The department of environmental quality, huh?

The department of environmental quality, huh?

denrQ-WB[Editor’s note: During the holidays, NC Policy Watch is taking a look back at 2015 by featuring some of our top news stories and commentaries from the past 12 months. We hope you will enjoy them and feel inspired to participate in the state policy debate in 2016.]

North Carolina’s incredible, shrinking commitment to environmental protection

No, the lower case letters in the title of this column are not a misprint; they represent an attempt to convey and emphasize a radical and ongoing shift that’s taking place in North Carolina and the public agency once charged with protecting our air, land and water.

For many years, North Carolina was a state in which elected leaders maintained some semblance of a commitment to preserving parts of our natural environment for future generations. Despite the massive power of Duke Energy, the automobile and trucking industries, fossil fuel distributors, road builders, homebuilders and scores of other polluting industries (not to mention the simple and destructive math that comes with a rapidly growing population of SUV-driving, air conditioner and quarter acre lot-loving residents), North Carolina was a state in which the green and the sustainable stood at least a chance.

Sometimes over the opposition of polluters and sometimes with their cooperation, the state spent a lot of money protecting clean water, moved ahead to reduce air emissions and promote sustainable, less-polluting electricity generation and employed a series of dedicated public servants to oversee its regulatory bureaucracy who believed in its mission. Heck, not that long ago, the General Assembly even maintained a standing committee dedicated to studying and responding to climate change and a Republican mayor of Charlotte presided over the establishment of a light rail system that drove far right ideologues to distraction.

A radical shift in direction

Sadly, however, almost all of this positive environmental protection momentum came to a screeching halt a few years ago when conservative forces took over the General Assembly and then, soon thereafter, the Governor’s Mansion. After years of modest but frequently measurable progress in blunting some of the worst impacts of what 10 million energy and resource-hogging humans can do to 53,000 square miles of air, land and water, North Carolina leaders have not only thrown up the white flag; they’ve joined the other side.

A year and a half ago, reporter Trip Gabriel of the New York Times summarized the shift in the state’s approach to environmental protection in an article published weeks after the disastrous Dan River coal ash spill entitled: “Ash Spill Shows How Watchdog was Defanged.” As Gabriel noted at the time:

“Last June [of 2013], state employees in charge of stopping water pollution were given updated marching orders on behalf of North Carolina’s new Republican governor and conservative lawmakers.

‘The General Assembly doesn’t like you,’ an official in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources told supervisors called to a drab meeting room here. ‘They cut your budget, but you didn’t get the message. And they cut your budget again, and you still didn’t get the message.’

From now on, regulators were told, they must focus on customer service, meaning issuing environmental permits for businesses as quickly as possible. Big changes are coming, the official said, according to three people in the meeting, two of whom took notes. ‘If you don’t like change, you’ll be gone.’”

Not that developments of this kind came as a surprise to those who had been paying any attention. Just days after the McCrory administration took control of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in 2013, it moved swiftly, for instance, to make clear that climate science deniers and doubters would feel at home in the agency.

And going back all the way to 2011, the list of horribles has been a long and dark one on the state environmental front. In addition to the disastrous coal ash spill and the administration’s kid glove treatment of Duke Energy, we have witnessed:

  • The enactment of numerous new laws to weaken environmental rules and the ability of officials to enforce those that remain;
  • The rapid move to introduce fracking into North Carolina (lawmakers and the Governor even went so far as to appropriate $500,000 in the 2016 state budget to conduct test drilling);
  • An agency-manipulated backdoor scheme to scuttle important water protection rules;
  • The demise of the Jordan Lake clean-up rules and the promotion of glorified eggbeaters knows as “solar bees” as a laughable alternative;
  • The sunset of solar energy tax credits;
  • Governor McCrory’s mad drive to bring offshore oil and gas drilling to the state’s vulnerable coastline (a drive that included a closed door meeting with oil and gas representatives that excluded environmental advocates);
  • The absurd effort to deny sea-level rise and undermine efforts to adjust land use plans it will necessitate;
  • The demise of air quality-monitoring stations;
  • Repeated decisions to turn down federal money that would have aided state environmental protection efforts;
  • The demise of the legislative study committee on climate change;
  • The push to deregulate the placement of so-called terminal groins (i.e. artificial jetties) that will alter the natural flow of sand on the state’s barrier islands;
  • A sudden, secret and unexplained new law to scuttle light rail in the Triangle region.
  • Rules to weaken the placement of billboards and the cutting of trees around them; and
  • The spectacle of the state’s environmental chief attacking and doing his worst to undermine the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan.

The demise of a once-proud agency

What may well be the most disheartening and destructive aspect of the conservative war on environmental protection in recent years, however, is the demise of the state’s environmental protection agency itself. Between the loss of half of its budget, the transfer of important programs once under its umbrella (e.g. the state Zoo and state parks) and the appointment of successive departmental leaders with a commitment to undermining its mission, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources has been the battered punching bag of state government for some time.

A few weeks back, this blog post opined that things had gotten so bad that the department needed a new name. We suggested the Department of Exploitation of Natural Resources.

As it turned out, however, elected officials already had that covered. In keeping with their ongoing objective of transforming one of the state’s most important public structures (a once-formidable department with a vital legal and symbolic mission) into a backwater bureaucracy that exists primarily to serve as adjunct staff to local polluters looking to evade federal rules, they slipped a provision into this year’s budget bill rebadging it with the distinctly un-grand and unmemorable moniker, the Department of Environmental Quality. As noted above, lower case letters (as in the department of environmental quality or “d.e.q.”) somehow seem most appropriate for such a diminished and toothless agency.

Going forward – the Polluter Protection Act

Fortunately for the handful of discouraged people remaining at d.e.q., state lawmakers are doing everything they can to make sure the workload won’t be too demanding. As yet another fitting exclamation point on the 2015 session, legislators are working behind closed doors this week to put the finishing touches on legislation unveiled earlier this year that would render many key environmental protection regulations utterly toothless in the name of “combating burdensome regulations.”

As explained by the good folks at the League of Conservation Voters, the “Polluter Protection Act” would take the remarkable – even laughable — step of allowing polluters to “self-audit” their own violations of environmental law and avoid punishment by simply confessing their “mistakes.”

At last word, some flickering hope remained that a handful of conservatives sympathetic to environmental concerns could weaken the Polluter Protection Act (or even stop it) in the closing days of the session. Let’s hope that this is the case, because if they don’t succeed, both the agency and the laws it once enforced will soon belong on the endangered species list.

[Editor’s note: Lawmakers ultimately approved the Polluter Protection Act and Governor McCrory signed it into law.]