EOT 322 Blakely Hildebrand: SELC’s Smithfield Biogas Lawsuit; Dr. Monica Osburn: COVID-19 Pandemic and Mental Health 3/14/21

Blakely Hildebrand of the Southern Environmental Law Center talks about her lawsuit to stop a Smithfield and Dominion Energy-owned biogas facility in eastern North Carolina. Executive Director of the NC State University Counseling Center Dr.

Blakely Hildebrand of the Southern Environmental Law Center talks about her lawsuit to stop a Smithfield and Dominion Energy-owned biogas facility in eastern North Carolina. Executive Director of the NC State University Counseling Center Dr. Monica Osburn discusses the COVID-19 Pandemic’s impact on college students’ mental health. The North Carolina News Service brings you stories on the 2020 Census’ impact on redistricting in NC and the pandemic’s impact on dental care.

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Eoin Trainor 0:00
The views and opinions expressed in Eye on the Triangle do not represent WKNC or the student media.

Eoin Trainor 0:28
Good evening Raleigh and welcome to this week’s Eye on the Triangle. An NC State student run students scripted and student produced a new show on WKNC 88.1 FM HD one Raleigh, I am Eoin Trainor. On tonight’s episode our contributor Elizabeth Esser sits down with executive director of NC State University’s Counseling Center, Dr. Monica Osburn They’ll be discussing the COVID-19 pandemics impact on the mental health of college students. Later we’ll have my interview with Blakeley Hildebrand, a staff attorney with the southern Environmental Law Center who is challenging the construction of an eastern North Carolina natural gas facility. And to top things off, we’ll end with two stories from Nadia Ramlagan at the North Carolina News Service. Stay tuned Eye on the Triangle.

Elizabeth Esser 1:14
Today I am joined with Dr. Monica Osburn, Executive Director of the Counseling Center here at NC State to talk about the impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of college students as we come up on a year since lockdown. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today Dr. Osburn.

Monica Osburn 1:32
Very glad to be here. Thank you for having me.

Elizabeth Esser 1:34
Everyone has been impacted by COVID in different ways. Dr. Osbourn, in what ways has the pandemic uniquely impacted the mental health of college students?

Monica Osburn 1:44
That’s a great question. It has significantly impacted the mental health of not only college students, but people around the nation, the way that we’re really seeing that in our students at NC State is first and foremost isolation, not having as many social outlets and opportunities for connection has been a significant challenge related to mental health.

Elizabeth Esser 2:16
And after the lockdown, did you find that more students were seeking out counseling resources?

Monica Osburn 2:22
It’s interesting because it has kind of had almost a wave effect when everybody left campus, we experienced a lull in services. I think students were really focused on getting home, getting moved, getting settled, trying to figure out first order needs of how am I going to manage my academics? Where am I going to live? Do I have internet? And so we didn’t start seeing a pickup in service delivery until over the summer, usually we’re a little slower in the summer and that wasn’t true this past summer, because once students kind of got settled and realize that they could access us still in a telehealth capacity they started doing that. And we absolutely made services available for them. So then we had another increase when folks came back to campus in fall. And then when it went remote again, it dropped again, it was it’s kind of like it followed a little bit of a roller coaster for sure.

Elizabeth Esser 3:29
And how have students responded to counseling sessions virtually?

Monica Osburn 3:34
Really well, we have a significant number of students that really like it, and some students even it’s preferred, I mean, it’s not the same as being in person, right. And we were all trying to do the best we can with what we have. But students have been, for the most part, really grateful that the services exist, and that we’ve done so much to reduce the barriers of access, it really is as simple as calling the Counseling Center and you do actually talk to one of our front office workers and we have our paperwork on a link on the website. So it really it you know, it took us a little while, but we really have a system that flows to remove some of the barriers for access for students.

Elizabeth Esser 4:29
And what are some coping strategies that students have been using or that you could recommend for students dealing with mental struggles related to COVID?

