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Editor’s note: This is the latest installment in “Raising the Bar” — a new series of essays and blog posts authored by North Carolina nonprofit leaders highlighting ways in which North Carolina public investments are falling short and where and how they can be improved.We need an energy system that protects our vital resources and creates sustainable jobs. The good news is that North Carolina has great potential for such a system. The bad news is that the current budget takes us further from that goal, not closer to it.

The ongoing discussions of the 2015-2017 state budget provide a useful context for analyzing the health of our state’s economy. The budget’s treatment of the environment makes clear just how shortsighted the planning for economic development is in this state. Over the last several years, rather than pursue the myriad opportunities to leverage clean technology and innovation to protect our environment and spur job growth, the state budget has ignored the need to protect our state’s most valuable resources.

Since the Great Recession of 2008, cuts to North Carolina’s primary environmental regulatory body have constituted a wholesale assault on our state’s living environment. The scale and pace of cuts to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) represent a structural dismantling of numerous regulatory bodies, diverting systems of revenue generation for the foreseeable future. If continued, these trends could spell disaster for North Carolina’s families. Instead, we should pursue a budgetary structure and job creation scenario that benefit both our economy and the planet by investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency, remediating current environmental degradation, and repairing existing infrastructure.

Our current reality, however, is far different. In 2009, 30 positions were eliminated from DENR. Over the next two years another 225 jobs were cut, but in Gov. Pat McCrory’s first year of office, while the economy was supposedly in recovery, another 131 positions went to the wayside, with 1,500 additional positions transferred out of the department over that same four-year period.

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Commentary

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.

Commentary
Donald van der Vaart, new secretary for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Donald van der Vaart, new secretary for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

In case you missed it over your holiday break, Governor Pat McCrory named Don van der Vaart as the new Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources to replace Secretary John Skvarla who is moving over to head the Department of Commerce.

Van der Vaart was serving as Deputy Secretary of DENR and as the state’s first “energy policy adviser” according to a press release from McCrory’s office. That means, according to the release, that van der Vaart “focuses on increasing domestic energy exploration, development and production in North Carolina as well as promoting related economic growth and job creation.”

In other words, the new secretary’s previous job was pushing drilling and fracking  and other industry objectives in a department that’s priority is supposed to be protecting the environment.

And that’s not the most disturbing part of his appointment. Read More

Commentary

If all of the coal ash leaking into the state’s various waterways isn’t enough to get you steamed at the state’s  leadership for eviscerating our environmental regulations and regulators, here’s another story that might put you over the edge — it comes from Dan Besse of the League of Conservation Voters and Charlotte’s public radio station, WFAE. This is from the LCV Monday morning newsletter:

State enforcement of controls on sediment pollution of waterways in North Carolina has dropped dramatically since 2010, according to an analysis by reporters from WFAE radio in Charlotte.

The analysis shows that the number of inspections of construction sites by state inspectors has dropped markedly, and that the frequency with which discovered non-compliance with pollution control rules is cited for violations has been cut as well. Enforcement agency staff acknowledge that their inspection staff has been slashed by the state legislature, from 65 to 40, with more cuts coming.

Sediment – or in lay terms, mud – from construction sites and other activities is one of the most pervasive and problematic causes of water degradation. It fills in reservoirs, buries stream bottom habitat for fish and their food sources, and fouls drinking water sources. Policing the sediment runoff from construction activities in our state is a shared local/state responsibility, critical to the task of protecting water quality.

North Carolina has been a regional leader in that effort since passage of the Sedimentation Control Act of 1973. However, putting adequate resources into the job has always been a challenge. The WFAE study quantifies just how much worse the situation has become in the past four years. Read More

Commentary

As Clayton Henkel reports below, even national news media have taken note of the embarrassingly cozy relationship between Duke Energy and North Carolina’s environmental regulators. Of course, federal prosecutors have too.

If ever there was a time for the state’s governor to signal a new direction and put the public ahead of polluters, now’s the time. An editorial in this morning’s edition of the Wilmington Star News  agrees:

“[Outgoing secretary John] Skvarla insisted from day one that he intended to make the scaled-down Department of Environment and Natural Resources more ‘customer-friendly.’ And it quickly became clear that his definition of ‘customer’ largely meant the corporate and development interests that apply for environmental permits.

But there is another category of customers: the people of North Carolina. Not only do they pay taxes to support the department, but they count on its regulators to protect the environment and public health.”

It concludes this way:

“Questions about the cozy relationship between DENR staff and the businesses they regulate did not originate with this administration; it has been an ongoing issue. Regulators do not have to be unnecessarily obstructionist. There is a lot to be said for streamlining the permit process, providing clarity on the rules and making sure businesses do not face long delays in obtaining permits, assuming their projects meet state standards.

But a regulator’s job is to regulate, not to placate. McCrory says he will cast the net far and wide to find the right person to fill the DENR post, both inside and outside the agency. That person should not only be a strong leader but also understand that the agency’s primary responsibility is to protect the state’s air, water, soil and other natural resources.”

Read the entire piece by clicking here.