RALEIGH — Environmental protections would be weakened under a bill the state Senate tentatively approved Wednesday. But supporters of the measure defend it, saying that fewer regulations on developers will improve the economy.
Senate Bill 612, titled the Regulatory Reform Act of 2013, passed on a 36-12 vote with four Democrats joining Republicans. It will be back before the Senate for a final vote on Thursday, and then it will go to the House.
The bill would repeal or require rewriting any city or county environmental protections that are more stringent than federal standards. Last session, the General Assembly passed what it called a regulatory reform bill that forbade new state rules from being more stringent than federal standards.
Critics of this bill say it will destroy decades of environmental protections. They contend that the state’s patchwork of local and state regulations cannot easily be compared to federal standards to determine whether they are more stringent, or even determine what constitutes a more stringent rule.
“It’s not as easy as people seem to believe,” Robin W. Smith, a former assistant secretary at the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said in an interview. “It’s just not that clear-cut – setting aside whether we really want to give up the state’s ability to shape a program to what the state needs.”
But Senate leader Phil Berger’s office sent out a news release immediately following the vote. He said the bill will help businesses navigate through confusing regulations.
“North Carolina businesses have been choked by government red tape for far too long and need the freedom to operate efficiently in order to compete and create jobs,” Berger said in the statement.
The bill would also streamline some stormwater management permits and erosion-control plans, and extend water and air quality permits from eight to 10 years.
Dropped from the bill on Wednesday was a provision that would have eliminated some riparian buffer protections that prohibit development on private property along the Neuse River and Tar-Pamlico River basins.
Last session’s regulations bill passed with broad support in the Senate after both parties worked on compromises. But extending the water and air permits to 10 years was something the Republicans had given up in negotiations last session, agreeing to extend them from five to eight years.
That brought a sharp rebuke from Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat, who scolded Republicans for breaking a negotiated deal.
“At some point, you may actually need one of our votes,” Stein said. “It may not seem like it today. But you should honor your commitments.”
Stein cited several examples of local regulations that he said could be repealed if the bill became law, including an ordinance limiting oil and grease disposal in Raleigh, restrictions on car washes during droughts in Fayetteville, and stormwater-control incentives that increase property values in Emerald Isle.
“This is another example of us getting into what is not our business,” Stein said on the floor. “The state should not be dictating to local communities.”
Sen. Harry Brown, a Republican from Jacksonville, said there were plenty of exemptions in the bill to protect public health, safety and welfare.