Tags:To assist reporters with year-in-review stories, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources has issued its list of top agency accomplishments for 2011. We offer that list below. Xpress has reported on several items in this list, including this first one (see our report at http://bit.ly/tOjQCT):
New customer service program to help public with environmental permits
The department in May created a program with existing staff to help guide small businesses, landowners and residents through the state’s environmental regulatory, permitting and compliance process. The Environmental Assistance Center offers one point of contact to guide applicants through the permitting system, designates technical staff to answer regulatory questions and guides people on ways they can reduce waste and save money. In the fall, the department hosted listening sessions to learn more about the types of assistance people need and to generate ideas for better customer service. Future phases of the program will address regulatory deadlines, customer feedback and environmental and resource priorities.
Agency’s new headquarters building saves money, energy and water
About 600 Raleigh-based employees this fall moved into the Environment and Natural Resources building, part of downtown Raleigh’s Green Square Complex. This complex is Raleigh’s first set of state government buildings constructed to meet the nation’s highest building standards in environmental design, and includes features that conserve energy, reduce water usage and save money. Those features include more windows than a typical office building, and systems that capture and treat rainwater so it can be reused flushing toilets and serving as makeup water in the building’s mechanical systems. The building consolidates most of the agency’s Raleigh-based employees into two buildings in downtown Raleigh. The complex also includes the Nature Research Center, a wing of the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences due to open next spring.
Protecting the quality and supply of the state’s water
Using money from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, the Division of Water Quality funded $132 million in infrastructure improvement projects in North Carolina. These funds helped pay for expansions, repairs and improvements of wastewater treatment facilities in Statesville, Moyock, Lumberton, Newport, Hendersonville and a host of other North Carolina communities. As part of its mission, the division administers state and federal funding programs for publicly-owned wastewater treatment facilities.
More North Carolina communities than ever now have backup plans in place in case of water shortages, thanks to the efforts of staff members in the N.C. Division of Water Resources. As of Nov. 28, the state agency had approved water shortage plans for 533 public water systems, a figure equal to 96 percent of the systems required by state law to have plans. Water shortage response plans require communities to devise a backup method of providing water to residents and businesses if there is a water shortage. The record-breaking drought of 2007-08 prompted state legislators to enact a law that aims to prevent towns and cities from running out of water during crises. Today, more neighboring communities have connected their water supplies to ensure residents will continue to have water. As an example, interconnections allowed 16 public water systems to continue operating after Hurricane Irene eliminated power to adjacent systems.
The state Division of Water Resources completed river basin plans for the Neuse and Cape Fear River basins, which serve roughly 3.15 million people in North Carolina. The river basin plans identify problems and solutions over a 50-year period based on the expected impacts and pressures associated with population and economic growth. The state agency is working on plans for the Tar and Broad river basins, and eventually will draft plans for all 17 of the state’s major river basins.
North Carolina’s Brownfields program produced a record-breaking number of agreements in which entrepreneurs and local governments chose to redevelop environmentally-contaminated property. The program’s success has grown as it has become more well-known among developers and lenders for its proven track record of facilitating these agreements. The program inked 31 agreements this year, more than in any year since it started in 1997. Brownfields are abandoned, idled or underused properties where environmental contamination hinders redevelopment due to concerns about environmental liability. The Brownfields Property Reuse Act removes barriers to redevelopment by protecting prospective developers from liability for contamination they did not cause in return for making the site safe for their proposed reuse. State law also provides a brownfields property tax incentive that allows prospective developers to recover funds spent on assessments and cleanup.
The N.C. Ecosystem Enhancement Program continued its perfect record of supplying compensatory mitigation for the N.C. Department of Transportation to offset unavoidable environmental damage from transportation infrastructure improvements. Since 2003, EEP has helped move forward more than $8 billion in NCDOT projects without delays due to a lack of mitigation.
