The NC Department of Environmental Quality is the Oliver Twist of state government, approaching the legislature, its empty bowl extended, and pleading: “Please sir, I want some more.”
Over the past 10 years state lawmakers have been notoriously stingy in its appropriations to the department. They have flaunted their distaste of environmental regulation, not only by introducing bills to hamper such efforts, but also by starving the agency, which has subsisted on the financial version of gruel.
Even as DEQ’s workload has increased, including a deluge of permit applications as the result of economic development and the PFAS drinking water crisis, the money has not kept pace. (The one bright spot was a $20 million appropriation for the Flood Resiliency Blueprint, which will provide communities with a tool to mitigate flood risks.)
Outside the abstract realm of budget spreadsheets, DEQ’s chronic fiscal crisis has unfurled in real life: Fewer staff, especially in the Division of Water Resources, which has 70 or so vacancies. Fewer inspections. Less frequent monitoring. A backlog of permit applications and renewals, as well as public records requests.
Since his first term began in 2017, Gov. Cooper has consistently proposed what is tantamount to a financial moonshot. He always recommends a dramatic increase –– this biennium 23% to 28% –– and the legislature always promptly ignores it.
That said, a budget is often considered a financial way to express an administration’s ethical priorities.
Gov. Cooper is proposing increasing state salaries across the board, including at DEQ, in hopes of attracting job-seekers to the public sector.
Here are more highlights of governor’s environmental budget:
- $4 million to tackle emerging compounds, such as toxic PFAS and 1,4-Dioxane in drinking water supplies. This will become even more important as the EPA finalizes its legally enforceable maximums for two types, PFOA and PFOS.
- $392,000 to pay for mobile air quality monitoring. The mobile units would supplement the state’s diminished network of stationary ambient air monitors.
In 2015, the legislature passed a law requiring DEQ to remove any ambient air monitors not required by federal law. As a result, the number plummeted, from 132 to 62.
Goldsboro, for example, has no ambient air monitor. In mid-February, 1.8 million creosote-soaked railroad ties caught fire and burned for a week, but there was no DEQ monitor to measure air quality for extremely fine particulate matter, benzene and other potentially toxic pollutants.
- $987,900 to complete the flood resiliency blueprint, due by the end of the year for the Neuse River Basin. The basin starts in east Durham, at Falls Lake, and runs southeast to Goldsboro and on to New Bern.
- $237,000 for new hires to work on the dam safety program, such as inspections for high hazard dams;
- Similarly, $3.1 million would go toward identifying high hazard dams that are at risk of overtopping.
- $35 million would provide emergency grant funding grants for water and wastewater systems that the state has designated as “distressed.” These utilities often face financial or administrative challenges that jeopardize their ability to provide essential services.
The state received $1.7 billion in American Rescue Plan funding but it’s already been obligated.
Demand for this program is outpacing appropriations. For example, the state Water Infrastructure Authority recently awarded $316 million to distressed utilities for water and wastewater projects and studies. But the WIA received applications worth $562 million.
Doing the math
Gov. Cooper’s recommended budget for the Department of Environmental Quality
Base budget* $97.24 million
Suggested increase $27.4 million
Recommended budget $124.7 million
equivalent positions 72
Total FTEs 1,215
Base budget* $97.22 million
Suggested increase $22.6 million
Recommended budget $119.9 million
*This figure does not account for $191.8 million in fees, federal grants and other receipts that pay for specific programs, positions and services.