Monica Osburn 4:38
This is an area that our department prevention services at NC State does a phenomenal job because not everybody needs counseling, and sometimes they just need that connection and support or maybe additional resources. If you go to the website and just type in “prevention services drop in spaces”, an entire list of community drop-in spaces appears to where students can meet and talk to folks that are struggling with similar things that they are. So that’s one of the places that I think has been a tremendous resource. We also have workshop series in the Counseling Center, our anxiety tool kit, or getting unstuck, that focuses on some symptoms of depression that really help teach students those coping strategies. And some of them are just gentle reminders of things that we already know, right, we need to make sure that we’re getting appropriate amounts of sleep that is key to our bodies, and, you know, eating foods that are nourishing and healthy, that help take care of us. Going out for a walk, I mean, just some of those basic things can really improve mental health significantly.

Elizabeth Esser 6:04
How do you sense students are feeling about the pandemic right now? And do they seem like they’ve eased into it? Are they optimistic as we enter spring?

Monica Osburn 6:13
You know, I’m not sure. And I think, you know, if I had to create the narrative, in my head for what others are feeling, maybe it’s similar to myself, some days, I am optimistic, some days, I’m scared to death, some days, I’m ready to take it on and have my groove and have a good plan. And then other days, I just want to pull the blanket up over my head. So I don’t think there’s just one path, we’re all doing the very best that we can, I can tell you that. We’ve seen significant resilience and creativity in our students, there is just such a desire to succeed and figure out a way forward and that instills a lot of hope. And I don’t want to minimize how challenging this time is, you know, we have many students who are managing grief and loss related to COVID. We’re in a national environment that is really painful and activating for folks, both with what’s happening with COVID, and other things that are happening in the world. So I think it really depends on the day is the best answer I have for you there.

Elizabeth Esser 7:33
And then finally, is there anything that you want the student body or listeners as a whole to know about your resources?

Monica Osburn 7:40
Continue to use them, continue to connect with one another, figure out what you need, try it on, help each other. And that could be going to a workout with well rec, that could be, you know, a nutrition class, it could be doing the drop in space with us connecting with one of the centers on campus, we are still doing some drop in spaces, in collaboration with the Women’s Center, African American cultural center, and if you really need someone to talk to then then come to the Counseling Center because having that support whether it’s in a group space, or an individual counseling space can make all the difference in the world. You don’t have to be alone.

Elizabeth Esser 8:34
Thank you again, Dr. Osburn for speaking with us today on Eye on the Triangle.

Monica Osburn 8:38
Very glad to be here and thank you again for having me, have a wonderful day.

Elizabeth Esser 8:43
For more information on NC State’s Counseling Center resources can be found at reporting for Eye on the Triangle. This is Elizabeth Esser.

Eoin Trainor 8:57
This is Eoin Trainor with WKNC 88.1’s Eye on the Triangle. Joining us today is Blakely Hildebrand. Blakely is an attorney with the southern Environmental Law Center, and she’s here to discuss her lawsuit to hold the construction of what could be North Carolina’s largest bio gas facility. Blakely, welcome to the program.

Blakely Hildebrand 9:17
Thank you. Thanks for having me, Eoin.

Eoin Trainor 9:19
To start Would you mind briefly explaining what exactly a bio gas facility is and what it is that your lawsuit aims to do?

Blakely Hildebrand 9:26
Sure, let me start by talking about what bio gas is. Bio gas is often referred to is a common term is often used to describe energy that’s generated from swine feces and urine. Bio gas consistent methane, carbon dioxide and other gases and once it’s processed, can be used to generate electricity. So this project that we’re talking about today is is a bio gas project. And I think before kind of getting into the details of the project itself, I’d like to kind of zoom out a little bit and talk about the lagoon and sprayfield system on which this project relies. You know, in North Carolina bio gas production relies on an outdated waste management system that involves storing untreated hot manure and urine in uncovered pits, where the solid waste falls to the bottom and liquid waste floats to the top. And that liquid waste is in sprayed onto nearby cropland. And this waste management system is recall we generally refer to this as as the lagoon and spray field system. And this system is used at the vast majority of industrial hog operations in North Carolina, most of which are located in the coastal plain of the state. And there was a 2007 law that put a moratorium on the use of the lagoon and sprayfield system for new and expanded hog operations. So this biogas project that we are focused on is a project that is sponsored by Dominion energy, and Smithfield Foods. Smithfield Foods is the largest pork producer in the country. And these two companies, these two giants and their industries, are putting about $500 million into a joint venture called align renewable natural gas, which will make money from producing the gas in North Carolina and a few other states. aligns first major project is called the Grady wooded project and that’s the subject or the focus of this of this lawsuit. Alliance first major bio gas project in North Carolina is located in duplin. And Samson counties, which again is in the coastal plain of North Carolina. And the Grady, it’s the project is called the Grady road project. And it has three main components. The first is capping hog waste pits at 19 Industrial hog operations in duplin, and Samson counties, constructing a central processing facility and then laying a pipeline that will connect each of the 19 hog operations in the processing facility. So in brief, what happens is each Smithfield and dominion, cap hog waste lagoons, each of the 19 hog operations, those hog operations trap the bio gas, the biogas travels through this new phase of pipelines, and delivers that bio gas into the Central Processing Facility. The processing facility, collects all the bio gas brings it up to pipeline standards and injects the bio gas into the existing natural gas pipeline.

