Sunnier take on N.C.’s environment

N.C.’s air and water is cleaner than it has been in many years, DENR’s chief says.
N.C.’s air and water is cleaner than it has been in many years, DENR’s chief says. AP

The recent op-ed “Assault on N.C. Environment” (April 19 Viewpoint) ignores facts and fails to recognize North Carolina’s commitment to bettering our environment. DENR is proud of the policies and modernization that have dramatically improved the quality of life for all North Carolinians. The facts show the author’s assertions are wrong. Here’s why.

North Carolinians breathe cleaner air today than any time in more than 25 years. Ozone levels in North Carolina are the lowest on record and toxic air emissions have decreased by more than 80 percent since 2000 despite a 50 percent growth in population and a two-thirds increase in vehicle miles traveled in the same period.

The water North Carolinians drink is cleaner too. Our state’s public water systems have better compliance with federal drinking water standards over the past few years than at any time since the state regulatory program began in the 1970s.

North Carolina’s environmental health is improving. But what about the claim that DENR’s budget has been reduced dramatically? This ignores the fact that several large programs were moved from DENR to other state agencies. Accounting for the transfers, DENR’s budget is slightly below its pre-recession level and reflects budget cuts initiated by the Democrat-led legislature and Gov. Bev Perdue.

All of Gov. Pat McCrory’s budget proposals and every budget he has signed has increased DENR’s budget from the previous year. We are also using taxpayer money more efficiently.

DENR’s mission is straightforward. DENR’s “primary mission is to protect North Carolina’s environment and natural resources,” and is stated clearly on our website.

The op-ed author, Derb Carter, curiously does not believe customer service should be an integral part of state service. We disagree. We provide excellent customer service to everyone who interacts with our agency.

The author’s assertion that DENR gives polluters a pass is wrong. Look no further than the issue of coal ash. Under McCrory’s leadership, this administration has done more to address coal ash than all of his predecessors combined. In fact, DENR reversed decisions made by prior administrations that exempted utilities from important environmental regulations. Using the blueprint introduced by McCrory, North Carolina now has the nation’s toughest coal ash protections and recently issued a record fine related to groundwater contamination around coal ash ponds.

The author defines environmental success in terms of money spent, restrictions imposed and outdated science. But we recognize that science evolves. Advancements in technology and new information make regulatory review necessary to improve environmental protection and ensure taxpayer money is well spent.

For example, last year DENR scientists used years of modeling and analysis to convince the federal government that the costly seasonal gasoline requirements provided no environmental benefit. The rule was later lifted. As a result, motorists saved an estimated $18 million last summer at the pump.

Similarly, the author relies on his committee service in 1989 as the basis of his opposition to offshore energy development. In the last 25 years, great strides have been made that allow us to safely and economically access our offshore energy potential, and more information is available on how to protect coastal resources and marine life from its impacts. In fact, most North Carolinians support offshore drilling for domestic oil and natural gas resources.

The author used everything from distorting the truth and ignoring science to build his case, but the facts paint a much prettier picture. North Carolina’s environment is healthy and steadily improving, and we are proud of the progress made and confident in our path forward.

The author is right. This is not his state, and it is not my state – it is our state.

Donald R. van der Vaart is the secretary for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.