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Who are DENR’s “customers”?

In case you missed it, a 25-year employee of the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) tendered her resignation recently in a very public fashion. As reported by WRAL.com [1], Susan Wilson packaged her resignation in a scathing and courageous letter that blasted DENR Secretary John Skvarla and the McCrory administration for dismantling of the Department’s Division of Water Quality. Among other things, the letter included the following barbs:

“I was a good regulator – I had a bit of distrust for both sides of the aisle – which made me regulate evenly and with common sense and fair judgment. Over the past 24 years I’ve had the privilege to have worked with some of the most intelligent, articulate, and respected environmental scientists and engineers – I’d put them up against my friends in the private sector any day of the week. But the disdain for them (and me) by this administration is too much to bear….

I’m all about customer service (as the majority of employees in DWQ are, and have always been), but that just seems to be a smokescreen for a very extremist republican agenda.

Likely there will be some uptick in the business environment in the next few years (mainly because the economy has started to recover from the disaster your friends on Wall Street created). But when the hot summers and the drought years come back, and we get fish kills again, and maybe there’s fracking going on in the sandhills – it will be the fine folks at DENR who will get blamed for the chaos. The politicians and their appointees, that did the dismantling and created the chaos, will be long gone. We know the drill.”

Good for Wilson. And good for her reference to “customer service’ — a phrase that’s bandied about at every opportunity by the administration, but that’s never adequately defined.

The clear upshot of Wilson’s letter and numerous rumblings from inside and outside of DENR in recent months is that, in the McCrory/Skvarla lexicon, the term “customers” refers to the industries regulated by the agency — i.e. polluters. But, of course, that’s not how it’s supposed to be.

To the extent we use the phrase “customers” when it comes to the provision of essential public services (and as we explained a few months back [2], this is generally a problematic idea) the true “customers” are the citizens of this state, i.e. the people who are to be protected from environmental degradation — not the corporations responsible for degradation.

Sure, as Wilson made clear, there’s no reason to be bureaucratic just to be bureaucratic. And there’s probably good reason that some businesses have been frustrated down through the years with some DENR employees. But to utterly dismantle essential environmental protection programs as the McCrory/Skvarla team is doing rather than simply addressing the specific problem employees is a grave disservice to the state.

Add to this the absurd decision to transform a hundred career employees into political hires [3] — thus forcing them to look over their shoulders and consider the political connections of the companies they are trying to regulate every single time they review an application to install a discharge pipe — and it become crystal clear what’s going on.

The bottom line: North Carolina’s already fragile environment is about to get a lot more fragile and North Carolinians will be able to thank Gov. McCrory and Secretary Skvarla for making it happen.