Protecting air quality
North Carolina in 2011 recorded the second-lowest annual ozone levels since the state began monitoring air quality in the early 1970s. Statewide, ozone levels exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s ozone standard of 0.075 parts per million on 26 days – the same number as in 2010 – compared to about 50 days per year on average during the past 10 years. The lowest year on record was 2009, when weather conditions were much more favorable for air quality and only six days exceeded the ozone standard. Ozone levels continue to decline in the state due to ongoing implementation of emissions control programs, resulting in improved air quality and better protection of public health.
The summer of 2011 was memorable because of the effect several large wildfires had on air quality in North Carolina. To keep people informed and protect the public’s health, the Division of Air Quality issued dozens of special particle pollution forecasts for areas affected by smoke from the large wildfires and developed a visibility guide to help people relate smoke levels to the severity of the pollution.
Protecting land resources
Uncertainty about the location of the boundary between North and South Carolina has been nearly continuous since the first surveys almost 300 years ago. In 2011, staff with the Geodetic Surveys in North and South Carolina worked together to resurvey the boundaries near Polk and Gaston counties, Lake Wylie, Mecklenburg and Union counties, and Union and Scotland counties. Precise boundaries are an important determination for states, municipalities and utilities to understand fire, tax and school district lines.
Studying alternative energy possibilities in North Carolina
As directed by the N.C. General Assembly, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources started its study of the potential environmental and economic impacts of oil and shale gas exploration and development in North Carolina. The N.C. Geological Survey has concluded that a commercially viable reserve of natural gas may underlie parts of Lee, Chatham and Moore counties. A number of factors, including increased interest in non-conventional energy sources and access to existing natural gas pipelines in the area could make this potential reserve a target for exploration and development. Modern technology, such as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, has enabled the extraction of shale gas in similar formations in other states. The department’s study is due to the General Assembly by May.
Improving North Carolina’s recycling efforts, creating jobs
A department study completed in 2011 revealed that North Carolina’s recycling industry has generated more than 15,000 jobs in addition to reducing tons of waste from going to landfills. The study also concluded that recycling of construction waste and plastic bottles has risen sharply, and commercial composters are processing hundreds of thousands of tons of organic materials. The study’s major findings are that local government recycling programs have built a solid track record of capturing recyclable commodities from the waste stream and have recently started a new period of expansion.
In partnership with state Department of Transportation and the Carolina Asphalt Pavement Association, the N.C. divisions of Waste Management and Environmental Assistance and Outreach established rules for the recycling of roofing shingles into road pavement. The potential recycling of up to 260,000 tons of shingles each year could create up to 325 jobs statewide and save more than $24 million in road-building costs.
Using grants and technical assistance, the Division of Environmental Assistance and Outreach helped municipal curbside recycling programs reach a record high of 1.62 million households served in 2011. The program also helped create 224,592 tons of additional recycling capacity and 134 jobs at 29 separate recycling companies.
The DENR Environmental Stewardship Initiative, which helps organizations reduce their environmental impacts and recognizes groups that maintain this commitment, welcomed 10 new members this year, and approved two new Stewards and one Rising Steward. Members reported annual savings of nearly 600 billion British Thermal Units of energy and 42 million gallons of water and kept more than 10,000 tons of solid waste out of the landfill last year. Total cost savings realized by members in the last year exceeded $3.2 million.
In 2011, engineers in the department’s Waste Reduction Partners worked with 108 public sector organizations providing energy audits and management assistance. The partners played a key role in helping 33 organizations implement $4.8 million in energy saving projects funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Waste Reduction Partners includes retired engineers, architects and scientists who provide North Carolina businesses and institutions with waste and energy reduction assessments and technical assistance, typically at no cost to clients.
Protecting the coastal environment and fisheries
The Division of Coastal Management saved the state $250,000 by using its own staff and Geographic Information Systems technology to develop long-term average annual oceanfront erosion rates. The division had to hire a private contractor for about $250,000 to complete previous updates of the erosion rates, but improvements in GIS technology enabled the division to perform the update in-house for the first time. The division uses the erosion rates to determine setback distances for oceanfront development in North Carolina.
