Point of View

Unbalancing N.C.’s environmental regulation

June 10, 2012 

Did we in North Carolina just luck out on the clean water and clean air we enjoy? How did that happen?

How did the 11th-most populous state in the nation, a state with more than 9.5 million people, a state with high-tech centers, with industry, with farms and forests, a state with approximately 9 million hogs and almost 8oo million chickens and turkeys, a state with great mountains and coasts, great rivers and lakes – how did that state manage to be on the Forbes list as the third-most business-friendly state in the country and have clean air and clean water at the same time?

It is no wonder North Carolina is known far and wide as a great place to live and work.

Are we just lucky, or is this is an example of that old cliché, “The harder we work the luckier we get?”

This did not happen by accident. It is the work of many people over many years. One part of that began almost 40 years ago when the General Assembly in its wisdom created the Environmental Management Commission (EMC) and gave it the responsibility of developing and implementing regulations to maintain our statewide balance of protecting our clean air and clean water and promoting a healthy economy.

The EMC, North Carolina’s principal statewide environmental regulatory agency, is made up of 19 citizen volunteer members, 13 of those positions being defined by the General Assembly to strike an ongoing balance among such diverse state interests as public health, industry, environmental protection, local government, agriculture and business, among others.

For decades our governors and legislative leaders have appointed EMC members who work to balance those interests, recognizing that clean air and clean water in North Carolina are good for business, good for North Carolina’s economy, good for public health and good for recreation.

Senate Bill 851, the Boards & Commissions Efficiency Act of 2012, under consideration by the state Senate, brings that decades-long balancing act to a jarring halt, leaving the EMC favoring regulated interests and leaving environmental and public health interests at peril.

By state statute the EMC includes a member experienced in public health issues, a member experienced in fish and wildlife conservation, a member experienced in air pollution issues and three members interested in water and air pollution control representing the public at large (I am one of those members.)

SB 851 slashes all six of those EMC positions, eliminating seats designed for areas of environmental expertise and public interest and eliminating the balance they bring to the process. We should note that this also would eliminate the positions of the only two women on this 19-member commission.

Ironically, while SB 851 purports to make state boards and commissions more efficient by eliminating some and restructuring others, SB 820, the “fracking bill,” would create the new Energy and Mining Commission with seven of nine voting positions representing the interests of industry. The EMC, an existing commission with broad expertise and long experience in regulating water and air pollution while balancing business and industry needs, seems to be the more appropriate body to develop well-balanced rules for fracking.

What sort of North Carolina do we want for ourselves, our children and our children’s children? To what extent are we responsible for being good stewards of God’s creation? Aren’t we in North Carolina better off with a balance between the interests of business and industry and protecting the quality of our water and air?

Members of the General Assembly should leave alone a process that has worked so well for so long at making North Carolina a business-friendly state while protecting our precious natural resources. They should leave the Environmental Management Commission intact and as currently balanced.

If enough people become aware of the impact of SB 851, and if enough people speak up for maintaining our decades-long balance of protecting our air and water quality and promoting our business interests, then maybe the generations that follow us will get lucky too.

Stephen T. Smith is chair of the state’s Environmental Management Commission.

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