The EPA’s threat to NC regulators

It’s another stellar day for North Carolina’s intentionally weak environmental regulators. After clearly showing a disinterest in public input that questions industrial pollution or the potential thereof, the state Department of Environmental Quality now faces a takeover of the state’s regulatory program by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA has put the state on notice because of recent court decisions that rejected citizen challenges of air and water quality permitting decisions. Basically, the state’s position in the Republican administration of Gov. Pat McCrory is simple: Industry gets to do what it wants and any citizens’ group or public interest organization that wants to be heard in opposition is summarily dismissed or ignored.

Unfortunately for the state (but fortunately for the environment), the EPA demands more. It warned the state that court rulings stopping citizens’ groups from seeking a review of permits given to companies putting in a cement plant near Wilmington and a limestone quarry on Blounts Creek near Vanceboro “cast serious doubt” on the state’s commitment to protecting residents from environmental pollution.

This is a serious warning. If the EPA determines that North Carolina isn’t doing its job when it comes to listening to objections to permits, it can take over the process.

All of this comes as no surprise, of course. Republicans have long complained that environmental protection rules hurt business, and when they took over the General Assembly in 2011 and the governor’s office in 2013 they couldn’t wait to dismantle environmental regulation in the name of making the state “business friendly.”

It was all about doing the bidding of big business interests that wanted to avoid the inconvenience of having to pass strict muster when it came to getting permits for quarries and plants and other projects. “Trust us” is their mantra. Of course, that didn’t seem to work so well when Duke Energy had a huge coal ash spill in the Dan River.

Naturally, DEQ officials are doing two things: One, they say it’s all a misunderstanding and they’ll straighten it out with the EPA and, two, they’re blaming Attorney General Roy Cooper for doing a poor job defending the state’s position. That’s no coincidence, as Cooper is running for the Democratic nomination for governor to face McCrory, who has been having a tough time of it even within his own party.

This is embarrassing for North Carolina, which under Republicans is rapidly losing its reputation as one of the more progressive Southern states. Now, it appears the state is in for another battle defending poor public policy, this time yet another policy designed to please the big business few and disregard the best interests of the public and the state’s precious natural resources. The only positive that could come from the confrontation is that the EPA would do a better job of protecting the state’s environment than the DEQ has been doing.