Under the Dome

DEQ cuts legal staff amid McCrory-Cooper politics

UPDATED North Carolina’s environmental agency is cutting its legal staff amid political tensions between Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration and Attorney General Roy Cooper’s office, Dome learned on Friday.

The Department of Environmental Quality, like other state agencies, has lawyers and support staff from the state Department of Justice assigned to it and paid for by DEQ.

The agency has told the justice department that contracts for nine lawyers and support staff will not be renewed and funding for the positions eliminated, according to a spokeswoman for Attorney General Roy Cooper.

“These employees have worked hard on behalf of the state’s environment and it’s disturbing and surprising that this has happened,” Noelle Talley, the spokeswoman, said Friday when Dome asked about it.

Stephanie Hawco, a spokeswoman for DEQ, issued this explanation:

“North Carolina’s environment is too important to place in the hands of an attorney general’s office that has a record of making political decisions about which cases it wants to defend,” she said. “The state environmental department has steadily moved its legal work in-house rather than rely on a justice department that has proven it will not zealously represent the interests of the environment we are responsible for protecting.”

Hawco said the those whose contracts expired can apply for other positions within the department.

Molly Diggins, state director of the The Sierra Club, issued a statement Friday night:

"Much of the work done by the Department of Justice lawyers that DEQ is seeking to terminate is enforcement of environmental law, such as penalties for polluters. A range of environmental protections, potentially including coal ash, could be left without a lawyer to make enforcement actions stick. It takes a leap of faith to think that the Department of Environmental Quality, given their track record, will step into this void."

Cooper and McCrory are running against each other for governor this year.