Environmental advocates are troubled by major budget cuts and the loss of staff for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, cuts they say will stretch those tasked with monitoring polluters too thin to do their jobs and eliminate beneficial programs.
The state budget cut 160 jobs from DENR.
“DENR as a whole is getting bigger cuts than any other agency,” said Tom Bean, lobbyist with the N.C. Wildlife Federation.
Those jobs are largely coming from regional offices, including 18 positions — more than 20 percent — of the staff in the Asheville DENR office. DENR headquarters in Raleigh, where many environmental permits get issued, is seeing few cuts, however.
SEE ALSO: By air, by land and by water
“It is certainly an industry wish list,” said DJ Gerken with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Make sure that they are staying staffed up for issuing permits but cut the staffing for the people who do the policing.”
People who live near dirty industries — asphalt plants with a decibel limit, quarries with blasting restrictions, or paper mills with water pollution limit — will be left out in the cold with no one to turn to when those limits are violated, said Julie Mayfield with WNC Alliance.
“When they observe a problem they call DENR. If they get the right person on the phone it takes that person and hour and a half to get there and whatever was happening may not be happening anymore by the time they get there,” Mayfield said. “If DENR doesn’t observe the potential violation, it is more difficult for them to enforce.”
DENR staffers are the first line of defense in keeping mud out of creeks and rivers. They monitor development and construction in the majority of mountain counties, which don’t have erosion officers at the county level. Even in Haywood, Jackson and Macon, where counties do run their own erosion enforcement, DENR staff still monitors sites that fall outside a county’s jurisdiction, like rock quarries or DOT road projects. In Haywood County, state erosion inspectors even had to crack down recently on sediment violations by federal contractors on Superfund clean-up run by the EPA.
Already stretched too thin, visits from state inspectors were few and far between at the Allens Creek rock quarry. Runoff was muddying Allens Creek for months last year before neighbors finally got DENR to respond.
But Rep. Mitch Gillespie, R-Marion, said the Asheville DENR office seemed overstaffed.
They have a bigger staff but issue fewer permits. On top of that, they are issuing more violations, Gillespie said.
“They are doing more notices of violation than anybody else. They are spending their time going out there and doing violations instead of doing permits like they are supposed to,” Gillespie said.
In addition to the budget cuts this year, DENR’s Asheville office will be under the microscope, required to justify every dime of funding in a massive review of its operations.
“The justification review is to make sure they are doing their job, and if not they will be eliminated,” Gillespie said.
Gillespie said the new majority has a mandate from voters to reform all of state government and he is just doing the job he was asked to do.
Many programs under DENR have lost their funding.
One program that no longer exists helped people fix failing septic tanks. The fund was critical in cleaning up unsafe levels of bacteria from raw sewage making its way into Richland Creek in Waynesville and Scotts Creek in Sylva.
Another program that has been cut funded local efforts to curb sediment and erosion. A joint project was in the pipeline by four nonprofit watershed associations in the seven western counties to launch a training course for graders and contractors.
“As you know our streams have been muddy, muddy, muddy, and this would be a real basic attempt to get good, enforceable erosion control training for contractors,” said Roger Clapp with the Tuckaseigee Watershed Association. But “that money was zeroed out.”
Clapp also had a $20,000 grant in the pipeline from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission to do fish sampling in the Tuckasegee.
“We were trained to go and ready to launch,” Clapp said. “It would be the basis for really knowing the river in another dimension.”
But that money was lost as well.
Back in January, a group of environmental advocates gathered for after-work beers at Craggie Brewery in Asheville where they heard a sobering message from one of their green-minded compatriots. In just a couple weeks, new leadership would take the reins of state government in Raleigh, and things probably weren’t going to be pretty on the environmental front.
“That has certainly been born out in spades,” said Julie Mayfield, who was the invited speaker that week at Asheville Green Drinks, a standing meeting for those in the environmental community.
While they were bracing for less-than-friendly legislation from the new Republicans majority, Dan Crawford, a lobbyist with the League of Conservation Voters, said they were “shocked with what we got.”
“To see the environmental assault that took place this session was quite surprising,” Crawford said. “It is like a game of whack a mole — there are all these new laws popping up that we’ve been trying to fight. I call this the 87-day war on the environment.”
Keeping up with the so-called assault was more than a one-person job. Close to 2,000 bills were introduced this session, and the League of Conservation Voters flagged about 200 to watch. Crawford’s group pays for a bill tracking service to keep on top of what’s being introduced or amended.
But that wasn’t what made this year one of the worst in history for environmental lobbyists.
“It was very hard to get the ear of our legislators on anything related to the environment,” said DJ Gerken, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Asheville. “There was very little interest from the leadership or bill sponsors to hear concerns from counter viewpoints.”
When the writing was on the wall and there was no hope of stopping a bill, they at least tried to lessen its blow.
“It is better to drink the poison that makes you sick than the poison that kills you,” Crawford said. “There were many times in the session that we went down fighting.”
