DENRpicFor many years, North Carolina has been lucky enough to be served by a dedicated group of public servants of both major political parties who were committed to protecting and preserving the state’s natural environment from the frequently destructive impacts of rapid population growth, industrialization, mushrooming energy use and all of the other trappings of modern American society. A large number of these fine people served in an agency that has long operated under the moniker “Department of Environment and Natural Resources” or “DENR” for short.

In 2015, however, it’s now clear that things have changed. Oh sure, there are still some dedicated public servants of both major parties doing their best to pursue the goal of preserving something of our natural environment, but increasingly, it’s clear that DENR’s leadership has no real interest in such a mission. In recent days, for instance, the appointed leader of what is supposedly North Carolina’s environmental protection agency spent much of his time: a) promoting offshore oil drilling near North Carolina’s beautiful and fragile coastline and b) railing against efforts by the federal government to promote clean air and fight the existential threat of global warming. What’s next — a new DENR initiative to promote fracking?

The bottom line: “DENR” clearly no longer stands for what it once did. It is obvious, therefore — at the risk of giving the McCrory people an idea that they’ll run with — that the agency should be rechristened the Department of Exploitation of Natural Resources.

They won’t even have to change the acronym. A change to the symbols in the above logo might be apt however. How about an oil spill, some smoggy air and a patch of parched and barren land?


Former state environmental official and current Appalachian Voices advocate Amy Adams (whose coal ash-covered hand graced hundreds of articles in the aftermath of the Dan River disaster last year) has written a highly instructive and disturbing explanation of the proposal in the current “regulatory reform” bill wending its way through the General Assembly to, in effect, eviscerate one of North Carolina’s most important anti-water pollution laws.

Bye, bye buffers
By Amy Adams

Buffers are an important concept in acid-base chemistry. A buffer is an aqueous solution that has a highly stable pH. If you add acid or base to a buffered solution, its pH will not change significantly. Also, adding water to a buffer or allowing water to evaporate will not change the pH of a buffer.

BuffersSimilarly, in ecosystems, a riparian buffer, (otherwise known as the strip of forest that runs adjacent to our streams and rivers) neutralizes many of the “acids” or “bases” coming of the land into the river. These stream buffers filter stormwater runoff before it enters the stream. The vegetation within the buffer absorbs the excess nutrients that enter our waters and cause algae blooms and fish kills. The outer reaches of the buffer (the most landward sections) slow and spread out the flow of water coming off the land. Slowing down the rainwater runoff traps the sediments and the attached pollutants and helps it infiltrate into the ground rather than flow across it. This infiltration, in turn, allows the vegetation within the inner reaches (closest to the stream) to absorb the nutrients.

It’s free and natural stream protection. It requires no investment, no engineers, no construction, just preservation of a 50 ft strip of land. (Well, really a 30 ft. strip of land, as the outer 20 ft. of the buffer can be maintained as yard and utilized for many uses.)Buffers 2

North Carolina holds stewardship of the second largest estuarine complex in the lower 48 states (the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuary) and buffers are a critical part of maintaining the health and balance of this extremely important resource. The critical importance of sustaining the estuarine system was reflected in its Congressional designation as an “Estuary of National Significance” in 1987.

In addition to their nutrient and sediment removal functions, buffers just so happen to do a lot of other great things–even though these other reasons are not really why they were established in 1997: Read More


The Fayetteville Observer has a fine editorial this morning taking the McCrory administration to task for the latest lame plan to deal with coal ash pollution and the ongoing discharges into our drinking water supplies. As the paper notes, the plan features a loophole the size of a coal fired power plant: it has no deadlines for compliance.

“Duke Energy was caught last year leaking excessive wastewater from its coal-ash ponds into soil and waterways. Duke is negotiating a federal settlement to pay resulting penalties. But the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources has found a way to ensure that the company doesn’t violate the law that way again: New permits will make future discharges legal….

