CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — When Republicans took control of the North Carolina legislature four years ago, they promised to do away with environmental regulations they claimed hurt economic growth. But environmental groups say lawmakers have gone too far, gutting laws aimed at protecting the public's health.
In the last few years, GOP lawmakers have scaled back pollution control programs, lifted a moratorium on natural gas exploration using hydraulic fracturing and pushed to remove key scientists and experts from state environmental oversight boards.
In the last week alone, they considered several controversial environmental measures. One would stop the state environmental agency from disclosing complaints and investigations on farms. Critics say that would shield farm operators from public scrutiny and discourage citizens from reporting violations. Another provision tucked in a regulatory reform bill would reduce the number of air quality monitoring stations in communities across the state.
"What this provision would do is say we're going to get rid of air quality monitors unless the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) specifically requires us to have them," said Molly Diggins, state director of the Sierra Club. That means communities would have "less protection from harmful air pollution than they have today with no clear benefit to the public."
All this was going on while lawmakers were debating coal ash legislation that environmentalist say will do little to stop Duke Energy's ash pits from leaking toxic waste into the state's waterways. The bill was introduced just months after a massive coal ash spill at a Duke plant in Eden coated more than 70 miles of the Dan River in toxic sludge.
Environmentalists and others say the GOP-based measures not only threaten the state's air and water quality, but are tarnishing North Carolina's reputation for protecting its natural resources.
"The extremism on the environment was not anticipated," said Derb Carter, president of the Southern Environmental Law Center's North Carolina office.
The Republicans behind the changes contend they are simply following through on what they promised voters they would deliver.
"For decades, liberals have stifled small businesses and job creators with undue bureaucratic burden and red tape," Gov. Pat McCrory said as he signed a voluminous GOP-backed regulatory reform bill into law last year. "This common sense legislation cuts government red tape, axes overly burdensome regulations, and puts job creation first here in North Carolina."
Protecting the environment was once a bipartisan issue, said Frank Holleman, senior attorney for the environmental law group. The state had a set of proactive environmental laws enacted under Democratic and Republican administrations, he said.
"With the new group, the laws have been thrown out the window. Basically everything is on the table. Their philosophy is: 'We're going to re-examine it all and overturn the apple cart,'" Holleman said.
The seismic shift began in 2010 when the GOP captured a majority of seats in the General Assembly for the first time since Reconstruction and cemented full control of state government with the 2012 election of McCrory, an ardently pro-business Republican who worked at Duke Energy for 29 years. That put them in prime position to implement a conservative platform.
After McCrory took office in January, 2013, lawmakers moved swiftly to target North Carolina's environmental programs, saying they wanted to create a business friendly climate in a state hit hard by the recession.
Carter said there was hope that McCrory might check some of the measures. As mayor of Charlotte, McCrory worked with Democrats to attract businesses to North Carolina's largest city.
"But the disappointment there is rather than be a check, he is emerging as a major cheerleader on a lot of these extreme measures," Carter said.
One of McCrory's first moves was appointing conservative Raleigh businessman John Skvarla to oversee the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources. In a December letter to the editor of The News & Observer in Raleigh, Skvarla bragged that within just a few months he had managed to turn his agency from "North Carolina's No. 1 obstacle of resistance into a customer-friendly juggernaut."
"People in the private sector pour their hearts and souls into their work," he wrote. "Instead of crushing their dreams, they now have a state government that treats them as partners."
Environmentalists say they discovered quickly that the state agency was working closely with McCrory and GOP lawmakers to thwart them on key environmental issues — most notably coal ash.
In early 2013, environmental groups took a series of legal intended to force Duke to stop groundwater pollution leaching from its coal ash dumps across the state.
That eventually prodded state regulators to acknowledge in court that all 33 of Duke's unlined ash pits were contaminating groundwater. But rather than force the utility to remove its ash, the state negotiated a proposed settlement with the $50 billion company that would have allowed it settle past environmental violations at two plants for just $99,111 while it continued to study the problem. That agreement, which the environmentalists criticized as a sweetheart deal, was abandoned in the wake of the Dan River spill.
McCrory and Republican lawmakers then proposed legislation requiring Duke to either clean out or cap its leaky ash pits. But leaders in the state Senate and House couldn't work out their differences, and adjourned Friday morning without approving a bill. They plan to try again when lawmakers reconvene after the November election.
Holleman said the failure to force the governor's former employer to clean up its mess is emblematic of the current administration's broader failure to protect the state's natural resources.
"The politicians in Raleigh are unwilling and incapable of holding Duke accountable and protecting North Carolina's clean water and communities," Holleman said. "The only winner in this sorry spectacle is Duke Energy's pollution, and the losers are the people of North Carolina and its clean water."
Associated Press writer Michael Biesecker reported from Raleigh. Follow him at Twitter.com/mbieseck
Follow AP writer Mitch Weiss at Twitter.com/mitchsweiss