WNC environmental programs and agencies could see more cuts in new state budget
Editor’s note: Rep. Tim Moore, Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Sen. Phil Berger, President Pro Tempore of the Senate, “announced their agreement on adjustments to the current two-year state budget,” on the evening of May 28. The text of the bill may be viewed here.
Along with their colleagues from across the state, legislators from Western North Carolina have arrived back in Raleigh to take up their duties once again. While the N.C. General Assembly convenes in regular session biennially, lawmakers return in off years for the so-called “short session,” which mostly focuses on tweaks and amendments to the state’s adopted two-year budget.
This year’s session, say local legislators and observers, promises to be one of the shortest of the short, allowing senators and representatives to get back home to their districts — and to campaigning in advance of the November elections.
Possibly to that end, Republican leaders announced on May 22 that the budget will be presented as a conference report. Typically, the budget process allows members of both parties to participate in committees and offer amendments from the floor. This time around, says Rep. Brian Turner, D-Buncombe, “Not a single Democrat was named to the conference committee. So there’s not a single Democratic voice being heard in the negotiation of this budget, and no Democrats will be allowed to put forth amendments.”
Those Republicans not sitting on the conference committee likewise may only cast an up or down vote, rather than participating directly in the negotiations.
As top-ranking Republicans push their spending plans through the process, Xpressasked local legislators and environmental advocates to share their thoughts on which budgetary and policy decisions could have a big impact on WNC’s environment in the coming fiscal year and beyond. They cited issues including the state’s response to novel contaminants like GenX chemicals, the budget for the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality and funding for the Clean Water Management, Parks and Recreation and Farmland Preservation trust funds.
While the scary-sounding GenX — shorthand for a collection of industrial chemicals detected in the Cape Fear River — may be of greatest concern to those who live hundreds of miles away from WNC, local legislators say the sudden emergence of the compounds in drinking water and the air illustrate a growing threat statewide.
“If GenX hadn’t shown up on the coast, we could have some other emerging contaminant being found somewhere else,” says Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson.
Developed as a more benign replacement for PFOA, which is used in the process of making the nonstick coating Teflon, GenX was discovered in the Cape Fear in June. A 2016 report by the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment suggests that while GenX chemicals cause fewer reproductive issues than PFOA, they still have carcinogenic effects and are toxic to the liver. According to the DEQ, the compound threatens public water supplies for Bladen, Brunswick, New Hanover and Pender counties.
“We are creating chemical compounds quicker than we can understand what their health implications are and even quicker than we can figure out how to get them out of the water if necessary,” McGrady says, adding that he’s not in favor of two Republican-introduced bills that seek to address the issue.
According to McGrady, the proposed legislation would change how the state enforces the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permitting process, which regulates the discharge of wastewater. “It’s much broader than GenX, even though what’s causing it to come up is the GenX issue,” he explains.
In an email, Rep. John Ager, D-Buncombe writes, “I am supporting the [N.C. Gov. Roy] Cooper budget that includes $14.5 million for DEQ, personnel and equipment (spectrometer) to manage water quality related to GenX and other emergent chemicals.”
Brooks Rainey Pearson, a Raleigh-based lobbyist for the Southern Environmental Law Center, says the DEQ’s budget has been cut for seven consecutive years.
Those funding reductions have resulted in the loss of 70 positions and a 41 percent reduction in staff devoted to monitoring and enforcing water quality regulations, Rainey Pearson says. “At this point, they don’t have enough staff to keep up with permitting activities, meaning polluters continue to operate under existing permits,” she continues.
According to Rainey Person, if additional cuts slated for the 2019 DEQ budget aren’t reversed, the agency stands to lose even more funding.
Ken Brame, political chair of the WENOCA chapter of the Sierra Club, also worries about the collective impact of the cuts. “Years of so-called regulatory reform have resulted in rolling back state environmental protections and defunding our state environmental protection agency,” he says.
Ager, likewise, notes, “The GOP hates DEQ and keeps trying to send funding to the university system rather than the agency tasked with enforcing environmental laws.” And Turner says the impacts of the cuts go beyond damage to the environment. “There have been reductions in force as it relates to a lot of the consumer-facing items at DEQ, in terms of processing permits, and that has actually been detrimental to economic growth,” he says.
McGrady concedes that the current DEQ budget includes a “flex cut” and says he’s working with the agency to figure out a way forward. But as a chair of the House Appropriations Committee with responsibility for the DEQ, he continues, “I’m comfortable with the funding likely to be provided to the DEQ in the budget,” with the exception of money to address GenX concerns.
Many of those Xpress spoke with for this article emphasized the importance of ensuring that state dollars continue to flow into trust funds that pay for land protection.
