RALEIGH — Republican lawmakers on Wednesday accelerated legislation that could weaken environmental protections while clarifying potentially confusing rules and regulations.
The far-reaching changes are proposed in a bill filed this week that Republicans crafted after a series of six public hearings were held around the state by the Joint Regulatory Reform Committee. But environmental advocates contend that the hearings showed wide opposition to weaker laws.
Changes to the way private enterprise does business with the state is a cornerstone of the GOP-led General Assembly this session. The N.C. Chamber favors changing the climate, from environmental protections to personal-injury lawsuits, so that businesses can rely on more predictable rules of the game. Their opponents say "predictability" is a cover for gutting legal protections.
Senate Bill 781, titled the Regulatory Reform Act of 2011, comes as the Republican-written budget proposes deep cuts to the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
"It's not necessarily less regulation," said one of the bill's primary sponsors, Sen. Harry Brown. "I think it's clearer regulation."
Brown said there were complaints that permit applicants receive conflicting information from state agencies whose authority might overlap with each other, and with federal laws. Applicants might have to return to an agency several times, incurring additional expenses.
"I think we all want rules and regulations, because we all want to protect the environment," Brown said. "We're just trying to make this process friendlier, clearer, so you understand what [the rules] are and can abide by them."
'Polluter's wish list'
Environmental groups don't see it that way.
"This whole bill is a polluter's wish list to hamstring state agencies from administering rules to protect public health and the environment, to bring rulemaking to a grinding halt," said Southern Environmental Law Center Director Derb Carter.
Among the provisions that trouble environmental advocates is one increasing the duration of permits from five to eight years. Carter said that could put North Carolina out of compliance with federal requirements under the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act. If that is the case, he said, the federal Environmental Protection Agency could take control of those programs away from the state.
Another concern is putting the final decision on contested cases, such as enforcement actions, in the hands of administrative law judges, cutting out input from the Environmental Management Commission, which is comprised of appointed citizens. It's an extra step in the appeals process, Carter acknowledged, but he said he thinks the commission adds a degree of "common sense" sometimes lacking in the legal or bureaucratic stages of the process.
Environmental advocates who have analyzed public comments made at the statewide hearings say people favored maintaining or strengthening current environmental safeguards by a four-to-one margin: 885 to 201 respondents. The analysis by the Southern Environmental Law Center took into account the comments of all those who spoke at the hearings and who submitted written comments. The written comments were obtained through a public records request, and all of the hearings were videotaped by advocates.
"There's a clear disconnect between the direction of this legislation and what the General Assembly committee heard from the public when they asked for comments," Carter said Wednesday.
But Brown, a Republican from Jacksonville, said more than 500 form letters were received from special interests, each with a name on it.
Carter acknowledged that mass mailings were sent to the legislative committee as part of the hearings, but he defended it as a legitimate and commonplace tactic by organizations concerned with the issues. The N.C. chapter of the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund and the N.C. League of Conservation Voters are fighting the bill.The commerce committee approved the bill late Wednesday. The full Senate passed the bill Wednesday.
In the House, Republicans will need those four or five rogue Democrats to vote with them to override a veto if the governor goes that route.
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