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.
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“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.