The North Carolina Government's attack on environmental protections.


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After decades of protecting North Carolina’s natural resources as well as its economy, over the past six years the North Carolina General Assembly and executive branch have begun to systematically dismantle the longstanding, sensible policies that make North Carolina a great place to visit, live, and do business. Attacks on our environment include:

  • Slashing by 40% the budget of the agency responsible for protecting clean air and clean water
  • Gutting state environmental boards and replacing many scientific, health, and nonprofit members with industry and political appointees
  • Reducing by half the acreage of land acquired by the N.C. State Parks System
  • Prohibiting any state environmental protections that are more stringent than federal laws

In 2011, a state legislator did something that foreshadowed the coming relentless attacks on North Carolina’s longstanding air, water, and land protections. A window in his office overlooked the building which housed the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, now known as the Department of Environmental Quality, the state agency charged with protecting and conserving North Carolina’s air, water, and land.

The legislator drew a bullseye on the window with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in the center.

In doing so, he created a perfect - and unforgettable - warning of things to come. In 2013, the administration brought the artist on board, and made that legislator an assistant secretary at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, despite his clear disdain for environmental safeguards.

Since 2011, when the current majority took control of the North Carolina General Assembly, every legislative session has seen new laws and amendments to existing laws that have eroded and dismantled important protections for the state’s environment. North Carolina’s water, air, land, energy, and coastal policies have been assaulted by the state’s current leadership. The results have been catastrophic.

During these six legislative sessions, the legislature has targeted many other rights and needs that North Carolina citizens may have taken for granted, and people might have lost track of the damage wrought by six years of dismantling the state’s environmental protections. On the heels of the 2016 legislative short session, the Southern Environmental Law Center here provides an overview of six years’ worth of harm to the state’s environment and the programs that protect it. We will then recount how the legislature and the executive branch have mistreated our water, coast, air, and land.


North Carolina has a strong history of protecting our natural resources for the use and enjoyment of all citizens. Indeed, Article XIV Section 5 of the North Carolina Constitution states “it shall be the policy of this State to conserve and protect its lands and waters for the benefit of all its citizenry.”

North Carolina’s water, air, land, energy, and coastal policies have been assaulted by the state’s current leadership. The results have been catastrophic.

In 1973, Governor Jim Holshouser worked with the legislature to enact one of the nation’s first coastal management programs to protect fragile resources on the state’s coastline. Among its various provisions, the law prohibited building sea walls and other hardened structures on our coast, to ensure that the public and future generations could continue to enjoy the beaches. These resources, after all, belong to all North Carolinians and not only to the private interests the seawalls are intended to protect.

In his last term, Governor Jim Martin successfully opposed drilling for oil and gas off of the Outer Banks, and the legislature repealed state laws prohibiting North Carolina agencies from adopting environmental regulations that are more stringent than federal regulations. The repeal of these laws enabled the state to adopt environmental standards that reflect the state’s unique circumstances without being handcuffed to minimal federal standards that may be inadequate to address North Carolina’s particular needs.

In 1997, after a hog farm spilled 25 million gallons of manure into the New River, killing 10 million fish and contaminating hundreds of thousands of acres of coastal shellfish habitat, Governor Jim Hunt and the legislature imposed a moratorium on new factory hog farms housing over 250 hogs and employing sprayfields and lagoons. In 2003, Governor Mike Easley signed a bill extending that important moratorium to 2007. While other states wondered what to do about water problems caused by large confined animal feeding operations, North Carolina took action.

In 1999, former Governor Jim Hunt and the legislature launched the “million acre initiative” to acquire and protect an additional one million acres of open space, parks, farmland, forests, and other natural areas, to provide recreational opportunities to the state’s growing population and to preserve important parts of the state’s natural heritage. By 2009, the state had acquired an additional 683,460 acres of parks, gamelands, and other lands for the public to enjoy.

