One month after the devastating coal ash spill in the Dan River, the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) cut 13 percent of the staff positions in its Division of Water Resources. According to The News & Observer, the cuts are just the most recent step in shrinking the agency; jobs have been cut there every year since 2008.
It is alarming that DENR employees in the water protection division would be cut so soon after an environmental disaster involving the contamination of a waterway by Duke Energy. However, according to The Observer, the cuts have been planned since last summer and are just one part of a “much more far-reaching scenario that has escalated since Republicans took control in 2011.”
Since then the state has imposed heavier budget cuts, reduced restrictions on private industry and required DENR’s staff to justify the agency’s regulations in an extensive review process that is just beginning… The water resources unit has been the largest recent target for payroll savings, constituting half of the 131 layoffs and position losses in DENR since Gov. Pat McCrory took office in January 2013.
The relationship between state regulators and the energy industry has become cozier since Governor Pat McCrory, a former Duke Energy employee of 28 years, took office. Environmental groups have accused the state government of protecting energy companies, though McCrory recently boasted that his administration is the “first in North Carolina history to take legal action” against Duke Energy regarding its leaking coal ash ponds.
State Rep. Pricey Harrison (D) said the state’s environmental regulatory agency is becoming weaker. “The legislature has not created a culture where DENR feels like it can act aggressively, and that has gotten worse since the GOP took over the legislature,” Harrison said on Friday. “There’s always a desire by some members of the legislature to impede DENR’s ability to do its job.”
In 2011, state legislators slashed the Clean Water Management Trust Fund from $100 million to $11.5 million. The fund was established to ensure the protection of surface waters in the state. Three major environmental bills have also been enacted since that time.
One prohibits state regulations that are stricter than federal regulations, one restricts local environmental ordinances and weakens groundwater protections around landfills and coal ash ponds, and another removed Democrat-appointed officials from state commissions, such as the Environmental Management Commission and the Coastal Resources Commission, and replaced them with Republican appointees, The Observer reports.
On Thursday, Duke Energy was ordered by a state judge to take immediate action to stop groundwater pollution from its North Carolina facilities. The following day, the energy company warned that customers, not the company, will shoulder the costs of removing the company’s coal ash ponds.
Duke’s Chief Financial Officer spoke to investors on a recent corporate earning conference call, saying the company will use cost “recovery,” or the ability to charge its costs back to customers through higher rates. By charging higher rates, the company avoids taking costs out of company profits, which would also decrease shareholder earnings, according to WRAL.
Gov. McCrory, who is also a Duke shareholder, still insists that DENR under his administration “has taken the most aggressive action in North Carolina history.”