It became clear after a vote Thursday that appointed state advisers and the environmental department will send legislators differing reports on the best methods for cleaning water bodies across North Carolina – an unusual move that some say may complicate the lawmaking process and lead to weaker environmental protections.
The N.C. General Assembly last year asked the Department of Environmental Quality and the Environmental Management Commission, a panel of 15 experts appointed by the governor and members of the assembly, to produce a pair of reports.
The legislature requested one report on in-water quality management methods like SolarBees, the controversial water-churning devices that will soon be removed from Jordan Lake. It also requested another report on the natural buffers around lakes, rivers and streams.
The Environmental Management Commission and DEQ typically work together to produce a joint report, according to former DEQ employees and environmental advocates. DEQ staff typically compiles data and reports and submits it to the EMC for review. However, rather than endorse the reports approved by the EMC on Thursday, DEQ says it will send its own versions to the General Assembly.
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Environmental advocates on Thursday questioned DEQ’s decision, saying it raises tensions with the EMC and could lead to less informed policy decisions.
“This is pretty unique. I don’t expect them to always agree, but I don’t expect them to issue conflicting reports, especially when it was the EMC that was charged with reporting back on regulatory relief,” said Matthew Starr, the Upper Neuse Riverkeeper.
DEQ is basically saying the EMC is incompetent. As my grandmother used to say, it seems like DEQ is getting too big for (its) britches.
Matthew Starr, Upper Neuse Riverkeeper
“DEQ is basically saying the EMC is incompetent. As my grandmother used to say, it seems like DEQ is getting too big for (its) britches,” Starr said.
The EMC on Thursday decided to send SolarBee and buffer reports that DEQ staff published and then retracted in March. Those reports, which are favored by groups like the Sierra Club and N.C. Conservation Network, offer a more critical take on SolarBees and a more favorable take on buffers than the reports DEQ plans to send to legislators.
The EMC reports also offer more detailed explanations of the subjects, said EMC member Julie Wilsey. Advocacy groups applauded the EMC’s vote Thursday morning.
“The EMC has it right; as much as DEQ leadership may try to muddy the waters, the data shows that in-lake treatment of pollution cannot substitute for control at the source, and riparian buffers provide vital protections for the waters we drink, fish, and swim in,” said Grady McCallie, policy director at the N.C. Conservation Network.
DEQ, meanwhile, plans to send what it’s calling the “final” versions of the SolarBee and buffer reports that it posted in March, retracted and then revised. Stephanie Hawco, a DEQ spokeswoman, said her department’s reports are more consistent with what the legislature requested.
Tom Reeder, assistant secretary for the environment, reiterated that stance in a letter to the Durham Herald-Sun, which DEQ also posted to its website Thursday.
“Contrary to accusations by the media and left-wing special interest groups, the draft report that was posted prematurely was edited to contain only information requested by the General Assembly,” Reeder wrote.
“The report on riparian buffer protection was amended for the same reasons. We have not recommended revisions to the riparian buffer protection program, but rather are reviewing all of North Carolina’s water quality standards as mandated by the legislature in 2013.”
But environmental advocates such as Dustin Chicurel-Bayard, spokesman for the NC Sierra Club, say the DEQ reports exclude key information and that DEQ leadership is re-writing their staff’s work to better accommodate the legislature’s political agenda. The move is even more curious, he said, given that DEQ announced last week that it plans to remove SolarBees from Jordan Lake.
“Why is DEQ sending the revised reports, which come to different conclusions less favorable to the environment, to the legislature?” Chicurel-Bayard said. “It appears that DEQ is trying to end-run the commission.”