Skip to main content

Whose Water Is It?

The Pollution Lobby: Whose Water Is It?

Whatever happened to the much-ballyhooed Year of the Coast? Despite endorsing proposals to beef up coastal protection in 1994, the Hunt administration has failed to follow-up its rhetoric with pressure on the legislature or the Coastal Resource Commission to adopt those proposals. “I don’t see a political will for pushing things onto another level,” says an employee at the state Division of Coastal Management. “We’re just slowing the pace [of destruction] somewhat. There’s no protection of the coast going on.”

Money from coastal real-estate interests plays a role. For example, landowners on upscale Bald Head Island have pumped over $800,000 into state politics since 1990 — including $100,800 to Jim Hunt and $50,600 to Attorney General Mike Easley. When leading Bald Head donors pushed for an exemption from the state’s ban on shoreline jetties, they got help from Hunt and Easley’s office. Old rules get bent and the new rules experts say are needed get bogged down. “Because of political giving, the mechanism for dealing with [coastal] problems is not responsive,” says Todd Miller of the N.C. Coastal Federation.

Republicans, who took charge of the state House in 1995, aren’t helping. One of the worst anti-environmental laws they passed undercuts a N.C. Court of Appeals ruling that waterways belong to all the people, not just those owning shorefront land. The court said a marina owner must buy an “easement” from the state for limited use of the public water.

“If you give it away, there’s no incentive for stewardship,” says David Farren, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) in Chapel Hill. “So if you attach a fair-market value to it, that is a traditional, all- American vehicle to let the market protect the resource.”
But coastal developers and marina owners did not want to pay fair-market value. To help them, Clark Wright, a former assistant attorney general, figured out how to do an end run around the court ruling. Wright now works for Ward & Smith, a New Bern-based law firm whose clients include swine producers, fuel oil dealers and Weyerhaeuser, the real-estate and timber giant. Wright wrote a bill with a formula that made the newly required easements cheap — even free for some owners with lots of waterfront acreage.

Wright says he represented marina owners who liked the old way of doing business. “The real concern,” he says, “was that you had 200 years of the status quo, during which everyone had operated under the assumption that they have the right as a shorefront property owner to build piers, docks, wharfs over submerged land, even for commercial purposes.”

Environmentalists called Wright’s bill a giveaway of public lands, and pointed out that pollutants from marinas (and the developments they attract) impose a costly burden on public resources.

Rep. Jean Preston, an Emerald Isle Republican with substantial campaign money from development interests, sponsored Wright’s bill and took the unusual step of allowing him to explain it to the House Environment Committee.

Wright carried the imprimatur of his law firm, whose members handed out $32,800 in campaign contributions from 1989 to 1994. Other business lobbyists blitzed the legislature, including Keith Hundley, Weyerhaeuser’s full-time lobbyist. Weyerhaeuser’s PAC donated $24,500 to state-level candidates from 1989 to 1994. “I talked to a lot of people,” says Hundley. “I helped to see it got final passage in final form.”

Conservationists, commercial fishers and regulators tried to fight the bill. But it easily passed both houses in 1995 to become law. “The legislative process was just turned over to development interests,” says Derb Carter, a SELC attorney. “They wrote the bill and they got the outcome they wanted. The legislators just sat on the sidelines.”

Wright and Hundley reported receiving no money for lobbying in 1995. In June 1996, the Institute for Southern Studies filed a complaint with the Secretary of State about this apparent violation of disclosure laws. The deeper problem — legislators promoting bills written by or for their benefactors — remains legal. And it will continue to takes its toll on the environment until systemic lobbying and campaign finance reforms become a reality.

This special report, paid for by the Institute for Southern Studies, is adapted from a 1996 three-part “Pollution Lobby” series in Durham’s Independent Weekly. It is based on reporting by Barry Yeoman and research by Bob Hall.