…The logic behind DENR’s approach now is to give Duke time to fix these problems. Thinking the company could stop all leaks overnight would be unreasonable. If Duke works toward long-term solutions, DENR can offer permits letting the status quo remain legal temporarily without incurring additional penalties….

Unfortunately, there’s an element missing from DENR’s permitting plan that creates a massive loophole for continued pollution: There’s no timetable for Duke to make progress. That puts DENR’s policy back into the absurd category.

What good is a state agency that just writes permits allowing major polluters to continue doing more of the same indefinitely? Including a wish, even a vague expectation, that Duke will one day mend its ways doesn’t cut it. For Duke’s part, the company has expressed its intent to work toward rapid closure of the coal-ash ponds. If so, that’s great. But it won’t be due to any tough stance from DENR.

As the Southern Environmental Law Center, which sued Duke over coal-ash storage, has noted, DENR’s permit plan includes no interim steps that Duke must take to stay on track. The agency needs to rethink its handling of these permits, and work toward a policy with more teeth for working with Duke and other polluters in the future.”

Of course, what the Observer fails to note is that is that such loopholes are no accident; they are what you get when a once proud environmental protection agency is gradually hollowed out and transformed pursuant to the demands and directives of the state’s biggest corporate polluters.


Pat McCrory 4It should probably come as no surprise when a state elects a governor who’s spent most of his adult life in the employ of one of the planet’s biggest polluters and he fails to make environmental protection a top priority. That said, there is something disturbing and notably blatant about the way the McCrory administration continues to wage war on environmental protection and, it would seem, the very idea that government has a role to play in the matter.

The list of disasters implemented over the last few years in the realm of environmental protection in North Carolina is already a long one — the uninspiring leaders appointed, the half-baked responses to the coal ash mess, the retreat on sea-level rise, the failure to take action on climate change, the lack of investments, the rules compromised — but two new announcements this week serve really to pour symbolic salt on the wound and rub it in.

First is the announcement to be unveiled officially today with the Governor’s proposed budget that the Department of Environment and Natural Resources is to be: a) re-christened as the “Department of Energy and  Environment” (I’m sure you noticed which word got second billing) and b) further eviscerated with the transfer of the state zoo as well as several museums and parks (and scientists) to the Department of Cultural Resources.

What’s next? Read More


When the former Secretary for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources sought a way to boost employee’s morale last summer, his agency ordered up several hundred commemorative coins engraved with both his and the agency’s name.

DENR commemorative coin

DENR commemorative coin

The environmental agency spent $1530 in June buying 500 coins engraved with former DENR Secretary John Skvarla’s name etched on them, in addition to the agency logo and the state seal on the back.

The coins, also referred to as challenge coins, were outdated within a few months.

Skvarla left the agency in December at Gov. Pat McCrory’s behest to lead the N.C. Commerce Department. Donald Van der Vaart, a longtime DENR employee, how heads the state environmental agency.

John Skvarla

Commerce Sec. John Skvarla (formerly DENR)

A number of the coins, but not all, were handed out to DENR employees as a way for Skvarla to recognize exemplary performance, said Drew Elliot, a spokesman for the agency.

Elliot said he did not know how many of the coins remained. N.C. Policy Watch has requested, but not yet received, a copy of a spreadsheet detailing how the coins were distributed under Skvarla’s leadership.

The $1,530 purchase of the coins this June comes as the agency has had to trim many of its programs and lay off environmental regulators in response to deep budget cuts, including 225 jobs lost between 2011 and 2014, according to this February 2014 news article. Some environmental groups say the cuts have left the state unable to protect its natural resources and prevent future disasters like last year’s toxic coal ash spill in the Dan River.

Challenge coins like the ones ordered by DENR are a well-known tradition in the nation’s military branches, as explained in this Mental Floss article. The coins are sometimes handed out by secret handshakes, as they were during a 2011 visit to Afghanistan by then Defense Secretary Robert Gates who passed them out to servicemen and servicewomen.

Probably one of the most popular uses of the coins in the military is to settle up bar tabs.

Read More