What environmentalists have dubbed rollbacks, however, others consider needed reform. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, said environmental regulations in the state have run amok, and it is time to reassess many of them.
“For myself and my kids and my grandkids, I want clean water and I want clean air as much as the next person. But regulation, in my opinion, some of it is onerous and in some cases it is counter-productive,” Davis said.
The new Republican majority in the General Assembly has overturned a host of environmental policies. Some bills are a direct answer to request from industry, like a repeal of the state’s toxic emission standards specifically sought by Evergreen paper mill in Canton. There’s even the vaguely worded “Act to amend certain environmental laws,” a catch all where legislators seemingly inserted fixes to address pet peeves of constituents — from increasing the size of dams that need a state permit to lifting the ban on incinerating plastic bottles.
Meanwhile, new rules are being blocked from going on the books. Bills in the General Assembly have barred any new environmental rules that are more stringent than federal limits. And environmental agencies can no longer set their own policies.
“The more regulations we have means more regulators and the more hoops we have to jump through, so I think it is time to take a breather and sit back and examine them,” Davis said.
Sometimes, environmental rules bear an uncanny resemblance to a make-work program for regulators. Davis pointed to emission limits for arsenic imposed on Jackson Paper. As soon as one target was met, regulators raised the bar.
“It ensures their job for one thing. If all these goals are met, then we have to find another goal to impose on people,” Davis said. “Frankly, we have a lot of business in the United States that just says The heck with this. I am moving to Malaysia or Mexico or China where we don’t have to deal with these issues.’”
But Gary Wein, executive director of the Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust, doesn’t want to see the state move backwards in its environmental protections.
It may make it easier for industry to operate, but society will bear the cost in the long run, said Wein.
“We are still cleaning up messes from 50 to 60 years ago when there were no environmental regulations,” Wein said.
On the Highlands-Cashiers plateau, a scenic beauty and a healthy environment is vital not just to tourist but a healthy second-home economy, said Michelle Price, director of the Jackson-Macon Conservation Alliance.
“I think a lot of folks come to North Carolina because of the environment,” said Price. “If we are not protecting our environment, they will go somewhere else.”
George Ivey, a farmland specialist and conservation consultant in Haywood County, said the environment is actually valued by companies.
“When businesses are looking to relocate, they are looking for places with high quality of life and the environment is part of it,” Ivey said.
Crawford said he doesn’t know how long it might take to undo the anti-environmental policies promulgated this session. If a new legislature takes over next election, it’s doubtful they would burn precious political capital restoring environmental policies.
“The environment is not the only area that has been attacked by this General Assembly. There are plenty of other things that have to go into the fix bag,” Crawford said.
The environmental community is pinning modest hopes on a governor’s veto, but was selective in which bills it is looking for help with.
“It would be unrealistic to ask her to veto everything. We are one interest group of many and she has her hands full,” Crawford said.
Read on for a snapshot of a few of the budget cuts and bills that environmental advocates are fretting over.
This is environmentalists’ public enemy No. 1. Environmental agencies would lose their ability to enforce regulations and adopt rules, instead placing that power with the General Assembly and falling back on federal standards.
“The regulatory authority of our state agencies is under assault by this bill,” said DJ Gerken with the Southern Environmental Law Center.
The General Assembly would have to sign off on anything that resembles an environmental standard, from designating trout streams to determining emissions standards for factories.
“It really handcuffs the ability of agencies to do their job,” said Tom Bean, lobbyist with the N.C. Wildlife Federation.
The Wildlife Commission couldn’t even adjust innocuous hunting laws, like setting a new opening day for squirrel season, since it classifies as a “rule making” by an environmental agency. Bean said the General Assembly probably doesn’t realize exactly what they’ve bitten off.
“There would be a bottleneck initially and they will have to undo some of this because it will be so unworkable,” Bean said. “Program by program, they are going to have to have broader authority reinstated.”
The bill, which passed both chambers, is billed as “regulatory reform.”
An environmental provision in the budget forbids new environmental rules that are stronger than federal minimum standards. North Carolina has several environmental laws that go beyond the bare minimum required at the federal level.
“Here in the west, trout buffers, the Clean Smokes Stack Act and the Ridge Law have made an extraordinary difference in our environment,” said Julie Mayfield, director of the WNC Alliance. “If the philosophy is, we should only protect the environment to the extent the federal government tells us we should, we wouldn’t have any of those things.”
House Bill 119, a loosely titled act to “amend certain environmental and natural resource laws” is chock full of technical rule changes that provide loopholes and exemptions from environmental permits. One of the many changes in the bill would allow even larger dams to be built without a permit, doubling the threshold for how big it must be before triggering state oversight.
In Jackson County, when an earthen dam on the golf course of Balsam Mountain Preserve collapsed three years ago, it sent a torrent of muddy water downstream, wiping out the aquatic ecosystem and filling the water with sediment for miles downstream. That dam was barely large enough to need a state permit, but even at its size wrought major environmental damage when it collapsed due to faulty design.
Less money for conservation this year means special tracts of lands won’t get protected but instead will be sold for development.
