DENR opposes bill that would overhaul NC environmental regulations

Sen. Trudy Wade
Sen. Trudy Wade

North Carolina’s environmental regulators urged lawmakers Tuesday not to support sweeping environmental reforms in the legislature that one activist has dubbed a bill “to protect polluters.”

The 54-page list of changes breezed through the state Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday, despite warnings from the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the agency that would have to carry out the new business-friendly policies.

The fast-moving legislation, which loosens regulations for air quality, water quality and recycling, could be heard by the full Senate as early as Wednesday before it advances to the House. Tuesday’s committee discussion was limited to technical financial questions, but the bill’s supporters were not apologetic about their strategy.

The proposed policies, grafted onto what was formerly a one-page technical bill on gravel and rock transport, constitute a Republican wish list of regulatory changes that conservatives say are necessary to promote a healthy economy.

Sen. Trudy Wade, a Guilford County Republican shepherding the bill through the Senate, said the legislation should come as no surprise to the environmental agency. More than half of the provisions have been lifted from other proposed bills, and the entire package is consistent with conservative principles of cutting government.

“It’s the same thing that we have been doing for the past two or three years,” Wade said after the vote. “What we’re trying to do is eliminate burdensome and unnecessary regulations and make business thrive.”

Before Tuesday’s vote, DENR distributed a 12-page analysis for lawmakers, enumerating the agency’s concerns with the legislation. The document stands out for its tone of alarm coming from an agency that under Republican Gov. Pat McCrory had vowed to treat businesses as partners and customers rather than adversaries.

“The complaints that would be generated as a result of this proposed legislation would be innumerable,” the document stated. The agency warned that one proposal would lead to “severe environmental damage,” while another could result in federal authorities moving in “to take over the North Carolina public drinking water program.”

One of the controversial measures would automatically force citizens groups and nonprofit law firms to pay the state’s legal bills if they lose against the state in a lawsuit involving environmental or transportation disputes. Currently, both sides may make a request to the court to recoup their legal bills if they win, but House Bill 765 says a court “must” allow the state to recover its legal costs if it wins the lawsuit.

Many of these suits are filed by environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, Clean Water for North Carolina, NC WARN and others that take action when they believe DENR is not sufficiently aggressive.

“It would have a chilling effect on citizen lawsuits,” said Molly Diggins, director of the Sierra Club’s North Carolina chapter. “It would restrict one of our more fundamental liberties, which is citizen lawsuits.”

At an earlier hearing, Mary Maclean Asbill, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said it would protect polluters.

DENR’s memo, written by Legislative Affairs Director Matthew Dockham, outlined concerns about measures that the agency warned could erode safeguards against polluting the state’s habitats and ecosystems.

For example, the bill would grant legal immunity to polluters that conduct self-audits, so that the audit findings couldn’t be used against the polluter in civil lawsuits or administrative proceedings. DENR said companies that discharge hazardous substances into the environment could use the self-audit as a strategy so that “the state could not use that as evidence in court to enforce a remedial action order.”

Diggins said if the bill had been in effect earlier this year, Duke Energy may have avoided being fined a record $25 million by the state for causing groundwater contamination at its coal ash disposal site in Wilmington. Duke could have self-audited the site, Diggins said, rendering the findings exempt from fines.

In another section, the bill would exempt utility lines from environmental regulations, so that “anyone could put sewer lines (or other utilities) in anywhere without regard to any potential environmental impact.” To illustrate its concerns about that provision, DENR included five photographs of mudslides and washouts caused by a pipeline project in Wake County that resulted in multiple notices of violation.

The legislation also includes a measure, which failed last year, to shut down air-quality monitors throughout the state that aren’t required by the Environmental Protection Agency. The proposal could shut down about half the 74 monitors in North Carolina at 46 sites that measure pollutants such as ozone, lead, airborne particles, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide.

Environmental groups have said in the past that eliminating air-quality monitors would make it harder to identify sources of pollution.

Reducing the number of air-quality monitors is actually one idea that DENR doesn’t object to, but the agency said the legislative proposal is “extraneous and not needed at this time.” DENR is currently seeking EPA permission to shut down a dozen monitors, including one in Fuquay-Varina in Wake County and one in Pittsboro in Chatham County.

Murawski: 919-829-8932