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Report: Info points to improper action by Cooper on pipeline

RALEIGH — An independent investigation started by Republican General Assembly leaders into the state’s approvals for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline found that Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper “improperly used the authority and influence of his office” but did not personally benefit.

The report was released Wednesday and comes almost two years after Republican leaders in the General Assembly first questioned the governor’s office about the pipeline.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline project of Dominion Energy, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and Southern Company Gas is a planned 600-foot underground natural gas pipeline that would cross North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.

General Assembly leaders questioned the appearance of a “pay-to-play” or “pay-for-permit” after the Cooper administration approved the permit and also announced the pipeline companies would provide $57.8 million to a fund under the governor’s control to be used for environmental mitigation, economic development and renewable energy in areas affected by the pipeline.

“From the information presented in this report it would be reasonable to conclude that Governor Cooper improperly used the authority and influence of his Office to cause the ACP partnership to commit to a $55 million “Mitigation Fund” that the Governor placed under his complete control. Governor Cooper continued to use his authority and influence to delay the ACP permitting process until the ACP partners agreed to increase the fund amount to $57.8 million,” the report states in its conclusion.

Cooper’s office has described the investigation as a “sham” based on “half-baked conspiracy theories,” and said the fund was negotiated separately from the permitting process.

On Wednesday, Cooper’s office released a statement from spokesperson Ford Porter saying: “The report is wrong, and it is full of inaccuracies and contradictions that clearly ignore inconvenient facts. The report even concedes that the permit was done properly, that Duke believed the permits weren’t dependent on the fund or the solar settlement, and that the Governor did not benefit.

“Legislative Republicans are mired in deep ethical problems and they’ve lied to the public, the courts and their own colleagues and you can’t trust a word they say about anything, much less the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Governor Cooper has worked to bring economic prosperity to rural North Carolina, and these fake Republican attacks aren’t backed up by facts or reality.”

The report also referred to a separate regulatory dispute between Duke Energy and solar-energy companies over how Duke buys solar power from the companies.

The report says of that deal: “it would be reasonable to conclude that Governor Cooper used the influence and authority of his Office to pressure parties involved in the Nameplate Dispute, to enter an agreement that favored the solar industry at the cost of $100 Million to the ratepayers of North Carolina.

“No information was identified from the investigation to show Governor Cooper personally benefited from the creation of the Mitigation Fund or from the Nameplate Dispute settlement,” the report stated.

Eagle Intel Services released the report to the General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations and its subcommittee, which both were to meet Wednesday.

The probe cost $83,000, state Sen. Harry Brown told the legislative committee created to look into the pipeline permitting.

Local lawmakers hosting town hall about Greensboro chemical release

GREENSBORO — State environmental regulators said Wednesday the Cape Fear River system that includes the local watershed appears to have the state’s most glaring problem with the industrial pollutant 1,4-dioxane.

And they listed Greensboro as one of three communities discharging the most of this suspected carcinogen, one that the state Department of Environmental Quality recently cited the city for releasing in excessive concentrations.

“What we have found in North Carolina is that we are one of the higher states,” DEQ staff member Linda Culpepper said of the industrial contaminant.

And treated wastewater released into Cape Fear tributaries by Greensboro, Reidsville and Asheboro are the major sources, she and her DEQ colleagues told the audience during a sparsely attended town hall meeting at Craft Recreation Center.

“I feel like we are focusing our efforts on the right facilities to get reductions” to lessen the Cape Fear’s burden, added Julie Grzyb, the agency’s supervisor of complex permitting.

The two DEQ officials spoke in the meeting arranged by the Guilford County legislative delegation to share information about Greensboro’s recent citation from the agency for releasing 1,4-dioxane at a concentration many times above permissible levels.

The violation stemmed from an Aug. 7 release of the industrial chemical from the T.Z. Osborne Wastewater Treatment Plant into Buffalo Creek, which is a part of the Cape Fear system.

The city was issued a formal “notice of violation” last week for both the discharge and failing to alert DEQ until late September.

The discharge did not affect Greensboro’s drinking water because Buffalo Creek is not part of the city’s water supply. But releases do cause problems for downstream communities that draw their drinking water from the Cape Fear, such as Pittsboro and Fayetteville.

The DEQ officials at Wednesday’s town hall stood by their citations against Greensboro, but also praised city officials for being proactive in tackling problems with the chemical and at one point achieving an 80% reduction in levels released in effluent from the Osborne plant.

The chemical is used by a variety of industries in solvents that are part of many manufacturing processes.

It is a so-called “emerging contaminant” for which there are no hard and fast, enforceable maximum contaminant levels that govern chemicals that are more widely known and understood.

