Last of a weekly series
OXFORD -- On a hot, humid Tuesday morning, Wilson Mize lowered a small camera into the well serving Margaret Farquharson Bolton's century-old farmhouse in rural Granville County, looking for the cause of her undrinkable water.
Bolton's water was laced with iron, chlorides, sodium, sulfates and other contaminants. Sulfates can cause diarrhea and other digestive problems, while sodium and chlorides are corrosives that can eat at the old pipes in Bolton's home, releasing copper and other metals into the water.
Since 2008, Mize has been diagnosing such problems for homeowners and businesses across 40 counties at no expense as part of the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources' Private Well Program. It began after a 2006 News & Observer series found the state and most counties ill-prepared for finding and tackling pollution in the private wells that serve roughly 2 million people in North Carolina.
But the five-person program, which costs the state roughly $300,000 annually, could disappear July 1.
The budget approved by the legislature, led by Republicans for the first time in a century, eliminates the program as part of roughly $23 million in environmental program cuts that would chop more than 150 positions. All told, the department's budget would be cut by 12 percent, more than double the cuts proposed by Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat.
The legislative budget also would shift some operations to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which is led by a Republican commissioner, a move some fear would change the focus from environmental protection to business enhancement.
The budget proposal adopted a week ago (with support from five House Democrats) cuts programs ranging from landslide mapping in the mountains to oyster sanctuaries on the coast. Regional offices that often serve as the first point of contact for the public would lose 30 positions.
Other programs face cuts so severe that department officials say will make it difficult to provide adequate environmental protection.
The broader Republican effort to reshape government will cut thousands of jobs, reduce college aid, pare prison programs and add user fees to some government services in order to close a $2.5 billion budget gap. It also will end the temporary 1-cent sales tax increase, which brings in just more than $1 billion a year.
Gov. Perdue is considering a veto of the budget; Republicans say they have the votes to override.
DENR chief speaks out
Dee Freeman, the DENR secretary appointed by Perdue, said the House and Senate budget proposal, coupled with cuts from last year's budget, will mean the department will have to operate with a budget that's roughly 35 percent less than when he took office in early 2009.
"We're not going to complain about taking our fair share of cuts along with the other state agencies, but it looks like DENR has taken more than its fair share," Freeman said.
Freeman said the cuts reflect a philosophical shift from protecting the air, water and land to aiding business interests who find such regulations to be burdensome.
Some Republican lawmakers agree with that assessment.
"I don't want to destroy anything," said state Sen. Don East, a Surry County Republican and an environmental budget writer. "I just don't think these very stringent environmental rules that we are living under are going to do what the environmentalists say they do."
A key change state lawmakers want to make in their budget proposal is preventing rule-making bodies such as the Environmental Management Commission from producing regulations more stringent than the federal government.
"The concern we have been hearing from the business community and the private sector and the folks out there is not that we regulate too little - it's that we regulate too much," said Senate leader Phil Berger, a Rockingham County Republican.
Environmental advocates say the proposed changes accelerate a trend that began within a state government controlled by Democrats to try to make DENR more business friendly, sometimes at the expense of the environment.
"There's a tendency now to suggest that the environment got too much consideration under the Democrats," said Molly Diggins, who heads the Sierra Club's North Carolina chapter. "When did that happen? The difference today is that the legislature doesn't seem to see any connection between environmental quality and economic health."
Earlier this month, East introduced a bill that would reduce some of the costs gas station owners and other businesses face when their underground tanks leak. East said he talked with several business representatives in drafting the bill, but did not seek input from environmentalists who fear the changes could exhaust a public fund for tank cleanups.
Perdue's predecessor, Gov. Mike Easley, often talked about making DENR more business friendly, pushing for quicker permitting for coastal development and lauding a state program that allowed roads, shopping centers and other development to be built ahead of projects that were supposed to offset the damage by restoring streams and wetlands. A recent N&O series, "Washed Away," found much of the restoration work fraught with delays and expensive repairs, suggesting a net loss to the environment.
