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As a result, the department has lost 376 staff positions, according to a recent study.

Before hurricanes make landfall, hog farmers in North Carolina often drain their manure lagoons, which are used to store animal waste. To prevent them from overflowing from excess amounts of rain, farmers often spray the contaminated water onto their fields. This, however, is illegal—the runoff could contaminate nearby waterways. 

Conservation groups have documented farmers doing so anyway. 

In 2016, the Cape Fear River Watch and Waterkeeper Alliance took photos and videos that contained GPS timestamps to prove to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) that hog farmers were breaking the law. The state agency, however, said it couldn’t use the information because it did not collect it and the DEQ couldn’t gather the evidence first-hand anyway because it lacked the funding to do aerial surveys, according to reporting by the Food & Environment Reporting Network, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting and The Guardian. 

Issues like these could become more commonplace due to the increased likelihood of major hurricane activity—thanks to climate change—and major cuts to budget funding for environmental agencies at the federal and state level. 

On Monday, President Trump released his budget proposal for fiscal year 2021, which included deep cuts to domestic and safety net programs. For the U.S Environmental Protection Agency, the president’s plan included a budget cut of 26.5%. That’s not surprising, considering the EPA’s budget for fiscal year 2019 was $6.146 billion—a 23% decrease from the previous year.  

Things aren’t much better at the state level either. A study from the Environmental Integrity Project shows that 31 states have cut funding for their agencies’ pollution control programs. 

According to the report, North Carolina saw one of the deepest cuts in the nation over the last 10 years:  Between 2008 and 2018, the DEQ had 34% of its budget cut. In that time span, the state’s environmental agency lost 376 staff positions. 

 “We found that a majority of states have cut their pollution control spending and staffing over the last decade—often more drastically than EPA—even at times when overall state budgets have grown and environmental challenges have increased,” the report’s authors write. “This downsizing of environmental protection agencies at both the federal and state levels has happened during an unprecedented boom in the U.S. oil and gas industry. State regulators are frequently overwhelmed with permit applications for new projects while serious violations of law continue to accumulate at existing facilities with no enforcement response.” 

The Environmental Integrity Project found that North Carolina’s DEQ was allotted $116 million in 2008 (adjusted for 2018 inflation). If funding had been kept in line over the years, the DEQ should have received $136 million in 2018. 

For fiscal year 2019-2020, the DEQ’s base budget was less than $80 million. 

In his latest budget proposal, Gov. Roy Cooper asked the General Assembly to increase the DEQ’s budget to $95 million, which would have reflected a 20% increase. His goal was to address some of the state’s largest environmental challenges, including increased chemical contaminants in drinking water and pollution from industrialized hog farms. 

While the DEQ’s main budget has yet to be approved—the governor has vetoed the legislature’s proposed budget in an effort to get more money for teachers—lawmakers have managed to keep the government running with a series of mini-budgets. But instead of the $6.3 million Cooper asked for so the DEQ could hire 37 people, the legislature approved $600,000 for five positions.

“It just makes sense that if you give the agencies more money and staffing, they’d be able to do their jobs better.”

George Santucci is the president of the New River Conservancy in North Carolina, a conservation group that focuses on protecting clean water. His group often works with the DEQ to improve water quality and other projects. In an interview with COURIER, he explained the impact of staffing shortages at the state department.

“We have fewer and fewer people to reach out to for assistance [and] these remaining staff have picked up additional duties and are very overworked,” Santucci said. “The Department of Water Resources’ ability to monitor streams is compromised with the budget cuts, too. There are less people forced to do more.”

The North Carolina DEQ did not return a request for comment from COURIER. But a spokeswoman told WFAE in December that while the state has seen “deep staff and budget cuts in the past decade,” the agency was committed to “protect(ing) North Carolina’s communities and environment even with limited resources.”

Keene Kelderman, who serves as an analyst with the Environmental Integrity Project, pointed out that the staffing shortage creates more problems than paperwork backlogs. When a state environmental agency doesn’t have enough staff members and inspectors to check pollution from facilities on a regular basis, violations can go unnoticed—much like the issue with hog farmers—leading to increased pollution.

In recent years, Kelderman said, the responsibility of environmental protection has shifted from the federal government to state agencies. That’s why he and colleagues at the Environmental Integrity Project conducted the study, which was published in December. 

“No one had done any kind of staffing or budget analysis to see if the state agencies could even handle the added responsibilities,” he said. 

Some state agencies, Kelderman added, have argued that budget cuts are often offset by reorganizing agency functions to become more efficient. “However, it’s hard to believe these efficiency improvements are enough in cases where workloads for state agencies increase at an even faster rate,” he said. “It’s also hard to believe the efficiency improvements result in the same quality of work.”

To make matters worse, the DEQ is already limited in what it can do because of the Hardison Amendment, a state law that passed in 2014. The amendment places restrictions on how the DEQ can enforce regulations. 

For example, the DEQ doesn’t place restrictions on chemicals like PFAS (which are found in consumer products like non-stick cookware) because the EPA doesn’t—though the federal agency has issued a non-enforceable health advisory. PFAS chemicals don’t break down naturally, so they build up in the environment over time. Exposure can cause cancer and cholesterol diseases along with issues in pregnancy and thyroid problems. North Carolina has the third highest rate of PFAS exposure in the U.S. 

Kelderman and the Environmental Integrity Project see the issue in simple terms: Better funding for state DEQs means that they can do their jobs more thoroughly, carefully, and better protect the environment.

“More inspectors to regularly check facilities for violations, more permit writers to write quality permits that protect both public health and the environment, and more scientists to research the health effects of pollution and help provide technical background for law-making,” he said. “It just makes sense that if you give the agencies more money and staffing, they’d be able to do their jobs better.”