Cuts to DENR regulators jarring in wake of Dan River spill

There are fewer people protecting the state’s waters than there were a month ago.

Last week, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources eliminated 13 percent of the staff positions in the Division of Water Resources. The cuts were only the latest step in years of winnowing the state agency. Legislators have erased jobs there every year since the recession in 2008.

The juxtaposition of regulators losing their jobs so soon after the environmental disaster at Dan River that spilled coal ash into the state’s waterways is jarring. But the cuts were planned last summer as part of the agency’s reorganization and are just a piece of a much more far-reaching scenario that has escalated since Republicans took control in 2011. Since then the state has imposed heavier budget cuts, reduced restrictions on private industry and required DENR’s staff to justify the agency’s regulations in an extensive review process that is just beginning.

Lawmakers say they are making government more efficient without endangering the environment or public health and emphasize that their changes have nothing to do with the Dan River spill. But environmentalists say the politicians are gambling with the state’s future, which inevitably will harm North Carolinians.

Cuts to DENR have accelerated since 2011. The agency lost 30 positions in 2009 and 2010 combined and lost 225 jobs from 2011 through today.

The water resources unit has been the largest recent target for payroll savings, constituting half of the 131 layoffs and position losses in DENR since Gov. Pat McCrory took office in January 2013. The latest round, effective March 1, took about 51 jobs from the central water resources office and 17 from the regional stations that dot North Carolina. Some of those positions were already empty. That leaves 435 positions in the Division of Water Resources.

Doing more with less

Those seven regional offices are stretched more than ever.

Water-quality staffers in the field have a “full range” of responsibilities, said Landon Davidson, supervisor for the Asheville water-quality offices. Besides gathering and analyzing data on water quality, environmental specialists and other staffers are on the scene for everything from coal ash to cattle in creeks, said Davidson, whose 12-person crew handles 19 counties.

“We’re obviously asking a lot of our employees,” Davidson said, adding that years of cutbacks mean the office needs to find ways to do more with less.

DENR has been in a careful balancing act trying to meet the budget cuts while keeping enough people in the field, said Robin Smith, a former assistant DENR secretary.

“Those are the folks on the front lines of doing initial permit application reviews, doing initial responses to complaints and violations,” Smith said. “I certainly never felt that we were overstaffed for that purpose.”

In all, this year’s cuts will reduce the water division’s payroll by $4 million, a spokeswoman said. The reduction-in-force has been planned since last summer, when new DENR Secretary John Skvarla began a broad reshuffling of his department.

“The N.C. Division of Water Resources will continue to fulfill its mission: To protect, enhance and manage North Carolina’s surface and ground water resources for the health and welfare of the citizens of North Carolina, and the economic well-being of the state,” said Tom Reeder, head of DWR, in a written statement in response to The News & Observer’s questions. “We will continue to implement and follow, as we always have, the clean water act and the safe drinking water act to the letter.”

He also noted that two thirds of the recently lost positions were vacant. Eighteen employees retired while four were laid off.

A department spokeswoman couldn’t immediately say how long the jobs had been open. The department has not kept a central document to track the details of the changes instituted since last summer.

Budget cuts aren’t the only challenge for regulators.

DENR last year returned almost $600,000 to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that would have been used to test water in areas that might be affected by fracking or used for wetlands research because it eliminated the unit that would have handled it. Legislators in 2011 slashed the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, which was established to protect watersheds, from what was once a $100 million fund to $11.5 million.

Three major bills that either streamlined or decimated – depending on your point of view – environmental regulations have been enacted since 2011. One such bill prohibits state regulations that are more stringent than federal regulations, and takes decision-making authority on disputes over regulations out of state agencies’ hands.

A 59-page bill enacted from last year’s session restricts local environmental ordinances, weakens groundwater protections around landfills such as coal ash ponds, and requires state agencies to review all their rules every 10 years and trim those that can’t be justified. The bill required DENR be the first agency to undertake the time-consuming process, beginning with some 500 water quality and wetlands rules, with its diminished staff.

Another bill enacted into law last session removed Democratic-appointed incumbents from state commissions, including the Environmental Management Commission and the Coastal Resources Commission, and replace them with Republican appointees, eliminating the expertise and continuity of the former members.

‘Proactive, not reactive’

Republican legislators leading the regulatory reform charge say they are making government more efficient and fair. They say the Dan River disaster has nothing to do with budget cuts or regulatory rollbacks and doesn’t portend future problems.

“If DENR didn’t catch this (Dan River) with more money and more regulation, why do you assume reduced funding and less regulation would have an impact?” Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a Charlotte Republican, said Friday.

Rep. Mike Hager, a Republican who represents Burke and Rutherford counties, is a former Duke Energy engineer who has worked at two of the state’s coal-fired power plants. He said the GOP mission to streamline state government can’t be blamed for an industry that has been around for decades.

“I’m not sure why, all the sudden, a 50-, 70-year-old problem can be blamed on something the Republican legislature has done,” Hager said Friday. “If there are regulations that we need to look at, we will. I want DENR to be more proactive, not reactive. I like inspections. ... We have to hold folks responsible.”

Lawmakers vs. DENR: A longtime tension

Democratic Rep. Pricey Harrison of Greensboro, a longtime environmental advocate who has been calling for coal ash protections since 2009 without support from fellow legislators, said the state regulatory agency is becoming timid.

“The legislature has not created a culture where DENR feels like it can act aggressively, and that has gotten worse since the GOP took over the legislature,” she said Friday.

Molly Diggins, executive director of the state chapter of the Sierra Club, agrees.

“There has always been tension between the legislature and DENR,” she said. “It takes strong leadership from the governor’s office to protect DENR staff. There’s always a desire by some members of the legislature to impede DENR’s ability to do its job.”

Landmark environmental laws have typically emerged from disasters, Diggins said.

In North Carolina, for example, the Clean Smokestacks Act, which regulates air pollution from coal-fired power plants came from concerns over children suffering from asthma and other health issues. And the clean water trust fund that was decimated arose from fish kills in the Neuse River which were caused by large unregulated swine operations.

“Hopefully, the lessons from the Dan River spill will serve as a turning point to perhaps place more value on the importance of environmental protection and funding for regulators,” she said. “The question is, with the next Dan River will the DENR staff be there to address the situation? Will local communities still have an environmental cop on the beat?”

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