Until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency acts to set “maximum contaminant levels,” state officials have followed a strategy of setting release levels individually in the permits that authorize communities’ wastewater plants to operate.

Legislators who attended Wednesdays presentation included three Greensboro Democrats, state Sen. Michael Garrett and state Reps. Ashton Clemmons and Pricey Harrison.

Republican state Rep. John Faircloth of High Point also attended and said he looked forward to finding solutions for the problem of emerging contaminants.

Garrett said he thought Greensboro might have borne the brunt of unfair criticism in its efforts to deal with a problem for which state leaders have failed to meet head-on.

“I think we legislators deserve a lot of the blame because we have woefully underfunded DEQ,” Harrison said. “This is a public health crisis from my perspective.”

Greensboro’s recent citation stemmed from a local waste handler, Shamrock Environmental Corp., that unknowingly discharged industrial waste containing 1,4-dioxane into Greensboro’s sewer system.

The tainted discharge of just less than 16,000 gallons “came from a customer that did not report the wastewater contained 1,4-dioxane,” Shamrock said in a statement last month.

The city was cited for the violation because its Osborne plant has ultimate responsibility for what is discharged into the river system. City officials also ran afoul of a requirement to promptly report such releases by failing to alert state officials until more than a month later, regulators said.

After the meeting, Greensboro water resources leader Steve Drew said the time lag in reporting was caused by two factors — the one to two weeks that it takes for city officials to receive chemical test results showing pollution levels and the fact that the state has no clear standards for when such reports should be filed.

The only directive Greensboro had was that the spike should be reported in the city’s monthly report to DEQ, which is what city officials did, said Drew, who attended the meeting as an observer.

“Knowing what we do now, we’ll simply go ahead, pick up the phone and report it” if and when such a situation should occur again, Drew said.

DEQ also cited Reidsville last week for releasing treated sewage with too much 1,4-dioxane from its wastewater plant on June 12.

The EPA considers 1,4-dioxane likely to cause cancer in humans but has not set safety limits, a process that takes years.

The industrial chemical is a clear liquid used to stabilize solvents in a wide range of industrial processes.

It is particularly insidious because it mixes readily with water.

Touring Theatre of North Carolina prepares roadmap for continuing founder's legacy

GREENSBORO — Brenda Schleunes is the first to admit it: She doesn’t have the energy she once did.

That energy has propelled the Greensboro-based Touring Theatre of North Carolina since she founded the troupe in 1982.

Over 37 years, Schleunes has drawn on historical documents, literature and people within the community to create authentic plays for the nonprofit, professional theater company.

Her nearly 50 productions — adaptations, compilations and original works — focus on themes of culture, race, gender, religion and economic status.

She has taken them on tour to 60 North Carolina counties, 16 states and the District of Columbia.

Now 80, Schleunes has spent the past three years handing off administrative duties while teaching others how to do what she does artistically.

“I wanted the company to continue in the style of its current work,” said Schleunes (pronounced Shloy’-nes). “I just didn’t want to do it all and forever.”

So, she and a Touring Theatre team created a road map for the company and its approach to survive her.

This legacy project costs money to finance.

On Sunday, Touring Theatre will begin its Legacy Fund Project campaign at Jingle Bell Jazz, a holiday fundraising party.

Organizers aim to raise $100,000 over the yearlong campaign.

During the year, Touring Theatre will continue presenting its signature theatrical pieces, primarily in the theater at the Well-Spring retirement community and the UpStage Cabaret at Triad Stage.

They include the civil rights-themed “The Life and Times of Fannie Lou Hamer,” “Let Your Children Tell” about the Holocaust, “Star Spangled Girls” about women who served during World War II and “Mad at Miles,” set against the backdrop of Miles Davis and Cicely Tyson’s abusive marriage.

It also will introduce new works, including “Four Women Along Interstate 10,” adapted from a short story collection by Kelly Cherry.

Touring Theatre will return to its tradition of mounting stories and poems for elementary schools with “Fabulous Me, Fantastic You!” created by Schleunes.

In the meantime, Schleunes teaches five other women her process.

“I created a unique kind of theater,” she said. “For it to continue, I have to teach others how to do it.”

• • •

For much of Touring Theatre’s existence, Schleunes has been a one-woman show.

“She used to do it all,” said Kay Thomas, now production coordinator. “She was doing all the calling, all the scheduling, all the grant writing.”

Three years ago, Schleunes handed executive director duties to Donna Bradby, a longtime figure on the local theater scene who also teaches and handles arts marketing at N.C. A&T.

