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N.C. Environmental Compliance Conference: Fostering Collaboration in Modernized, Streamlined Regulatory Climate

Protecting North Carolina’s environment while ensuring we can continue to grow at the speed of business is a fundamental balance the NC Chamber advocates for daily. Contrary to outdated notions, North Carolina’s job creators know that protecting the environment and running a successful business aren’t mutually exclusive.

Nearly 200 professionals convened in Raleigh last week for the NC Chamber’s Environmental Compliance Conference, presented by Robinson Bradshaw. It is one of the few times the regulated community has the opportunity to engage with the regulators outside of typical permitting processes. The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality signaled its support of the dialogue through comments from N.C. DEQ Secretary Elizabeth Biser, as well as each of her division leads. Having the DEQ leadership team all in one place, particularly at a time of such staffing challenges, made for a thorough discussion of key issues.

Communication a Key Theme

Collaboration and open dialogue were consistent themes from the public- and private-sector leaders who addressed the crowd. Secretary Biser voiced that we can support the economy while protecting the environment – she sees the two going hand in hand.

Secretary Biser’s remarks outlined the importance her team places on making it easier to do business with DEQ, including the recently established project liaison position to provide a single point of contact for the initial permitting process. The division leads also described online enhancements that make it easier to access information without having to engage DEQ staff directly.

Communication was also emphasized in improving permitting – anticipate the challenges, address them, communicate!

The most consistent message from DEQ was that they want to hear from us and appreciate your input.

Staffing Shortages Plague Every Process

The public sector is not immune to the staffing challenges plaguing the private sector. DEQ leaders shared that development never slowed during the pandemic, so the number of applications remained steady and the department is desperately working to fill vacancies to keep up with the state’s growth.

Many positions are fee-based, and Secretary Biser would appreciate the regulated community’s consideration of raising those fees to support the positions. She shared that the fees have not been increased since 2007.

Talent not only impacts process but also application quality. Assistant Secretary for Environment Sushma Masemore says it varies but that talent seems to be a factor on both sides and it also limits the ability to hand hold and help make it better. In the past she cited opportunities for training and workshops but today the teams are stretched too thin, and it creates inefficiencies, particularly with regulations constantly changing at both the state and federal level. Mark McIntire, director of government affairs at Duke Energy, summed up her recommendations well saying, “Slow down. Take the time.”

Many of the speakers from both the public and private sector encouraged fellow attendees to have an open mind if you are responsible for writing the checks for fees. DEQ needs investment to make sure processes can continue to move efficiently.

Forever Chemicals Will Continue to be the Headline

Forever chemicals, emerging contaminants, and PFAS and PFOA were a key theme for every speaker.

Assistant Secretary Masemore recognized that forever chemicals are critical in making our lives more efficient and they play a key role in the quality of life that we enjoy. That said, she feels now is the time to learn and act. While not all PFAS may be toxic to human health, we know some are and we have technology and treatment systems that can exceed 99% reduction, which is an encouraging start. She voiced a preference for providing predictability and avoiding a “gotcha” approach.

Michael Scott, director of the Division of Waste Management, encouraged attendees to familiarize themselves with the Department’s Action Strategy for PFAS and understand how they fit into it. It is important for a facility to know what is in its waste stream and to be proactive about that before someone pulls a sample.

The NC Chamber team is convening private-sector stakeholders to discuss emerging contaminants. If you are interested in being part of that discussion, sign up here.

A Moment for Celebration

Perhaps one of the most exciting parts of the conference? The program was interrupted with a round of applause when Mike Abraczinskas, director of the Division of Air Quality, shared that North Carolina is attaining all national standards for air, and has been for more than 2,700 days.

Thank you to all who made the time to attend the Environmental Compliance Conference. There’s no place in the world like North Carolina – and it’s all of our responsibility to protect and preserve everything that makes our state so special.