Legislative roundup: Farm pollution investigation records could become less public

cjarvis@newsobserver.comJune 26, 2014 

— Allegations of pollution at North Carolina farms would be kept confidential unless state regulators find a violation, under a bill the state Senate approved Thursday and sent to the House.

Currently, records of those complaints and investigations are public records. Earlier in the week, the bill was amended in a committee to exempt them from disclosure.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Brent Jackson, a Republican from Autryville, agreed before Thursday’s vote to clarify that wasn’t his intention. He amended the bill to make the records public once the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources determines there has been a violation.

Jackson said he wanted to protect the owners of agricultural operations from frivolous complaints. He said there have been reports of people calling DENR simply because they drove by a farm that smelled bad, or new neighbors in residential developments complained about odors.

“It’s giving them the authority to do their due diligence and find out if it is a violation,” Jackson said after the vote.

A DENR spokesman said the agency occasionally receives requests for records of complaints from law firms and environmental groups. Complaints are often about open burning, he said.

The agency did not request the change in law and has some questions about it, the spokesman added.

News media and environmentalists raised concerns about the public records provision.

Robin Smith, a former administrator at DENR, said the bill doesn’t address how to ensure that a complaint has been properly investigated because that would never become public if no violation is issued. The Sierra Club says the public would have no way of knowing whether DENR was acting on the complaints.

Titled the North Carolina Farm Act of 2014, House Bill 366:

• Prohibits local governments from regulating fertilizer, in order to establish uniform state regulations.

• Allows the landscaping industry to establish a licensing board.

• Adds agricultural facilities to the list of places – such as power plants and public water systems – where trespassing is the most severe level of misdemeanor.

• Requires written consent of a landowner to ride an ATV on private property.

Veto leads to change

Earlier this week Gov. Pat McCrory vetoed his first bill of the year, dealing with unemployment insurance, because it shortened and staggered the terms of the three current members of the Board of Review, whom he appointed.

On Thursday, a House committee came up with what it hopes will address the governor’s concerns. Under the first bill, one member’s term would have ended on June 30. The new bill gives that member two more years on the board; after that, the position would be a four-year term.

Then it staggers and extends a second member’s term of four years, and changes the third member’s term by staggering it so it is a four-year term, followed by a two-year term and then returns to a four-year term.

The new bill adds a provision that says the board members must adhere to the judicial code of conduct. The board reviews appeals of unemployment insurance claims.

SBI moves in another bill

An omnibus criminal justice bill passed the House, 75-39, after House leaders rebuffed Democrats’ request to delay a vote until they could read the proposed legislation, including provisions added earlier in the day.

Democrats were particularly irked that a provision to transfer the State Bureau of Investigation to the Department of Public Safety was included in the bill when it was already in the Senate and House budgets and in another bill.

“There are many good things in this bill, but I just can’t vote for it because of the poison pill of transferring the SBI,” said Rep. Sam Joe Queen, a Republican from Waynesville.

The bill contains provisions toughening penalties on assault as retaliation against a court official, prisoners having cellphones, prisoners soliciting someone to commit a felony outside the prison, and for amusement ride tampering.

HB594 will be up for final approval in the House next week and then return to the Senate.

Hemp oil bill to McCrory

A bill legalizing the use of hemp oil to treat a severe epilepsy that afflicts mainly children was approved 112-1 in the House and 45-0 in the Senate. It now goes to Gov. Pat McCrory, who has said he will sign it into law.

It will be legal as soon as a state registry and regulations are established.

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