Many environmental departments in the state have faced severe budget cuts over the past few years, according to a report from the Environmental Integrity Project — a nonprofit that advocates for effective enforcement of environmental laws.
The December 2019 report, called The Thin Green Line, found that the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality saw spending slashed at rates that are among the worst in the country. The Environmental Protection Agency has also lost 16 percent of its funding and staffing over the last decade, according to the report.
“I would say since about 2010, 2011 is when the cuts started happening that seemed more retaliatory or an attempt to deregulate the agency,” Lisa Sorg, an environmental reporter for N.C. Policy Watch, said.
North Carolina has seen a 34 percent decrease in funding for pollution control efforts, according to the report, dropping to $90 million in 2018 from $136 million in 2008, one of the largest cuts in the nation over the same time span. Over the same amount of time, reports said the overall state budget actually grew by 8 percent to $43 billion in 2018 from $40 billion in 2008.
Grady McCallie, policy director for the N.C. Conservation Network, said North Carolina’s spending on pollution control hasn’t kept up with inflation or state population growth.
McCallie said he believes the problem may lie in the way the state is going about hiring people. He explained that when vacant positions aren’t filled for enough time, they may be cut in order to absorb ‘management flexibility’ cuts.
“Fixing the decay in the agency isn’t just a matter of giving the agency more overall funding - it’s also a matter of lifting the overall salary ladder so that the agency can hire and retain excellent people,” he said.
North Carolina’s Wetlands Department had nine employees in 2007 but now has nobody on their staff. The Thin Green Line report states that the decreasing number of employees in the DEQ has also led to a backlog in permit applications, which prompted the state to impose a 30-to-60-day period for the DEQ to automatically approve many permit applications.
“They have fewer inspectors, fewer enforcement officers, fewer people to review and write the permits,” Sorg said. “There could be a rush and those permit applications don’t get the scrutiny they need.”
But Laura Leonard, a spokesperson for NCDEQ, said the department has continued its mission despite having fewer resources.
“DEQ has seen deep staff and budget cuts in the past decade," she said. "but the dedicated staff of this agency continues to fulfill its mission to protect North Carolina’s communities and environment even with limited resources."
Cassie Gavin, senior director of government relations for the Sierra Club of North Carolina, said she is confused by some of the cuts.
“The amount that was cut specifically from the water quality program actually does not make sense,” Gavin said.
In addition to the Wetlands Department, the Water Quality Lab, Ground Water Protection Department and Non Point Source Water Quality Department all saw net cuts of at least 30 percent to their funding since 2008.
The state has six wastewater and industrial plants that are not in compliance with the federal Clean Water Act and haven't been for the past three years, according to the report. Earlier this month, schools in Union County were closed after E.coli was found in the drinking water.
“We are getting a lot more complaints about pollution, especially water pollution, although air quality has been affected too,” N.C. Rep. Verla Insko (D-Orange) said.
Insko said this situation is a high priority of hers as well as many other environmental advocates in the government. However, since a deal was not reached with Gov. Roy Cooper on the 2019-2020 budget bill, funding will stay at the recurring budget level for at least another year.
“I do think the main way we solve it is to elect people who will pay attention to environmental needs and fund them,” Insko said.
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