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A troubling first for N.C.’s environment

If you’re doing something no one else in the country is doing, there’s a good chance you’re either radically innovative or recklessly irresponsible. Unfortunately, under the administration of Gov. Pat McCrory, being different is not often a good sign for North Carolina.

From the state that was the first and only to reject federal unemployment benefits – and was one of a handful to turn away a federal Medicaid expansion – comes another first. As the Observer’s Bruce Henderson reported this week, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources has declined two federal grants totaling $582,305 to study North Carolina streams and wetlands. One grant would have helped the state monitor the potential impact of hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – for natural gas.

North Carolina is the first state in the Southeast to decline a wetlands grant in the 17 years the program has been in existence, Environmental Protection Agency spokesperson Davina Marraccini told the Observer editorial board Wednesday. We might be the first state in the country to do so.

Particularly troubling is the rejection of the money for monitoring fracking. Given the public’s concern over safety surrounding the practice, it’s important that regulators provide residents as much comfort as possible about water quality. To that end, the grant would have allowed North Carolina to develop a network of sites to test streams and survey wildlife before and after fracking occurs. The “before” is critical – having a thorough baseline of data would help the state better document issues that might be linked to fracking.

What will happen instead? Division of Water Resources director Tom Reeder says there still will be testing at fracking sites, because N.C. law requires it. But the law, which was drawn up by a Republican-led legislature, doesn’t require the thoroughness of testing that the EPA grant would have provided. In fact, the law even lets the testing be done by the companies that will perform the fracking. That’s not the kind of comfort we have in mind.

Reeder also said management efficiencies, including the elimination of 70 jobs, would save enough money to pay for the rejected EPA money. What DENR is doing, he says, is “running state government as efficiently as possible.” But how is it more efficient to turn down money that would pay for that monitoring and allow resources to be used elsewhere?

Here’s a clue to the real goal: In a revised mission statement released this year, DENR has deemphasized the protection of natural resources while noting that the agency will not be a “bureaucratic obstacle of resistance.” That’s in response to Republican legislators who have complained about DENR regulators – and regulations in general – being unfriendly to business.

Those lawmakers also mandated a DENR restructuring that’s resulting in the elimination of the Program Development Unit, considered a leader and innovator in state environmental regulation. That unit, which contained experts in aquatic ecosystems, would have performed the monitoring paid for by the EPA grant.

Instead, we’re giving the money back. That’s not innovative. It’s irresponsible.

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