January 12, 2017. Governor Roy Cooper inherits an environment department that looks very different than it did four years ago. The new Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is much smaller in size and scope than the old Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). Since 2011, legislators have moved conservation and research programs out of the department. DEQ’s environmental protection programs lost non-regulatory conservation and research partners like Soil and Water Conservation, Forestry, Parks and Recreation and the Museum of Natural Sciences.
The environmental programs remaining in DEQ also lost a significant number of positions. The incoming administration will face some immediate challenges in providing timely permit reviews, inspections and compliance assistance with staffing at levels inadequate to respond to an upturn in economic activity.
About the numbers. The numbers below come from information provided by DEQ during the transition between the McCrory and Cooper administrations; reports submitted to the legislature by DENR/DEQ; and legislative budget documents.
Environmental programs experienced some position reductions in 2009-2010 due to recession-driven budget cuts; those cuts tended to focus on vacant positions. Since 2011, the nature of the position cuts have changed. Instead of setting a budget reduction target and giving the department flexibility to meet it, the legislature increasingly identified specific positions for elimination or focused cuts on particular programs in the department. Many of the targeted reductions affected water quality programs (including stormwater and sedimentation control) and multi-agency staffing in the department’s seven regional offices.
DEQ by the numbers:
18% Percentage reduction in water quality and water resources staff.
41% Percentage reduction in water quality/water resources staff in DEQ regional offices. The seven regional offices house staff from multiple DEQ programs. Staff based in the regional offices do initial site visits for permit applications; provide technical assistance; and inspect permitted facilities for their respective programs. A 2011 budget provision specifically targeted the regional offices for position cuts: 3 administrative positions; 6 positions in the Asheville Regional Office; and another 21 positions among the seven regional offices to be either eliminated or shifted from state funds to another funding source. The cuts in regional office staff came on top of program-specific position cuts, further reducing program staff and limiting the number of staff geographically accessible to the public.
45% Percentage reduction in state sedimentation program staff since 2008; staffing levels fell from 65 in 2008-2009 to 36.9 in 2015-2016. The sedimentation program implements the state law requiring erosion control measures on active construction sites to prevent sediment from reaching rivers, lakes and streams.
12,000 The number of construction sites the state sedimentation program staff has responsibility for monitoring.
Every 12-14 Months: Frequency of state inspection of sedimentation sites based on current staffing levels.
2 Years. The average time required to issue a Clean Water Act wastewater discharge permit. (The National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System or “NPDES” permits.)
42% The percentage of industrial discharge NPDES permits that have expired and not yet been renewed with updated permit conditions.
34% The percentage of major municipal NPDES permits that are expired and need renewal.
20% Reduction in Division of Coastal Management staff since 2010. DCM issues permits for major development projects affecting coastal resources; supports public beach access projects; and manages the state’s coastal reserve sites for research and education activities.
40% Reduction in core Division of Marine Fisheries staff since 2011. (The figure does not reflect the Shellfish Sanitation staff moved into DMF from the Division of Environmental Health in 2012.)
27.9 Administrative positions eliminated department-wide since 2015. (Budget, purchasing, IT, personnel, and public information staff.)
9% Percentage of DEQ’s authorized positions that are currently vacant (161). By comparison, the much larger Department of Environment and Natural Resources had only 40 unfilled positions in the summer of 2012.
3 Programs or services entirely eliminated through budget cuts since 2009: the Neuse River Rapid Response Team (provided response to fish kills and pollution incidents in the Neuse River); the Office of Environmental Education; and the Division of Water Quality’s well drilling team (drilled monitoring wells used to investigate groundwater quality/quantity).
Some of the consequences. Loss of staff has already lengthened some permitting times and the department’s permitting programs are not in a good position to respond to increased development activity as the economy continues to improve. Staff reductions have also affected DEQ’s ability to provide compliance assistance and enforce environmental laws. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has expressed concern about the failure of federally delegated programs in DEQ to follow the department’s enforcement policy. EPA has also questioned the adequacy of the state’s stormwater program.