Job cuts coming for water regulators as DENR trims costs

Posted September 24, 2013
Updated September 25, 2013

Seaforth Beach at Jordan Lake

— A reorganization inside the Department of Environment and Natural Resources intended to cut costs will mean job losses in one of the agency's largest permitting divisions.

Under the merger, originally announced Aug. 1, staffers in water quality and water resources will combine over the next few months to form one division with almost 500 employees. Before the reorganization is complete in early 2014, DENR spokesman Drew Elliot said, the department expects to cut about 70 positions in the new Division of Water Resources – half of them already vacant.

Elliot said estimates put the cost savings at more than $4 million annually in labor alone, without any impact to water quality and planning functions. That's likely to please lawmakers, who have increased pressure on the department to cut its budget by $2 million.

It's also causing concern among some environmental advocates and departed DENR staffers, who say the shakeup has already led to some controversial decisions.

Changes shuffle water regulators

Jordan Lake At NC environmental regulator, loyalty to McCrory will run deep Before the merger, the Division of Water Quality was largely responsible for issuing permits for building projects and enforcing regulations designed to keep both surface and groundwater clean. With hundreds of employees, the division was one of DENR's largest.

Water Resources, a much smaller department, dealt primarily with the management and sustainability of the state's water supply.

Their inherent similarities made them a natural fit, Elliot said.

"We have a mission to protect the environment and enforce the law," he said. "We expect to be able to accomplish that more effectively with this new structure."

DENR's current estimate puts the combined division at 484 employees. For the 30 to 40 workers facing elimination, division Director Tom Reeder said some will voluntarily retire. Others with civil service protections will find jobs elsewhere in the department or state government.

Robin Smith, who oversaw both divisions as assistant secretary of the environment for more than a decade, said merging water quality and water resources won't cause problems as long as their essential programs are kept intact.

"There are a lot of ways to organize programs, and the idea to put water quality and water resources together has been around for a long time," Smith said. "What you have to keep in mind is that those two sets of programs have two different missions to begin with. There's not a whole lot of overlap in what they did."

What may pose a larger challenge is the second piece of the reorganization, which shifts stormwater regulators over to an entirely separate group: the Division of Energy, Mineral and Land Resources.

DEMLR already houses erosion and sedimentation control programs, which Smith said clearly overlap with construction stormwater regulation. But in addition to construction stormwater – one of the smallest such groups – DEMLR's getting other programs tasked with enforcing federal and state rules.

"The challenges are that now there are pretty significant stormwater programs in a division that's never had any experience dealing with those programs or federal programs of any kind," Smith said. "That creates a learning curve for the management."

Elliot said no stormwater positions are currently on the chopping block. That means those regulators will bring their experience over to the new division.

He said the entire reorganization, under Reeder's direction, has been heavily influenced by DENR scientists and managers with extensive experience.

"The process is being led by career regulators who know intimately how these programs work and what can be improved," Elliot said.

Division decisions face criticism

Water tests before fracking DENR turns down grant for water monitoring in gas drilling areas But several of the newly reconstituted division's decisions have already sparked controversy among environmental advocates.

An email from DENR in early September turned down two federal grants totaling about $580,000. One would have funded baseline water quality measurements ahead of new natural gas drilling, or "fracking." Another would pay for monitoring of Piedmont wetlands.

In the message, Surface Water Protection Section Chief Matt Matthews pointed to the ongoing reorganization – and the corresponding "evaluation of all existing programs" – as one reason for taking a pass on the money.

State representatives of the Sierra Club criticized the move, but Reeder told WRAL News this week that the decision was about efficiency.

"We have people in the division that are able to do these kinds of studies any time they need to be done," he said. "I can go out and do that and do it a lot cheaper than it would have cost the federal government. ... I have not done a thing that would negatively impact the environment of North Carolina."

In July, Reeder also waived a water quality certification requirement for a proposed reservoir in Cleveland County that critics say will damage wildlife habitats and recreational areas.

It was an unusual move.

The Southern Environmental Law Center, in a letter dated Aug. 21, appealed to the Environmental Protection Agency to block the proposal. The decision to move forward on the reservoir now lies with the Army Corps of Engineers.

In the letter, SELC's Derb Carter accused the division of bowing to political pressure by waiving its responsibility.

Elliot said that, although such a waiver is indeed rare, it's not the same as an approval of the project.

"[Reeder] did it because of the objections the corps had to the permit in the first place," he said, "and because of those objections, it would not make any sense to put Cleveland County through the permitting process."

Any changes to the proposal would also come back to the division for approval, Elliot said.

But Smith said DENR and the Division of Water Resources have a much broader ability to examine the water quality impacts of such a reservoir than the corps, giving the state an expanded ability to influence the eventual outcome of the project.

As for the SELC's claim of "undue political pressures," she's not necessarily convinced. Most projects have some degree of political support, she said, and lawmakers often express interest in making things happen.

"There's nothing particularly inappropriate about that," Smith said. "The thing is, you have to be able to handle that in a way that follows environmental law."


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  • corey3rd2 Sep 26, 2013

    Clean water is a myth. the only way you can get clean water is to buy it from the Nestle Corporation in a plastic jug.

  • Inside The Beltline Sep 26, 2013

    Already worst in the nation for unemployment, and we're gonna keep going down down down; more cuts are coming soon, and what do you think is going to happen next year when the State revenue is down $2 billion dollars all the while McCrory and the legislature have created a disaster.

  • grimreaper Sep 26, 2013

    So effectively, at most like 35 people might be affected out of 500+...the state government is bloated with vacant positions that require in the budget to be funded as if they were filled...makes zippo sense...100's of millions tied up in vacant positions across the state government...and been this way forever...

  • rushbot Sep 25, 2013

    you all know art pope is the budget director for the nc government doncha..art pope wants nobody to interfere with the frackers..therefore, he turned down the grant money for monitoring..and now he has told denr to get rid of those who would protect our environment..it's just like gingrich did back in the 90s with the us house.. ..the republicans did not have the moral fiber to tell america they were against the clean air and clean water acts...so they didn't appropriate enough money for epa monitoring..same results..much, much less political flack..this is how the republicons attack clean air and clean water laws in north carolina...

  • cruzinlong Sep 25, 2013

    yankee1 said :
    STTOOOPPP! You're scaring me!!! I forget, how long has fracking been damaging the water supply here in NC?

    Never Yet...know why ? Because it has not been done here in N.C. YET .
    I give you education.

  • Ears to the Ground Sep 25, 2013

    Why do people keep saying 35 jobs. The 4 million dollar savings is 70 position. 35 filled and 35 vacant. 4 million divided by 70 is 57,132 and that includes savings on office space and health care. These are not high paying jobs. Read the article do the math.

  • HeadsUp Sep 25, 2013

    No worries, y'all. They will just outlaw pollution out of existence, just like sea level rise.

  • borealbob1952 Sep 25, 2013

    southerntalent---- State employees are bound by a daily perdiem expense account. They can stay at the Ritz Carlton if they wish- but they pay for it on their own. As I said- perhaps if we just don't drill any holes- or monitor anything- it will just go away- ignorance is bliss--- good science huh????

  • 426X3 Sep 25, 2013

    Who needs clean water?

  • madeuce2010 Sep 25, 2013

    "Remember the book "Silent Spring" which got DDT banned by the "government" at a cost of billions. Opps, turns out DDT isn't harmful." -- cbuckyoung

    Uh, yes it is. It's toxic.