Report shines light on decade of budget cuts for NC environmental regulators

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  North Carolina’s environmental watchdog agency has taken some huge budget cuts over the last decade. This has eliminated 397 positions and cut staffing by 33%. The Department of Environment Quality must have the resources they need to protect our water from corporate polluters. It’s time our lawmakers would prioritize the health of the people over tax cuts for corporations.

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 — North Carolina's environmental watchdog agency took some of the biggest budget cuts in the country over the last 10 years, according to a state-by-state look at pollution control funding.

State officials take issue with some of the report's findings, but no one disputes that the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality saw significant cuts in the last decade. The issue has been discussed for years, most recently as lawmakers debated the state's response to chemical releases in the Cape Fear River.

There was an agreement to increase DEQ funding earlier this year, though not nearly to the extent Gov. Roy Cooper requested. That plan fell apart as part of a larger budget fight.

Authors of "The Thin Green Line" report said the cuts, in North Carolina and around the country, came as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's own budget for pollution control and science dropped by 16 percent when adjusted for inflation. They also noted President Donald Trump's administration's ongoing push to reduce federal oversight, leaving more responsibility for the states.

"The Trump Administration wants the public to believe that EPA can step back without harm to public health or the environment because states have shown they can pick up the slack," researchers at the Environmental Integrity Project said in their report.

Kemp Burdette, the Cape Fear Riverkeeper, said there just aren't enough eyes on the factories that use and produce toxic chemicals, the large swine and poultry facilities that dot eastern North Carolina or the paperwork the regulatory world runs on. When the GenX issue arose two years ago, with people in and around Wilmington discovering the industrial chemical in their drinking water, some 40 percent of state discharge permits were expired, awaiting review from DEQ regulators.

That backlog, as of Thursday, was 45 percent.

Burdette acknowledged the laundry list of priorities state government faces but said clean air and water are key.

"You can have all the rules on the books that you want to, but if you don't have any policemen out on the street ... then everybody's just going to ignore them," he said. "Every single human being in North Carolina drinks water every day, and every single human being in North Carolina breathes air every day."

The numbers

The Environmental Integrity Project said that DEQ, adjusted for inflation, lost 34 percent of its funding for pollution control programs between 2008 and 2018.

It took the second-largest staffing cut of any of the 50 states, the group said.

Thirty states cut pollution control funding over the 10-year period, the group said, and nine cut staff by at least 20 percent. North Carolina's cuts put it in the ballpark with the other biggest budget cutters: New York, Wisconsin, Arizona, Texas and Louisiana, according to the report.

DEQ took issue with some of the report's findings and said researchers incorrectly reported that North Carolina's wetlands protection program was sliced down to zero staff. The legislature's Fiscal Research Division pointed out the same thing and also said the analysis left out funding sources that should have been included in calculating budget totals.

Environmental Integrity Project spokesman Tom Pelton said the group based its numbers on state budget documents and sent data to DEQ in October for a double check, but never heard back.

"If North Carolina’s environmental agency eliminated only 397 positions between 2008 and 2018 (instead of the 426 positions we list in our report, because 29 wetlands jobs still exist), that would mean the agency still cut its staffing by 33 percent over that decade, instead of the 35 percent we list in our report," Pelton said in an email.

Figures from the General Assembly put staffing cuts throughout DEQ between 2008 and 2018 at 20 percent, but that's department-wide. The Environmental Integrity report focused only on programs it considered to be pollution control.

Rep. 

, R-Henderson, who co-chairs the House's budget-writing committee, said he wasn't sure about the exact percentages, but the trend line is clear.

"There’s no doubt that we took money from the enforcement side," said McGrady, who's also a former national president of the Sierra Club. "As you probably know, I wasn’t very happy with most of those cuts."

During this year's round of budget talks, Cooper asked for another $6.3 million for DEQ, enough for 37 new positions and some equipment purchases. The General Assembly approved about $600,000 in new funding, including five new positions.

Cooper vetoed that budget, largely because Republicans refused to expand Medicaid and over disagreements with the GOP majority over teacher pay and business tax cuts.

Lawmaker: Money isn't the problem

WRAL News reached out to the four lawmakers who chair House and Senate budget committees that focus on environmental funding.

Sen. 

, R-Catawba, was the only one to offer comment, saying in an email that DEQ's problem isn't funding but "inept bureaucracy."

"What you have here is a liberal group demanding the same old liberal solution: Spend more money," said Wells, who's running for lieutenant governor. "But this problem isn’t caused by lack of money – DEQ’s problems are caused by government bureaucracies run amok."

The Environmental Integrity Project is run by Eric Schaeffer, a former EPA official who resigned in protest during President George W. Bush's first term. It is staffed by a number of attorneys and analysts with experience at the EPA.

Wells said DEQ dealt with GenX, one of the higher profile issues the department has faced in recent years, only after people in Wilmington protested. Initially, DEQ Secretary Michael Regan said Chemours wasn't breaking the law by dumping the chemical into the river.

The department cracked down later, going to court and negotiating agreements with the company to clean up its discharge.

"DEQ has a $216 million budget," Wells said. "But even with a multimillion-dollar budget it couldn’t deal with Gen-X. DEQ’s problem wasn’t money."

But the legislature put millions of dollars in new money into the state budget last year to study GenX and related chemicals that are collectively called PFAS, including money to test drinking water around the state. Other requests from DEQ, which said it needed more staff and new equipment, went unfilled.

DEQ spokeswoman Sharon Martin said it's no secret the department has seen "deep staff and budget cuts in the past decade."

"But the dedicated staff of this agency continues to fulfill its mission to protect North Carolina’s communities and environment even with limited resources," she said in an email.

Burdette, the Cape Fear Riverkeeper, said it's fair to say GenX flew under the radar for years, regardless of DEQ funding. But if the state had more people dealing with permits, Chemours' would have gotten scrutiny sooner, broaching the issue in a way that might have spurred change, he said.

"I certainly don't want to suggest that it's only money," Burdette said. "There has to be a commitment from the very top of the agency on down. I think we have that commitment in North Carolina right now, and so, I think, if we had the resources to put regulators in the field and behind the desks at the permit-writing department, we would be doing a much better job."

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