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Gov. Cooper’s budget on environmental issues: what it contains and why it matters

Gov. Cooper’s recommended budget, apportioned by topic area (Source: Governor’s Office)

Gov. Roy Cooper unveiled his $29.3 billion budget yesterday, 3% of which is devoted to natural and economic resources. 

Here are some highlights of the environmental sections and why they’re important:

Department of Environmental Quality

  • $2.49 million to address emerging compounds with additional staff and testing

Why it matters: Are you tired of PFAS yet? Well, PFAS aren’t tired of you. These toxic compounds have seeped into every day life: drinking water, carpet, clothing, fast food containers, furniture, cookware. They’re in blood, in pee, in breast milk.

This money would pay for more specialized staff — chemists, hydrogeologists, engineers — to meet the increasing need for groundwater testing, as well as permitting. What it will not pay for: the legislature’s political will to allow DEQ to establish a legally enforceable drinking water standard.

  •  $160,000 for a “project liaison” to collaborate with the Department of Commerce and Economic Development Partnership related to permitting and site development; plus another $500,000 for support positions

Why it matters: Former DEQ Secretary Michael Regan often said that it’s possible to have both economic development and environmental protection. That’s a sunny talking point, but In Real Life government and economic development leaders chase tax dollars from polluting industries while giving short shrift to the people who have to live next to the contamination. Those people are usually non-white and/or low-income. And once the first polluter enters a community, then it’s open season. (The NC Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board discussed cumulative impacts of multiple polluters at a meeting earlier this week.)

At the risk of using corporate lingo, state agencies are stuck in “silos”: For example, Commerce recruits a company to locate in North Carolina, but until recently no one has considered the environmental — or environmental justice — implications of that department’s efforts.

If the legislature actually includes this line item in their budget (don’t hold your breath), watchdogs should track how it plays out. If the legislature nixes the governor’s recommendation, DEQ and Commerce could still communicate about their respective concerns. The phone call is free.

  • $15 million for low-income households to reduce energy costs and afford clean energy sources

Why it matters: The national average residential electricity rate was up 8% in January from a year earlier, according to The New York Times, which reported it is the biggest annual increase in more than a decade. Low-income households are particularly hard-hit, as are renters. While this budget recommendation would help homeowners, how it would trickle down to renters remains to be seen. According to the NC Housing Coalition, there are 27 counties where renters average more than 8% of their household budget on energy. Renters tend to earn lower wages than homeowners, and since they have to answer to a landlord, they can’t upgrade their homes to make them energy efficient or outfit them with heat pumps or solar panels.

Department of Agriculture

  • $2 million for a forest development program

Why it matters: The importance of forests and trees can’t be overstated. They provide critical wildlife habitat, store carbon, provide shade, and absorb and hold flood waters. The forest development program in the governor’s budget would restore 18,200 acres of forestland — about the size of Durham County — and plant up to 6 million trees. That sounds admirable until you realize North Carolina’s wood pellet plants consume more than that each year.

Map: Lisa Sorg, based on DEQ database of swine farms and NC Division of Emergency Management flood plain data

  • $18 million for the swine farm buyout program

Why it matters: The Coastal Plain, with its sandy soils, high water table and proliferation of swamps, are not well-suited for CAFOS — Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations — and their open-air waste lagoons and spray fields.

Dozens of these farms lie within the 100-year flood plain, making their lagoons vulnerable to overtopping or breaching during a hurricane or prolonged storms. This money would help fund the voluntary buyout program, up to 19 swine farms. The land is put in a conservation easement, but farmers can still plant row crops on that land or raise livestock on pasture.

As Policy Watch reported in 2019, the buyout program launched in 1999, after Hurricane Floyd, Dennis and Irene hammered the state. After four buyout rounds totaling nearly $19 million for 43 farms, the legislature stopped funding the program in 2007. More than 100 farmers who wanted to participate in the buyout program couldn’t.

But Hurricane Florence was a game-changer: Rising water flooded 46 lagoons and another 60 nearly overtopped. In 2018, the NC Department of Agriculture secured $5 million to restart the buyouts, split between federal and state funds.

Department of Natural and Cultural Resources

  • $10 million for peatlands and pocosin conservation and inventory

Why it matters: First, peatlands are cool, at least when they’re not on fire. In this part of the world, they are the result of decomposed Sphagnum moss, shrubs and sedges. In Scotland, smoldering peat is used to dry malt that is used to make whisky. (Laphroig will knock your socks off.)

However, burning peat releases carbon dioxide, a major driver of greenhouse gas. North Carolina has coastal peatlands; those of you around in 2008 might remember when, during a severe drought, lightning struck a peat bog, igniting it. The bog burned for weeks, and the smell — and pollution– traveled west all the way to the Triangle.

Restoring peatlands — re-wetting them — can reduce carbon emissions and wildfire risk, as well as promote flood resilience and water quality, all very important not just to coastal communities but the planet.

These funds will also help the Natural Heritage Program inventory Coastal Plain wetlands that have been previously excluded from other counts. Wetlands can control flooding, filter pollution and provide key habitats. Finding, acquiring and protecting wetlands, particularly in the flood-prone Coast Plain, can build resiliency against future hurricanes and severe storms — events that are very likely because of climate change.

(Creative Commons)

Other appropriations

  • $10 million to the Department of Transportation so the state can receive matching federal grants for the first portion of the S Line: commuter rail that would link Wake, Franklin, Vance and Warren counties. Another $10 million would go to a local government program that would to provide matching funds for bike and pedestrian projects.

Why it matters: Transportation is responsible for 60% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. However, electric cars won’t solely dig the planet out of the climate crisis. As long as we continue to put more cars on the road, including electric, that sparks road widening. And road widening requires asphalt, whose manufacture and trucking emits greenhouse gases. More highway lanes often require massive clear-cutting of trees, which are carbon stores. (Exhibits A and B: I-40 in Wake County, I-95 in Cumberland County.)

As for the S Line, it’s years away, but a north-south rail line could alleviate the daily logjam on U.S. 1 and Capital Boulevard. 

Another way to get cars off the road is to make cities and suburbs safe and pleasant for walkers and bicyclists. Protected bike lanes, greenways, sidewalks that connect neighborhoods: People would more likely walk or bike to a coffeeshop if they didn’t have to cheat death by crossing four lanes of traffic.

 

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