Raleigh, N.C. — When Gov. Pat McCrory unveils his new budget proposal to state lawmakers this week, a small line item will suggest the addition of 19 regulators to help enforce environmental rules.
McCrory announced that move in April, a few months after 39,000 tons of coal ash from a retired Duke Energy power plant poured from a containment pond into the Dan River in Rockingham County, coating the waterway for about 70 miles.
An occasional series on the evolution of the state’s role in protecting natural resources while promoting business growth.
Even if members of the General Assembly approve McCrory's plan during the short session, which begins Wednesday, it won't restore staffing cuts made to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources since the governor took office in 2013.
The move will actually fall just short of restaffing the 24 positions eliminated in the department's regional offices spread across the state. That amounts to a 4 percent reduction in what environmental advocates say are some of the department's most important staffers – those directly responsible for inspecting permit holders, assessing penalties and ensuring compliance.
"There's a direct link between the number of environmental cops on the beat and the amount of enforcement that happens," Molly Diggins, North Carolina director of the Sierra Club, said.
Deep cuts in water division
The governor's office has not said which of DENR's many divisions will see these additional staffers, but it's likely at least a few would end up in the newly reorganized Division of Water Resources.
About 68 full-time positions have been wiped from the budget in that department since January 2013, and the much larger Division of Water Quality was folded into it.
Of those, 10 jobs came from the regional offices, which also house workers from air quality, land resources and waste management.
Division of Water Resources Director Tom Reeder, who took over in 2013 following the reorganization, said many of the positions were already vacant when DENR's leadership began looking for places to cut. He also said that he and his superiors gathered plenty of input from section chiefs and supervisors at the regional offices to make sure they were streamlining operations.
"We didn't just go through this blindly," Reeder said in an interview in early May. "We made sure whatever positions we cut, we weren't losing operational ability."
Environmental experts like Ryke Longest, a Duke University law professor who spent 14 years as an environmental litigator for the state Department of Justice, said it doesn't take much of a staff reduction to make a large impact on regional offices.
"That's the worst place to lose them," Longest said.
A DENR spokesman was unable to break down how many jobs each of the seven regional offices lost since 2013, but Longest said some cut deeper than others. The Washington office, for example, has a coverage area of 21 northeastern and coastal North Carolina counties, making it difficult ground for fewer inspectors to cover.
"Physically, if you can't get from one place or another to inspect the sites, how do you know you're doing a meaningful job?" Longest said.
Whether they're checking on construction companies or firms that work to restore environmentally damaged areas, Longest said having fewer regulators in the field runs counter to the department's newly revised mission.
"If you have one less inspector to look for violations, that doesn't benefit all home builders or all mitigation banks, it benefits the unscrupulous ones first," Longest said.
But Reeder maintains none of the reductions in force, or RIFs, have affected the ability of his division to protect the environment.
"I would not have RIFed a position if I felt it would have negatively impacted our ability to accomplish our mission," he said.
Morale a problem, former supervisor says
For those who remain employed, former staffers say the last year has taken its toll.
Since 2013, at least 55 people from the regional offices have left state government altogether, according to a WRAL News analysis of employment data. That's about 10 percent of the regional office workforce.
The departures include at least 48 environmental specialists, engineers, technicians and scientists tasked with ensuring compliance and responding to the public.
Staffers left their positions for a variety of reasons, including retirement.
That's why Margaret Love, an air quality supervisor in the Winston-Salem office, left in November 2013 after 18 years with the department.
Although she said there's always been a degree of separation between the department's far-flung regional offices and the Raleigh headquarters, she said the administration of Secretary John Skvarla represented the biggest shift out of any DENR leader she's served under.
"John Skvarla is not well liked in the regional offices," Love said. "The staff do not care for him."
She said the bad blood began as soon as he took office in January 2013, when he and McCrory noted that DENR needed major changes for a more "consumer-friendly" approach.
"The message coming from our leader was that we were broken," Love said. "We didn't think we were broken."
In addition to the new mission statement, state leaders also stripped employment protections from about 150 directors and managers at DENR, allowing them be fired without cause or appeal. For some of these "policy-making exempt" positions, employees are inherently political per state law, since loyalty to the governor is "reasonably necessary" for the job.
DENR leadership said at the time that changes were necessary to make the department easier to navigate for developers and growing industries looking to do business in North Carolina.
"[Secretary Skvarla] has heard from the legislature that DENR is the No. 1 obstacle to job creation in the state," Drew Elliot, communications director for DENR, told WRAL News in August 2013. "What the secretary has said is, 'We're not going to be that anymore.'"
Love said the underlying message – "that nothing worked in DENR" – was a hard one for employees to get out of their heads.
"There's just a bad morale in the regional offices," Love said. "They don't feel like Raleigh's got their back."
DENR spokesman Jamie Kritzer said Monday that most employees are "enthusiastic in their support of the agency's mission," and he pointed to the regulator's response to the February coal ash spill as proof.
"We had employees in our regional and central offices responding around the clock, seven days a week for a month," Kritzer said. "They have never stopped working hard for environmental protection in this state and for the people we serve."
Working through the cuts
Diggins said it will be difficult to figure out exactly how staff reductions have impacted the process of environmental enforcement.
Penalties for water and air quality violations are down dramatically since 2007, but she said the real indicator will be how often fewer regulators can assess potential polluters.
"Day to day, the bigger issue is the frequency of inspections and whether or not notices of violations are being issued when appropriate," Diggins said.
Love said despite its impact on their attitudes, she's not sure how much the cuts have impacted the workload of regional office staff.
That workload was already pretty heavy. She said it wasn't unusual to find air quality experts at the office as early as 6:30 a.m. heading to inspections or to see scientists returning after dark with water samples in hand.
But she said she's confident regulators will continue to manage as best they can.
"Everybody in DENR knows they work for the citizens of the state," Love said. "They don't think about it any other way."