According to McGrady, all three of the funds — for clean water, parks and recreation and farmland preservation — received “nonrecurring” allocations last year, meaning that their funding could be reduced or eliminated for 2019.
But McGrady says that’s not likely, since his goal is to “make sure we don’t incur any cuts in any of those trust funds.”
The Clean Water Trust Fund is “particularly used in WNC,” he says, and the parks and recreation fund goes toward area treasures like the DuPont State Recreational Forest. The Farmland Preservation Trust Fund “is oftentimes used to bring matching federal funding to do some agricultural land protection,” McGrady says, making spending to preserve agricultural land a good deal for North Carolina.
Ager points out, “The governor’s budget includes a proposal to use part of the real estate stamp fee for property transfers to bring back a steady stream of revenue for the trust funds. I would support that concept.”
Turner also advocates for providing recurring funding for land preservation, saying the trust funds are “but a shadow of their former selves.” The Clean Water Management Trust Fund’s 2017 allocation of $18 million looks generous, for example — until compared to the state’s previous commitments. A state report released in April 2014 noted that the General Assembly in 2000 “appropriated $40 million for fiscal year 2001-2002, and committed to appropriate $70 million for fiscal year 2002-2003 and $100 million per year until fiscal year 2011-2012 when the statutory language was changed, removing the commitment of $100 million.” According to news reports, however, the full appropriations were rarely if ever fully paid into the fund.
Hunting for votes
A possible ballot referendum to enshrine the right to hunt and fish in the state constitution gives Turner, himself an avid outdoor sportsman, pause. “I don’t see there being threats to those sporting traditions. I would also hate to see a failure of that amendment at the ballot box and to possibly give people the idea that hunting and fishing aren’t that important to the state,” he says.
Since the potential amendment isn’t part of the budget negotiations, McGrady says he hasn’t paid it much attention.
At the same time, he says, “I have the sense that there’s quite a lot of members that would be quite willing to have that amendment put on the ballot. … I guess the thought is that, just like we have a provision in the constitution reflecting the fact that we have responsibility for protecting the environment, there’s a feeling that we need to state this in the constitution.”
Julie Mayfield, Asheville City Council member and co-director of environmental nonprofit MountainTrue, says her organization’s legislative advocacy efforts are focused on “the funding side of things” rather than major new policy initiatives.
MountainTrue and McGrady have discussed restoring funding for landslide hazard mapping, a particular need in Western North Carolina given the region’s topography, Mayfield says. She also hopes the state will provide funding to monitor bacteria levels in WNC waterways, as it does for beach areas along the state’s coast.
Dedicated funding is needed to enable DEQ to respond to environmental emergencies such as spills, Mayfield says. As things stand now, “They don’t have money unless they can tie a spill to an underground fuel storage tank. They have no money for other types of contamination.”
The result, she explains, can be more widespread contamination, greater environmental impact and higher long-term cleanup costs. Earlier this year, for example, the DEQ’s response to a spill in the Watagua River near Boone was delayed when water quality officials could not quickly determine the source of the contamination.
Corey Atkins, the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce’s vice president for public policy, notes that, for the first time ever, his organization is advocating for environmental stewardship as one of five policy focus areas. “Quite frankly, it was time, and it’s something we can help lead on as a business community,” he says.
McGrady and Ager both point out the need to continue funding for protecting the region’s hemlocks from the hemlock woolly adelgid. Allocating more resources for state research projects to understand threats to pollinators is another longer-term goal, McGrady says.
Ager wants the legislature to think more broadly, although he concedes that its ability to do so will depend on the outcome of November’s election. Climate change, he says, is “the most important issue facing our state and world that is being ignored in Raleigh.” The diversity of WNC’s ecosystem could allow the region to play a special role in adapting to higher average temperatures, he says.
But for now, McGrady says, “There’s just a very clear sense that we want to come in, do work on the budget, address issues like school safety, like salaries for state employees and teachers, and then go home.”
Editor’s note: According to a May 28 press release from house and senate leaders, some key provisions of the budget related to agriculture and the environment include:
- Sets aside more than $10 million to provide access to clean drinking water for those impacted by GenX contamination and to fund the state’s efforts to address these emerging compounds and their threat to safe drinking water.
- Allocates more than $22 million for Farmland Preservation, the Clean Water Management Trust Fund and the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund.
- Provides funding to purchase dredging equipment to ensure valuable economic activity at the North Carolina coast can continue, with a potential economic impact of up to $500 million in Dare County alone.
- Designates over $3.5 million in match funding that will leverage an additional $15 million in federal funding to improve the state’s wastewater and drinking water infrastructure.