By Amy Adams
North Carolina has learned a tough lesson in the Dan River coal ash spill: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In this case, the ounce of prevention would have come in the form of a well-staffed Division of Water Resources with the expertise and tools needed to run a compliance and monitoring program. However, budget cuts from the General Assembly and the updated “vision” from the new Department of Environment and Natural Resources administration gave us a glimpse of what can happen when you relax rules and requirements and try to transform state inspectors from environmental watchdogs into industry babysitters.
Industry giants and industry-friendly legislators often accuse environmental rules of being a roadblock to economic growth. In a nutshell, their argument is that it costs businesses too much money to protect the environment and communities from harm, when that money could instead be spent on job creation.
The argument always seems to be presented as a black and white choice — it’s either jobs or breathing clean air. Somehow, the argument from the industry side is always aimed at our wallets. Now we’re hearing the same arguments from Duke Energy, which claims ratepayers will have to shoulder the cost of switching to a safer coal ash storage system. Maybe that is partly due to where their own values lie — in profit margins. But the values that North Carolinians place on our environment transcend material concerns. And that gives me real hope.
Recent polling by Public Policy Polling proves how deeply our love for this state’s unique and diverse natural environment runs. According to the results, 93 percent of voters want state lawmakers to force Duke Energy to clean up the Dan River spill, and 83 percent think Duke should have to clean up all of its toxic coal ash sites. Emphasizing this, a national Gallup poll released in March showed that the majority of Americans said they prioritized the environment over economic growth. In the wake of the West Virginia and North Carolina threats to drinking water supplies, the ties between ourselves and the condition of the natural world around us have never been more apparent.
Making sure the resources that support our communities are protected falls on the shoulders of the Division of Water Resources at DENR. This state — as is the case for all states in the nation — is going to need its environmental scientists, engineers and inspectors if we are to adequately protect the environment, and in turn our water and air supplies. Routine inspections can lead to more compliance by companies, and can also reduce penalties — and environmental impacts — by catching problems and correcting them sooner. Rather than being viewed as a hindrance to industry’s way of business, regulators should be viewed as the guardians of our water supplies and healthy air.