Archive for January, 2012

State of the Environment report’s data, response mixed

Original posting:




The condition of North Carolina’s environment got uneven grades Friday in a new state report. It says the air is safer to breathe than it was 20 years ago and that less raw sewage is being dumped into waterways, but also that population growth is causing other pollution problems and putting a strain on drinking water supplies.

The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources produced the “State of the Environment” to show legislators, public agencies and the public how well the state is protecting its water, air and land. DENR is supposed to issue the report every two years, though this is the first one since 2008.

Among environmental groups, the report itself got mixed reviews.

Todd Miller, executive director of the N.C. Coastal Federation, said he didn’t think the report was specific enough for legislators to use to decide what programs and issues need more money.

DENR has lost about 40 percent of its funding since 2009, and Miller said the report would have been a good chance for the department to show lawmakers where scarce dollars could now do the most good.

“I was looking for a more compelling case as to why these various programs need to be better funded by the General Assembly,” Miller said. “The report sort of attempts, in a general way, to talk about where resources are being used well. But it should lay out the challenges and where more resources are desperately needed.”

In particular, Miller said, the state needs to invest more in its programs to reduce the runoff of chemicals and sediments from storms, blamed for much of the pollution in streams and estuaries.

Diana Kees, spokeswoman for DENR, said the department sends reams of reports to the legislature each year with more detail on programs and needs.

This report, available on DENR’s website, is intended to give a broader view of what the department does to safeguard air and water and conserve land.

“This is the one place that the general public can go and see: These are the issues going on in the environment. This is what the state is trying to do to protect these environmental resources, and here are some of the things we see coming down the pike that we need to deal with,” Kees said.

The report is more detailed than some of its predecessors.

For instance, it talks about the rise and fall of different indicators of water quality over time, saying that the majority of the state’s lakes, streams and rivers are in good shape.

However, the report says, the quality of about 40 percent of the state’s waters is impaired, with mercury from coal-fired power plants, bacteria and sediment being the worst problems.

The report says air quality has improved across the state since the 1980s, as indicated by ozone and particulate measurements.

It attributes much of the air-quality improvement to the use of cleaner gas and diesel fuels, more efficient cars, and a lawsuit the state filed in 2006 to force the Tennessee Valley Authority to reduce power-plant emissions that were drifting into North Carolina.

While the report highlights the benefits of programs throughout DENR, it also notes that some of them have been limited by budget cuts. Land conservation, which had accelerated for about a decade, dropped off when the recession hit, the report says.

DENR also doesn’t have near enough money for environmental cleanup such as the restoration of contaminated drinking water wells and the hundreds of new cases each year of leaking underground storage tanks.

Dan Crawford, lobbyist for the N.C. League of Conservation Voters, said he could see why DENR might not use the report to complain about funding cuts.

“If it were me,” Crawford said, “I would definitely feel like I was under the gun with the General Assembly, and I would be cautious with my words. I think this report reflects that.”

DENR has much work to do going forward, the report says, including a study to lay out for legislators the potential costs and benefits of hydraulic fracturing to extract shale gas.

That report is due in May.

Even with the stall in the economy, North Carolina has remained one of the fastest-growing states in the country, and the report says DENR wants to encourage healthy growth.

That includes making sure that more people – and more industry and more cars – don’t result in more pollution and that there are green spaces to which people can retreat.

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