Following a long session of the North Carolina General Assembly that saw budget cuts to programs and agencies housed within the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, environmentalists around the state are carefully watching the ongoing consolidation of the Divisions of Water Quality and Water Resources.
An Aug. 1 press release from DENR officially announced the merger, stating, “While the changes will enable department programs to operate more efficiently, North Carolina’s businesses, citizens and others who depend upon the state’s water programs should be unaffected by the changes.”
The statement also announced that DWQ’s stormwater division would be transferred into the Division of Energy, Land and Mineral Resources.
After a Sept. 6 speech at Hoggard High School, Governor Pat McCrory said the move would not weaken stormwater protections.
“We are not changing any rules and procedures,” McCrory said. “We’re maybe stepping on the toes of some bureaucrats and middle people who we didn’t think were providing quick enough and sufficient answers to the customers about how to deal with the problem.”
However, Mike Giles, a coastal advocate with the N.C. Coastal Federation, expressed concern in a Sept. 24 interview.
“You’re putting it under an agency that hasn’t been typically involved in regulation,” Giles said. “[DWR Director Tom] Reeder, while very qualified in water resources and water supply, is not a regulator and hasn’t been a regulator.”
Also mentioned in the press release was a six-month review of rules and regulations within the state’s water programs. In a Sept. 19 interview, Reeder listed river basin boundaries, modeling for water quality and quantity programs and rules pertaining to isolated wetlands as areas he plans to direct the division to address for inconsistencies.
“We’re also looking for rules that are outdated, antiquated; rules that provide no environmental benefit but are still on the books,” Reeder said. He added that a meeting earlier in the day had been the first of several in which the division would bring together stakeholders to participate in the rule review process.
“We will not lose any of our ability to complete our core mission, which is to make sure that we comply with all state and federal mandates and requirements,” Reeder said, adding that the cuts would save the state $4.5 million. However, environmental advocates remained wary that the consolidated DWR will remain as vigilant in enforcing those rules as it has in the past.
“Customer service should be a mission, but the mission should be to enforce the laws of North Carolina to protect our resources, not to issue permits,” Giles said. “They should be regulated and enforced by the laws that are passed to protect the natural resources and citizens of North Carolina.”
Giles also referenced what he called disenchantment among DENR staff members with whom he has spoken.
One such high-profile example came in the form of a former DWQ staffer’s sharply-worded resignation letter, which rippled through statewide media after being sent to DENR Secretary John Skvarla on Aug. 29. It was written by Susan Wilson, a former environmental engineer in the division’s Asheville office, who called the department’s repeated emphasis on customer service “a smokescreen for a very extremist Republican agenda.”
Mary Maclean Asbill, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, present during the initial stakeholder meeting, expressed a similar opinion in a Sept. 24 interview.
“We want to ensure that the customers include all of North Carolina’s people that drink its water, use its air to recreate in its state parks,” Asbill said. “I would say that the stakeholder group at the table was very dominated by industry and corporate interests.”
Governmental affairs director for the Business Alliance for a Sound Economy Cameron Moore commended Skvarla’s customer service approach, noting the high cost for developers and individual landowners to obtain necessary permitting from environmental regulators.
“What they’re doing is reorganizing the divisions, but as far as the regulations and permitting rules, they aren’t changing. They’re still on the books,” Moore said. “Frankly, I don’t see anything controversial about it.”
Erin Winia is the legislative and regulatory issues manager with the N.C. League of Municipalities, which was present at the DWR stakeholder meeting. She said the division presented a basic outline of the review process, asking that participants bring lists of their specific concerns to the next meeting.
“They’re asking us to do in a month something that would take a year to do,” she said, referring to Reeder’s request that rule change proposals be submitted by stakeholders by the end of October.
The division’s consolidation will be finalized sometime in early 2014, as stated in the original DENR press release.
Michelle Saxton contributed to this report.