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As NC pollution concerns grow, so do environmental budget cuts

Billy Locklear, from Robeson County, brings his tackle box to the shores of the Cape Fear River at the William O. Huske Lock and Dam in 2004. A Chemours plant near Fayetteville has admitted to dumping GenX into the river that provides the drinking water for much of southeastern North Carolina.
Billy Locklear, from Robeson County, brings his tackle box to the shores of the Cape Fear River at the William O. Huske Lock and Dam in 2004. A Chemours plant near Fayetteville has admitted to dumping GenX into the river that provides the drinking water for much of southeastern North Carolina. AP

Just days after North Carolina environmental regulators began looking into a potentially hazardous pollutant in one of the state’s biggest rivers, state lawmakers cut their funding.

In the new budget they passed June 22, legislators ordered the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality to cut $1.8 million over the next two years.

It was just the latest in a decade of cuts to state regulators. While exact budget comparisons are difficult because of shifting agency responsibilities, money directed to environmental regulation has dropped by millions of dollars over the last decade, even as the state budget has grown significantly.

Dozens of environmental protection jobs have disappeared, in specialties ranging from the coast to rivers and air pollution. And a months-long backlog of paperwork mean more companies are able to operate under outdated permits, without recent oversight.

The cuts have led to real consequences, said Grady McCallie, policy director for the environmental group N.C. Conservation Network, including a weakened ability for the state to respond to issues like the pollution in the Cape Fear River that came to light this summer.

“I think we’ve seen a real erosion in the capacity of the state to deal with emerging issues,” McCallie said.

When the Republican-controlled General Assembly returned to Raleigh in August, lawmakers voted to provide some funding to look into GenX, the chemical that has been dumped into the Cape Fear River for years without permission.

But that bill gave no extra money to DEQ, and on Thursday Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, vetoed the bill.

Cooper’s DEQ Secretary Michael Regan says the state can deal with short-term – but not long-term – issues surrounding the GenX pollution.

“We have deployed our experts to address the immediate concerns in the Lower Cape Fear region, but because of cuts over the last few years, long-term solutions will take more resources than our department currently has,” Regan wrote to legislators in August.

Response to GenX

The state has accused a Chemours Co. plant near Fayetteville of improperly dumping GenX into the river that provides the drinking water for much of southeastern North Carolina.

GenX is used in the production of Teflon, the nonstick substance that Chemours makes at its Fayetteville Works plant. It’s a replacement for a chemical linked to cancer and other illnesses. The state says the company and its predecessor, DuPont, never informed regulators that they were releasing GenX into the river.

Earlier this month the state sued Chemours over the discharges. The plant then agreed to stop putting GenX and two other chemicals into the river.

Under the bill Cooper vetoed, lawmakers would give $435,000 to the Cape Fear utility authority and UNC Wilmington to begin addressing the pollution. Cooper and many fellow Democrats, however, said the money was inadequate and directed to the wrong places.

Cooper had requested $2.5 million for DEQ – asking the legislature to bring back a dozen jobs for scientists, medical researchers, permit reviewers and engineers that have been cut in recent years, plus pay for water testing.

Senate leader Phil Berger, a Rockingham County Republican, said Cooper’s objective is “growing a bureaucracy that has thus far failed to resolve this crisis.” Berger called on the legislature to override the veto.

A decade of cuts

Water quality regulation shed 70 positions in just the last four years, Cooper has said.

And when he vetoed the bill, he cited other cuts to the division that inspects permits that companies apply for before they can discharge chemicals into waterways.

“These cuts are particularly glaring when comparing North Carolina to other states,” Cooper wrote in a Medium post explaining his veto. “North Carolina has nine permit writers for 220 water discharge facilities. Meanwhile, South Carolina has almost twice as many officials overseeing far fewer facilities.”

When permits are backlogged, companies are allowed to continue operating under their old, outdated permit.

The permit for Chemours, the company at the center of the GenX controversy, expired last October.

“Something like 40 percent of the permits (in the state) are expired and on backlog right now,” said McCallie, the environmental lobbyist. “And what that means is they just continue on whatever permit they had previously.”

Republicans have said DEQ just needs to shift resources from other projects to the GenX investigation and cleanup.

“I’m not sure there is a more important, pressing issue going on,” Rep. Scott Stone, a Charlotte Republican, said during the August debate over funding.

Over the last decade, the budget of the agency formerly known as the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, now DEQ, has shrunk 62 percent. Some of that has been cuts; some has been from responsibilities transferred to other agencies.

In 2007, the Democrat-led legislature gave the agency a $205 million budget. After the recession hit, Democrats cut that budget by $10 million before losing power in 2010. Since then, Republican legislators have cut or transferred another $110 million.

In that same period, the state budget has grown 13 percent, from $20.4 billion in 2007 to $23 billion in 2017.

Cuts to environmental watchdogs came in many forms. The legislature consolidated multiple agency divisions, eliminating managers and giving more duties to those who remained.

McCallie said the agency has also cut spending in more subtle ways, like replacing experienced employees with cheaper labor.

“In the last few years you’ve had more and more people coming in who are really junior in their careers,” he said. “And that’s a challenge.”

Of the $120 million that’s gone missing from DEQ’s budget since 2007, not all has truly been cut. Roughly half of that came when the state moved the state parks, zoo and aquariums to a different agency. But the cuts to environmental protections have nevertheless added up.

Between 2009 and 2016, both the Water Supply Protection division of DEQ and the agency’s seven regional offices have lost about a third of their employees.

Water Supply Protection’s staffing dropped from 92 to 65 full-time equivalents, and the field offices’ staffing dropped from 73 to 50.

DEQ has also suffered from some cuts that never showed up on its budget.

In 2016, for example, the legislature cut the jobs of nine lawyers and legal assistants who worked for DEQ, although the cuts were technically to the attorney general’s budget. Cooper was attorney general at the time.

A poor watchdog?

Republican legislators have defended the paring down of DEQ, as well as the decision in August not to give DEQ more money to specifically look into GenX.

DEQ has long been caught between environmentalists calling for tougher action against polluters and business interests complaining that regulation drives up their costs. Former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory led an effort to try to make the agency more business-friendly. Cooper placed the agency in the hands of Regan, a veteran of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the international advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund, who has promised lawmakers he would make sure all interests are represented in DEQ decisions.

During the August GenX funding debate, Republican Rep. Holly Grange of Wilmington said that even decades ago, when the agency’s budget was much larger, it still missed pollution coming out of the plant that dumped the GenX.

She said the plant’s water permits have “been rubber-stamped for the last 30 years.”

And in a letter to Cooper and Regan, several Republican legislators asked why DEQ would need the extra funding.

The letter, which was sent in the lead-up to the vote on the new spending, indicated that DEQ had made a series of mistakes or oversights, questioning public confidence in the agency.

“We are hopeful that you intend to target resources to make a difference rather than simply improve public relations,” the letter read.

Cooper said in his Medium post that state officials “moved swiftly” to deal with GenX.

Unless something changes when legislators return to Raleigh in October – or between then and next year’s budget discussions – DEQ will be in for even more cuts.

This year Cooper suggested a DEQ budget of $85 million, which would’ve been an increase of a few million dollars. Instead, legislators gave DEQ another round of cuts, down to $78 million this fiscal year and $77 million next year.

Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran

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