In collaboration with former Governor Easley, the legislature in 2002 enacted the Clean Smokestacks Act to improve air quality by substantially reducing emissions of pollutants from coal-fired power plants. This not only helped clear the air across the state, but also allowed the state to pursue further reductions in air pollution from upwind states, which are essential to clean air in the mountains that are so important to our tourism industry. In 2007, the legislature passed the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard, which requires utilities operating in the state to derive 12.5 percent of their energy from renewable sources - like wind or solar power - by 2021. It also passed a 35 percent tax credit for renewable energy investment. These policies advanced North Carolina to third in the country in solar energy development and created thousands of jobs for its citizens.

For decades, North Carolina leaders recognized that protecting the state’s environment and natural resources is important to economic development and the quality of life of the citizens of the state. Other states admired North Carolina’s ability to maintain a vibrant economy while protecting the health of its citizens and ecosystem. 


Now, consider this.


Basic Environmental Protections

By 2013, the legislature had cut the budget of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (now the Department of Environmental Quality) by 40 percent, greatly diminishing its capacity to protect the state’s air, water, and land. In 2013, the new state administration even changed the mission of the agency to clarify that it is a “customer service” agency where science contains a “diversity of perspectives,” and employees were admonished not to be “obstacles of resistance” in carrying out their charge to protect the environment. With each passing week and each new policy, it becomes clearer that the customers the Department of Environmental Quality serves are the polluters, not the citizens of North Carolina.

In 2011, the legislature, reviving failed policies of the past, enacted a law prohibiting state agencies from adopting regulations to protect the environment that are more stringent than minimal federal regulations. It also targeted all regulations, including environmental regulations, for automatic repeal absent legislative action to retain them. It has prohibited local governments from regulating any aspect of fracking in their borders. In 2015 the legislature amended one of North Carolina’s oldest environmental laws, the State Environmental Policy Act, to exempt from environmental review any taxpayer funded state projects that cost less than $10 million, regardless of their potential environmental impact. This revision will eliminate environmental review of most state projects. It has removed scientific, health, and nonprofit seats on environmental boards and replaced them with industry and professional seats. It has limited citizens’ right to challenge permits to pollute.

By 2013, the legislature had cut the budget of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (now the Department of Environmental Quality) by 40 percent

Our rivers and other waters

Our rivers supply drinking water, provide habitat for our wildlife, and draw tourists, fishermen, hunters, and recreational users from all over the world. Despite this, our leaders have rolled back regulations and let the pollution pour in. In early 2013, newly appointed regulators at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources tried to block citizens from enforcing the Clean Water Act at Duke Energy’s poorly maintained coal ash pits, and consulted with Duke on how “it wanted to be sued” on violations stemming therefrom, resulting in a preposterous proposed settlement of $99,100 for two sites that would have required no cleanup action on the part of the largest energy company in the nation. Then the 2014 Dan River coal ash spill occurred when a poorly maintained corrugated metal pipe failed, dumping millions of gallons of coal ash and polluted wastewater into the Dan River. After the spill, and following thousands of public comments opposing the deal, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources withdrew its proposed $99,100 sweetheart deal. By contrast, when the federal government stepped in and criminally prosecuted Duke Energy companies for its crimes under the Clean Water Act, it secured 18 guilty pleas to nine crimes committed across North Carolina and $102 million in penalties.

In 2014, the legislature passed a law creating the legislatively appointed Coal Ash Management Commission to decide if and to what extent Duke Energy would be required to clean up its coal ash.  After the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the Commission was unconstitutional, the legislature, in the recently concluded 2016 session, passed a new law that allows Duke Energy to leave most of its coal ash in place, ignoring the pollution of rivers, lakes, and groundwater.

Then there was the SolarBee fiasco. The legislature, with great support from the executive branch, has repeatedly postponed implementation of the plan to clean up pollution in Jordan Lake, the Triangle’s major drinking water source. Instead, it allotted $1.3 million taxpayer dollars in 2013, and an additional $1.5 million in 2015, on the pretense that floating propellers called SolarBees would clean up the lake without requiring polluters to stop polluting. Not surprisingly, it didn’t work. This year, in the budget, the legislature endorsed not only delaying the Jordan and Falls Lake rules, but allowing them to sunset before they have been implemented.

Our wetlands have not been spared. The legislature has almost completely erased any state protections for these important waters that provide habitat, filtration, and protection from flooding.  Indeed, almost 90 percent of our isolated wetlands are now excluded from state protection. 


