The N.C. Chamber of Commerce is leading a formidable charge to “modernize” the State Environmental Policy Act, and by modernize I mean turn it into a hollow shell that will never get in the way of a major development project again.
The seeds for SEPA were planted April 8, 1971, when N.C. Gov. Bob Scott delivered before a special joint session of the state legislature a comprehensive, long-term vision for protecting the environment in North Carolina. Of Scott’s 24 proposals, the centerpiece was his idea for a new State Environmental Policy Act, the first of its kind in the South.
In Scott’s own words, SEPA was designed to establish “for the first time an environmental policy for North Carolina. ... This means that any action by a state agency, whether it is a proposal for legislation, project, or program, if it significantly affects the environment of this state, must be preceded by a detailed statement which will outline the impact of such action on the environment. ... Therefore, no state agency can undertake any action which might have an adverse affect on our environment without making their actions widely known and subject to review.”
How antiquated! Why in this day and age would we want state agencies to report on the adverse environmental effects of their own activities or of the permits they issue to developers or polluters? So the chamber is sensibly proposing some changes via House Bill 795. These include creating a new test of significant public expenditure on a given project ($20 million, which will almost never be met), removing water infrastructure projects from SEPA consideration and freeing government agencies to offer any kind of economic incentive packages to outside companies they want (including the use of public land), free from the hindrance of even considering the environmental impacts involved.
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Why is the chamber trying to undercut our environmental laws? Well, it seems to believe that the same citizens who have just been put through the wringer of the Great Recession as a direct result of financial deregulation can now be persuaded through clever advertising to accept the notion that the only way out of the economic mess is to cut our environmental regulations as well. Never mind that during the 1990s, when North Carolina had essentially the same environmental laws we do now, our economic fires were burning bright as we surged ahead of other states in the South.
What we’re really talking about is competing with China. Once the “Big C” Capitalists trick us into cutting our environmental protections down to the level of China, then all that will be left is to cut our wages down to that level as well, and then we can just bring the factories home, they think. If you’re already a hundred millionaire or above, life will go on unchanged – at least that is the hope. The rest of us, though, have an awful lot to lose if we try to fight China and other similar nations for the privilege of sitting in the bottom of the world’s economic barrel.
Rather than cut our environmental protections in North Carolina and across the United States, we should demand fair trade agreements that protect our standard of living by penalizing manufacturers that operate in places where laborers and the environment are abused. Even if we do nothing in the short-term about international trade, North Carolina can still easily compete as a progressive home for businesses that desire a high quality of life for their creative, well-educated employees, as most modern companies do. The N.C. Chamber of Commerce needs to start marketing our state as a natural place for smart business owners to plant the seeds of progress.
As for the rest of us, in the words of Gov. Scott: “Let us resolve, here and now, that North Carolinians are determined to protect our little corner of the world.”
Ron Sutherland, Ph.D., is a conservation scientist for the Wildlands Network.