Eoin Trainor 12:51
You mentioned that Smithfield and dominion didn’t disclose their projects full environmental impact. What exactly was it that they didn’t reveal? And how did you uncover this?

Blakely Hildebrand 13:00
So the key that one of the key pieces of information that Smithfield did not disclose to DEQ is the identification of these 19 hog operations that are part of the project. And we know that there are 19 hog operations that are part of this project because Smithfield and Dominion have said as much. They have in their public statements about this project in their filings with North Carolina Utilities Commission and in the representations to the state. They have described this project as involving 19 Industrial hog operations, but they haven’t disclosed which operations are part of this project. And in order for DEQ, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, who regulates water pollution and air pollution in the state, in order for DEQ, DEQ has to know what is coming into that Central Processing Facility in order to know, in order to adequately protect communities that live nearby and protect air quality in the area. And I’d like to be specific Eoin, SELC has challenged the air quality permit that was issued to align for the processing facility, the central gathering processing facility where all of the bio gases collected

Eoin Trainor 14:15
With this sort of lack of transparency, why do you think it is that the DEQ issued the permit in the first place?

Blakely Hildebrand 14:21
I think DEQ, Smithfield didn’t tell DEQ, what information they need. I think DEQ was handicapped in providing, in drafting the comment as they did we think that Smithfield and dominion should have been more transparent with DEQ and in fact DEQ requested information from Smithfield and dominion on numerous occasions and Smithfield and Dominion were not transparent about all of the details of the project and we’re asking the DEQ require more transparency out of Smithfield and dominion and to write a permit that’s more protective of communities and the environment.

Eoin Trainor 15:10
Smithfield and dominion have actually said that this project would benefit the environment because it would reduce CO2 emissions by 150,000 metric tons per year. What’s your response to that?

Blakely Hildebrand 15:22
I think this industry has greenwashed this project. This project will entrench and lock in an air harmful Waste Management System, the Lagoon and Sprayfield system that has polluted our waterways that’s polluted the air that is created adverse health impacts for people living nearby, is creating noxious odors, and other unbearable conditions for people living close to these hog operations on which Smithfield and dominions project relies, not to mention the fact that the biogas is not a truly renewable resource like solar and wind energy, because the admissions that bio gas depends on are not naturally occurring. Smithfield is through this project Smithfield is maximizing the amount of methane that’s produced from these hog lagoons. And while they’re capping and trapping most of that methane, there are opportunities for leakage along the way, which may mitigate some of the climate benefits that the industry is so loudly touting. But at the end of the day, this project locks in a harmful system. Bio gas is not a truly renewable resource like wind and solar. And we don’t think the project should move forward as proposed.

Eoin Trainor 16:40
You mentioned the local communities, how much of a say did they have in the approval of this project? In the past, Smithfield has gotten into some hot water for either dismissing or ignoring their concerns. Was it any different this time around?

Blakely Hildebrand 16:56
We are very concerned about the lack of transparency surrounding this project, not just because we’re concerned about the permits that have been issued, and the lack of information that DEQ had from Smithfield before it issued a permit for this project. But we’re also concerned about, you know, about the lack of transparency for communities, and people cannot protect themselves and provide the agency, the state agency with meaningful feedback, if they don’t know the details of the project that is going on in their backyard. For example, how are they supposed to talk about or how are they supposed to know how this project is going to impact them if they don’t know which hog operations are involved in the project, where the pipeline is that Smithfield and dominion plan to construct? People can’t protect themselves and provide the agency with feedback if they don’t know the details of the project, and they can’t protect themselves if they don’t know the details of the project.

