Who’s the customer anyway?

Nice piece in the NYT on the political and environmental travesty that is the coal ash spill here in NC.  When business is the “customer” and the people of the state are just bystanders, this is exactly what you get.  Some good bits:

RALEIGH, N.C. — Last June, state employees in charge of stopping water pollution were given updated marching orders on behalf of North Carolina’s new Republican governor and conservative lawmakers.

“The General Assembly doesn’t like you,” an official in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources told supervisors, who had been called from across the state to a drab meeting room here. “They cut your budget, but you didn’t get the message. And they cut your budget again, and you still didn’t get the message.”

From now on, regulators were told, they must focus on customer service, meaning issuing environmental permits for businesses as quickly as possible. Big changes are coming, the official said, according to three people in the meeting, two of whom took notes. “If you don’t like change, you’ll be gone.” …

Current and former state regulators said the watchdog agency, once among the most aggressive in the Southeast, has been transformed under Gov. Pat McCrory into a weak sentry that plays down science, has abandoned its regulatory role and suffers from politicized decision-making. [emphasis mine]

Make no mistake, this is all very political.  And how is it accomplished?

But current and former agency employees said the treatment of Duke was typical of the pro-industry bias now in place under Governor McCrory, Mr. Skvarla and the General Assembly.

Last year, the environment agency’s budget for water pollution programs was cut by 10.2 percent, a bipartisan commission that approves regulations was reorganized to include only Republican appointees, and the governor vastly expanded the number of agency employees exempt from civil service protections, to 179 from 24.

The effect, said midlevel supervisors who now serve at the pleasure of the governor, is that they are hesitant to crack down on polluters who might complain to Mr. Skvarla or a lawmaker, at the risk of their jobs. Several spoke anonymously out of fear of being fired.

“They want to have a hammer to come down on anybody who hinders developers by enforcing regulations,” said a supervisor whose department is supposed to regulate businesses under laws devised to protect water quality. “We’re scared to death to say no to anyone anymore.”

I don’t hate business.  Business is good.  But I put the health and safety of my fellow citizens first.  And that should damn sure be the job of DENR.  The fact that Republicans don’t see it that way is a damn shame.  I think the words of a former DENR engineer sum it up well:

“Business is important, but there should be a balance between the regulated community and the environment,” Ms. Wilson said. “It’s all out of balance here.”

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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