Robin W. Smith

Collection: Perspectives on Modern Regulatory Governance
Date of interview: March 23, 2015 and April 8, 2015
Interviewer: Ashton Merck; Edward Balleisen, Kate Preston
Interview length: Two sessions of two hours each (~4:00:00)
Transcript: PDF (audio not available)
Location of interview: Kenan Institute for Ethics, Duke University, Durham, NC

Biography: Over the last twenty-five years, Robin Smith has served the state of North Carolina as an environmental regulator and policymaker.  She spent ten years as a Special Deputy Attorney General; in 1999, she was appointed to Secretary of the Environment at NCDENR.  Smith is best known for authoring the legislatively-mandated Oil and Gas Study in 2012, in which she advocated for a strong regulatory framework in the case that North Carolina chose to undertake hydraulic fracturing.  Smith retired from DENR in 2013 to start her own practice, but continues to be involved in local and national environmental law and policy issues.

Brief summary: The interview is divided into two parts; the first section focuses on Smith’s formative years, including the transition from her time as Special Deputy Attorney General to DENR.  The second interview is much more issue-driven, beginning with water and coastal issues, along with a discussion of her role as lead author in the Shale Gas study on hydraulic fracturing in North Carolina.  The second interview concludes with her reflections on the future of environmental policy in North Carolina.

Time range of discussion: 1987 – 2015

Institutions mentioned:
Environmental Protection Agency
UNC School of Government
DENR Coastal Management Program
NC Coastal Resources Commission
NC Environmental Management Commission
NC Mining and Energy Commission

Legislation and rules mentioned:
Administrative Procedures Act
Coastal Area Management Act (N.C.)
Clean Water Act
Sedimentation Act (N.C.)
Phase II Stormwater Permitting Program
Clean Smokestacks Act
Jordan Lake Nutrient Strategy

Locations mentioned:
High Point, NC
Brunswick County
Wrightsville Beach
Shell Island Resort
Jordan Lake
Guilford County
Haw River
Catawba River
Figure Eight Island
Bald Head Island
Mason’s Inlet
Dare County (Hwy. 12)
Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Sanford, NC (Lee County)

Regulatory concepts discussed:
Variances and permitting
Adjudicative hearings
Oceanfront setbacks
Public comment
“Regulatory reform”
Cost-benefit analysis
Stakeholder groups

Firms mentioned:
Solarbees
Duke Energy
Southern Environmental Law Center

People mentioned:
Larry Goodwin
Parker Chesson
Terrence Boyle
Jesse Helms
Jim Martin
Pat McCrory
Mike Easley
Beverly Perdue

Events discussed:
Hurricane Floyd

Extended Biography: Over the last twenty-five years, Robin Smith has served the state of North Carolina as an environmental regulator and policymaker. She received her law degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1981. After graduating from law school, Smith worked as an attorney for the police department in High Point, North Carolina for approximately two years. Next, Smith work as a staff attorney for the Coastal Management Agency; there, she dealt with permits, variances, and provided legal counsel to agency staff. In 1987, Smith joined the Attorney General’s office as a Deputy Attorney General. Smith split her time at the Attorney General’s office between working with commissions and environmental litigation.

In 1999, Smith was appointed to Assistant Secretary for the Environment at the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources.[1] Smith started work two weeks after Hurricane Floyd devastated the coastal plains of North Carolina. Smith’s first week on the job involved dealing with the crisis of overflowing swine waste lagoons and the subsequent groundwater contamination as a result of record-breaking flooding in the eastern part of the state. Smith would go on to address issues of importance throughout North Carolina, focusing her energies on coastal policy and water policy based on her previous expertise. Moreover, as part of her role in DENR, Smith served as a member of the State Water Infrastructure Council and the N.C. Pesticide Board[2] as the DENR representative.

During the drought in the mid-2000’s, Smith was an advocate of conservation measures[3]. In May 2008[4], Smith assisted with the development draft legislation meant to equalize minimum standards[5] for water conservation across the state, and changes to reporting requirements that drew the ire of local farmers.[6] In 2011, Smith was the primary author on the legislatively-mandated North Carolina Oil and Gas Study[7] that was presented to the General Assembly in 2012. In that study, Smith advocated that a strong regulatory framework was necessary if the state intended to pursue unconventional shale gas through hydraulic fracturing.