Thomas now books performances and arranges rehearsals that fit actors’ schedules.

That lets Schleunes focus on her role as artistic director.

Bradby has acted with Touring Theatre since 1985 and served on its board.

She has found no other theater company quite like it, with Schleunes drawing on documents in their original form to create new works. Some theater companies do it, but not consistently.

“Brenda has a passion for making a profound difference in the life of individuals and communities,” Bradby said.

“She chooses to adapt and direct literature that deals with the human condition when it is at its most vulnerable and oppressed state,” Bradby added. “These stories are sometimes difficult to confront. But ultimately her goal is to give these issues a voice and bring dignity and hope to everyone who sees her work.”

Schleunes does not find it difficult to cut back on administrative duties.

“I do not have as much energy as I had 20 or even 10 years ago and am quite content with fewer responsibilities,” she said. “I still advise, and conduct workshops and seminars with future Touring Theatre playwrights and directors.”

Touring Theatre put out a call for women interested in participating in Legacy workshops.

It chose five of different ages and races: Thomas, Vanecia Boone, Camilla Millican and Erin Johnson. A.J. Buffaloe, now a theater student at A&T, joined later.

In the first year, they followed Schleunes’ development of “Family Affairs,” a stage adaptation of stories by Lee Smith, Alice Walker and Eudora Welty.

In 2018, they followed Bradby as she re-conceived, adapted and directed Pearl Cleage’s collection of essays, “Mad at Miles: A Black Woman’s Guide to Truth.” Bradby originally had produced it in 2008.

The same group also met weekly to discuss Cherry’s “Twelve Women in a Country Called America,” which is about Southern women of different backgrounds.

That will become “Four Women Along Interstate 10,” four Cherry stories that Thomas, Boone, Millican and Johnson chose and will direct in April at Well-Spring Theatre.

Bradby and the five women will create a workbook on Schleunes’ process.

Schleunes will update older plays with narration referring to today’s issues, incorporating references to bullying in “Let Your Children Tell,” gerrymandering in “The Life and Times of Fannie Lou Hamer” and the #MeToo movement in “Mad at Miles.”

Touring Theatre’s board and a team of supporters will help choose a separate group of college students later, to be mentored by the five women.

Over the years, Schleunes and Bradby discovered that student interns were less interested in adapting literature than becoming entrepreneurs who, like Schleunes, start their own theater companies.

“They were more interested in, ‘How did you create your company? How do you market your company? Where did you get your funding?’ ” Bradby said.

Now 31, Boone grew up in Greensboro, graduated from A&T in theater and received her master’s degree from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. She has acted with Touring Theatre.

She now teaches at A&T and Bennett College, while staying involved with the theater company she co-founded in Las Vegas.

Boone values Schleunes’ advice about narration, the writer’s and characters’ voices, and how to turn literature into a performance piece.

“She has been doing this for so long, and she’s such a force in the community, I had to take on that opportunity to sit at her feet and soak up her knowledge,” Boone said.

• • •

Schleunes has temporarily lost much of her voice.

She is optimistic that December surgery on her vocal cords will improve that.

That doesn’t stop her from directing her play, “The Life and Times of Fannie Lou Hamer.”

The cast begins by singing spirituals and civil rights anthems.

“Sing out,” she tells the cast in a loud whisper.

Schleunes mixes music into each play.

“My stuff is very intellectually and imaginatively tiring,” she said. “Music heightens the emotion, helps create the whole picture and gives the brain a little relief.”

Schleunes wrote the play in 2004 from the footnotes of two Hamer biographies, “so I’d have what actual people said,” she said.

Willa Bost continues to play Hamer, a civil rights activist who endured beatings in her efforts to obtain the right to vote.

But other cast members A.J. Buffaloe, Tyler Madden and Andy Schlosberg are new.

Thanks to support from Lincoln Financial Foundation, Touring Theatre has presented “The Life and Times of Fannie Lou Hamer” for several years in Guilford County Schools. More performances are on the schedule.

The rehearsals let Touring Theatre break in the new cast members and production coordinator Thomas to write down the latest blocking. That tells actors where to move for the proper dramatic and lighting effect. Thomas’ notes will aid future directors and casts.

“Touring shows are like a chicken-wire ball,” said Schleunes, who directs this play. “They get bumped around, and every once in a whole you have to pull them back and make them round again. Because lines get changed, blocking is forgotten.”

Is she writing any new plays?

“I have been working on a difficult piece for two years and will someday finish it,” she said. “There might be another musical in the future — perhaps as a finale to the legacy campaign. And if a good story catches my attention, I may or may not like the opportunity to stage it.”