What would no EPA mean to Beaufort County?

Published 4:18 pm Monday, February 6, 2017

Friday, a piece of legislation was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by a congressman from Florida. The bill, H.R. 861, calls for the termination of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Presumably, the bill introduced by Rep. Matt Gaetz is intended to hand regulatory power back to the states and let state legislatures decide what is best for their states, their businesses and their constituents. For some states, this poses little concern, largely because some laws in those states are more stringent than those enforced by the EPA.

It’s another story in North Carolina. In 2012, the North Carolina General Assembly enacted a law that forbids state environmental agencies from imposing rules more stringent than federal environmental regulations. This, in and of itself, may not be problematic, depending on the issue at hand — every terrain, every waterbody, is different. Blanket legislation set at the federal level may be perfectly reasonable for one state, but not for another.

However, the current General Assembly has consistently whittled away at the state department tasked with protecting North Carolina’s land, water and air: the Department of Environmental Quality.

Since 2011, there has been an 18-percent reduction in water quality/water resources staff at the state level; at the local level, a 41-percent reduction in staff at DEQ regional offices. There’s been a 40-percent reduction in core Division of Marine Fisheries staff. Many other administrative and departmental positions have been eliminated; authorized DEQ positions that are currently vacant number at 161. The loss of staff has a cumulative effect: less staff means a DEQ overburdened with work to the point it inhibits the ability to actually enforce environmental law.

These losses may not be of concern to some, but they are of concern to anyone who recognizes that Beaufort County’s most valuable resource — outside of its people — is the Pamlico River and its many contributing waterways.

In November of 2015, an EPA official sent notice to DEQ, and by extension North Carolina Department of Justice attorneys, that the state was treading a thin line by essentially telling residents they have no right to fight for their clean air or clean water. The letter referred to two cases: a proposed Wilmington cement factory and a proposed limestone mine right here in Beaufort County. More than a year later, Beaufort County residents and business owners are still being told by one North Carolina court that they have no right to protect their environment or their businesses.

Last year, the General Assembly proposed legislation that could have wiped out protections put in place to make sure the river doesn’t become polluted again — anyone around in the 1980s and 1990s remembers the massive fish kills due to unchecked runoff in the river.

This General Assembly has proven itself unresponsive to environmental concerns. The EPA has stepped in time and again to protect North Carolina’s environment and residents.

For a state like California, no EPA would be fine.

But North Carolina? But Beaufort County? Not so much.