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Water regulator defends return of grants

Posted September 27, 2013
Updated September 30, 2013

— Speaking before the state Mining and Energy Commission Friday morning, state water quality chief Tom Reeder offered a passionate, sometimes caustic, defense of his recent decision to return $580,000 in federal grants. 

One grant, for $222,595, would have funded water quality monitoring in areas where hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," is likely to take place after state lawmakers lift a moratorium on the practice, currently scheduled for 2015. 

The other grant, for $359,710, would have funded a long-term wetlands monitoring network in the coastal plains and Piedmont.

Officials at the Division of Water Resources declined both in a Sept. 3rd email to the EPA.

Reeder said the studies the grants were to pay for would be "useless" to regulators because they would have tested only surface water, not groundwater, and because the testing would have been completed too far in advance of the start of natural gas drilling in North Carolina.

"These studies have a shelf life. If you completed a baseline study and you didn’t start the (hydraulic) fracturing for three, four, five years, the baseline study would probably not be very valuable," Reeder said. "You'd have to go out and do another one because you want the most current data on what that environment looked like precisely before you started those fracturing operations. Otherwise, you’re going to be comparing apples to oranges."

Reeder said the grants did not include any coordination with the Mining and Energy Commission or any communication of the results with that board.

"It wasn't really even being done to benefit the state of North Carolina. It was done to benefit the U.S. Geological Survey and the Environmental Protection Agency," he said.

The Division of Water Quality applied for the grants in April, Reeder said. He declined to say who had authorized the applications, but the division was under director Charles Wakild at the time. That division has since been merged into the new Division of Water Resources under Reeder, {{with a $2 million budget cut and the loss of 70 positions.

'Misperceptions'

Reeder also chastised the media for "misperceptions" of and "accusations" about his decision to return the money. 

"One of the things I’ve been amused about in all the media this week is all the public concern for the financial well being of the Division of Water Resources – we’re 'cash-strapped,' we 'don’t have any money,'" he said. "Well, let me tell you, that’s my job to worry about that, and we’re in very good financial conditions. Nobody has to worry about that."

Tom Reeder, Division of Water Resources director DENR official criticizes 'misperceptions' of agency

Reeder said the EPA grant would have paid two salaries for personnel "we don't need. We have enough people in DWR today." 

"When you want us to do a study, we’ll be happy to do you a study, and we’ll do a study when you want it done, where you want it done. We’ll look at what you want us to look for, and guess what? We’re even going to look at groundwater for you," he said. "So, we’re fine. We have experts that can do that for you, and we’ll do it for a good bit less than $222,000."

Occasionally pounding his fist on the podium, Reeder said taking the money would have been a waste of public dollars. 

"One of my favorite arguments I’ve heard this week is that nobody’s ever returned a grant from EPA before," he said sarcastically. "Really? So what? That’s an argument?

“Maybe if other states had the same level of fiscal responsibility that (DENR) Secretary (John) Skvarla has instituted in DEMLR (the Division of Energy, Mining and Land Resources), maybe we wouldn’t have over $1 trillion in federal debt today.”

The Mining and Energy Commission had not been informed about the grants' submission, nor their return.

Commission Chairman Jim Womack was quick to reassure Reeder that the board has full confidence in his decision.

"I don't know of anyone who was counting on this grant to support MEC activities," Womack told him. "I don't know of anyone that's upset on our end."

Commissioner Ray Covington said it was good to hear the explanation but added it was "embarrassing" to learn about the issue from constituent emails, and Commissioner George Howard pointedly requested more coordination in the future.

"Before grant proposals in our purview are submitted, could DENR come tell us about it?" Howard asked Reeder.

'More questions'

Therese Vick with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League signed up to comment at Friday's meeting. She said Reeder's address left her with more questions than answers.

"I don’t know why the information they would have obtained from the study would not be useful," Vick said. "I always think gathering data on water quality is useful, especially if you’re proposing such a heavily industrial development in a highly populated county that could affect downstream surface water users."

