How About Getting Serious?

Unless it’s a gift for Christmas or a birthday, when my two teenage boys ask for money they know they’ll be held accountable for how it’s used.

Requests by state agencies for appropriations from the N.C. General Assembly typically are met with similar expectations of accountability. State programs don’t simply get funds because they exist. They must justify their budget needs each year, and account for how they spent the money they have been given in the past.

At least as a taxpayer I hope that’s how it’s done.

Twenty-three years ago lawmakers decided that annual budget requests and agency reports weren’t sufficient to obtain a comprehensive understanding of the environment.  They wanted more, so legislators asked the secretary of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources to report every two years on environmental conditions and trends, and what’s being done to protect and restore environmental health.

In a recent email with Bill Holman who lobbied for this law in 1989, he said “…the idea was to provide an opportunity for [the department] to identify the state’s important environmental problems and make recommendations to the General Assembly on how to address them.”

Holman later served the department as its assistant secretary and secretary between 1998 and 2000.  He feels that it has never effectively utilized this report even when he was there.

Past reports started seriously enough even before the legislative mandate.  In 1987 under Gov. Jim Martin’s administration, the department prepared a report that attempted to convey to the legislature good and bad news about environmental trends across the state. That first report helped to inspire the legislature to make the biannual report a statutory mandate.  In response, two more reports were prepared in 1989 and 1991 that were pretty comprehensive in nature, and which even included a preamble by Martin himself.

Then, as these types of exercises tend to do, the reports became much more glossy presentations that looked and read much more like tourism brochures rather than serious analytical reports that digest and evaluate the status of environmental protection efforts.  And somewhere along the line, the requirement that reports be submitted to the lawmakers every two years was forgotten.

The most recent report was released early this year eleven months late after some prodding from the NC General Assembly.  It follows the now standard flowery format that celebrates our beautiful and productive environment, while providing little meaningful analysis of the numerous environmental challenges that confront the state now and in the future.

The state has issued nearly 13,000 stormwater permits in the 20 coastal counties, but staff to monitor those permits for compliance has been severely cut.The new state report on the environment is silent on the issue. 

Much of the data and commentary presented in the report provide virtually no insights into environmental issues.  The impact on the Department’s ability to safeguard the state’s environment caused by a 40 percent cut in its yearly operating budget is not examined. The report is silent regarding lack of adequate staff to carry out legislative mandates that provide critical oversight of environmental standards and permits. For example, there are now nearly 13,000 permits issued for coastal stormwater systems in the 20 coastal counties, and yet the department’s staff to issue permits and monitor their compliance has been cut significantly. It also fails to report that the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission lacks sufficient funds to hold its regular meetings, making it difficult to address pressing policy demands.

Before time and money is spent preparing the next report in 2013, it’s time to refocus on the purpose of this report, and what it should contain.

The existing legal requirements are quite clear:

  • Identify and analyze current environmental protection issues and problems;
  • Document trends in the quality and use of air and water resources;
  • Inventory areas of the state where air or water pollution is a problem or may be a problem in the next two years;
  • Explain current efforts and resources being spent to correct pollution problems, and estimate what additional resources are needed to solve potential problems;
  • Explain goals and strategies to protect the environment; and
  • Suggest needed environmental legislation.

The report should provide a candid and honest evaluation of how well funds have been used to protect the environment, and where there are gaps and problems with management efforts.  This would provide regular measurable benchmarks upon which performance of the department can be measured, and its future needs addressed.

Perhaps it’s naive to expect any agency to evaluate itself.  That’s probably why the report has never been used to clearly communicate with lawmakers vexing management challenges the department faces.

The outcome of the election for governor later this year is highly uncertain.  This means the current leadership of the department may or may not be around next February when the next report is due.  That’s no excuse not to make the required 2013 report a priority right now.  A valid, analytical assessment of environmental needs is urgently needed no matter who’s in charge next year.

If a serious effort is not made to make the next report a meaningful and timely exercise that lives up to its legislative mandate, lawmakers should either eliminate the report or assign it to an independent third party to prepare.

It is pure insanity to keep preparing the report the same way over and over again, and expect a different, more meaningful result.

About the Author

Todd Miller

Todd founded the North Carolina Coastal Federation in 1982. A native of Carteret County, he was selected in 2013 as a distinguished alumni of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he received his undergraduate and masters degrees. Todd also received The Old North State Award in 2007, the National Wetlands Community Leader Award in 2012 and the Peter Benchley Ocean Awards' Hero of Seas Award in 2015. He is a founding board member of Restore America Estuaries, a member of the Board of Visitors for the UNC Institute for the Environment and chairman of the Policy Committee for the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuary Partnership. As executive director, Todd formulates the federation’s goals and policy positions, serves as the federation’s spokesperson and provides staff and operations oversight.