The division also completed the final report of the state’s first comprehensive Beach and Inlet Management Plan. The plan uses a systematic management strategy for oceanfront beaches and active tidal inlets to protect the value of the state’s coastal resources. The document provides management strategies for coastal areas and regional planning for projects such as beach nourishment and inlet dredging.
The division launched the new North Carolina Clean Boater program to encourage boaters to protect the environment. The program, part of the agency’s Clean Marina Program, encourages boaters to sign a pledge to protect coastal water by taking steps such as stowing trash so it doesn’t blow overboard, recycling fishing line and reducing the amount of waste boaters discard. Boaters who commit to the program received a Clean Boater sticker for their vessels.
Helping people recover after Irene
When Hurricane Irene devastated the coast in August, staff worked quickly to help North Carolinians recover. The Division of Coastal Management issued hundreds of emergency permits for rebuilding docks, piers, boathouses, bulkheads and other structures. Other staff worked with state transportation officials developing a strategy for repairing inlet breaches that the hurricane opened on Hatteras Island and Pea Island. Also, staff worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to ensure temporary FEMA trailers for hurricane victims would be placed consistent with Coastal Resources Commission rules.
The N.C. Marine Patrol helped local law enforcement agencies in Tyrrell County distribute supplies and conducted vessel security patrols around Ocracoke Island. The Division of Marine Fisheries closed all coastal waters to shellfish harvesting and issued a precautionary swimming advisory on the coast. Staff members collected and analyzed water samples and lifted the swimming advisory for all ocean beaches in time for Labor Day weekend. Others in the Division of Marine Fisheries worked with prisoners in the Department of Correction to remove nearly 5,000 automobile, truck, bus and aircraft tires from Bogue Banks beaches. The tires washed up from offshore artificial reef sites due to hurricanes Irene and Katia. DENR worked with the state Department of Transportation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to remove heavy shoaling from state transportation ferry channels caused by Hurricane Irene.
The N.C. Division of Water Quality worked with operators at more than 40 wastewater treatment plants to restore service at facilities that lost power or were overwhelmed by floodwaters from Hurricane Irene. The division’s regional inspection crews worked with plant operators to find risks to surface water resources and locate structural damage.
After the storm, the N.C. Division of Water Resources communicated with 562 public water systems and determined that 58 of those systems were unable to serve water due to plant damage or the loss of power or water pressure. Staff in the state agency provided technical assistance to those systems, as needed, until water service could be restored.
Educating the public and creating more opportunities for recreation
Few things do a better job of showcasing North Carolina’s coastal and fishing heritage than the new Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head, which the North Carolina Aquariums opened in May. The 1,000-foot fishing pier, paid for with state and private funds, includes a pier house with a tackle shop, an educational classroom and a multi-purpose room. The pier, which was built from concrete to withstand heavy wind from storms, serves as an example of environmentally-friendly design with three wind turbines that power the facility as well as solar panels, geothermal heating and cooling and a plumbing system that operates with reused water. These features and others helped the pier meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards, the nation’s highest building standards in environmental design. The new facility replaces the original pier, which was nearly destroyed by a 2003 hurricane.
State-run aquariua helped educate people about the impacts of climate change on coastal North Carolina. The aquarium at Fort Fisher sponsored a team of students through Coastal America to travel to Washington D.C. to present the impacts of climate change in the Cape Fear region. The Fort Fisher staff also provided marine mammal and climate change outreach in an interactive theater to more than 3,000 people from five North Carolina counties and Charleston, S.C. At Pine Knoll Shores, aquarists hosted a seminar on climate change with components for teachers and the public. The Pine Knoll Shores aquarium also staged programs on how climate change affects marine mammals.