“We have interested land owners with high-quality, high-priority lands, but the grant money is not there to protect those assets so they remain at risk of development, losing the potential to be a source of fresh food, fresh water, food production, scenic views, flood protection, all of those values, even tourism,” said George Ivey, a farmland specialist and conservation consultant and grant writer in Haywood County.
Land trusts rely on state trust funds to help with the cost of preserving special places. But this year, the Clean Water Management Trust Fund — the primary source of money for land conservation in the mountains — has been cut from to $11.5 million from last year’s amount of $50 million, and a precipitous drop from historic levels of $100 million up until two years ago.
“It really has been a bumpy ride for Clean Water (trust fund),” said Gary Wein, executive director for the Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust.
Wein was working with a landowner in Jackson in hopes of protecting a tract of several hundred acres, but the loss of incentive funds will likely sideline the effort.
Another project to improve trout habitat in the Cullasaja River will be stopped in its tracks as well. A two-part plan was hatched to cool down the water, which was unnaturally warm and unable to support trout.
A channel flowing through the Cullasaja golf course would be redesigned from its shallow, slow-moving course to a deeper swifter one. And, the flow coming off a reservoir would be altered so the river runs out of the bottom of the pond where the water temperature is cooler instead of flowing off the top.
Other pots have been reduced too, like the Farmland preservation Trust Fund, Parks & Recreation Trust Fund and the Natural Heritage Trust Fund.
Standing next to a display that showed pictures of West Virginia mountains scarred by mountaintop removal coal mining, Austin Hall with Appalachian Voices of Boone bemoaned, “That is wrong on such a gut level.”
But with the new Barack Obama administration in place, things may be looking up for environmentalists, said Hall, who was manning a booth at an environmental fair at Western Carolina University last week. The fair featured an array of advocates promoting their causes whether it was green-built homes, doing away with coal-fired power plants or recycling.
During George Bush’s presidency mountaintop removal “exponentially grew” while Obama is “ardent” about ending the process that has leveled one million acres of mountains in Central Appalachia, said Hall.
Other environmentalists at the fair also hope their causes continue to gain momentum.
Avram Friedman, executive director of the Canary Coalition of Sylva, used the fair as an opportunity to speak out against coal-fired power plants. There are already 14 coal-fired power plants in the state, and a new one proposed by Duke in Rutherford County should be stopped, he said.
His grassroots organization promotes clean air and is attempting to get the N.C. Division of Air Quality to rescind a permit to build the plant. Duke claims the plant is needed because of the growing energy demand, he said.
“They are using $2.5 billion in ratepayer money to commit us to burning coal for the next 50 years,” Friedman said. By ratepayers, Friedman means that every Duke customer in the state is shouldering the cost of building the new polluting plant.
The legislature should impose measures to reduce energy consumption such as creating a sliding scale for power bills that charges more as more energy is used, Friedman said.
“This will give households and businesses an incentive to invest in energy consumption, so we don’t have to build polluting power plants,” he said.
Nitrous oxide from coal plants causes childhood asthma, sulfur dioxide creates a haze over the mountains and mercury can cause neurological damage in children like autism, Friedman said.
He also said the state’s power grid needs to be “decentralized,”adding that 60 percent of the power from the grid is lost. He advocates putting solar panels on people’s roofs.
The Watershed Association of the Tuckasegee River also had a booth at the fair to broadcast its message against water pollution. The organization believes that some developers are violating the county’s sediment control ordinance that seeks to protect streams from muddy runoff.
When developers cut down trees and bulldoze sites for homes, silt and dirt can run into steams and ultimately into the Tuckasegee River.
“We just want people to follow the rules and not cause more damage,” said Myrtle Schrader, a member of WATR. “One person’s footprint can be huge and affect the quality of life for everyone.”
One person particularly interested in his ecological footprint is Lenni Humphries with the WCU Environmental Science Program, who was filling out a online questionnaire during the fair at myfootprint.org while manning a booth. His booth featured a display on how idling a vehicle uses more energy than cutting the engine and then restarting it.
His display also showed how things should be reused before they are recycled because recycling takes energy, too. He showed how eggshells, lint and tea bags can be used for compost and how used tea bags can act like baking soda to make the refrigerator smell fresher.
Cell phones can be given to battered women’s shelters for 911 use and to troops overseas, he said.
Another way things can be recycled is by wearing them, said Emily Lauro, a WCU senior and fashion minor who was at the fair signing people up for her recycle fashion and art show.
Necklaces made out of bottle caps, a wrapping paper kimono and a mask were some the recycled fashion items on display.
The contest features two categories — 2D and 3D art and recycled and restyled fashion. Recycled fashion can mean buying a couple of items at the thrift stores and using portions of them to make a new garment.
Other than making your clothes environmentally conscious you can also make your home that way, according to Candice Black, outreach coordinator for the WNC Green Building Council, which seeks to educate on environmentally friendly building practices.
Environmental activists across the country are heralding the Democratic sweep of Congress as a mandate for better stewardship of natural resources and the environment.