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Barnett: At DENR, an NC watchdog loses its bite

nbarnett@newsobserver.comMarch 15, 2014 

At the heart of what has gone wrong at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources is this: Amy Adams doesn’t work there anymore.

It’s not that Adams, a former DENR regional office supervisor, was an indispensable employee before she quit last year. It’s that she was an ideal employee, the kind of informed, articulate and dedicated person you want to have protecting the environment and watching out for pollution.

Unfortunately, these qualities rendered her unfit for a management role at DENR under the new direction it’s taking under Gov. Pat McCrory and the man he appointed as DENR secretary, John Skvarla. Upon taking over, Skvarla asserted that DENR would stress the governor’s theme of “customer service” and that a priority would be put on expediting permit applications so business operations and development could happen faster and spur the state’s economy.

Adams originally welcomed the call for efficiency. Like most bureaucracies, DENR needed streamlining and focus. But she balked and quit once it became clear that the real change at DENR would be less, not smarter, enforcement. DENR’s new role would be to guide permit applicants through what Skvarla calls “the maze” of regulations.

As Adams puts it, the message from DENR’s leadership, stripped of its customer service code words, was: “Stop investigating, stop enforcing and just be someone out there holding a hand.”

Adams, 38, resigned from her post as DENR’s supervisor in the Surface Water Protection Section last year. She explained her reasons in an op-ed in The News & Observer. She now works as the North Carolina Campaign Coordinator for the Boone-based Appalachian Voices, a nonprofit environmental group.

Adams visited The New & Observer last week with two retired DENR employees, George Matthis and John Dorney, to discuss the recent spill of up to 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River and general issues concerning water quality and changes in the mission of their former agency.

They agreed that the spill from a coal ash pond at a Duke Energy plant likely would have occurred no matter who was running DENR. But they also agreed that DENR’s approach to environmental regulation has taken a turn for the worse.

Dorney, 61, served at DENR for decades in a role that required integrating updated science into regulatory programs. He said that the agency always had “customer service” as part of its mission but that customers included the general public and environmental groups. “Now it seems to be that the applicant is the customer, not a customer,” he said.

Matthis, 60, served at DENR for 33 years in various technical and managerial positions and served as executive director for the Neuse Riverkeeper Foundation before co-founding the River Guardian Foundation. He said there have always been cases of political pressure when someone well-connected didn’t like an enforcement action, but now the pressure is coming from DENR managers as well as outsiders.

“People who were hired to protect us aren’t able to do their jobs,” he said.

Skvarla has said that most DENR employees endorse his emphasis on customer service and that those who don’t are malcontents. “I’ve got 4,000 employees. Do you think everybody’s going to be happy?”

But that is not the message delivered by Adams and her two former colleagues. They said the Dan River coal ash spill, while dramatic, is far from the worst environmental problem. There is toxic water seeping from coal ash ponds into groundwater, illegal dumps and more pollutants going into rivers even as a growing state draws more water from rivers. Rising sea levels are impairing water treatment on the coast, and the state’s long-neglected infrastructure has a proliferation of pipe leaks and breaks.

Meanwhile, the state’s environmental watchdog is cutting staff, driving away dedicated and principled employees, expediting permit reviews, reviewing and preparing to toss out many environmental regulations and giving priority to accelerating economic growth over protecting the environment.

Adams said only a vigilant regulator can provide confidence in drinking water. As she puts it: “No one should have to turn on the tap and and wonder: Is this going to kill me in 30 years?”

She added, “The watchdog that’s supposed to be in charge of that basically is a lap dog. They’re not going after the folks they need to be going after in order to protect the health of North Carolinians.”

After the Dan River spill and with a federal investigation into the relationship between DENR and Duke Energy underway, Adams hopes McCrory and Skvarla will change course.

“Those two gentlemen have the ability to change this story,” she said. “They are in a position to strengthen the department, to make it strong, to make it where it puts citizen protections and protections of our natural resources first and foremost above polluters. I hope that they change that story, but right now, with what we’ve seen recently, I don’t see that story changing.”

Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@newsobserver.com

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