NORTH CAROLINA — The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is an agency that has received a lot of attention over the past few years in the Cape Fear region when the public became aware of GenX and other PFAS chemicals in the Cape Fear River.
It serves as the governmental protector of the state’s natural resources — but over the past decade it has suffered some of the biggest losses nationwide for state environmental agencies in terms of funding and staffing.
“The organization, which has offices from the mountains to the coast, administers regulatory programs designed to protect air quality, water quality, and the public’s health, and also works to advance an all-of-the-above energy strategy that fits North Carolina’s needs. DEQ also offers technical assistance to businesses, farmers, local governments, and the public and encourages responsible behavior with respect to the environment through education programs provided at DEQ facilities and through the state’s school system,” according to the department’s website.
Every year, Assistant to the City Manager for Legislative Affairs Tony McEwen gives City Council an update on state-wide legislative efforts, and how they relate to Wilmington. Funding for the DEQ (as well as other legislation specifically related to water quality and GenX) has been an item of interest for the city considering its reliance on the Cape Fear River.
But things are not looking great for the agency.
“Governor Cooper in his proposed budget had asked for an additional $6.3 million for DEQ, which would have been enough for 37 new positions and to buy new monitoring and testing equipment. What the N.C. General Assembly ultimately approved was $600,000 in funding for five new positions,” McEwen said.
A 35% reduction in staff
While five new positions are positive, a recent study shows North Carolina ranked second in the nation when it came to staffing cuts for an environmental agency.
According to an Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) study, over 10 years, North Carolina lost 376 positions at the DEQ — redcucing staff by 35% over a decade.
According to its website, “The Environmental Integrity Project is a 501 (c)(3) nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog organization that advocates for effective enforcement of environmental laws. Comprised of former EPA enforcement attorneys, public interest lawyers, analysts, investigators, and community organizers, EIP has three goals:
- To illustrate through objective facts and figures how the failure to enforce or implement environmental laws increases pollution and harms public health;
- To hold federal and state agencies, as well as individual corporations, accountable for failing to enforce or comply with environmental laws; and
- To help local communities obtain the protections of environmental laws.”
The cutting of staff is just one part of the story — as McEwen stated, the General Assembly allocated only 10% of what Governor Roy Cooper asked for in terms of funding for the DEQ allocating just $600,000. This follows the trend that the state has been seeing over the past decade.
In the 10-year period from 2008 – 2018, the state cut funding by 34% for the DEQ, according to the report.
In 2008, funding for the DEQ was $116 million, adjusted to 2018 dollars due to inflation, that would be $136 million. But in 2018 the DEQ received just $90 million in funding.
While this is significant for the entire state, it is particularly impactful for the residents of Wilmington and the entire Cape Fear region as the ongoing GenX and PFAS crisis continues.
The DEQ is the state agency that has taken action against Chemours, the subsidiary of DuPont and company responsible for the releasing of GenX into the Cape Fear River. Aside from funding cuts and less staff, the DEQ faces other challenges put in place by legislators — namely, the Hardison Amendment.
The Hardison Amendment
The amendment itself is actually not that old, it was only passed in 2014 and it has placed significant restrictions on how the state’s environmental enforcement works.
Representative Deb Butler has been an outspoken critic of the amendment; whose district covers parts of Wilmington and northern New Hanover County (and prior to redistricting covered parts of Brunswick County).
“The Hardison Amendment is problematic. What it does is, it limits our ability here in North Carolina to not impose any regulation more stringent than its federal counterpart,” Butler said.
In fact, in 2018 Butler along with other lawmakers presented a bill that would have repealed the Hardison Amendment, however, it did not pass.
For those wondering what real-life implications the amendment has locally, a good example is GenX and other PFAS chemicals that have not had extensive research and therefore, no restrictions put in place by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (there are exceptions if the Governor declares a “serious and unforeseen threat to the public health, safety, or welfare.”) This severely restricted the ability of the DEQ to take action against those responsible at Chemours.
“The Hardison Amendment hands hamstrings us and does not allow us to be tougher environmentally. Under the Obama administration, in my opinion, that might have been tolerable, but it’s intolerable now because the Trump administration believes that climate change is a hoax. So it’s troubling. I believe that every local has its own challenges,” Butler said.
For Butler, repealing the Hardison Amendment is probably one of the first actions lawmakers will take if Democrats gain control of the legislature.
While funding for the DEQ has declined over the years, the state has redirected some of its funding to the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory.
“The North Carolina Policy Collaboratory was established by the state legislature to utilize and disseminate the environmental research expertise of the University of North Carolina for practical use by state and local government,” according to the organization’s website.
Although research at this level is important, for Butler, the issue of actual enforcement and regulatory authority should be a priority. It is also problematic that the DEQ cannot always rely on the organization’s data before taking action.
“I believe that this is an all hands on deck moment. And I believe very much that we need that scientific community to work in conjunction in whatever way appropriate, but they [the Collaboratory] do not have the regulatory authority or the police power, you know, to enforce any of their findings. So if they find a spike, let’s say, in some sample, they have to communicate that to the Department of Environmental Quality, who then has to probably and I’m not certain but duplicate those efforts because they can’t use necessarily the data, Butler said.
“So, I wish I could tell you that it is not at least partially politically motivated. But you don’t have to look too hard to see that the Republican leadership has done everything in their power from the moment Governor Cooper was elected to try and limit his authority to try and diminish the number of his appointments to various boards and commissions,” she concluded.
[Editor’s note: Representative Ted Davis did not respond to a request to discuss the issue sent Thursday.]