It’s Accountability Season: Our state’s changing laws and the impacts to clean water
Unless you’ve completely checked out and tuned out all media outlets, our guess is that you know it’s an election year. It’s a time full of mailers, robocalls, political ads on internet, television and radio, and a time of boasting and criticizing. It is a time when we, as voters, must reflect on the direction those in office are taking our communities and whether we want to follow the same path or vote for a new one. This is accountability season for incumbents at local, state, and federal levels.
Unfortunately, it is sometimes hard to discern paths and to see destinations, because environmental laws and rules can be complex. Understanding changes to laws and the real-world effects that those changes will have on clean water can be particularly difficult. In recent years, our state’s elected leaders have made egregious changes to North Carolina’s environmental laws and have reduced the budgets and regulatory authority of state environmental agencies. Throughout our series of newsletters this year, we will highlight some of the worst changes and the resulting impacts that our staff and other supporting organizations are documenting.
What has been most telling for your three Riverkeepers is the significantly slower response time by Heather_jacobsstate regulators when a complaint is filed. They routinely investigate reported problems and document possible environmental violations. These violations are then reported to the appropriate enforcement agency. Before significant budget and staff reductions, regulatory staff typically responded within 48 hours. It was rare that a reported violation was not followed up on within a week’s time. Most recently the Pamlico-Tar Riverkeeper, Heather Deck, reported a possible buffer violation in Beaufort County. When she followed up with the agency after 6 weeks, the staff had yet to visit the site.
We can all sympathize with the state agency staff, many of whom are very frustrated because they are charged with doing a job they do not have the resources and manpower to fulfill. Coupled with the prevailing “be soft on polluters” attitude emanating from the higher levels of state government, there is very real evidence that enforcement of our state’s environmental laws is severely lacking. And we see this evidence across the state environmental divisions. In 2012, staff from the Division of Land Resources who are charged with preventing sediment pollution, wrote to lawmakers and stated that budget and staff cuts had created “a tremendous strain on the program’s ability to carry out its responsibilities.” From 2010 to 2014, 25 positions within the Division were eliminated and the remaining staff conducted 10,000 fewer inspections, a reduction of more than 40 percent. For four years, the Division has requested permit fee increases in order to obtain additional revenue and hire more staff. Those requests have been ignored.
Accountability is defined by Webster as “the quality or state of being accountable; an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.” Do we wish to have a North Carolina that takes care of polluters rather than people, gutting environmental protections and putting at risk what makes North Carolina special? If not, this season is the time to act at the ballot box to elect or re-elect those who will take action to protect our natural resources. From the mountains to the sea, North Carolina is a great place to live, work and raise a family. The places of North Carolina are worth protecting, and the people of North Carolina deserve better.