NC’s anti-regulation approach endangers water quality

One of the 36 SolarBee units that were deployed on Jordan Lake. The stirring machines were found to be ineffective in clearing the lake of algae blooms.
One of the 36 SolarBee units that were deployed on Jordan Lake. The stirring machines were found to be ineffective in clearing the lake of algae blooms. 2014 NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

The McCrory administration has cast the dispute over the risks of drinking well water near coal-ash disposal sites as an isolated matter involving a state toxicologist who they say exaggerated the hazard. But this is about much more than that. It’s about the quality of water – and the quality of all the environment – across North Carolina.

The clash between toxicologist Ken Rudo and senior members of the McCrory administration spilled into public view last week with news reports on Rudo’s comments from a deposition in a lawsuit seeking cleanup of Duke Energy’s coal-ash storage sites. Rudo said that he had been called to a meeting at Gov. Pat McCrory’s office, that the governor phoned and spoke to his communications director Josh Ellis, who then told Rudo that the do-not-drink notices sounded unduly alarming. The notices were later withdrawn over Rudo’s objections.

The news reports prompted McCrory’s chief of staff to call Rudo a liar. In a joint statement, state health director Dr. Randall Williams and Tom Reeder, an assistant secretary in the state Department of Environmental Quality, criticized Rudo as a rogue regulator. That moved Rudo’s immediate boss, Megan Davies, an epidemiologist and section chief in the state Division of Public Health, to resign after submitting a letter in which she said, “I cannot work for a Department and an Administration that deliberately misleads the public.”

With those words, the Rudo dispute revealed the tip of a much wider crisis in the state’s regulation of water quality and public health.

Whether Rudo was careful or alarmist is to be determined, but it’s clear that the state’s overall water quality is at risk under an administration and a legislature that see environmental regulation as a nuisance that hinders industry. In the coal-ash matter, for instance, Duke Energy could save millions of dollars if it doesn’t have to excavate all of its coal-ash sites. But leaving some in place becomes more difficult if the state toxicologist says the sites leak dangerous levels of the carcinogen hexavalent chromium.

DEQ says no to preservation proposal

In July, the state Department of Environmental Quality rejected a proposal from the Upper Neuse River Basin Association that would help keep fertilizer and other nutrients from entering Raleigh’s Falls Lake reservoir. The proposal would have awarded development credits for landowners who preserve undeveloped land in the Falls Lake watershed. DEQ said conservation alone would not do enough to stop the flow of nutrients, but certainly it would do more than not encouraging preservation at all.

Meanwhile, the legislature has suspended rules protecting another Triangle reservoir, Jordan Lake, without drawing protests from DEQ. Indeed, DEQ’s Reeder was willing to give a longer trial to the hapless and since discontinued alternative measure of using solar powered water stirrers – SolarBees – to reduce algae.

Streams in Eastern North Carolina are threatened by waste from industrial hog farming, but North Carolina has joined a coalition of states suing to block the EPA from regulating water quality in secondary waterways. It’s also suing EPA over stricter air pollution controls.

In April, DEQ terminated contracts with the state Attorney General that paid for nine lawyers who helped DEQ pursue enforcement cases. DEQ officials say the legal work will be done in-house, but expertise in handling enforcement cases has been lost.

Republican legislative leaders and the environmental agency’s leadership have pushed DEQ workers to be business-friendly. The agency’s longtime employees say the agency’s mission has been stunted if not outright thwarted. In response to the dictatorial style of management, some have taken to calling the Green Square complex that houses DEQ headquarters the Red Square.

This anti-regulation approach was underway in Michigan when the city of Flint’s drinking water crisis occurred. If North Carolina doesn’t get serious again about water quality and public health, it could happen here.