McCrory’s calculated move to eliminate expert voices

By Katie Todd, Director of Digital Strategies

In our Conservation Insider Bulletin last week, editor Dan Besse noted a theme rising from two recently-filed legislative bills: the attempt to limit or even eliminate the voice of environmental and public health experts in keeping us and our natural resources safe.

Two bills introduced illustrate this narrative:

#1: Better known as the “Contamination Cover-Up Bill,” the innocuously titled “Issuance of Advisories/Drinking Water Standards” (SB779/HB1005) would bar state and local environmental and public health agencies from warning the public about contaminated drinking water unless there was already a specific federal or state standard set for, and being exceeded by, the toxin found in the water. This bill seems to be rising from the kerfuffle over coal ash contamination, where hundreds of North Carolina residents have been told two contrasting messages on whether or not their well water is safe to consume.

#2: Another polluter-protection bill filed this session, “Prohibit Certain Stormwater Control Measures” (SB763/HB1024) would bar state environmental regulators from requiring the use of on-site stormwater runoff controls to protect clean water downstream, unless those controls were otherwise “required by state or federal law.” Essentially, unless there are regulations on the books to control pollution from construction sites or other problematic areas, then there is nothing NCDEQ staff can do to keep our downstream water sources safe. This puts drinking water, fish habitats, and entire ecosystems in jeopardy.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a new narrative in 2016. The attempt to eradicate professional knowledge and judgement has been a target for the McCrory administration since coming into office in 2012. Here are additional examples of the Governor’s efforts to put politics before facts:

Supporting the defunding of NCDEQ.

The department formerly known as the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources (NCDENR) has become a shell of itself after systematic cuts to its budget, program offerings, and scope of work. Instead of investing in a state agency that has the resources – both people and financial – to enforce critical public health and environmental safeguards – the McCrory administration has used the department as a political arm to promote its pro-polluter agenda. The Governor’s 2015-2017 budget led the charge at retooling DENR by shifting responsibilities unrelated to environmental protection over to the state Department of Cultural Resources (DCR). This means the more “fun” aspects of DENR (now DEQ), including overseeing the North Carolina Zoo, museums, parks, historic sites, and state aquariums, is under DCR (now NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources), effectively doubling its size. This move raised questions regarding future privatization and commercialization of natural resource sanctuaries throughout the state. His 2015 budget proposed giving DEQ $742,112 over the next two years for addressing costs associated with the coal ash spill into the Dan River, which is good. McCrory’s budget also proposed giving DENR $500,000 for an industry consortium to drill core samples to evaluate the potential for fracking for natural gas in North Carolina.

Despite the seemingly innocuous shift of resources from former NC DENR, this restructuring leaves too many questions unanswered and even unexplored by the public. What’s the mission of the Department of Cultural and Natural Resources? When did we decide that natural resources didn’t deserve oversight by the agency dedicated to Environmental Quality? While others may have different interpretations about the true intention of NC DENR’s restructuring, our gut feeling is that this maneuver is part of the broader narrative of environmental cuts. The anti-regulatory trend expressed by state leadership is alive and well, and if the NCDEQ serves a strictly regulatory purpose, then it makes it a lot easier continue the anti-regulatory defunding of critical functions that protect our air, water, and land. If this is part of McCrory’s push for better customer service, then it leads us to ask: who is the customer? As it looks right now, polluters seem to have the upper hand.

In case anyone had forgotten: “It shall be the policy of this State to conserve and protect its lands and waters for the benefit of all its citizenry, and to this end it shall be a proper function of the State of North Carolina and its political subdivisions to acquire and preserve park, recreational, and scenic areas, to control and limit the pollution of our air and water, and in every other appropriate way to preserve as a part of the common heritage of this State its forests, wetlands, estuaries, beaches, historical sites, open lands, and places of beauty.” N.C. Constitution, Article XIV, Section 5

Creating “customer-service” client at the expense of our natural resources.

North Carolina’s Governor has great agency in appointing strong, competent leaders to head specific rule-making bodies that have an impact on our daily lives and our environment. In 2014, we watched the floundering of our state environmental agency  under the direction of then Secretary John Skvlara (now Secretary of NC’s Department of Commerce). Just when we thought it couldn’t get any worse, Governor McCrory targeted Donald van der Vaart to replace Skvlara in the post. This unleashed a tirade of anti-environmental efforts from the very top of the organization.

Secretary van der Vaart has not shied away from vocalizing his vehement opposition to several major federal environmental polices, including the Clean Power Plan and Clean Water Rules. He has spoken out publicly against the federal EPA’s requirement for North Carolina to develop a plan to coincide with the federal Clean Power Plan, saying he is convinced the federal proposal will fail to hold up in court. He does not believe North Carolina should change its energy policy until the legal status of the federal program is resolved. He also misleadingly claims to support offshore wind development, but then urged the federal government not to sell leases within 24 miles of the state’s coast. Such a distance drives up the cost of development and ability to transfer energy inland, making the turbines essentially useless. This hedging allows him to appear pro-offshore wind yet his distance requirement greatly narrows potential for development. One of the most worrisome pieces is van der Vaart’s promotion of nuclear as the “solution” for our state’s energy future. Finally, despite the Atlantic Ocean’s removal from the federal government’s 5-Year offshore drilling lease plan back in March of this year, van der Vaart and his PR team continue to push out their (unsubstantiated) anti-federal government rhetoric admonishing “what could have been” if McCrory’s “drill baby drill” call would have been heeded.

This is man who has made it his mission to undermine air and water protections: should he really be at the helm of “environmental quality” decisions?

Politicizing independent commissions despite claiming otherwise.

North Carolina’s commissions are supposed to be independent bodies comprised of subject-matter experts, providing their perspectives to help make recommendations that are good for our people and our state. You would imagine that when it comes to the Environmental Management Commission, we would see commission members who understand the need to protect and preserve the state’s natural resources. Well, back in March 2015, Governor McCrory used his authority to appoint Gerard Carrol as the chair of the Environmental Management Commission (EMC). The EMC is a 15-member body in charge of adopting rules for protecting, preserving, and enhancing North Carolina’s air and water resources. It is safe to assume a person appointed to such a position would have a background related to the environment. Mr. Carroll does not; in fact, his experience lies in his nearly three decades working for the National Gypsum Company, his last post as Senior VP of Operations. National Gypsum manufactures and supplies building materials. It is a stretch to see how this background lends itself to safeguarding our environment.

Speaking of the EMC, this Commission has been in the headlines as of late due to the recent ousting – excuse me – “restructuring” of a committee chair position. After daring to be critical of NCDEQ’s decision to yank an “early draft” of a report showing the failure of the SolarBee project, then-chair of the Water Quality Committee Steve Tedder found himself no longer holding that seat.

A political move? A flat denial from EMC chair Steve Rowlan. But, as our CIB editor Besse wrote: “environmental advocates—and a key legislator—interviewed for the article agree that the sequence of events makes the move look questionable.”

Questionable indeed.

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