Eoin Trainor 18:00
People of color and the poor are disproportionately impacted by agricultural pollution. Is this the case with the Grady road project as well?

Blakely Hildebrand 18:09
Yes, biogas relies on a primitive Lagoon and Sprayfield system that harms residents and it’s been well documented that people who, that communities of color living near lagoons and spray fields are disproportionately communities of color and communities of color bear a disproportionate burden of the health impacts and environmental impacts that are associated with this very primitive waste management system.

Eoin Trainor 18:39
With respect to the lagoon and spray field system, Smithfield promised the state of North Carolina to tighten their environmental standards and research alternatives and in an agreement over 20 years ago, they still have not followed through with this promise, but you’re now asking Attorney General josh stein to enforce the agreement. Tell us more about that.

Blakely Hildebrand 19:00
Sure, in the year 2000, the Attorney General and Smithfield Foods entered into the Smithfield agreement, which is a voluntary agreement between the state and Smithfield Foods, under which Smithfield committed to developing and installing cleaner technology at their company and contract operations in the state. There were several technologies that were developed in the years after the agreement was signed that addressed the noxious odors from the lagoon and spray field system, the water pollution, the air pollution and other impacts of the lagoon and spray field system. But Smithfield did not implement any of these new waste management technologies on their operations because the technologies were not found to be economically feasible. And that’s a term of art that was used under the agreement. In short Smithfield did not install these technologies because the technologies were found to be too expensive. But the candidate technologies and the economic feasibility analysis was conducted, you know, over a decade ago and a lot has changed since then. In particular, bio gas development is now on the horizon and Smithfield stands to make money and profit from the lagoon and sprayfield system. There are technologies out there that address the water pollution and air pollution and odors that are, that result from Smithfields use of the lagoon and sprayfield system, Smithville has these cleaner technologies and other states like Missouri, and we think that the technology that Smithfield has used in other states that is, that is cost effective can be a starting point for what Smithfield can use here in North Carolina. So it is time that Smithfield upholds its obligations under the Smithfield agreement and follows through on its promises to clean up its mess here in North Carolina.

Eoin Trainor 21:02
So the pork industry is known for being a powerful interest in North Carolina. And most lawsuits that have challenged any of its activities haven’t been successful. What makes you think this one will be any different?

Blakely Hildebrand 21:15
The pork industry is very powerful in North Carolina, there’s no doubt about that. And the industry has fought regulation at every step they have tried to change laws about who can bring nuisance actions in the state, they have tried to create a loophole in the existing moratorium on hog operations in the state. And they’re a powerful force in North Carolina. And here, our lawsuit seeks to require Smithfield to be transparent about the basic details of their project, the pollution that will be created by their project and the details of their project. These are basic pieces of information that Smithfield needs to disclose to the state in order to get a permit that complies with the law. And so we are hopeful that our lawsuit will be successful, of course, that remains to be seen. And, you know, at the end of the day, what we hope is that Smithfield will transition to cleaner technology to manage the top race, will be transparent with the state and with the public about the impacts of their project and the details of their project, and will not further harm the environment and the communities that have dealt and borne the burden of pollution and health impacts for decades resulting from Smithfields poor waste management practices.

Eoin Trainor 22:47
Did you or anyone else at the SELC reached out to Smithfield, Dominion or the DEQ before or after filing the lawsuit.

Blakely Hildebrand 22:57
So we, SELC on behalf of over a dozen organizations submitted two sets of technical comments to the state in June and again in November of last year raising these concerns about the lack of transparency with the state. In those comments we provided detailed, we provided detailed technical comments to the state raising our concerns about this air quality permit. We attended a public hearing and spoke at a public hearing and made those concerns very well known to the state and to industry representatives that attended this hearing. So both the state and Smithfield and Dominion are well aware of the concerns that we’ve raised throughout this process.

Eoin Trainor 23:41
And what was their response?

Blakely Hildebrand 23:43
Well, the state after the public hearing in November requested that dominion and Smithfield disclose several pieces of information that we suggested that the state needed in order to issue the permit, Smith refused to disclose that information.

