Under the Dome

Hundreds of blogs inaccessible at agency headquarters

A highly respected environmental policy blog written by a former state official is inaccessible to employees at the Raleigh headquarters of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Environmental activists had wondered if DENR officials are censoring online sources that are critical of agency policy. But on Friday DENR said hundreds of blogs are swept up in a malware screening algorithm that has blacked out potentially infected web sites from access to agency employees.

The blog that drew attention to the blackout is written by Robin Smith, a former environment secretary at the agency, and is avidly read by DENR employees who follow regulatory policy and legislative developments. Smith left the agency in 2012 and was replaced by Republican lawmaker Mitch Gillespie when Gov. Pat McCrory installed his own administration.

Smith got word from two DENR employees Thursday that her blog can’t be read on the agency’s Internet system and Wi-Fi network.

“I can say that I am surprised and I don’t understand what the reason would be,” Smith said. “I’m just not aware of anything like that ever happening before.”

DENR spokeswoman Michele Walker said Smith’s blog has been identified as a site that could potentially infect state computers with malicious software.

“Several of our own DENR blogs are blocked as well, including the state parks blog and several science museum blogs,” Walker said.

Walker told the Sierra Club by email that hundreds of web sites are being blocked for Internet security reasons.

“This week the state Office of Information Technology Services began blocking a number of sites associated with a particular hosting company,” Walker told the Sierra Club. “These sites are being blocked at the state level because they have been identified as having the potential to infect computers used to access them. This is being done as part of the state’s standard security protocol.”

Walker also told the Sierra Club that this week’s security screen is in addition to the agency’s practice of blocking access to offensive and inappropriate web sites.

“DENR is currently blocking a number of sites through the McAfee Site Advisor program,” Walker said. “These include primarily sites containing pornography, gaming sites, and torrent sites.”

DENR spokesman Jamie Kritzer said Smith’s environmental blog is popular at the agency. “We read it all the time,” he said.

Smith was prominently quoted in a Sunday story in the N&O about Duke Energy’s coal ash spill in the Dan River. She questioned DENR oversight of the Charlotte-based electric utility’s coal ash lagoons, which are leaching toxic chemicals into groundwater.

“The reality is, unlike the dry cleaner, Duke has not been told to remove the source of pollution,” Smith said in the article.

In her blog, Smith summarizes the state of coal ash regulation this way:

“The ponds have been largely unregulated until very recently. No state or federal standards applied to construction of the existing coal ash ponds. Unlike modern landfills, the ash ponds are not lined to prevent contaminants from percolating into the groundwater below. Although coal ash can have some of the characteristics of hazardous waste, EPA has excluded coal ash from federal hazardous waste regulations.”