|Published Monday, August 20,
EASLEY RAISED ISSUE IN CAMPAIGN
Budget crisis diverts attention from efforts on
environmentProgress on regulatingpolluters and
enforcingfines is being held up
By EMERY P. DALEISO
The Easley administration
has been so busy coping with the state's worst budget bind in a
decade that an early promise to improve compliance with
environmental laws has yet to get off the ground.
Gov. Mike Easley, who made better
enforcement of environmental laws an issue during his campaign last
year, repeated his interest in putting teeth into anti-pollution
enforcement during in his first State of the State speech in
"We're exploring ways to make enforcement work more effectively
and efficiently," Easley spokesman Fred Hartman said last week. "I
think that the governor thinks it's important to get a clear
understanding of where we are and that the enforcement of those
environmental fines have some real teeth."
But environmentalists within and outside the state Department of
Environment and Natural Resources say progress has been held up as
the new administration works with the legislature to balance the
The first in what is expected to be an annual report on the
department's enforcement activities is expected to be released this
For years, regulators in business-friendly North Carolina tried
to get polluters to comply with environmental laws any way they
could, even if it meant allowing polluters to get away with more
than their permits allowed.
Regulators say the objective is compliance, not racking up fines.
Polluters who knew they were fouling the air, water or land are
treated more strictly than those who didn't. Violators who report
failings themselves receive lighter treatment.
For example, two Hickory Chair Co. plants reported problems,
mostly involving record-keeping problems by the previous owners,
late last year. In June, state regulators assessed fines of $37,520
and $26,320 against the wood manufacturing and finishing plants -
penalties that, respectively, represented 2percent and 1.6percent of
the maximum allowed by law.
Last year, DENR collected less than a third of the $6.1million in
fines it assessed in 2,010 cases, although more money may come in
Negotiations that come after an accused polluter is fined often
result in state officials easing fines. Often the penalty is
appealed and the accused violator tries to prove it didn't violate
the law or that the proposed fine is too severe for the damage
caused. The right to appeal isn't going to disappear no matter what
the Easley administration recommends.
"Most companies want to be treated fairly and want to come away
at the end of the day feeling like they've been treated fairly,"
said Preston Howard, who headed the state Division of Water Quality
until March 1999 and is president of the Manufacturers and Chemical
Industry Council, which represents N.C. chemical, pharmaceutical and
One recommendation that could improve compliance with
environmental laws is streamlining enforcement, now divided among
eight divisions responsible for regulating different types of
pollution threats. Divisions responsible for protecting against
pollution involving the air, water, radiation and hazardous waste
have different regimes for finding violators.