Toxics Program Magnifies GOP Mistrust of Agency

North Carolina Republican lawmakers who passed legislation designed to rein in state environmental regulation are now aiming to scale back a pollution control program.

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina Republican lawmakers who passed legislation this year designed to rein in state environmental regulation — as well as the number of regulators — are now aiming to scale back a pollution control program within a department some legislators already view with mistrust.

The state Air Toxics Program, which evaluates how nearly 100 pollutants discharged from hundreds of power plants, paper mills, chemical manufacturers and other industrial operations could increase health risks for surrounding residents, could shrink after next spring.

Business interests call portions of the program redundant compared to those in other states, and say a federal clean air program already keeps an eye on most of those pollutants. Environmental activists say they're willing to accept some administrative changes but nothing that would diminish its ability to protect citizens.

Rep. Mitch Gillespie, R-McDowell, a new co-chairman of the Legislature's Environmental Review Commission, said he plans to shepherd changes through the General Assembly when it reconvenes in May. Gillespie said he doesn't want to abolish the program. A House committee approved legislation to do just that in the final days of this year's regular session, but it got sidelined.

Members of the new majority party at the Legislature have made no secret this year of their negative feelings about the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which operates the program. Although nearly all agencies saw spending and staffing cuts in this year's budget, DENR was a big target. The department budget was cut by 12 percent and 160 positions.

Gillespie, who is also one of the House's chief budget-writers, didn't mince words about the department last week. Lawmakers who also made changes to environmental rule-making procedures this year said they often heard from business owners who felt burdened by environmental regulators.

"Overall, I am suspicious of the department and it's simply because I (believe) they go to the extreme on every piece of legislation," said Gillespie, a land developer for 30 years. "They don't take into account the real world and the people that they are regulating."

Department Secretary Dee Freeman defended his agency's activities in a prepared statement, saying it has a "superb track record in regard to meeting its mandated responsibility of protecting the environment and natural resources of North Carolina." The agency, he added, is also carrying out Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue's own regulatory reforms "to make state government more customer friendly" while promoting economic growth.

Uneasy relations between Republicans, DENR and environmental activists surfaced at the commission's first two meetings since the Legislature became controlled by Republicans. The commission can't pass new laws but does recommend changes to the full General Assembly.

The program, which began more than 20 years ago, measures 97 toxic air pollutants emitting from 784 facilities statewide by monitoring concentrations at the property lines of these operations for their effects on human health. State regulators say the state program is different from a federal air toxics program that seeks to reduce emissions involving 187 pollutants, 76 of which also are monitored by the state.

The federal program, which also is operated by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources on behalf of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, focuses more on specific industries and sets standards based on how much emissions can be reduced from smokestacks using control equipment. The state program is complementary to the federal program, Division of Air Quality Director Sheila Holman told lawmakers, because it centers on reducing the public's total exposure to pollutants.

"The idea of abolishing or ending it just doesn't make sense from a public health perspective," said George Lucier, the former chairman of a board that advised the division on scientific issues involving air toxics.

Chemicals monitored by the state program but aren't covered in the federal program include hydrogen sulfide, which is emitted from paper mills, and ammonia, generated from burning fossil fuels. The two chemicals alone rank among the top five most emitted pollutants by the state's regulated industrial operations, according to division data.

Several Republicans on the commission questioned Lucier and regulators about program details large and small. They sounded skeptical that companies emitted so much pollution — 38 million pounds annually. Division regulators returned last week to give them a 48-page itemized list of all the polluters. The division provided a bar graph showing toxic air emissions reported in 2009 to the EPA were about one-third of the levels reported by companies in 1998.

Gillespie said he asked Holman and a lobbyist for the state's chemical and manufacturing industry to meet and work toward a compromise that would receive public comments in March. But he told environmental groups they weren't invited to the meetings.

"They're not going to go along with anything that I come up with, so why should I?" Gillespie asked. He considers the department to represent environmental interests.

Dan Conrad, legislative counsel to the North Carolina Conservation Network, said the GOP's antipathy toward the department is troubling. Under Democratic rule, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources usually worked in the middle, providing a way to find common ground between environmental groups and business interests.

Today, Conrad said, "there's no place in the middle anymore."