Eoin Trainor 24:02
Blakely, thank you for joining us.

Blakely Hildebrand 24:05
Thank you for having me, Eoin.

Nadia Ramlagan 24:07
Every 10 years states use the census to redraw congressional and state legislative districts but delays in the release of 2020 census data because of the pandemic have some experts worried that could lead to extreme gerrymandering and a torrent of litigation North Carolina Republican lawmakers are slated to begin redrawing maps this fall only a few months before the state’s primaries in March of 2022. Bob Phillips of common cause North Carolina says unfairly drawn maps deny fair political representation to diverse populations.

Bob Phillips 24:40
There is an awareness here in the state I think even more so than many other places about the problem we have with drawing maps, maybe not everybody across our state knows exactly what gerrymandering is, but they do know that something is not right

Nadia Ramlagan 24:55
Philips adds there have been more than 50 legal interventions related to gerrymandering. along racial or party lines within the last few decades, some watchdog groups are calling for postponing candidate filing in the 2022 primary to allow enough time for a proper redistricting process. Phillips says when redistricting gets underway, lawmakers should be transparent and allow for more public input. He says it’s likely in North Carolina with its growing and increasingly diverse population we’ll get a 14th congressional seat next year

Bob Phillips 25:27
and that we will also see pressure from the legislature having to create more legislative seats out of the urban areas which have grown in North Carolina and fewer seats coming from the rural areas where again, the majority party mostly holds those seats.

Nadia Ramlagan 25:42
North Carolina State law bans the governor from being able to veto redistricting maps. Philips also notes that nationwide this will be the first redistricting to occur after the US Supreme Court invalidated a portion of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. Now districts with a history of racial discrimination no longer need pre clearance from the US Justice Department to make voting changes. For North Carolina News Service. I’m Nadia Ramlagan. tooth decay is the most common chronic disease among young children and as families postpone preventative dental care due to the pandemic. Experts say it’s important to maintain good oral health habits at home. Dr. Kerry Dove who runs a pediatric dental practice in Concord says lack of a normal schedule means kids at home maybe snacking throughout the day, which can lead to cavities. she recommends brushing kid’s teeth in the morning and at night, drinking lots of water and staying away from chewy and sugary foods like fruit snacks.

Kerry Dove 26:42
baby tooth decay can get really severe really fast. But you know if you’ve got a diet full of simple sugars and juice and carbohydrates and small things can get really big really quickly.

Nadia Ramlagan 26:52
Dove says one in five kids ages six to 11 have at least one untreated cavity. The American Dental Association recommends continuing routine checkups and cleanings in the pandemic but the World Health Organization cautions that non emergency dental services should be avoided wherever community transmission of COVID-19 is high or uncontrolled. Use websites like COVID act to check your local infection rates Dove notes that dentists are obsessive about infection control and are taking extra precautions to keep patients safe.

Kerry Dove 27:26
Make sure you talk to your provider about your comfort level or you know if they can move you to a private room dentists are doing a lot of things to make people feel as safe as possible taking temperatures making sure everyone’s wearing masks.

Nadia Ramlagan 27:37
One study published last fall found fewer than 1% of dentists nationwide had tested COVID positive and 99% had enhanced their infection control procedures. Chief dental officer at United Healthcare Dr. Richard Gesker adds most tooth and gum problems are preventable and emphasizes it’s important to stay in touch with your child’s dentist,

Richard Gesker 27:58
individual dentists and some dental plans are making telephone and video consultations available. But this is only an option as a starting point for care and advice to help the patient select the best setting for them for in person care.

Nadia Ramlagan 28:15
The American Dental Association says spending on dental care dropped by 38% last year and is expected to further dip 20% this year for North Carolina News Service. I’m Nadia Ramlagan.

Eoin Trainor 28:31
That just about does it for this episode. We’d like to thank our listeners for tuning in. It means a lot to us here at Eye on the Triangle, and we’d be happy to hear from you as well. That’s right. If you have any questions, comments or powerful opinions, email us at We’re also accepting applicants if you’d like to get involved the Eye on the Triangle team. Our theme music for today’s show was “Chilled” by DJ quads Licensed under Creative Commons. Stay tuned for usual programming and we’ll see you next time.