Assault on N.C. environment

Oil rigs like this near Long Beach, California, could be situated 30 miles off the N.C. coast if Gov. Pat McCrory has his way.
Oil rigs like this near Long Beach, California, could be situated 30 miles off the N.C. coast if Gov. Pat McCrory has his way. GETTY

You have given me a difficult challenge: Discuss the damage the General Assembly and current state administration have inflicted on protection of our environment and natural resources, in only 10 minutes.

Many of us have worked for decades to protect what is special about North Carolina: our coast and mountains, streams and rivers, water quality and air quality and natural areas.

It is hard to even imagine this has happened in North Carolina, in our state.

The Philistines have come over the walls.

It is not the North Carolina I know, and I want it back.

In 1999, Gov. Jim Hunt called for preserving an additional 1 million acres. Just a few years ago, we were a national leader in land and water conservation, spending $289 million in FY 2007-08 to conserve natural areas and parks and farmland and protect water quality. The legislature has raided trust funds; spending for land and water preservation is only $30 million in FY 2014-15, nearly 90 percent less, while we continue to lose 100,000 acres a year of forests, farmland and open space to development.

This is not my state.

This year is the 100th anniversary of our state parks. Visitation to state parks increased by 1.5 million over the past three years to more than 15.5 million visitors last year. In 2011, the state identified $1.4 billion in unmet needs for facility development and parkland acquisition. But the legislature has cut funding for state parks by 25 percent, and Gov. McCrory has now proposed an additional 25 percent cut over the next two years.

This is not my state.

The legislature repealed the longstanding prohibition on hardened structures to allow construction of terminal groins that destroy public beaches in a misguided attempt to protect private property. The legislature was embarrassed when it tried to enact a bill prohibiting state agencies and local governments from planning for sea level rise.

This is not my state.

The legislature cut funding to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources by 40 percent and prohibited state environmental commissions and agencies from adopting any environmental regulation more stringent than minimal federal regulation, even if we have particular or unique needs.

In addition, the legislature targeted all water quality and air quality regulations for review and either repeal or reissuance.

This is not my state.

DENR – under the new administration – changed its mission from protecting air and water quality to “customer service” – where the customers are the polluters and not the public.

We learned this quickly when the new leadership of DENR, within days of taking office, filed paper enforcement actions to enter a sweetheart deal with Duke Energy and shield Duke from our legal actions to clean up their polluting coal ash pits.

This is not my state.

Failure to enforce environmental laws and permits is the ultimate in customer service to polluters. Enforcement actions for water quality permit violations have dropped from an average of 567 a year under Govs. Easley and Perdue to only 268 a year under Gov. McCrory. Failure to enforce water quality laws pollutes our waters, harms the public, and punishes responsible companies that comply with the law.

This is not my state.

In 1989, I served on a committee set up by former Gov. Martin to evaluate oil drilling offshore, and the state opposed Mobil’s plan to drill off the Outer Banks. Former Congressman Walter Jones, Sr. passed legislation to protect North Carolina from drilling, without better information on potential impacts. Protection of our invaluable coastal resources from the impacts of oil drilling and development was a bipartisan effort. Gov. McCrory was in Washington (last week) to demand that the federal government allow drilling only 30 miles from our beaches, rather than the 50-mile buffer now under consideration.

This is not my state.

The zeal of the legislature in repealing environmental protections is equaled by their overreach. The General Assembly has created or reconstituted several environmental commissions, and then appointed a majority of commissioners to execute the legislature’s will.

Gov. Hunt joined Gov. McCrory and former Gov. Martin to challenge this legislative overreach. Last month, the court ruled these legislative appointments are an unconstitutional intrusion by the legislature into the executive branch and a violation of separation of powers.

So the Philistines have scaled the walls.

You probably recall the most famous battle involving the Philistines: When they put up Goliath to fight a crafty young boy named David.

And you know the outcome of that fight.

This is my state. This is our state.

We want it back.

And we are going to take it back.

Derb Carter is an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. He delivered a longer version of this at Duke University last week.