State Politics

NC environmental impact law in jeopardy

With little discussion and no study of the potential consequences, state legislators are looking to gut an environmental protection law that has been on the books since 1971.

The law is meant to ensure that when state or local government agencies spend tax dollars on major projects, there is public input, all the possible impacts are considered and alternatives are evaluated. The bill’s sponsors say the State Environmental Policy Act is outdated and that any benefits are outweighed by unnecessary costs for taxpayers.

“This isn’t any right-wing, extremist attempt to do anything,” said Rep. John Torbett, a Republican from Gaston County and a co-sponsor, who told the House Environment Committee that he was raised to be a conservationist. “I was taught there is supposed to be a balance.”

Molly Diggins, state director of the Sierra Club, said that the 44-year-old law might need reforming but that the proposal isn’t the answer. For all practical purposes, she said, the bill repeals a law that has provided a higher level of scrutiny for public projects.

“It leaves the statute on the books but really only as a kind of memorial marker for a law that is no longer going to be allowed to be used,” she said.

House Bill 795 was approved in committee Thursday in a split voice vote and is expected to go to the full House next week.

Since 1971, the State Environmental Policy Act, or SEPA, has required assessments be completed on projects that use public money or public land that significantly affect the environment. The assessments cover, among other things, possible environmental impacts, adverse effects that can’t be avoided, and mitigation options that could minimize effects.

A different statute in state law defines significant economic impact as projects costing more than $1 million.

The bill would raise that to projects spending more than $20 million in public funds, or that disturb more than 20 acres of publicly owned lands. It would limit environmental assessments to only considering direct impact and not speculative, secondary or cumulative impacts. It would also increase the kind of projects that are exempt from review.

Projects typically falling under SEPA include wastewater treatment plants, county landfills, marine property or water basin transfer projects.

Lawmakers had questions for officials from the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources. But staff members who attended a committee hearing said they hadn’t analyzed the bill. One DENR official said he didn’t know how many projects might cost more than the $20 million trigger, but he said he assumed there were probably “a few.”

The bill was caught up in the tidal wave of legislation that lawmakers are rushing through to meet an April 30 cutoff date. The committee discussed the issue for less than an hour in a meeting as three other bills were taken up.

The only opponent allowed to speak, Diggins, who said she was also speaking for the Environmental Defense Fund and the N.C. Wildlife Federation, was given one minute and then cut off when she went over the allotted time.

Besides Torbett, the bill sponsors are Rep. Chris Millis, a Republican representing Onslow and Pender counties, and Rep. Mike Hager, a Republican from Burke and Rutherford counties and the House majority leader.

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Twitter: @CraigJ_NandO