During the past decade, the state repeatedly failed to produce required biennial "State of the Environment" reports intended to tell lawmakers and the public about the challenges to the state's air, land and water. The one report produced by Easley's administration, at the end of his tenure, was a glossy showcase of DENR programs that spent little time documenting the health of the state's natural resources.
Under Perdue, the department did not produce a report for 2010, but Freeman said one will be completed for next year. He said budget cuts have made it difficult for the department to generate it.
The lack of information makes it hard for the department to defend its programs at a time when Perdue and lawmakers are desperate to remove anything nonessential from the budget during an economic downturn. Perdue's budget cuts were not as deep as the Republicans, but still would reduce or eliminate programs.
Looking for problems
In Granville County, the iron in the water stained Bolton's washed clothes with dull brown streaks. She was relying on bottled water and laundromats, expenses that she had hoped to avoid after spending more than $10,000 to install the well and a filtration system.
Mize looked at the inside of the well on a video screen that was hooked up to the camera. It took about an hour of slowly lowering the camera about a third of the way down the well before a possible culprit emerged: groundwater seeping into the well where the 25-foot section of pipe ended, and the bored hole continued down into the bedrock.
"It looks like there's quite a bit coming in at the bottom of the casing," Mize said. "That's something they may want to look at sealing off."
Water from private wells is usually safe to drink because the wells are drilled deep enough that the soil and underlying bedrock serve as a filter to remove contaminants. But if water seeps in at much shallower depths, the well water is at a much greater risk for contamination.
Perdue did not propose eliminating the private well program. Freeman said the governor kept it because it protects drinking water for a big segment of the population.
East said the state private well program isn't necessary. The counties can test wells for contamination, as can private companies.
"I'd dare say the majority of the people in this state don't even know that we have a private well program," he said. "That just seems to be some duplication to me."
Who will inspect?
County officials say there's little duplication involved in the state program. It trains and certifies county officials to site, permit, inspect and test private wells. And it has the cameras - which can cost from $2,000 to $20,000 - that many counties lack to find problems in wells gone bad.
"If we lose this, it puts the whole thing back on us," said Casey Champion, an environmental health specialist for the Granville-Vance District Health Department. She, too, was helping Bolton with her well.
It's possible the counties won't face that burden, but only because proposed legislation in the House would end the requirement for counties to permit, inspect and test wells. That bill has yet to be heard in committee, however, and may not survive after it missed the legislature's deadline last week for bills to pass at least one chamber.
The proposal to eliminate the drinking well program comes at a time that lawmakers are moving to open the central part of the state to a relatively new type of natural gas production called "fracking." Drillers bore into underground, gas-laden shale and shatter the rock with high-pressure jets of water and chemicals to free the gas. It is a process that has caused well water contamination in other states where it is allowed.
Freeman said he understands the need to be business friendly, and last month the department announced another program to help businesses with permits and other regulations. But cutting protections for the air, water and land isn't necessarily business friendly, either, he says.
"The environment is very much a part of the economy," Freeman said. "When we talk about companies and businesses coming to North Carolina, clean air, land and water is an imperative."
An easy fix
For Bolton, the Granville County homeowner, the fix to her well could be a simple one. Mize said an inner pipe with a rubber "packer" would stop the leak where the outer pipe hits the bedrock. Champion said the well-driller, who was not at fault, has agreed to install the fix at no additional cost.
Bolton was at work when Mize and Champion inspected her well. Bolton's daughter, Maggie Hughes, opened up the small well house in the front yard so they could get at the well.
"It's great that an independent body can come in and see what's going on down there," Hughes said. "My mother needs water that she can drink and cook with."
As she spoke, her two young children - Brendan, 2, and Callan, 4 - played with a hose that ran water from the contaminated well. She kept a close eye to make sure they didn't drink from it.
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