Environment, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

State budget: DEQ still snubbed, plus Jordan Lake rules delayed again and an odd line item for Charlotte

The state budget: Stingy (again) toward DEQ (Creative Commons)

The state budget, having secretly curdled inside Republican bill writers for several weeks, was finally served to the public last night just before 9 p.m. At 748 pages long — including the conference report-– and weighing more than a pound, the financial blueprint for the next fiscal year spoils most hopes of  environmental protection for North Carolinians.

Republicans tweaked the GenX portion of the bill, which had already been divulged in the Water Safety Act. But the the minor tinkering did nothing to address perennial underfunding of the Department of Environmental Quality. Conservative lawmakers still snubbed the agency, appropriating $2.3 million for long overdue water and permitting projects. Lest that sound like a significant figure, over the past seven years, lawmakers have cut DEQ’s budget so deeply that $2.3 million is the equivalent of finding $20 in a winter coat pocket. Nice to have, but it won’t go far.

This section of the bill does remove the unfunded mandate lawmakers had saddled DEQ with: to develop a monitoring, remediation and corrective action plan for fluorinated compounds in public and private water supplies. That project — on its face, prudent and essential — disappeared because lawmakers refused to fund it.

Instead, the NC Collaboratory, a think tank headquartered at UNC Chapel Hill, received nearly three times that amount, raking in $5 million to essentially do what DEQ is statutorily charged with doing to rein in emerging contaminants — but without the regulatory authority. The Collaboratory, run by rainmakers Brad Ives, a former assistant secretary for DENR (now DEQ), and Jeffrey Warren, the former research director for Sen. Phil Berger, did take a “hit” in that its original appropriation in the Water Safety Act was $8 million. (The Collaboratory got another $1 million to analyze water quality issues in the Haw River and to continue its analysis in Jordan Lake.)

The GenX part of the Water Safety Act, as Policy Watch reported last week, contains several legal and constitutional pitfalls regarding the governor’s power that the budget only partially addresses. The Environmental Management Commission is designated as the rulemaking authority, wise, because that’s the EMC’s role. Several procedural changes attempt to circumvent the potential for a prolonged contested case appeal, should Chemours disagree with the governor’s shut down of its facility.

The bill does try to confront the serious legal chain of custody issues that outsourcing data collection and analysis to the university system presents, but it’s hardly foolproof. Somewhere, Chemours lawyers are lighting cigars.

The small bit of good news is that last year’s $1.3 million appropriation to private company SePro  to chemically experiment in Jordan Lake has been redirected to DEQ. The agency will use the money to tackle a small portion of the GenX problem — air and soil contamination among them. Some of the funds will also pay for temporary employees to plow through the agency’s permitting backlog.

Nor will the agency be required to lay off employees, as was foretold in last year’s budget.

At various committee hearings over the winter, lawmakers were worried about their (lack of) control over the $92 million VW settlement due to North Carolina to address diesel pollution. The funds were to to the state treasury, with DEQ, as the lead agency, awarding the grants. But the budget usurps DEQ’s authority, ostensibly on constitutional grounds, and the legislature will now divvy out the money.

We already know how that turns out: In this budget, for example, a nonprofit in Winston-Salem, the Resource Institute, Inc. is getting a $5 million to partner with other groups for beach nourishment projects.

And $2 million from the pre-regulatory landfill fund is being diverted to the Charlotte Motor Speedway for remediation. What type of remediation and why it’s necessary are unclear — stay tuned — but that location is not on DEQ’s most recent Inactive Hazardous Waste Site list.

Two million dollars, which will pay for a third of the clean up, is both a lot of money and a little. With proceeds from part of a solid waste tax, DEQ has received $80 million to clean up and/or assess dumps built before 1983, when regulations requiring landfills to be lined went into effect. Without liners, the dump’s toxic contents leach into groundwater, surface water, and soil, as well as off-gas into the air.

There are 677 pre-regulatory landfills in North Carolina, and 521 of them are within 1,000 feet of a school, home, church or drinking water supply. The agency has spent $16.6 million on cleaning up just a dozen of the highest-risk dumps and $18.1 million on merely assessing the footprint and potential exposure routes of 322 of the landfills.

That $2 million could cover the clean up of one dump or the assessment of 35.

The other very bad news is that the budget extends the adoption of the Jordan Lake rules by yet another year — as late as Dec. 31, 2020. Reminder: These rules were supposed to go into effect in 2009. So a child born when the rules were adopted will be entering middle school when they ostensibly go into effect.

 

 

 

 

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