For the fifth year in a row, Senate Republicans have cobbled together a wide-ranging deregulation bill to streamline government, running into resistance from Democrats and environmentalists who say they are endangering air and water quality to help businesses.
This year’s version cropped up with little warning and quickly cleared the Senate last week in just a few days. The bill now goes to the House.
House Bill 765 came so fast that it caught the state’s environmental regulators off guard. After scanning it in one day, they objected, issuing a detailed memo about what it couldn’t support in the bill. In a series of hurried conversations with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and Senate leaders, parts of the bill were rewritten to satisfy DENR.
There are dozens of provisions in the bill, which is more than 50 pages long. Here are some that have received the most attention.
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▪ Air quality monitors: Would allow the state to reduce the number of air quality monitors. This was a controversial move that didn’t pass last year, when DENR said it was a bad idea. DENR now says it has been reducing the monitors anyway, from 132 to 74 with further reductions planned, and so the provision isn’t needed.
DENR spokeswoman Crystal Feldman weighed in Monday with further explanation:
“Nearly half of the monitors counted in the 132 are used to track weather and other non-criteria pollutant related information. We are actually seeking to remove only 12 criteria pollutant monitors based on scientific data that justifies their elimination. When the three local air program criteria pollutant monitors are included in the monitor count, there will be 86 criteria pollutant monitors operated in North Carolina.”
▪ Self-auditing: Another provision from last year, this gives companies that pollute some legal protection if they voluntarily disclose violations before inspectors find it. DENR had all sorts of problems with this in its memo last Tuesday, but by Wednesday said it could support the bill if coal ash wasn’t included and if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency signed off on it. Legislators accommodated them. By Wednesday, someone at DENR discovered it has already had a policy in place since 1995 that allows “self-auditing” protections – something that wasn’t mentioned in either of the DENR memos nor in last year’s discussions.
▪ Attorneys’ fees: Would require judges to award attorneys’ fees to the state when it wins environmental lawsuits contesting improvements it plans to make on real property. Groups that win those lawsuits wouldn’t automatically be awarded attorneys’ fees. Environmental groups that have sued the state say that could discourage people from pursuing legal protections.
▪ Electronic recycling: Two sentences in the bill would wipe out 11 pages of current recycling law. It would repeal the requirement that manufacturers recycle computer equipment and televisions that people discard. Opponents say it would cost local municipalities more because recycling companies will have to charge more to make up for lost business.
▪ Isolated wetlands: Another issue from past sessions, this is an attempt to limit the number of wetlands that the state can regulate, requiring that they be at least one acre. Currently, it is one-third acre west of Interstate 95 and one acre to the east. Supporters say some of the isolated wetlands are no more than ditches, but environmentalists call that an exaggeration and note that they provide pollution and flooding controls, and homes for birds.
▪ Utility lines: Construction of lines for electric power, water, sewage, storm water draining, phones, cable, data and natural gas would be exempt from state regulation, leaving it up to federal authorities. DENR’s first memo alerted lawmakers that the agency had “serious environmental concerns” with the section, and went on in great detail, including photographs, explaining why it was a bad idea. DENR supported the section after it was rewritten to require a study of the impact of such a change first.