The North Carolina Aquariums at Pine Knoll Shores and Roanoke Island were busy in 2011 saving sea turtles and educating people about them. The Roanoke Island aquarium used its own staff and materials to design and open a new exhibit called “Operation: Sea Turtle Rescue.” Staff at the Roanoke Island aquarium rehabilitated 25 sea turtles and released them back to the sea. At Pine Knoll Shores, staff launched the first Sea Turtle Celebration Day and upgraded the Sea Turtle Nursery exhibit to showcase the aquarium’s role in sea turtle conservation. The Pine Knoll Shores aquarium also cared for 150 loggerhead hatchlings and seven cold-stunned green turtles.
Visitor centers and exhibit halls that opened at Cliffs of Neuse, Merchants Millpond and Raven Rock state parks earned gold ratings from the U.S. Green Building Council through its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program. The facilities offer features such as water-saving fixtures, geothermal heating systems and extensive use of natural lighting.
The North Carolina Zoo, working with the Land Trust for Central North Carolina and the N.C. Natural Heritage Trust Fund, acquired a 113-acre tract in Montgomery County containing the largest old growth longleaf pine forest in central North Carolina. The property at the Asheboro zoo will be used as a nature preserve and hiking area.
A herpetologist with the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences helped discover a new species, known as the vampire flying frog. Dr. Bryan Stuart, the museum’s curator of herpetology, Australian Museum scientist Dr. Jodi Rowley and their colleagues made the discovery in Vietnam. This unusual frog has adapted for life in trees, using webbed fingers and toes for moving from great heights and gliding. It takes its name from the strange black “fangs” it displays as a tadpole. The discovery received international press coverage.
The state Division of Parks and Recreation and its partners introduced a free mobile phone application loaded with information about North Carolina’s state parks. The downloadable Pocket Range Mobile Tour Guide for Apple iPod and iPhone and Android smartphones allows visitors to plan and explore state parks with details about park locations, trails, facilities, reservations, events and news alerts. Also, an upgraded “pro” version for iPod and iPhone offers GPS-aided navigation of state parks and storage of detailed topographic maps and enhanced interactive features.
Awards and recognitions
A botanist with DENR’s Natural Heritage Program was honored when a plant was named for him. Bruce Sorrie, the Sandhills inventory specialist with the natural heritage program, earned that distinction in September. Dr. L.L. Gaddy named for Sorrie a new species of plant, endemic to the Sandhills, called the Hexastylis Sorriei, or Sandhills Heartleaf. The honor came a few months after the publication of Sorrie’s book “A Field Guide to Wildflowers of the Sandhills Region: North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.”
Staff members with the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources were honored in November with three of the 2011 Governor’s Awards for Excellence, the highest honor state employees can receive in North Carolina for dedicated service to the state. Gov. Bev Perdue honored Lewis Ledford, director of the state Division of Parks and Recreation, Alvin Braswell, deputy director for operations at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, and the North Carolina Zoo. The three awards marked the most any single organization received at this year’s ceremony.
State water quality and transportation officials earned a national award for developing new mapping software that saves money and protects the environment during road work. Staff members with the state Division of Water Quality and Department of Transportation were honored by the Federal Highway Administration with Environmental Excellence Awards during the International Conference on Ecology and Transportation in Seattle. The two North Carolina agencies developed GIS-based models that produce more accurate maps of stream and wetlands statewide. The computer models can predict where streams begin and where wetlands are located. State transportation officials say the maps will enable them to plan road construction projects that avoid or limit environmental impacts, and reduce costs and time associated with the projects.
The Federal Highway Administration also recognized the Division of Water Quality with an Excellence in Ecosystem, Habitat and Wildlife Award for developing a tool that will become the state and federal standard for wetland assessments and play an important role in protecting wetlands in the future.
Misty Buchanan, the inventory manager for the N.C. Natural Heritage Program, was named a National Recovery Champion by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for her work detailing the number, distribution, status and health of threatened and endangered plant populations.