Vick called Reeder's presentation "glib" and "combative" and said she's skeptical about his claim that the division can handle increased testing demands with fewer people and resources.

"Will the money be there? I doubt it. That’ll be the excuse when it comes time to do it – 'We don’t have the money.' – and if the legislature doesn’t want to give them the money, it won’t be done," she warned. "Now that we've turned this grant down, you won’t even get a start, because that would have been a good start, anyway."

Vick is also concerned that the decision to return the money might affect future grant funding from the EPA.

"All bets are off with DENR now,” she said. “DENR has an agenda, and it’s not necessarily environmental protection – not under this new regime."

23 Comments

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  • Rodin Oct 5, 6:15 p.m.

    Just an FYI: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2013-10/du-rsg092713.php Recent study from Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment where "Elevated levels of radioactivity, salts and metals have been found in river water and sediments at a site where treated water from oil and gas operations is discharged into a western Pennsylvania creek."

    River water would be SURFACE water, just where the grant was intending to establish baseline levels.

  • wingman1963 Oct 1, 11:43 p.m.

    >If you completed a baseline study and you didn’t start the (hydraulic) fracturing for three, four, five years, the baseline study would probably not be very valuable,"

    This is the most asinine comment I have ever seen a public official make. Of course, more recent baseline data, proximal to an event which might potentially cause an event would be more relevant, but to act like the data collected by the EPA grants would be irrelevant or "apples to oranges" is a complete technical distortion.

    This man has no business running an environmental agency, and seems to fundamentally misunderstand environmental science and chemistry.

  • sixnitepkg Oct 1, 10:09 a.m.

    if they took the money, they'd ACTUALLY HAVE TO DO THE TESTS!(vs. just making some phoney report) god forbid!!

  • sixnitepkg Oct 1, 10:08 a.m.

    The real reason the grant was returned: The GOP-approved law requiring testing be done at fracking sites, "doesn't require the thoroughness of testing that the EPA grant would have provided. In fact, the law even LETS THE TESTING BE DONE BY THE COMPANIES THAT WILL PERFORM THE FRACKING." Is this not a cause for concern?
    Wirklich

    what? you got a problem with the fox guarding the henhouse? SURELY NOT!! ;-)

  • perseusomega9 Oct 1, 7:45 a.m.

    Tom Reeder, Secretary Skvarla and Assistant Secretary Gillespie are intentionally destroying DENR and DWR from within.

  • Wirklich Sep 30, 9:43 a.m.

    The real reason the grant was returned: The GOP-approved law requiring testing be done at fracking sites, "doesn't require the thoroughness of testing that the EPA grant would have provided. In fact, the law even LETS THE TESTING BE DONE BY THE COMPANIES THAT WILL PERFORM THE FRACKING." Is this not a cause for concern?

  • cruzinlong Sep 30, 8:49 a.m.

    I just hope that folks sitting out there thinking that these outrageous decisions being made by DENR and the MEC per fracking will not affect them will wake up and realize just how many of you WILL be affected.
    This is not just a Lee, Moore, Chatham issue at hand here.

    The citizens in the counties that will be affected include
    14 NC counties as follows: Stokes, Rockingham, Granville, Orange, Durham, Chatham, Wake, Lee, Moore, Richmond, Montgomery, Anson, Davie and Yadkin and
    the geologic "Durham Sub-basin" includes portions of the Upper Neuse River Basin.

  • jianco Sep 29, 4:32 a.m.

    Thankfully sonone has the guts to call out the bureaucrats on their wasteful spending

  • kdogwnc Sep 28, 11:53 a.m.

    So the end result is that DENR will make sure that citizens of the state are told whatever the gas industry wants us to know, and no more.

  • seaweaver1 Sep 28, 8:25 a.m.

    HOORAY!
    A Bureaucrat that UNDERSTANDS SCIENCE AND SAVING THE PUBLIC'S TREASURE!
    It may take decades for the people of the nation to get used to such an animal...given everyone has a social media science/economics degree...

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