Our air

Once a leader in the southeast in clean air, North Carolina began to backtrack in 2011. That year, at the request of five of the state’s major polluters, the legislature, with the full support of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, passed a bill to repeal North Carolina’s health-based regulations protecting citizens from toxic air pollutants. In 2015, it legislated a dramatic reduction in the number of air quality monitors in North Carolina. This came soon after the passage of a bill that limited citizens’ rights to protest air-pollution permits.


Our land

Between 1999, when former Governor Hunt and the legislature launched the “million acre initiative,” and 2010, North Carolina acquired and protected nearly 700,000 acres of land, after which land conservation slowed considerably. The Clean Water Management Trust Fund, created in 1996 to purchase open land for the purpose of protecting water quality, and disbursing $100 million annually as recently as 2007-2008, was reduced to $11.5 million by the 2011 legislature, and hasn’t climbed back much since. In the four years preceding this reduction, the North Carolina State Parks System acquired an average of more than 5,900 acres of land per year. In 2011, the legislature more than halved that: the system averaged about 2,200 acres of land acquisition per year from 2011-2014. In 2013, the legislature terminated the Mountain Resources Commission, whose mission was to protect the mountains and their communities while encouraging healthy and equitable development. The message in all of these actions seems to be that North Carolina no longer values open space.


The coast

After generations of reaping the benefits of natural shorelines, which provide a healthy alternative to the overbuilt and hardened shores of the northeastern coast of the United States, another blow to the coast came when the legislature repealed the ban on hardened structures on our beaches in 2011. Allowing terminal groins on our coast will open our beaches to the waves of erosion, collapse, and further hardening that have devastated beaches in other states.

In another shortsighted move, the legislature has decided to address the incredibly pressing and complex problem of sea-level rise by ignoring it, trivializing it, and actually trying to outlaw the study of the problem. Everyone from the BBC to the Colbert Report mocked North Carolina when the legislature attempted to make even the study of rising seas illegal in the state. 



After decades of protecting its citizens against the dangers of hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) for natural gas, in 2012 the legislature lifted the ban on horizontal drilling which is used to frack for natural gas. Not only did the legislature open North Carolina to the risks of fracking, it actually sought more than $2 million in taxpayer subsidies to market the practice to energy companies, who seem reluctant to invest here. As if that were not bad enough, the legislature also criminalized the disclosure of what companies put in the toxic fluids injected into the ground to frack. Despite the fact that the citizens of North Carolina did not want fracking, the legislature not only legalized it, but asked the citizens to pay for it and made it a criminal offense for citizens to know what toxins are injected into the ground.

In addition to promoting onshore drilling, state leaders are asking that oil drilling platforms be allowed off of our coast as well. The state even asked the federal government to allow drilling closer to our precious shore than the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management proposed. For the moment we are in the clear: this spring, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, in response to overwhelming citizen and local government opposition to offshore drilling, presented a plan that does not include drilling off the North Carolina shore in the near future.

Even the policies that have led North Carolina to be the state with the third-highest capacity for solar energy in the nation are at risk. This year, two state Senators floated a bill requiring a 1.5-mile buffer around any solar- or wind-power installation, supposedly to protect citizens’ health (though you can have a swine waste lagoon within 500 feet of your neighbor and you can pile fracking waste right up to the property line). That bill did not move. The legislature also tried to fight wind installations this year, based on their alleged inconvenience to the military, though similarly sized broadcast towers were not found to be problematic and the military did not request the bill.

This is not just an approach by leaders who believe in streamlining regulation and applauding development. This is not an approach that is simply less stringent than environmentalists would prefer. Rather, these actions undermine and cut protections for the clean air, clean water, healthy landscapes and beaches that North Carolina families deserve and enjoy.

Our state constitution says it is the policy and proper function of the state to conserve and protect its lands and waters for the benefit of all its citizenry. Instead, the legislature and executive branch have launched a brutal and relentless attack on our environment and natural resources. Please read along with us as we continue to address the dismantling of North Carolina’s environmental protections and damage to our state’s environment, and then share this sad story with others.


Download the full North Carolina Report here


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