The Opinion Shop

Former NC DENR workers talk about coal ash, water quality and the department’s new direction

The editorial board and some newsroom folks met with three former employees of the NC Department of Environmental Resources to talk about the agency and its direction. Attending were George Matthis, John Dorney and Amy Adams. Adams resigned last fall because she became unhappy with the direction. Here are my notes. They are NOT verbatim. There are videos of Amy Adams talking about the agency at the end of this post. We published a Point of View in December from Adams detailing her reasons for quitting the agency. Read it here.


Amy Adams: We’re all very concerned about coal ash. Obviously the ball got dropped, big time. One of the problems I have with it is the flip-flopping with the governor. First, it’s gonna be cleaned up, then it’s not, then the governor will come back and say we’ve got to get it cleaned up. It doesn’t send a good message to the public at all. It erodes the credibility of DENR. Having been an employee of DENR a long time, it’s very distressing to see what happened and how the image has been tarnished.

Q: There’s a perception that there’s been a change of mission at the department, a sense that the direction of the agency changed with the arrival of McCrory and John Skvarla. Is that just a partisan perception? Easley wasn’t a raging environmentalist, or Perdue.

George Matthis: I have frequent conversations with current employees. One thing they’ll tell you is, they’ll speak candidly but definitely off the record. They don’t want to be mentioned. They’re worried about keeping their jobs. It’s not new for something like that to happen within the agency. When I started working there in 1979 till when I let, interesting things happened from time to time. What is new is the change in mission, how the staff is supposed to respond to problems.

There’s always been a customer-service component to it. All of us had it in our plans, to provide customer service. Now it’s more along the lines of economic development.

John Dorney: It’s always had a mission of customer service, but it was defined broadly. Developers were a customer but so was the public. And so were environmental groups. They were all customers. Not it seems to be the applicant isn’t A customer but THE customer. It seems to be now focused on the applicant as the customer.

Amy Adams: When the administration changed, they wiped out all the committees, got rid of all the appointees and replaced them with McCrory appointees, Republican appointees. There’s long been a push for the General Assembly to have more control over DENR. It’s more the McCrory administration saying your job is not to bring the hammer down. Your job is to help applicants come into compliance, that’s what Tom Reeder (acting director of the Division of Water Quality) said. Stop inspecting, stop enforcing and just go out there and be somebody’s holding hand. What they turned it around to say is that these facilities can report their own violations. They’ll report it, and we’ll just follow up with them. If you told the State Highway Patrol, we’re not going to issue tickets, we’re not going to patrol the highways, but you all report when you go over the speed limit and we’ll work with you, it’d be laughable. But it’s exactly what they’re saying. Stop doing enforcements and this will protect the resources. The coal ash spill and the coal ash ponds across North Carolina make a perfect example of why you need enforcement.

Q: Are you saying this wouldn’t have happened with a Democrat as governor?

Adams: It still would have happened. Who is in office when that pipe finally let loose is not responsible. It has a long history of not being monitored. There’s a hot potato blame game going on. There’s a little bit of blame for everybody.

John Dorney: Having a pond on top of a pipe, whether it’s concrete or corrugated metal, they’re just flabbergasted. You don’t build that stuff on top of pipes. That’s just nuts. I don’t think there was any sort of approval when they built it 30, 40 years ago. I don’t think it had to be approved.

I wrote a lot of EPA grants. When you hire compliance staff, the rate of compliance goes up. There was a baseline of 17 percent compliance then went up to 90 percent over a four-year grant period because the development community figured out quickly we were going to be looking. When you have people looking for compliance issues, everyone will tend to behave. For the development community, compliance is a cost of doing business. If a neighbor doesn’t have to do it, you’re at a disadvantage if you do.

Q: What’s your response to the U.S. Attorney investigating the situation?

John Dorney: My response was to look at the list of subpoenas and make sure my name wasn’t on there.

Q: Whose job was it to inspect the pipes?

Amy Adams: It was the Utilities Commission for a period of time. They came to DENR and said we don’t have the experts to do it. That was 2009. Then the Utilities Commission was relying on reports from Duke and DENR.

Q: So it’s up to the company to do a report and turn it in to be reviewed by the state?

Adams: This was the old Duke. Not a Progress site that Duke inherited. Who if anybody was looking at this corrugated pipe with a coal ash pond on top of it? When this bomb went off in this bucket of mud, there’s enough mud that everybody got some mud on them.

