Job cuts coming for water regulators as DENR trims costs
Posted September 24, 2013
Updated September 25, 2013
Raleigh, N.C. — 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
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
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."