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Lawmakers might dun DENR for wetlands mistake

State lawmakers said Thursday that they might have to pull $700,000 from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources budget to make up for a costly error in a wetlands clean-up in Johnston County.

When the state pays to preserve environmentally sensitive wetlands, it gets a credit to offset the destruction of another wetland for a highway project or other development. Each restored area can be used only once as a credit, but DENR hired a firm last year to restore the same 46 acres in the Neuse River Basin that the state Department of Transportation paid to restore in 2000.

The General Assembly’s watchdog agency, the Program Evaluation Division, determined that DENR wasted $700,000 in its restoration effort. The agency’s report led to a heated exchange Thursday before a legislative committee.

“So the state spent money and got nothing of value?” asked Sen. Richard Stevens, R-Wake.

“The issue here has nothing to do with selling wetland credits twice,” said Robin Smith, DENR’s assistant secretary for the environment.

Smith said the Program Evaluation Division’s presentation was oversimplified and left a false impression.

John Turcotte, director of the division, didn’t appreciate Smith’s spin on the report.

“They counted it twice, and when they did that, it was wrong,” Turcotte said. “I hate to be so forceful about it, but when we try to do an evaluation and explain it and make it as clear as possible and then have the department come back and cloud the issue or obfuscate the issue in this way, I don’t think it’s helpful.”

Lawmakers said the state has little to no recourse to get back the money DENR paid.

“They were complying with rules and policies that were put in place, and they were complying with them the way DENR had put them in place,” said Sen. Daniel Clodfelter, D-Mecklenburg.