George Matthis: Every time the budget gets cut and staff are lost, there are fewer people to even take a look at these reports. It’s the fallacy in how the government is operating right now. Instead of giving tax breaks to the wealthy, that money needs to be put into infrastructure.

That wastewater spill in Burlington? The infrastructure is just worn out. Nobody’s getting paid to look anymore. The DENR staff is now reviewing all the regulations because of the Regulatory Reform Act. The people who are hired to protect us are not able to do their jobs.

Q: What keeps you up at night?

George Matthis: The week before that it was the Haw River spill. There’s something about hogs in the Eastern part of the state. We don’t know whether the virus thing is an issue or not. There are other issues with mass-produced livestock in the state, illegal dumps and people find drums all the time. There are coastal management issues. The push to put in groins that’s going to create all sports of problems. There’s a lot of things like that are not being addressed.

John Dorney: There’s Jordan and Falls lake. Water supply reservoirs. Algae problems aren’t being addressed. They’re putting those giant egg beaters out there. It’s laughable. It doesn’t make any sense at all scientifically. It’s crazy.

Matthis: The plan is not to stick with Jordan Lake. They plan to put them in Falls Lake.

Amy Adams: Wastewater. Small communities come to me and say, is there a grant I can use to pay my workers? There are so many small communities that, 1, their system was never designed to hold the population growth so the system is exceeded. The lines are old, nobody has any money to repair them, they’re getting repaired by rubber bands and bubble gum. So many sewer overflows. It’s so common it almost becomes, oh, there’s another overflow. They’re going up. In coastal counties, we now have issue with sea level rise. They’re getting more water than they should. They don’t drain. That’s going to be looming large. We have towns that if you handed them the funds today to build a whole new system, they don’t have funds to keep it operating much less run it. Water supply is going to be an issue. More cities are pulling water from our rivers. While one coal ash plant, one spill may not be the straw, it’s the cumulative impact of them all having permits going into our water supply pulling from those rivers more and more to give people water. We’re fouling our nest. North Carolinians deserve better than that. No one should have to open their tap and turn on water and wonder whether this is going to kill me in 30 years. It’s called sub-lethal chronic exposure ... It’s scary how many folks have cancer, multiple miscarriages, neurological issues. The watchdog that’s supposed to be in charge of that basically is a lap dog. They’re not going after the folks they need to be going after in order to protect the health of North Carolinians.

Q: John Skvarla would tell you this administration has done more about coal ash than anybody else. That enforcement actually has increased. They claim they’re being more aggressive.

Amy Adams: They’re responding to the spotlight that’s been put on this issue. This is reactionary not a sudden change proactive to protect the public. They’re trying their best to put a good face forward.

John Dorney: It’s not about Republican or Democrat: The Martin administration, Martin was the best governor I worked for. He was the best. He was a scientist. He was a chemist. Martin was great. And he was a Republican.

Q: Do you know of any instances where regulations were eased because of political pressure?

Amy Adams: The department did a study in 2007 looking at wastewater discharge on the coast. What the study reported was the waste stream that came out of marinas offering powerwashing and sanding was exceeding the water quality standards not by a little but by a mile. On the coast you have a marina industry with very large pulls, a lot of power. They said, we can’t move our marina away from the water. There’s nothing we can do about this. It just is what it is. The state had a game plan to educate, going out to marinas, send warnings, then violation letters, move to enforcement. It never happened. They were out doing inspections, and after the report came out they realized we had a big mess, and closed the door. We started doing inspections in 2008, 2009, and by 2010 it was basically, we don’t know what to do with it. We found the chemicals in shellfish and human consumption waters.

Q: So this is a bipartisan failure?

Adams: Yeah. It is about the politics behind it. There’s been a long parade of changes that have sought to soften DENR. When we talk about DENR, we need to make sure we’re talking about how it’s the Division of Water Quality they were targeting. They’re not making extra cuts to waste management or air quality. They were making cuts to the Division of Water Quality. Those are the most pervasive regulations we have in the department where the rules can change how a subdivision plays out, reduce the number of lots someone can sell, add buffer programs for individual homeowners. They are the water quality protection rules. You can argue they should be the most stringent. But DWQ was specifically targeted more than any other department every time there was a set of cuts.

Q: Amy, DENR is showing off emails you sent that show you were supportive of the changes at the beginning.

Adams: That was after a meeting with my brand-new director. We had Skvarla talk about this mission statement. Tom Reeder comes in, and he was very much Colonel Reeder, gave this speech. He said, I’m sure I’m going to piss a lot of people off. That’s fine. If you get pissed off, you can leave.

