ROBIN SMITH: Staff, budget cuts left N.C. less ready when Florence hit

September 26, 2018

EDITOR’S NOTE: Robin Smith is a lawyer in private practice. Until 2013 she was Assistant Secretary for Environment at the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (now the Department of Environmental Quality), where she was responsible for the state’s water quality, air quality, sedimentation, mining, drinking water, coastal management, solid waste and hazardous waste programs. She blogs on state environmental issues.

Thanks to the National Weather Service, North Carolina had days to prepare for Hurricane Florence on top of years of experience to understand the demands of storm response. But Florence found the state unprepared to manage the many environmental impacts of the hurricane as a result of significant cuts to state environmental programs.

The list of environmental challenges associated with hurricanes and hurricane cleanup is long:

Those problems demand preparation before the storm and response for weeks or months after the storm.

Before the storm, the state needs to identify and work with farms at greatest risk for swine waste spills. After the storm, some swine waste lagoons will remain high for weeks after the floodwaters have receded. Those farmers need the state’s help to manage high waste levels without violating state or federal laws.

Before the storm, the state may need to help local governments get advance approval for storm debris disposal sites. After the storm, local governments need help handling hazardous substances like asbestos, paints, solvents, pesticides and other chemicals in the storm debris.

During and after the storm, state environmental agencies are called on to respond to dam failures and landslides.

The Department of Environmental Quality – particularly staff in the department’s regional offices – provides the state’s first line of response to environmental impacts. The seven regional offices house staff from multiple state environmental programs including those managing waste disposal, regulating animal operations and enforcing water quality laws.

A 2011 budget provision specifically targeted the regional offices for staff cuts and later budget reductions that disproportionately affected water quality programs.

By the end of 2016, budget cuts had reduced the state’s water quality program staff by 18 percent compared to 2010 levels. Those reductions were felt most acutely in the regional offices where there was a 41 percent reduction in water quality staff.

Those programs have not recovered. Instead, new state funding in recent years has been earmarked for projects with legislative support. Some of those legislative priorities are important, but legislatively mandated projects often did not include funding for additional staff. Without staff, new projects put an additional burden on already depleted staff resources.

As a result, Florence made landfall in a state unprepared to respond to the environmental impacts of a major flood event.

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