based on scientific data,” said Hawco, the DEQ spokeswoman.

Paul A. Specht: 919-829-4870, @AndySpecht