Governor Cooper’s budget on environmental issues: what’s in it and why it’s important

Budget recommended by Governor Cooper, broken down by thematic area (Source: Governor’s Office)

Governor Roy Cooper unveiled his $29.3 billion budget yesterday, 3% of which is for natural and economic resources.

Here are some highlights of the environmental sections and why they are important:

Environmental Quality Department

  • $2.49 million to process emerging compounds with additional staff and testing

Why is this important: Are you tired of PFAS yet? Good, PFAS are not tired of you. These toxic compounds have seeped into everyday life: drinking water, carpets, clothing, fast food containers, furniture, kitchen utensils. They are in the blood, in the urine, in breast milk.

This money would pay for more specialized personnel – chemists, hydrogeologists, engineers – to meet the growing need for groundwater analysis, as well as permits. What it won’t pay for: the political will of the legislature to allow the DEQ to set a legally enforceable drinking water standard.

  • $160,000 for a “project liaison officer” collaborate with the Department of Commerce and Economic Development Partnership regarding permits and site development; plus another $500,000 for support positions

Why is this important: Former DEQ Secretary Michael Regan often said that it is possible to have both economic development and environmental protection. It’s a sunny talking point, but in real life government and economic development leaders chase taxpayers’ money away from polluting industries while neglecting the people who must live next to the contamination. These people are usually non-white and/or low-income. And once the first polluter enters a community, it’s open season. (North Carolina’s Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Council discussed the cumulative impacts of multiple polluters at a meeting earlier this week.)

At the risk of using corporate jargon, state agencies are stuck in “silos”: for example, Commerce recruits a company to set up in North Carolina, but until recently no one considered the environmental implications – or environmental justice – of this department’s efforts.

If the Legislature actually includes this line item in its budget (don’t hold your breath), the watchdogs should be watching its progress. If the legislature overturns the governor’s recommendation, DEQ and Commerce could still communicate about their respective concerns. The phone call is free.

  • $15 million for low-income households to reduce energy costs and afford clean energy sources

Why is this important: The national average residential electricity rate increased by 8% in January a year earlier, according to The New York Times, which reported that this is the largest annual increase in more than a decade. Low-income households are particularly affected, as are renters. While this budget recommendation would help landlords, it remains to be seen how it would impact tenants. According to the NC Housing Coalition, there are 27 counties where renters spend on average more than 8% of their household budget on energy. Renters tend to earn lower wages than landlords, and because they have to answer to a landlord, they can’t upgrade their homes to make them energy efficient or fit them with heat pumps or solar panels.

agriculture department

  • $2 million for forestry development program

Why is this important: The importance of forests and trees cannot be overstated. They provide essential wildlife habitat, store carbon, provide shade, and absorb and retain flood waters. The forestry development program in the governor’s budget would restore 18,200 acres of forest land – about the size of County Durham – and plant up to 6 million trees. That sounds admirable until you realize that North Carolina’s wood pellet mills consume more than that every year.

Map: Lisa Sorg, based on DEQ hog farm database and North Carolina Division of Emergency Management floodplain data

  • $18 million for the pig farm buyback program

Why is this important: The coastal plain, with its sandy soils, high water table and proliferating swamps, is not well suited to CAFOS – Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations – and their open waste lagoons and spray fields.

Dozens of these farms sit within the 100-year-old floodplain, which makes their lagoons vulnerable to overflow or rupture during a hurricane or prolonged storms. This money would finance the voluntary buyback program, up to 19 pig farms. The land is placed in a conservation easement, but farmers can still plant row crops on this land or raise livestock on pasture.

As Policy Watch reported in 2019, the buyback program was launched in 1999, after Hurricanes Floyd, Dennis and Irene hammered the state. After four rounds of buyouts totaling nearly $19 million for 43 farms, the legislature stopped funding the program in 2007. More than 100 farmers who wanted to participate in the buyout program couldn’t.

But Hurricane Florence changed the situation: the rising waters flooded 46 lagoons and 60 others were almost submerged. In 2018, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture secured $5 million to jump-start buybacks, split between federal and state funds.

Ministry of Natural and Cultural Resources

  • $10 million for bogs and pocosin preservation and inventory

why is it important: First, bogs are cool, at least when not on fire. In this part of the world, they are the result of decaying sphagnum, shrubs and sedges. In Scotland, steaming peat is used to dry the malt used to make whisky. (Laphroig will knock your socks off.)

However, burning peat releases carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas contributor. North Carolina has coastal bogs; those of you in 2008 may remember when, during a severe drought, lightning struck a bog, setting it ablaze. The bog burned for weeks, and the smell – and the pollution – spread west to the Triangle.

Restoring peatlands – by re-wetting them – can reduce carbon emissions and wildfire risk, as well as promote flood resilience and water quality, all very important not only for coastal communities but also for the planet.

These funds will also help the Natural Heritage Program identify coastal plain wetlands that have previously been excluded from other counts. Wetlands can control flooding, filter pollution and provide essential habitats. Discovering, acquiring and protecting wetlands, especially in the flood-prone coastal plain, can build resilience against future hurricanes and severe storms – highly likely events due to climate change.

(Creative Commons)

Other credits

  • $10 million to the Ministry of Transport so that the state can receive matching federal grants for the first part of the S line: suburban train that would connect Wake, Franklin, Vance and Warren counties. Another $10 million would go to a local government program that would provide matching funds for bicycle and pedestrian pprojects.

Why is this important: Transportation is responsible for 60% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. However, electric cars will not only lift the planet out of the climate crisis. As long as we keep putting more cars on the roads, including electric ones, that triggers road widening. And widening the roads requires asphalt, the manufacture and trucking of which emits greenhouse gases. More freeway lanes often require massive clearcutting of trees, which are carbon sinks. (Exhibits A and B: I-40 in Wake County, I-95 in Cumberland County.)

As for the S line, that’s years away, but a north-south rail line could ease the daily traffic jam on US 1 and Capital Boulevard.

Another way to get cars off the road is to make towns and suburbs safe and pleasant for walkers and cyclists. Protected bike lanes, greenways, sidewalks that connect neighborhoods: people would be more likely to walk or bike to a cafe if they didn’t have to cheat death by crossing four lanes of traffic.

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