Point of view

Established water quality standards needed

March 31, 2014 

Do you enjoy the aroma of fetid rivers with sewage or stormwater overflows periodically spilling into them? Or lakes and estuaries with rafts of green algae and hundreds to thousands of rotting belly-up fish in the late summer? Perhaps you enjoy thoughtfully gazing into lifeless sediment-laden rivers and lakes.

Probably not, but if you do, continue supporting our current representatives in the North Carolina legislature because their policies are likely to increase such scenarios. By replacing existing environmental committee members with political friends, by reducing competent personnel and by politically controlling the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the governor and legislature have delivered on their promise to be more business friendly and have fewer regulations and less enforcement.

These policies reduce what companies and cities that discharge inadequately treated wastewater into rivers have to pay. Also saving money are farms that don’t maintain tree-lined streams (riparian buffers), apply fertilizer or manure without appropriate runoff controls and allow nutrient- and bacteria-contaminated runoff to contaminate rivers and streams. It’s the downstream users of the water, a public resource, who are paying the price for the irresponsibility of their upstream neighbors.

The costs to taxpayers – who are entitled to clean, fishable, swimmable water under the Federal Clean Water Act of 1972 and the state constitution – are degraded water quality; less drinkable water that needs even more treatment; fewer or no fish or wildlife available to commercial and recreational fishermen, hunters and birdwatchers; and fewer places to swim and recreate.

We all realize that some pollution will result from our activities to maintain an economy and society, but we can degrade the environment only to a point. We don’t want where we live to become an undesirable place.

To avoid reaching that point, North Carolina must demand good engineering practices and establish water quality standards that require everyone to play by the same rules. By adopting no standards or loose guidelines that allow the state to be “flexible,” problems with water quality and issues about inequities and violations are practically guaranteed. Poor engineering design and waste disposal practices can eliminate many aquatic invertebrates, fish and wildlife habitat and can endanger water supplies for downstream residents.

For example, allowing Duke Power to store coal ash along the Dan River (with a pipe under an unlined pit, no less) has resulted in releases of massive quantities of toxic substances and life-choking sediment. These contaminants will leak for years as contaminated groundwater discharges into the river.

For years, North Carolina has been unwilling to establish water quality standards, even though nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) are the second-most prevalent cause of water quality problems in the United States. North Carolina still has no statewide in-stream water quality standards, even though the EPA required the state to have definitive numeric standards by 2004. By allowing manufacturers “variances” from established discharge standards – such as occurs at the Blue Ridge Paper mill in Canton – they severely limit how downstream residents can use the water.

The governor and lawmakers need to change their philosophy of intense meddling with professional scientists and planners within DENR and other state agencies and with environmental committees charged with protecting our environment. Political meddling with these agencies and groups is nothing new. What is new is the intensity and complete disregard for the environmental damage that their “business-friendly” approach will cause.

Gov. Pat McCrory and some lawmakers cater to their special friends, private interests and public utilities that use our state’s public waters and lands as free dumps. They promote private development by ignoring the costs associated with poor or damaging land-use practices.

If our elected officials can’t understand the damage their policies cause, it is important that they not be given the chance to be in office again.

Tim Spruill of Efland worked for 28 years as a hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey conducting water resources investigations.

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