We’re watching you

Published 5:23 pm Monday, November 23, 2015



A few weeks ago, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, formerly the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, received a warning from the Environmental Protection Agency — that’s right, the Feds.

The Feds have taken notice of how North Carolina is doing business with regard to to the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. DEQ has the authority to act as the EPA’s agent when it comes to permitting under those two federal acts. One of the requirements of the CAA and the CWA is that people — for example, the average citizen, a group of homeowners, members of environmental advocacy agency — have the ability to question those permits, and be able to do so in a court of law. According to the letter from the EPA, DEQ and by extension the North Carolina Department of Justice attorneys, and an administrative law judge have been toeing a thin line, close to infringing on the rights of state residents.

The letter talked about two cases that are still winding their way through the court system. One has to do with a cement plant in Wilmington. The other has to do with a limestone mine in Blounts Creek. In both cases, a group of likeminded people got together and decided to the legally challenge permits issued by DEQ. The people in Wilmington had a problem with the state allowing a new cement plant to issue significant quantities of pollutants — including carbon monoxide, lead, benzene and hydrochloric acid — without requiring the company to reduce its pollution to the maximum extent possible. Here in Beaufort County, DEQ issued a permit to a limestone mining company that will change a waterway enough to harm species currently thriving there — inundating a place the state long ago declared a nursery for saltwater species with millions of gallons of fresh water per day.

The issue, according to the EPA, is not that DEQ has issued the permits. EPA has taken a backseat, at least in the Blounts Creek case. The issue is that the state is arguing against the rights of its residents to question those permits.

In both cases, the matter of “standing” has been questioned by the state: what standing do you have that gives you the right to question our actions? NCDOJ lawyers have argued that homeowners concerned about breathing toxic air have no right, and a Superior Court Judge in New Hanover County agreed. Limestone mining company lawyers, backed by NCDOJ attorneys, have argued that the environmental advocacy agency that has been looking out for Beaufort County waterways for the past 30 years doesn’t have that right, and an Administrative Law Judge agreed.

They had no standing.

If those concerned with the health and wellbeing of their families, their land and their communities don’t have standing, then it would appear no one does.

And this is point at which the EPA stepped in and said, “Enough.”

To the state, the EPA said this: “Clean up your act. Follow the rules. If you don’t, we’re going to take this out of your hands.”

It was right to do so. The people of Beaufort County have standing. And they have been standing up for what they believe in: keeping the river and its tributaries as health as possible.

“We’re watching you,” the EPA said to the state.

“Good,” came the response from Blounts Creek.