News: CJ Exclusives

State Regulators On the Hot Seat

Critics question NC rules and enforcement at a legislative hearing

The air turned foul in a General Assembly committee meeting Tuesday when representatives of various industries in North Carolina assailed the state Department of the Environment and Natural Resources.

Robin Smith, DENR assistant secretary of planning/policy, testified before the Joint Select Committee on Small Business and Economic Development that North Carolina’s environmental laws sometimes are stricter than federal laws, and other times they are less stringent. “It’s a tradeoff,” she said.

One example of a stringent state law is the Clean Smokestacks legislation that the state legislature recently approved, Smith said. Then again, she said, North Carolina, for example, provides financial assistance for owners of underground fuel tanks to clean up leakage and contamination of surrounding soil. Federal laws don’t provide any assistance, she said.

But Rep. Connie Wilson, D-Charlotte said she was concerned about DENR’s excessive regulations that thwart economic development in the state. “The complaint I hear is that North Carolina is business unfriendly because of DENR,” Wilson said.

Smith countered Wilson’s assessment of her department. “Our standards are not out of line with programs in the Southeast,” she said.

John Yarboro, Jr., director of government relations for the Employers Coalition of North Carolina, testified that environmental laws in the United States harm business. “Many businesses, including small businesses in North Carolina, compete globally. But other countries don’t have the stringent laws we have in the United States,” he said. “We can’t compete with these outside firms because of the strict rules in the United States,”

“As we look at DENR and other agencies how do we compensate for the costs we incur?” he said. Government officials need to reconsider how they enforce environmental policies, Yarboro said. Small businesses, in particular, are affected by costs driven by environmental regulations. Some of them will go out of business, he said. “We want answers from these regulatory agencies.”

Bob Slocum, executive vice president of the N.C. Forestry Association, said members of his organization also were upset with DENR. “The universal comment we got was not so much the rules themselves, it was the attitude of the people enforcing the rules. It’s an anti-business attitude,” he said.

Paul Wilms, director of governmental affairs for the National Homebuilders Association, testified, “It’s not so much the standards that are the problem, it’s how they’re administered.” Permits required by the DENR can be used to delay, or kill, a project, he said.

Often the agency, whose permit must be granted within 60 days of the start of construction, will wait until the 50th day that a project has been under way before making a ruling. The agency should be able “to stop the clock,” on permit applications, to speed up the development approval process, Wilms said.

Smith said, however, that DENR has grandfather provisions in laws that allow leniency in certain cases. Applicants do not have to reapply for permits in those situations.

Many applications for permits filled out by developers are incomplete and slow down the regulatory process, Smith said. The department, she said, trains applicants on how to fill out the required paperwork.

Sen. A. B. Swindell IV, D-Nashville, expressed outrage at DENR’s intransigence. Many legislators have heard complaints about lengthy delays in the deparment’s permitting process, he told Smith. “It’s a shame we come to meetings like this and we hear about problems, and they’re not solved,” he said.

Sen. David Hoyle, D-Dallas, chairman of the committee, asked Smith whether DENR was understaffed.

“It’s hard to say at this point whether we need more people,” she said. DENR has lost employees during the state’s economic downturn and budget restrictions the past couple of years, Smith said, and staff turnover has contributed to the slowness of the department’s work.

Expressing the general sentiment of those who spoke to the committee was Rep. Alex Warner, D-Hope Mills. “I don’t know of any other agencies that I’ve had to investigate and answer for than DENR and DOT,” he said. “We need to provide customer service, especially to business.”

Richard Wagner is the editor of Carolina Journal.