DENR cuts jobs in wetlands restoration program

cjarvis@newsobserver.comMarch 14, 2014 

DENR, Department of Environment and Natural Resources, coal ash,

John Skvarla III, Secretary, N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

ETHAN HYMAN — ehyman@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • History of the Ecosystem Enhancement Program

    1997 North Carolina starts a wetlands restoration program, replacing a haphazard system that often resulted in unsuccessful projects.

    1999 N.C. Department of Transportation, suffering long project delays handling its own mitigation projects, began using DENR’s wetlands restoration program. But the two agencies functioned independently of each other, and not very well.

    2001 A dozen federal and state agencies start working on solutions over the next two years.

    2003 A memorandum of agreement between DENR, DOT and the Army Corps of Engineers established new procedures and created the Ecosystem Enhancement Program. The program became a model for other states and won national recognition over the next four years.

    March 2011 Senate Bill 425 is introduced to put into law a restructuring of how EEP handles contracts, putting more of the process into the private sector.

    April 2011 The News & Observer publishes a series of stories disclosing a number of projects were failing, long delayed or too far away from the development damage they were intended to offset.

    June 2011 SB425 is unanimously approved by the General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Bev Perdue.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article about cuts in the wetlands restoration program in 2011 incorrectly said legislators didn't address issues raised about the program in an N&O series. They passed a bill partly in response to those stories. Correction made on March 15, 2014.

RALEIGH -- Nearly one-third of the jobs in the section of the state environmental agency that handles stream and wetlands restoration were eliminated this week.

The cuts of 14 staff positions in the Ecosystem Enhancement Program follows the elimination of 68 jobs in the Division of Water Resources earlier this month, and continues a trend that has seen accelerated cuts to the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources over the past three years.

“The loss of staff at EEP raises the question of whether the state of North Carolina will continue to provide high quality mitigation services in the future to protect our wetlands and water quality,” said Cassie Gavin, director of governmental relations for the North Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club.

Environmental groups across the state have expressed alarm about regulatory rollbacks, budget cuts and staff reductions imposed by the General Assembly and Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration. DENR Secretary John Skvarla has come under particular criticism because of his “customer-friendly” philosophy, honed while he clashed with regulators when he was in the private sector.

But regardless of Skvarla’s view that the environment is over-regulated, he didn’t target the positions that were eliminated in the Ecosystem Enhancement Program, according to the department. Rather, a spokeswoman said, the cuts were due to legislation in 2011 that resulted in a reorganization that has been in the works ever since.

25 people remain

The legislation didn’t specifically require layoffs, but the department has said it resulted in less work and the need for fewer employees.

The stream and wetlands restoration program, commonly referred to by its acronym EEP, was the object of criticism by the company that employed Skvarla. In December 2012, less than a week after McCrory announced Skvarla’s appointment, a representative of Restoration Systems, where Skvarla was the chief executive officer, excoriated EEP in a PowerPoint presentation to a legislative committee.

Restoration Systems has made millions of dollars in contracts for state projects restoring damaged waterways and dealing in “mitigation banking” credits for conserving and restoring sites that can be used to offset road projects and other development elsewhere. EEP supervises that process.

The company’s legislative presentation depicted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the mitigation projects under the federal Clean Water Act, as a sleeping watchdog, It depicted EEP as a snarling attack dog hostile to private mitigation banks. And it included a photo of Gomer Pyle under the heading “How to Reform the EEP.”

The presentation went on to portray the Ecosystem Enhancement Program as an overstaffed bureaucracy and proposed a new staffing flow chart that slashed the program to 13 positions.

This week’s elimination of environmental specialists and one administrative staffer leaves the program with 25 people. Seven of the 14 positions cut from EEP were vacant because the agency hadn’t replaced the employees who had left for one reason or another.

History of criticism

Skvarla, who says he has put his interest in Restoration Systems in a blind trust, has made it clear he thinks the agency has been too aggressive. In an interview with The News & Observer in January 2013, he said North Carolina is the most difficult of the eight states his company worked in.

“Restoration Systems is far from the only entity to criticize EEP,” agency spokesman Drew Elliot said, “including The News & Observer.”

A series in The N&O in 2011 disclosed a string of failing projects, including more than 30 stream restorations that needed repairs, about 70 projects finishing behind schedule, and $92 million spent on restoration in places where there was little need.

Lawmakers passed a bill focused on encouraging a bigger role for the private sector in restoration projects, partly in response to The N&O stories.

The bill approved unanimously in the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Bev Perdue in 2011, put into law a change in the way EEP began handling contracts for restoration projects. Rather than awarding multiple contracts – for design, building and monitoring – there would be a single contract with a private company. That process also avoided delays in the state construction office due to contract changes.

Layoffs delayed

The reason the layoffs happened nearly three years after the bill became law is because there were a number of projects already underway that the staff was working on, said agency spokeswoman Bridget Munger.

“Staff knew this was coming for a while,” Munger said.

The bill didn’t specify that jobs had to be eliminated; it just prioritized how contracts would be managed. In fact, at the time EEP officials developed the new contract process, they thought they had the right size staff to make it work, and didn’t anticipate having to manage with fewer people.

David Knight oversaw EEP as a deputy director at DENR under Perdue.

“During the Perdue administration, EEP went through a public, transparent reform effort that resulted in improvements to the program,” Knight said. “I hope that the current leadership followed a similar process, because EEP plays a crucial role in the state’s effort to protect water quality.”

Jarvis: 919-829-4576; Twitter: @CraigJ_NandO

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