Conservatives rolled out the welcome mat for business when they took control of state government, making clear that unleashing companies from regulatory burdens ranked at the top of their agenda.
“The reason I’m running for governor is to represent business,” then Charlotte mayor and longtime Duke Energy employee Pat McCrory told a group from the Council of Independent Business Owners during a 2012 campaign stop in downtown Asheville. “I’ve been a business leader for 30 years.”
Nowhere has that pro-business strategy played out more visibly over the past five years than in the energy and environment sector, as lawmakers eager to boost the economy pursued rushed and risky opportunities at the expense of the state’s natural resources.
In addition to rolling back regulations, they cut funding and stripped staff at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and passed the word on to those who remained at the agency that, in the name of customer service, enforcement should take a back seat to the exploration and expansion of energy alternatives.
Then 39,000 tons of coal ash spilled into the Dan River in early February 2014, and the finger pointing started.
The spill, the third largest on record in the U.S., came as little surprise to environmental advocates, who had been pushing the state for years to penalize Duke Energy for groundwater contamination stemming from leaky coal ash pits and order the utility to move the ash to lined pits away from water. Instead, as most state residents learned after the spill, DENR and Duke Energy had been negotiating a deal to settle violations at Duke’s Asheville and Riverbend plants for less than $100,000.
The coal ash spill could have been a wake-up call, a cautionary tale of deregulation run amok.
In the aftermath, lawmakers did step up funding for DENR —now known as the Department of Environmental Quality. But the push for deregulation and rush toward speculative energy alternatives continues at the General Assembly. And business favoritism persists, evidenced most recently by the state’s agreement to settle what was once a $25 million fine on Duke Energy for coal ash violations at two plants, now reduced to $7 million for violations at all 14 of its plants here — and requiring ash removal at only a few of those plants.
An agency dismantled
When John Skvarla took the reins at DENR in January 2013, he brought with him years of experience in helping companies mitigate environmental hazards and avoid regulatory interference.
He also brought with him an environmental protection view that frightened many in the conservation sector. In a memo released soon after his appointment, Skvarla professed some doubt about the science underlying claims of global warming and other concerns and announced an agency mission statement along the same lines. “Environmental science is quite complex, comprised of many components, and most importantly, contains diversity of opinion,” the statement read.
It was a page straight out of the conservative playbook, promoted aggressively by the fossil fuel industry: Dismiss the scientific evidence — no matter how overwhelming — as opinion and contend that there’s a controversy.
Skvarla also made clear that, consistent with the McCrory administration’s attention to “customer service,” companies he viewed as overburdened by government regulation would find a sympathetic ear at his newly reconstituted agency.
Everything DENR would do would involve some consideration of economics, Skvarla said in a talk given at the conservative John Locke Foundation in Raleigh.
Skvarla pushed out veteran environmental regulators and announced a reorganization of DENR, which had already had its budget slashed by the conservative majority in 2011 and 2012, with state funding cut nearly in half from what it was before the recession.
Staffing cuts continued into 2013 — including at critical regional offices — and with fewer regulators came less enforcement.
“There’s a direct link between the number of environmental cops on the beat and the amount of enforcement that happens,” Molly Diggins, North Carolina director of the Sierra Club, told WRAL a few months after the spill.
In the meantime, others at DENR jumped ship, including Susan Wilson, a 24-year employee who quit her job in September by way of an email to Skvarla, with a video of the song “Take This Job and Shove It” attached.
In that email, Wilson explained why she was quitting:
“Between your inappropriate mission statement, the dismantling of the Division of Water Quality, and HB74 (along with a few other gems from this session’s NCGA), I see no reason to continue here — because my own mission — to assist all citizens and protect those that don’t have a voice, would be compromised.”
Skvarla moved on in late 2014, taking the reins at the Department of Commerce. In his place, the governor appointed Donald van der Vaart, who previously worked in the agency’s air quality division for years and was serving as McCrory’s “energy policy adviser” — a new position focused on “increasing domestic energy exploration, development and production in North Carolina as well as promoting related economic growth and job creation.”
That’s a focus van der Vaart has apparently carried over into his role as head of the state’s newly-branded agency.
Just before his appointment, critics called him out for authoring a letter defending a closed meeting on offshore drilling between state and federal officials that also included representatives from the oil industry, even though van der Vaart said that neither industry officials nor environmental advocates were attending.
And in September 2015, van der Vaart also appeared as the guest speaker at an event hosted by the John Locke Foundation, discussing the state’s opposition to the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan.
The elevation of business interests over the protection of the state’s environment, combined with an abundant dose of climate change denial, has posed a clear threat to the state’s natural resources.
“Initially, there was a lot of pent-up demand, a lot of anger from legislators coming in, a belief that government doesn’t work very well and that we need to get rid of regulations, but not a lot of discrimination about which regulations we were getting rid of,” said Grady McCallie of the North Carolina Conservation Network.
For the environment, that meant the rollback of clean water and air regulations, often with little debate or consideration of underlying science.
Carefully constructed reform measures, such as the rules to clean up Jordan Lake — negotiated over a decade by interested parties ranging from affected communities to environmental managers and set to take effect in 2013 — were scuttled by the conservative majority.
Dismissing the climate change research, lawmakers also rejected measures to establish a state standard for sea level rise, allowing developers to continue to build on land that might just be underwater by the end of the century.
Energy alternatives like fracking and offshore drilling also got fast-tracked in the name of job creation — with fracking now a done deal, despite uncertainty over its long-term safety and without much discussion about its worth, given the small amount of natural gas projected to be in North Carolina.
Industry won big with that deal, as the law criminalizes the disclosure of chemical fracking fluids and reduces the radius
of contamination liability. Local communities, on the other hand, are now prohibited from issuing their own fracking bans and cannot tax drilling activities.
The conservative majority allowed renewable tax credits to expire and persisted in their efforts to repeal the state’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard, which calls for 12.5 percent of the state’s energy to come from renewable sources by 2021, according to Dan Crawford of the N.C. League of Conservation Voters.
“That standard made North Carolina a hotbed of solar energy,” he said. “Some places rank us third or fourth, and during the Great Recession, that industry was one of the only growth sectors here. There’s been close to two billion dollars in investment in that here in the state.”
A coal ash cleanup bill passed, but it didn’t require much of a cleanup — allowing Duke Energy to leave ash in unlined pits at 10 of its 14 plants across the state. The governor took a pass on this one, letting it become law without his signature.
The conservative majority also gave the green light to provisions slipped into a rules reform bill — provisions dubbed the “Polluter Protection Act” by critics — that would give companies who self-report pollution incidents a pass on enforcement and penalties.
Whistleblowers, on the other hand, who learn of workplace pollution incidents they’d like to report, didn’t fare as well.
The majority passed into law, over the governor’s veto, the so-called ag-gag bill, which allows companies to sue anyone — employees included — who gains access to a company’s non-public area to obtain workplace secrets or take pictures of workplace violations.
What remains, then, after five years of business first, environment later governing in North Carolina?
“Lawmakers used to use science-based evidence; that gave us the Clean Water Management program and the Clean Smokestacks Act,” Crawford said.
“We were heading in the right direction, doing the right things to protect our air, water, wildlife, so that we could pass our state on in a better condition to future generations. Now that’s stopped. It’s the difference between night and day.”