What the supervisors got in closed session was quite a bit harsher. That was Tom Reeder you saw in the video. We had Colonel Reeder behind closed doors. It was the same thing, but the terminology and emphasis behind it was different. This was more like, This is new game plan. This is the new path that we’ve charted. You have the option to get on board or get your resume ready. At the end where he makes the don’t whine and don’t complain comment, that was expounded a great deal in that session. That discussion was about his job to remold the division. He spent quite a bit of time telling us how much we were disliked. The General Assembly cut our budget, and we didn’t get the message. They did it again, and we still didn’t get the message. They had an opportunity to turn the public perception around. I love that agency, but there were some problems in it. I thought, OK, if we really have an opportunity here to make real substantive changes to make this division better, I’m here. I’m with you. What I very quickly learned in a couple weeks time was he didn’t mean let supervisors sit down and talk about problems and work, what he meant was, Skvarla has a new plan. This is what it is. You’re going to follow it. There were some very real issues that still need to be addressed. There’s a lot of overlap, like moving the stormwater program. There was a mirrored permit with land quality and water quality. The industry was getting frustrated because they had inspections from two divisions coming out two or three days apart and getting double hit for the same violation. There were changes that needed to be made but nobody was listening to what the real problems were.

Q: How has the addition of so many non-exempt employees changed how the agency operates?

Adams: It made me think twice about some of the decisions I was making. If I had acted aggressively with an industry with direct ties to the legislature and they didn’t like my call on something and they called their legislator, no protection. I could be yanked out of that position. To a degree, there is a place for exempt positions, at the director level. Pushing it as far down to supervisors and staff puts those folks in the position of having to think about the politics behind the decision in addition to what’s best for the public and the resource.

John Dorney: They focused on the regulating positions like hers. Monitors are still not subject to the governor’s whims. Those doing permitting are the ones being subjected to it. That’s intimidation, plain and simple.

Q: What do you think of how much time is being spent on the Regulatory Reform Act?

George Matthis: There are probably rules on the books that don’t need to be there. But a lot of thought went into putting that stuff together. They’re not there to cause problems for industry but because something occurred that caused us to realize there needed to be more protection.

Amy Adams: When the state says no rule stricter than federal rules, a lot of times what we get from the federal government is not a rule but a goal. You will reduce by 30 percent by whenever. It’s the state level rules that get you to the federal goal. To have no rule stricter than federal rule and there’s not a federal rule and you’re not doing any state rules, you’re not going to meet a federal goal. The fed is the what, the state regulations are the how, how you get there. There are no federal rules for coal ash. Does that mean the state, knowing the threat to public health, we don’t have to do anything? No, the state should be proactively protecting its citizens, protecting its resources.

John Dorney: Like with the nitrogen goals for Jordan Lake, if the goal isn’t met, the EPA can jump in and impose sanctions. The EPA is the gorilla in the closet. Don’t make the EPA mad. He’ll come out and beat you up. The problem is the state doesn’t believe there’s a gorilla in that closet. I believe they think it’s empty.

George Matthis: The legislature is rolling the dice. They don’t think the EPA will do anything.

Q: But it’s not a partisan issue. If Jordan Lake has dead zones, it’s not good for business. If you’re sitting down with a chamber group, it’s not going to be good for you in Chatham Park if this lake is dead in five years.

John Dorney: It’s up to the Justice Department to release that gorilla.

George Matthis: It has to be criminal. I don’t think they’re looking deep enough myself. It has to go beyond the coal ash. Just in DENR activities themselves. There’s a lot more deals that have been made. No, there’s no backroom, smoky room deal. But they go on all the time. And they went on when we were employed there. Some are minute. Some are large.

Q: But not people getting envelopes of cash.

Matthis: What do you call bribery? PAC money to a politicians? When I worked there, interesting discussions were held how to handle somebody’s underground storage container. Some of us tried to stick with rules and still be flexible and got overruled. Because it was a major grocery store chain. Politics did come into play. They wanted to appease someone out there who was going to help somebody get elected. I was called to the director’s office several times for doing what I thought was right.

Amy Adams: A lot of things changed in 2008 because of the recession. Every legislator wanted jobs in their district. They were desperate for it. And we were saying to some applicants, no, you can’t have that many permits, and their response was, fine, we’ll just go to South Carolina. Environmentally, a project didn’t need to be as big as it was, but politically and economically? What’s stuck in the middle is nothing less than clean air and clean water for the citizens of North Carolina.