As consumers, we’ve all heard the phrase “The customer is always right.” But what happens when the state agency charged with protecting human health and the environment starts calling the companies it’s supposed to regulate “customers”? A recent meeting in Asheville hosted by officials from the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources provided a glimpse.
On Oct. 11, DENR officials held the seventh in a series of “listening sessions,” part of an ongoing effort to streamline the agency’s operations in response to budget cuts and complaints from regulated businesses. Input from the sessions will guide the department in developing recommendations for retooling its permitting process; a report detailing both the comments and the agency’s conclusions is due out by year’s end.
The effort began in earnest after Republicans gained control of the Legislature in 2010. The new leadership, along with DENR Secretary Dee Freeman (a Democratic appointee), have sought to address various complaints concerning what businesses say are unnecessary obstacles by combining departments and cutting staff. According to Director of Communications Diana Kees, those reductions have targeted agencies some GOP leaders say are hindering the progress of commerce — in part by enforcing state rules that are stricter than federal requirements (see “On the Chopping Block,” May 3 Xpress).
The term “customer,” explains Edith McKinney, who heads DENR’s new Division of Environmental Assistance and Outreach, came from legislators “interested in folks having better customer service. It means we listen to the people we serve, and that’s everybody. … Our whole mission is about what’s best for the public.”
Representatives of both the development and manufacturing sectors took this opportunity to spell out the kind of streamlining they’d like to see in the agency that regulates them.
Many complaints concerned the “add info” letters and other requests often sent to applicants while a permit is being considered.
“It’s not unusual,” asserted Rebecca Newton of ClearWater Environmental Consultants in Hendersonville, “for us to get an add-info letter that is outside the bounds of the regulatory authority of the Division of Water Quality.” Another problem, she and others noted, is a bureaucratic disconnect between agency staffers here (who are familiar with the unique problems of development in the mountains) and their colleagues in Raleigh (who may not be). Because Raleigh issues the final permits, these speakers noted, communication failures can lead to errors in permits that are then hard to remove.
Several speakers complained that DENR focuses on the wrong cases. “Get in the car and drive around, and you’ll find the real violators,” said one participant who didn’t identify himself. “Because while my client is getting 37 add-info letters, just down the road there’s someone doing something they could never get a permit for. … You’re penalizing the people who are trying to do the right thing.”
Transylvania County native Lori Galloway, representing Excelsior Packaging Group in Brevard, agreed. “I am determined, by hook or by crook, to keep jobs in Transylvania County,” she declared. “We recycle everything that isn’t nailed down, including our ‘dirty’ ink. The last thing I want to do is pollute here.” Excelsior, said Galloway, recently ran into a major snafu in connection with a plan to bring in a new printing press. The change required modifications to their air-emissions permit, she explained, but the additional permitting “was such a chore because there were so many unknown parameters with bringing in the new press. We just needed some assistance,” she continued, someone they could call to get questions addressed “without worrying that the environmental gods are gonna strike me with lightning.”
Randy Hintz of McGill Associates in Asheville, noted: “Time is money. We want to do the right thing; let’s do it the first time. It’s very frustrating to respond to all the comments in a DENR review letter, only to have a new officer in Raleigh come in with new questions. The volume of paper ... is unbelievable. Seems like we could reduce the paper and save a few trees.”
Julie Mayfield of the WNC Alliance, an environmental group, said: “If we can figure out a fast lane for those who routinely meet [permitting] requirements and don’t cause problems, that would be great. It makes sense to focus on the bad actors.”
Still, questions remain. DENR, notes McKinney, has lost hundreds of staff. “I’d be less than honest if I said we lost that many positions and things will be better and faster.”
“Everybody has less to operate with,” she explains. “The law says the waters have to be drinkable and swimmable; we believe you can enforce the laws and still create jobs.”
“We hear a lot about rolling back the rules,” she continues, “but when you talk to people, one of the biggest economic incentives we have in North Carolina is our environment. People really want regulations: They [just] want to understand them.”
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