Environmental regulations bill wraps up General Assembly session

afrank@newsobserver.comJuly 26, 2013 

MCCRORY03-NE-072613-CCS

Gov. Pat McCrory speaks during a press conference held at the Governor's Mansion in Raleigh, NC on July 26, 2013.

CHRIS SEWARD — cseward@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • What’s next

    When they’ll be back: The legislature is gone, but they have not said “sine die.” The Latin phrase that adjourns the session for good won’t be said until next year. When they return May 14, any bills still in the process will be eligible for consideration.

    There is a chance they will return for a special session; Gov. Pat McCrory has said he’d like to see an energy bill passed.

    What they’ll be doing between now and then: Lawmakers will meet in committees between now and May to study various topics and recommend legislation. Some will be running for re-election. Others, such as House Speaker Thom Tillis, will run for higher office.

— The legislature wrapped up a highly charged session on Friday morning as the House debated a handful of bills including a sweeping overhaul of environmental regulations that Gov. Pat McCrory expressed concerns about just hours later.

McCrory, speaking to reporters at a news conference about the session, cast some doubt on the future of the bill but would not say whether he would veto it.

“All options are open,” he said.

House Bill 74 is a 68-page bill that includes dozens of other provisions ranging from the number of meals a bed-and-breakfast can serve to a requirement for carbon monoxide detectors at hotels.

McCrory mentioned specific concerns about changes to regulations for landfills and billboards.

But the bill’s supporters said it was needed to encourage economic activity.

“It represents true regulatory reform, which we hope will encourage more jobs and better customer service for those who want to develop their property,” said Rep. Pat McElraft, an Emerald Isle Republican. “We’ve had overregulation in this state for years. This is just the continuing process of correcting that injustice.”

Democrats and some Republicans opposed the bill in the House, saying sponsors kept a provision on landfills in the dark and they weren’t able to properly vet it in committee.

Provisions that targeted the environment caused swarms of environmental lobbyists to descend on the Legislative Building in the final days of session.

Molly Diggins, state director of the Sierra Club, said the bill is a “sweeping hodgepodge” that’s hard to characterize.

Everyone supports more efficient regulations, she said. “For most North Carolinians, regulations are safeguards that protect property rights, families and their health.”

During the floor debate Thursday night, lawmakers found things to love and to hate in the act.

Landfill rules loosened

House Republicans such as Rep. Chuck McGrady, of Hendersonville, were particularly upset over provisions inserted from another omnibus landfill bill.

McGrady tried to get the bill moved back to the House rules committee Thursday but later withdrew his request. The bill passed Friday, 63-33, after little debate.

It allows landfills to be built closer to state gamelands, allows garbage trucks to leak and eases rules that keep landfill liquids from getting into groundwater.

The bill does exclude provisions that environmentalists warned would allow mega-dumps that would turn North Carolina into a repository for out-of-state trash.

But it does restrict consideration of the impact of multiple landfills on minority or low-income communities to only what’s required under federal law.

“It reduces the things the agency needs to take into account when siting a landfill,” said Mary Maclean Asbill, a Southern Environmental Law Center lobbyist.

Landfills’ impact on low-income and minority towns was an important consideration in 2007, when the legislature approved tougher landfill regulations.

Breaking down billboards

If McCrory signs the bill, outdoor advertising companies will be able to cut more foliage from around billboards located along highway ramps. Municipalities and counties generally like to make their own decisions on billboards, but the bill would decrease their ability to keep them off their roadsides.

When he was mayor in Charlotte, McCrory opposed deregulating the billboard industry.

“I felt very strongly that local governments should have local control over billboard industry, and where and how to put up billboards,” he said Friday. “These new regulations again give the state more control” to cut down trees around signs.

He said he will issue an executive order telling the Department of Transportation that before they clear-cut any plants around billboards, they need to get approval from local governments.

Expanding boundaries

Environmentalists are concerned over a provision that deals with how much certain facilities can pollute the area surrounding them. These facilities are not defined in the bill but could include coal ash basins, which store remains from coal burning, landfills and other storage pits for waste. They produce harmful chemicals that spread into the ground, groundwater and bodies of water around the facilities.

Companies that own these sites have to adhere to environmental codes to keep those chemicals manageable. Under rules made by the state’s Environmental Management Commission – which is appointed by the governor, House speaker and Senate President pro tempore – companies are required to set boundaries around their facilities. They can pollute up to the boundary line. If harmful chemicals leak past the line, they are required to clean them up.

Currently the boundaries for many facilities are limited – though the distance can vary. Under the new law, the boundary would be the property line, which can be a much greater area.

Asbill, of the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the law would allow a large land owner such as Duke Energy that operates coal ash basins to pollute more land if it builds any new facilities.

But Duke Energy communications manager Erin Culbert said boundaries at property lines aren’t dangerous and that environmental advocates are spreading “misinformation.” Culbert said Duke Energy monitors its pollution levels adequately, and the rules put in place by the Environmental Management Commission are effective in keeping health and safety hazards such as contaminated drinking water at bay.

Jon Risgaard, supervisor of the land application unit within the aquifer protection section of DENR, said he didn’t think the bill would further endanger the state’s environment but wasn’t sure if DENR had an official stance on the subject.

Environmental advocates, however, argue that groundwater, which can shift underground between properties without being visible to the naked eye, could be dangerous if it migrates from inside the property to outside of it.

Hope Taylor, the executive director of Clean Water for North Carolina, said the bill is “all about reducing any kind of accountability in pollution.”

Policy at the local level

The bill also changes the way environmental regulations can be enacted by communities, by requiring unanimous approval from county or city boards before they can create regulations stricter than those of the federal government.

Rules covering water and air quality, wildlife, public health, mining and energy would be affected.

“I’m afraid that it has the potential to limit the ability of local government agencies to deal with local issues at the local level,” said Minor Barnette, director of the Forsyth County environmental office.

Local environmental regulators said that local rules are necessary because of different environmental or topographical conditions across the state, such as wind patterns or flooding propensity.

The bill could potentially affect Raleigh’s efforts to keep its flooding problems under control, said Danny Bowden, the city’s stormwater program manager.

That provision would be in effect until October 2014 while the Environmental Review Commission studies the issue and recommends changes to the General Assembly.

Environmental regulators across the state were trying to keep up with the bill’s contents.

“It’s been kind of a moving target,” said Jamie Kritzer, a spokesperson for DENR.

DENR is supportive of some of the provisions of the bill, including one that gives authorities the option to euthanize captured venomous reptiles.

“We will be studying other portions of the bill to see what the impacts of those changes will be,” Kritzer said.

Frank: 919-829-4870

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