$1.3M budget provision for Jordan Lake raises questions
Posted July 24, 2013
Updated July 25, 2013
Raleigh, N.C. — Environmental groups – and some House lawmakers – are raising a red flag over a budget provision that appears to be a no-bid contract for an experimental water treatment scheme at Jordan Lake.
The provision did not appear in earlier versions of the spending plan. It was apparently inserted into the final compromise budget deal unveiled earlier this week, in violation of legislative rules.
The section, on page 226 of the conference report, takes $1.3 million out of the state's Clean Water Management Trust Fund, directing the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to use the money for a two-year "demonstration project" to manage nutrient problems in Jordan Lake.
"The Department shall enter into a contract with a third party that can deploy floating arrays of in-lake, long-distance circulators to reduce or prevent the adverse impacts of excessive nutrient loads, such as algal blooms, taste and odor problems in drinking water, and low levels of dissolved oxygen," the budget states.
The next two-and-a-half pages of the budget give very specific parameters for the equipment – parameters that are nearly identical in many cases to online descriptions of an experimental water circulator made by SolarBee, a former company now owned by a North Dakota environmental technology firm, Medora.
The Sierra Club provided this comparison list of company specifications that match specifications in the budget provision.
The provision also goes on to exempt the contract from the state's regular competitive bidding laws.
"Is it designed for one specific company?" asked Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, during Wednesday's final budget debate.
"What I understand is, it's designed to deal with clean-up issues in Lake Jordan," replied chief House budget-writer Nelson Dollar, R-Wake.
"It just seems to be drafted in a way that it’s one specific company," Harrison observed, "which might be private emolument, which would not be constitutional."
Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, was more pointed.
"It does appear to be a contract for $1.3 million state dollars to a certain company" called SolarBee, McGrady told the House. "Go online yourself and compare the language here with the website."
House environmental budget-writer Rep. Pat McElraft, R-Craven, challenged McGrady. "Can you point out where it mentions the word 'SolarBee'?"
"That would be patently unconstitutional," McGrady answered. "What you would do is draw it in a way that no other vendor could meet the specifications. That appears to be what this is."
McElraft said DENR's Division of Water Quality requested the study.
"I don’t think there’s a mention of SolarBee in this budget," she said. "We left that to the experts. Our great Tom Reeder who runs that department – he mentioned this technology or something similar."
She said the purpose of the pilot program is "to see if there’s a way, if we could kind of clean the site itself," rather than expensive mitigation efforts by upstream cities and developers.
McGrady wasn't satisfied with that answer. “What we’ve basically got, I believe, is a sole-source contract.”
He also objected to the use of Clean Water Management Trust Fund money to pay for what he called "unproven technology."
"I’m sure the intention is good here and the hope is that the technology would work," he said. "But I would suggest to you that there’s no evidence that the technology could work on the scale that’s being proposed here."
According to DENR spokeswoman Sarah Young, "[DWQ Chief] Tom Reeder discussed a number of promising technologies with staff at the General Assembly, including SolarBee, but the language referenced in the budget bill was written entirely by the General Assembly."
The technology is in use in North Carolina on a small urban lake in Wilmington.
Cape Fear Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette says the aerator is one part of a multi-pronged algae control effort in the small lake. But, he said, “The idea of using SolarBees in Jordan Lake seems a bit like trying to put out a forest fire with a spray bottle.”
Medora Vice President and Director of Science Ken Hudnell is a former EPA neurobiologist who is an adjunct faculty member at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Observers say Hudnell has met with some legislative staff, including Jeff Warren, chief science and environmental adviser to Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger.
Via e-mail, Hudnell said, "For the record, I have not contributed money to any NC legislator, their campaign, or otherwise. I don't receive any extra compensation from Medora Corp. if the project comes about."
Neither Warren nor Senate Leader Phil Berger's office immediately responded to WRAL News' request for a comment on the provision.
Joel Bleth, co-founder and Chief Executive of Medora, said Hudnell had studied the potential neurotoxicological effects of algae and has been frustrated by the EPA's failure to enforce parts of the Clean Water Act that call for site clean-up of polluted bodies of water.
"He's been talking to policymakers," Bleth said. "I'm not aware of any special lobbying or anything. He probably caught somebody's ear."
"We've cleaned up 300 lakes, and I think the legislature did some research, and that's probably why they want our equipment in there," he added.
Bleth says his company's aerators are running in Lake Houston, which he says is similar in size to Jordan Lake. He says 20 machines there are being used to prevent "taste and odor" complaints.
Bleth said he has not made any political contributions to anyone in North Carolina.