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KR Real Cities. Real News. Real Information. Real People.
KR Real Cities. Real News. Real Information. Real People.
Published Monday, August 20, 2001
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Budget crisis diverts attention from efforts on environment

Progress on regulatingpolluters and enforcingfines is being held up

Associated Press

RALEIGH -- 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 February.

"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 state's books.

The first in what is expected to be an annual report on the department's enforcement activities is expected to be released this week.

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 this year.

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 paper makers.

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.

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