The state Department of Environmental Quality hasn’t inspired much confidence of late. The Jordan Lake SolarBees debacle isn’t likely to change that perception.
Recall that, in 2009, Democrats in the General Assembly approved a set of guidelines for cleaning up Jordan Lake, which, because of runoff from cities and neighborhoods, suffers nutrient-caused algae blooms. But then, not wanting to burden developers upstream with costly restrictions, the Republicans who took over the legislature by 2013 launched a $2 million pilot program to test the SolarBees as a cheaper water-cleaning alternative, thereby delaying implementation of the cleanup rules for a reservoir (technically, Jordan Lake isn’t really a lake) that provides drinking water to three hundred thousand people in Wake and Chatham counties.
In 2015, the legislature directed the DEQ to study whether SolarBees were effective. In March, the department released its findings: the SolarBees did nothing to clean up the lake. This wasn’t exactly news to environmentalists. Similar projects in New York, Washington, and elsewhere in North Carolina had previously been deemed failures, and there was no reason to think Jordan Lake would turn out differently.
But the day that report was to go before the Environmental Management Commission’s water-quality committee, it mysteriously disappeared from the committee’s agenda. The DEQ promised a new-and-improved version in the near future, though it missed an April 1 deadline to report its findings to the legislature. Then Steve Tedder, the chairman of the water-quality committee, was removed after expressing concerns about the retracted report.
And so it came as no surprise that the new report the DEQ issued last Thursday was stripped entirely of SolarBees criticism.
But what happened next was very surprising indeed.
Just hours later, DEQ secretary Donald van der Vaart announced that the agency was abandoning the SolarBee project after twenty-one months of data indicated that the SolarBees were not in fact helping. (This, a DEQ spokesperson later insisted, was not actually a reversal.)
In the end, the SolarBee experiment cost North Carolina more than $1 million and, more important, delayed the cleanup of Jordan Lake for years. Now the state faces a choice: get serious about water quality and implement the Jordan Lake rules immediately, or waste money on some new bullshit scheme.
We’re not optimistic.