Environmentalists seek to halt bill at Senate
RALEIGH — North Carolina environmental groups want the Senate to put the brakes on a bill that rolls back state and local regulations that are tougher than federal law.
The Republican bill requires cities, counties and numerous state agencies to repeal or rewrite rules that go beyond federal law. It also loosens rules intended to protect water quality in two major river basins, allows businesses or utilities to dispose of waste on site rather than transporting it to a landfill and potentially weakens standards to mitigate damage to wetlands.
"Overall, this bill is a grab-bag of exemptions for developers and industrial polluters, and it's going to threaten public health and make our rivers dirtier," said Elizabeth Ouzts, state director for Environment North Carolina.
The bill's sponsors hold a different view. Sen. Andrew Brock, R-Davie, said federal environmental laws already account for regional variations, and businesses find themselves forced to navigate a patchwork of laws that are constantly changing.
"You had laws that were stifling businesses, and therefore stifling job creation," he said.
Dustin Chicurel-Bayard, communications director of the Sierra Club's North Carolina chapter, said federal law is meant to provide a baseline of protection that local and state governments complement with their own regulations.
"For the most part, federal regulations are meant to be the floor, not the ceiling, and different parts of the state have different needs," he said.
Ouzts called it "absurd" to argue the federal government could effectively enact regulations that fit every part of the country, and many of the local and state laws in place came only after concerted efforts from groups that included business interests, environmentalists and other groups.
One example, she said, is the case of buffers in the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico river basins that the bill eliminates for private property owners. Together, the basins cover more than 5,000 miles of streams. The 50-foot setbacks from development to the water's edge in the Neuse took years of work among developers, agriculture and the legislature, Ouzts said.
"The Neuse, not too long ago, had been ranked one of the top 10 most endangered rivers in the country, and it hasn't been making those lists recently," she said.
Brock noted the elimination of buffers is supported by a Sen. Clark Jenkins, D-Edgecombe, whose district covers much of the Tar-Pamlico river basin.
"The people that live along that like the legislation a lot," he said. "The people who didn't like it were people here in Wake County."
Ouzts said her group also wants explicit bans on dumping certain materials on-site. She noted the legislation doesn't specifically forbid coal ash or other coal-combustion wastes, and manufacturing facilities often produce a wide variety of harmful materials.
The legislation would also direct two state agencies to petition the Army Corps of Engineers to relax rules intended to offset the destruction of wetlands from development. Ouzts said her group opposes any change because it would allow developers to replace wetlands outside of a 700-mile range, defeating the purpose of protecting the particular area affected by the disturbance.
The bill cleared the Senate Commerce Committee Thursday after 45 minutes of discussion but with some opposition from Democratic lawmakers. It was moved from an environmental committee, which advocates say looks suspicious and limits review on a piece of legislation that deserves close examination.
Chicurel-Bayard noted even bill sponsors weren't sure how much area the buffer elimination measure covers, and DENR's deputy water quality director said Thursday he hadn't seen the bill's language until it showed up in committee.
Brock said the bill was moved for the sake of appearances, because both he and fellow sponsor Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, co-chair the environmental committee. He also said DENR was consulted throughout the crafting of the latest version.
The bill's next step is the Senate floor.