In giving back EPA grants, DENR shows protections not No. 1

September 25, 2013 

Aldona Wos may be creating turmoil at the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, but she is doing one helpful thing for the McCrory administration: She’s keeping attention off the goings-on at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Most of the early controversy at DENR has involved speculation rather than action. DENR Secretary John Skvarla raised eyebrows by saying he wasn’t sure whether global warming was a problem or a theory. Then there was a lot of worry by environmentalists about Skvarla’s determination to apply the governor’s “customer service” approach to environmental regulation. That sounded a lot like making things easier for developers and polluters.

Then came the video presented to DENR employees that featured Tom Reeder, the director of the state Division of Water Resources. Reeder’s message: Do all you can to give permit applicants what they want and help those who are violating regulations get back into compliance rather than focus on fines. Otherwise, he said, the legislature will act to force a more cooperative climate at DENR.

As ominous as all that was, there wasn’t evidence that DENR would cut back its efforts to protect the environment. Now there is. Frank Tursi, an assistant director at the N.C. Coastal Federation, reported online this week that DENR has turned down a total of almost $600,000 in two federal grants. One of the grants would have been used to set up testing of streams and wetlands in the Piedmont where drilling for natural gas, or fracking, is likely to occur. The drilling operations can pollute groundwater through spills, waste storage and stormwater runoff.

Both grants would have paid for work by DENR’s Program Development Unit staff, which provides technical support for surface water protection. The unit is being eliminated as part of an organizational consolidation.

Tursi reported that DENR’s “no thanks” was, according to an EPA spokesman, the first time a state in the EPA’s Southeast region has refused money under the agency’sWetlands Program Development Grants since the funding started in 1996. Indeed, North Carolina could be the only state in the country to ever decline such grants.

Molly Diggins, director of the N.C. Sierra Club, said the state shouldn’t be giving up federal funds for testing water after legislators cut $2 million from water programs this year. She said that was especially the case when one of the grants focused on environmental threats posed by fracking.

“This is not a grant being imposed on North Carolina by a federal agency that doesn’t really know what we need,” she told Bruce Henderson of The Charlotte Observer. “This was a grant being sought by DENR to meet known challenges.”

Though it turned down the grants, DENR still must set up the monitoring under the state’s fracking rules. The N.C. Mining and Energy Commission has asked DENR to explain at the commission’s Friday meeting why the agency turned back the $222,595 grant to study streams and wetlands in advance of fracking.

Reeder acknowledges that the work must be done but said the state has the resources to do it on its own. The problem is that the DENR unit that successfully applied for the grants, the Program Development Unit – which included experts in aquatic ecosystems – is being eliminated. DENR didn’t want to accept funding for a unit that won’t exist.

But eliminating the unit and rejecting the grants raises a question of whether DENR’s so-called efficiencies are simply a reduction in the quality and breadth of environmental regulation. So far, there’s $582,305 headed back to the EPA that says that’s just what it is.

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