Rob Christensen

Earth Day bill turns into dirt

On April 8, 1971, Democratic Gov. Bob Scott gave the first environmental speech to a joint session of the North Carolina legislature – a recognition of the new national concern to protect the earth’s natural resources.

Noting “a groundswell of public concern for the environment,” Scott outlined 24 recommendations. But the centerpiece was the State Environmental Policy Act.

“This act establishes for the first time an environmental policy for North Carolina,” Scott told the legislature. “This measure will require that all state agencies give consideration to the environmental values, aspects and consequences of their decisions.”

Not only did Scott speak to a joint session of the legislature, but he flew around the state pushing his agenda in speeches, declaring 1971 to be “the year of the environment.”

Now, a generation later, that policy is coming under scrutiny.

The State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) was actually a modest first step. It required environmental review of state-funded projects. It did not cover any private projects such as manufacturing plants, shopping centers, residential subdivisions or commercial development.

Typical projects requiring SEPA approval are a new wastewater treatment plant, a county landfill, a major development project on state-owned submerged lands or activities on state parkland, according to Robin Smith, a former top state environmental official. A different state law limited SEPA’s coverage to public projects costing more than $1 million.

But for House Republicans, the modest 44-year old law went too far.

The state House last week voted 74-41 to restrict the SEPA, changing it to apply to public projects of $10 million or activities affecting five or more acres. This, environmental groups say, would weaken SEPA because it would exempt many projects. (The initial proposal was to limit the projects to $20 million or more.)

“This isn’t any right-wing extremist attempt to do anything,” Rep. John Torbett, a Republican from Gaston County and one of the bill’s major sponsors told the House House Environmental Committee. “I was taught there is supposed to be a balance.”

This measure was sent through the House with unseemly haste.

When the bill was before the House Environment Committee, only one opponent, Molly Diggins of the Sierra Club, was allowed to speak and she was cut off after her allotted one minute. Supporters of the bill didn’t speak out.

And so, a bill rolled out with great fanfare before a joint session of the legislature to mark the beginning of environmental protection in North Carolina, was quietly set on a path to being nearly gutted with hardly any discussion.

No one has offered a serious rationale for why the law needs to be changed.

Lew Ebert, the head of the North Carolina Chamber, offered the usual boiler plate about red tape, over regulation, and frivolous lawsuits in an opinion piece he wrote in The News & Observer. But the only concrete example Ebert offered was the much delayed N.C. 12 Bonner Bridge over the Oregon Inlet.

That is political spin. SEPA had nothing to do with the Bonner Bridge. That project needs federal permitting and is subject to the national Environmental Policy Act.

Scott pushed through SEPA shortly after a major oil spill off California and the first Earth Day.

But 45 years later, to mention Earth Day in some quarters in the legislature is to evince sneers. The new reigning philosophy is that regulations to protect North Carolina’s air and water have gone too far and that it is interfering with job creation, property rights or profits.

And so, North Carolina’s first major environmental law gets rolled out with much hoopla by one generation, only to be possibly quietly gutted by the next. If 1971 was the year of the environment, what should 2015 be called?

Christensen: 919-829-4532;

Twitter: @oldpolhack