RALEIGH — In the months ahead, expect state legislators to debate a range of environmental bills ranging from when and how the public gets notified of major spills to the potential repeal of an executive order on enforcement over leaking garbage trucks.
While coal ash news and a federal probe of the relationship between the state’s environmental regulators and Duke Energy dominate the headlines, work at the N.C. General Assembly continues on another round of environmental legislation for the session that begins in mid-May.
For the past several sessions the legislature has passed major omnibus bills aimed at altering state and local environmental regulations and rules along with the structure of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, or DENR.
|Rep. Ruth Samuelson
The bills, often cast as part of an overall “regulatory reform” effort, have had a tendency to snowball during the course of the session, picking up bits and pieces of other legislation on the way. Last year’s bill, eventually titled the Regulatory Reform Act of 2013, was one page when it was introduced in February, three pages when it was passed by the House in May and 59 pages by the time it was signed by Gov. Pat McCrory in August. Along the way, the bill took on and shed numerous provisions as House and Senate negotiators worked behind the scenes.
Last week, the legislature’s Environmental Review Commission got a look at the starting point for what’s coming in the short session. It came with the usual caution, this time from co-chair Rep. Ruth Samuelson, R-Mecklenburg, who is not seeking re-election, that any member can put something forward.
Coal-ash legislation is likely to fall into that category although as yet no bill has surfaced.Shortly after the Dan River spill, