DEQ again draws short straw in Senate version of budget

Cash-strapped agency would receive $8 million less and 30 fewer new employees than proposed by House

By: - May 16, 2023 10:04 am

The Sweeney water treatment plant in Wilmington (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

The NC Department of Environmental Quality would take an $8 million hit in the Senate version of the state budget, released yesterday, compared with proposed appropriations in the House version.  And the 38 additional full-time positions recommended by the House would be cut to just eight by the Senate.

DEQ budget

Senate                                      House

2023-24       2024-25             2023-24            2024-25

$103.9m      $105.6 m            $108m                $109m


Inadequate funding has plagued DEQ since the 2008 recession, when state lawmakers enacted widespread cuts across the board. However, even after the state economy recovered, DEQ was starved under a Republican majority, and has never rebounded. In the 2021-2023 biennium, DEQ received $106 million and $102 million. Under the current budget proposal, the appropriations remain essentially flat, even though North Carolina’s rapid growth requires more environmental oversight and services.

The Senate budget is also stingy in appropriating state funds to address emerging compounds, such as toxic PFAS, in the environment. Both the House and Senate versions include $74 million in one-time federal money from the infrastructure bill. 

The Senate appropriates $61 million through 2025 to provide grants to small and disadvantaged communities that need money to upgrade their water utilities to remove or reduce the compounds as required by federal law. (The EPA has proposed maximum contaminant levels for two types of PFAS, but the rule has not yet been finalized.)

However, the House goes further, building on the Senate version, but appropriating another $3.1 million in state funds. That includes an additional $300,000 to the Bernard Allen Memorial Drinking Water Fund to provide households whose private wells have been contaminated by PFAS with emergency drinking water supplies.

Currently the Bernard Allen fund receives $400,000 annually. Since 2006, proceeds have paid for private well testing and to help low-income households whose wells have been contaminated by other pollutants, such as dry-cleaning solvents.

Emerging compounds

Senate                                        House
$74m in federal funds              $74m in federal funds

                                                       $1.68m in recurring state money

                                                       $580,000 in one-time state money

                                                      $300,000 in recurring state funds to Bernard Allen fund


The Senate budget contains language from two identical bills that had stalled in committee. Part of a $20 million appropriation to the NC Collaboratory, a think tank at UNC-Chapel Hill, would be used to buy back toxic PFAS-containing firefighting foam from local fire departments. The foam is known as AFFF.

The AFFF – and alternate PFAS-free foams – would be used for training exercises at a new Advanced Rescue Training Facility at the Stanly County airport, operated by the State Fire Marshal’s Office. 

However, there are drawbacks to using AFFF for training. First, this type of toxic foam is being phased out, even by the Defense Department. The risks of training with AFFF – to human health and the environment – might not be worth any short-term benefit of knowing how to work with it.

And although the training facility would be made of concrete and self-contained to contain runoff from the AFFF, if any of the foam were to escape, it could contaminate nearby Little Mountain Creek. That creek flows through the historically Black community of West Badin, which is already burdened with pollution from the former Alcoa plant. From there, the creek enters Badin Lake, a popular fishing destination and drinking water supply.

Another $4 million would go to the Collaboratory for a multiyear human exposure study in counties identified with higher-than-average PFAS exposure risks through air, drinking water, food intake and dermal exposure.

Priority would be given to those living in counties and communities whose primary drinking water source is the Haw River or the Cape Fear River; those who live near industrial plants that process or use PFAS and are located within the Cape Fear and Lumber River Basins. Other communities that have a heightened risk or other health factors could also qualify.

Other environmental directives

  • The Senate and House both appropriated more than $14 million for flood resilience and mitigation on the coast and in flood-prone inland areas. This includes $5 million transferred to DEQ from the NC Office of Recovery and Resiliency for buyouts in the Stoney Creek watershed near Goldsboro. Under the Senate version, the Nature Conservancy would receive a $1 million grant from the Wildlife Resources Commission to protect and restore peatlands in eastern North Carolina. Peatlands are important for to control flooding, improve water quality, provide wildlife habitat and reduce the risk of wildfires.
  • The Senate bill also directs DEQ to implement “express permitting,” for projects and sets deadlines for those permits to be approved or denied. If the agency fails to meet the deadline, the applicant can request a contested case hearing before an Administrative Law Judge.
  • The Senate also requires the Commission for Public Health to conduct a public water supply fluoridation study to review the science on fluoride’s potential effects on cognitive development in children. The federal government’s toxicology program has surmised that children exposed to high levels of fluoride — above 1.5 parts per million in drinking water — have a greater risk of cognitive and neurodevelopmental impairments. The ranges of fluoride in drinking water typically found in the U.S. are less than 1.5 ppm, according to a draft report by the US Department of Health and Human Services. Studies have found the effects of low-level fluoride exposure is inconsistent and unclear. There is inadequate evidence to determine whether fluoride exposure lowers IQ or impairs cognitive function in adults, according to the draft report.

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.