Since leaving DENR, Smith continues to be involved with environmental issues in North Carolina, most notably by commenting[8] and consulting on the recent coal ash dispute. Smith currently practices law independently in the Raleigh area and blogs about N.C. environmental policy at SmithEnvironment.[9]

  • Written by Ashton Merck, 05/2014

Notes:

[1] Christensen, Rob. “Hunt’s trip to Japan cancelled.” News & Observer (Raleigh, NC), October 01, 1999: A3. Within several shorter articles, Robin’s appointment to DENR is announced: “Robin Smith, a special deputy attorney general in the Environmental Division of the state Attorney General’s Office, has been named assistant secretary for environmental protection at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, effective Oct. 11. As a deputy attorney general, Smith provided legal representation and guidance to DENR and served as counsel to the Coastal Resources Commission, the Clean Water Management Trust Fund and was also a member of the mining, sedimentation and radiation protection commissions.”

[2] Notably, Robin served on the Pesticide Board during the Ag-Mart case in which workers for tomato grower Santa Sweet experienced adverse health effects from pesticides used by the grower. See – Collins, Kristin. “State to rethink 271 charges in Ag-Mart case,” News & Observer (Raleigh, NC), February 13, 2008: B5. The Ag-Mart case and Robin’s role in the Pesticide Board was not discussed in the interviews.

[3] Locke, Mandy. “State says use of ‘gray water’ OK,” News & Observer (Raleigh, NC), March 12, 2008: B1. In mid-2008, the state permitted ‘gray water’ or used water (i.e. bathwater) for use to water plants and yards. Piping bathwater into yards was still illegal, and in her statement, Smith indicated that the state would not look into other uses for gray water. Smith cautioned residents not to “go crazy” with gray water – to water by hand, and be careful that only plants are taking in the water.

[4] Eisley, Matthew. “Statewide water rules on table,” News & Observer, The (Raleigh, NC), May 19, 2008: B1. The state is trying to offer consumers, cities, and counties a shared set of water rules and encourage milder conservation before droughts happen. Farm groups opposed the bill, citing that their water use is seasonal and unpredictable. Advocates of the bill said that the reason for lowering the reporting threshold is not to limit water use, but to get better information about how water is used. Population growth is cited as a reason to be more concerned about water conservation. The NC plan regulates by basin; by comparison, the Georgia plan regulates by metropolitan area. Smith commented that “We need to keep an eye on the regional picture. There may be a need to share water.” In her interview, Smith noted that the city of Raleigh is really in need of a new source of water altogether. On the farmer reporting issue, Smith said that the bill was simply “about getting information, so that we can better anticipate water needs.”

[5] Bonner, Lynn. “Control of water by state at issue,” News & Observer (Raleigh, NC), June 12, 2008: A1. Concerns about water rights, and the jurisdiction of state regulations over local regulations, made this bill a contentious issue. Robin is quoted as saying: “The idea is to have minimum measures consistent across the state.”

[6] Eisley, Matthew. “Despite rain, drought still going,” News & Observer (Raleigh, NC), June 24, 2008: B3. This article continued earlier reportage by noting that the bill had been delayed at the objections of farmers.

[7] Smith, Robin. North Carolina Oil and Gas Study Under Session Law 2011-276. NCDENR and NCDOC. April 30, 2012. 1-504.

[8] Jarvis, Craig and John Murawski. “Bill seeks coal ash deadline – Senate measure would close all storage ponds in 15 years,” News & Observer, (Raleigh, NC), June 17, 2014: 1A. The coal ash bill mandates that the ash ponds must be closed, but environmental groups observed that it remains unclear exactly how that will happen, who will enforce it, and who will pay for it. Senators are generally supportive of the bill. ; Jarvis, Craig. “Coal ash board finally ready to dig – N.C. panel responsible for cleanup, storage to meet Friday,” News & Observer, (Raleigh, NC), November 13, 2014: 1A. Smith is quoted from her blog, expressing concern that the deadlines are unrealistic and there could be interagency tensions over regulatory power.

[9] Smith, Robin. SmithEnvironment. http://www.smithenvironment.com/ (accessed May 5, 2015)

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