The State of the Environment: Good, bad and meh

Like a box of Cracker Jack, there is a surprise inside the North Carolina Conservation Network’s State of the Environment report: While North Carolina is failing to reach some basic environmental benchmarks, it is meeting others — despite a legislature that has at times been hellbent on favoring polluters over people.

The NCCN, a nonprofit that collaborates with more than 100 environmental and social justice groups statewide, released its first State of the Environment yesterday.

Based on 116 data sets, it’s a thorough assessment of the health of the state’s residents and ecosystems. The report also sets goals and priorities for the state at a pivotal moment in climate history. International scientists have given the world until 2030 to keep global temperatures in check or risk the precipitous and cataclysmic effects of climate change.

The report’s goals are simple, among them: Ensure we have safe and affordable drinking water. Maintain the health and resilience of our coastal habitats and estuaries. Require agribusinesses to be good neighbors. Eliminate racial health disparities and environmental injustices. Prevent “forever chemicals,” like perfluorinated compounds (PFAS) from entering the environment.

“We believe that a great majority of North Carolinians across the ideological spectrum would agree that each of the goals is desirable,” reads the executive summary. “… However, the goals and indicators leave aside the question of what policy interventions are needed … or whether government has a role in addressing a trend at all.”

Over the past 10 years in particular, though, state and local officials have been responsible for enacting policies that have contributed to sprawl, habitat loss, pollution and racial injustice.

Eighty-one percent of North Carolinians commute to work alone, the report states, and transportation is a main driver of greenhouse gases. Nonetheless, the state Department of Transportation and local officials in southern Wake County have pressed on with the proposed Complete 540 toll road, yet another mega-highway that would add congestion to arterial streets and roads, as well as spurring suburban and exurban sprawl. It’s on legal hold, though, thanks to several species of endangered and freshwater mussels that live along the route. (Thank you, Atlantic pigtoe.)

Hate sprawl? Thank the Atlantic Pigtoe mussel, a threatened species, for temporarily halting the Complete 540 toll road. (Photo US Fish & Wildlife Service)

Living shorelines better protect the coast from floods and erosion than hardened structures, such as terminal groins. But each year, a bill emerges from the legislature to allow yet another groin to be built.

Twenty percent of homes in coastal counties lie within a 500-year flood plains, the report goes on. The 500-year flood plain used to be considered a safe place to build, being that there was only a 0.2 percent chance of an inundation. Now we’ve seen three hurricanes since 2016 that drowned areas thought to be on higher ground. In other wordsd, 500 is the new 100.

On average, Black and Native Americans in North Carolina die at a younger age than whites, the report says. They are also more likely to live near hazardous waste sites, industrialized livestock operations and sources of air pollution, such as factories and highways.

Nonetheless, lawmakers have consistently passed Right to Farm Acts that all but prohibit neighbors of mega-hog farms from suing corporate giants Murphy-Brown and Prestage for nuisance.

Some conservative lawmakers seem intent on subverting the progress the state has made. They have introduced bills that are a sharp rebuke to Gov. Roy Cooper’s Executive Order 80, a clean energy mandate — among them, repealing the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard, penalizing drivers of electric cars and hybrids with high registration fees, and  banning wind farms within 100 miles of the coast.

The impenetrable Senate Bill 559, written by Duke Energy, would likely hike customers’ electric bills by allowing the utility to deploy “alternate rate mechanisms.” That’s jargon for allowing Duke to set a base rate for multiple years and during that time, to avoid the requirement of a public rate case hearing.

These potential increases would further hurt low-income residents, especially those living at or below the federal poverty threshold. State of the Environment reports that these households spend at least 18 percent of their income on energy.

Now the surprise: some state and local officials have passed rules and laws to undo the damage. The NC Department of Environmental Quality is requiring Duke Energy to excavate its remaining unlined coal ash pits. The department has also worked with the Environmental Management Commission to establish rules regarding the toxic air pollutant methyl bromide.

State lawmakers Pricey Harrison, Chuck McGrady, Vickie Sawyer, Harper Peterson, Billy Richardson and Kirk DeViere have all introduced bills to improve our environment. (Whether this bills will be exiled in committee is up to the House and Senate leadership.)

And the report lists pages of possible solutions to the state’s most pressing problems. Fund land conservation. Stop building in the flood plain. Incentivize reforestation. Update groundwater and surface water standards. Phase out the antiquated lagoon and sprayfield system for swine farms. Implement regulations on poultry. Prioritize environmental justice. Ban bee-killing pesticides. Reduce plastic pollution. (Perhaps reinstate the plastic bag ban along areas of the coast?)

NCCN’s authors acknowledge these solutions are “not at all policy-neutral,” and “reflect an agenda for action from across North Carolina’s conservation and environmental communities.”

“It outlines an array of policy interventions that, if adopted, will improve North Carolina’s economy, environment, public health and resilience.”

Which beggars the question: Why are lawmakers incapable of doing this?


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