Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed House Bill 56, An Act to Amend Various Environmental Laws, on Sept. 21, accusing the General Assembly of “political posturing” at the expense of the state’s water quality. On Wednesday, the General Assembly voted to override Cooper’s veto, capitalizing on the public’s outrage over the GenX contamination in the Cape Fear River and passing HB 56 into law. A closer look at the bill, and the legislative process in which it was entangled, provides an example of the cynical manipulation underway to gut the state’s once reputable program for protecting the environment and public health.
Now an environmental omnibus, HB 56 initially contained only one provision, requiring owners of hazardous dams to develop Emergency Action Plans, when Reps. Pat McElraft (R) and Larry Yarborough (R) introduced it in February 2017. However, HB 56 quickly amassed a number of controversial environmental provisions, including a withdrawal of riparian buffer protections to supposedly reduce criminal activity, a loosening of landfill regulations, an extension of mining permits, and a repeal of the Outer Banks ban on single-use plastic bags.
The bag ban took effect in 2009 and was designed to reduce litter and protect marine life, preserving the aesthetic and natural qualities that attract visitors to the Outer Banks and sustain many coastal residents. It enjoys broad support from most Outer Banks businesses and consumers, as it has not harmed business and has succeeded in keeping plastic bags off the beach and out of the ocean – and out of the stomachs of fish, sea turtles and other marine life. Municipalities along the Outer Banks have passed resolutions opposing the repeal, and the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce supports the ban, emphasizing that local retailers have already “adapted their practices to meet the current legislation,” and arguing that the ban demonstrates the region’s commitment to environmental protection – an important selling point for visitors.
Because of the controversial environmental provisions in HB 56, which has been called the “junk drawer of environmental laws,” it had stalled in committee when the General Assembly adjourned on June 29, 2017. However, the bill was reanimated on August 30, following an amendment appropriating $435,000 to investigate and clean up GenX contamination in the Cape Fear River. Although there is bipartisan support to tackle GenX pollution, none of the money allocated in HB 56 will go to the two agencies responsible for setting and enforcing water quality standards. Instead, this money, which is not nearly enough to resolve the GenX problem, will go to local groups that lack the power and resources to sufficiently address GenX in the Cape Fear River, undermining the entire purpose of the GenX provision.
With HB 56, legislators present the illusion of acting on an important water quality issue without providing the necessary support to follow through. More cynically, the General Assembly has used HB 56 as a vehicle to roll back critical water quality and coastal protections, like the plastic bag ban, under the guise of addressing GenX. The hypocrisy of this bill’s supporters, who claim to protect water quality yet support misguided and insufficient measures to do so, is clear. This veto override is a hollow political victory for the General Assembly, at the expense of North Carolina’s drinking water and coastal habitats.
Talia Sechley is a policy fellow at Duke Law School’s Environmental Law and Policy Clinic. Michelle Nowlin is the law clinic’s supervising attorney.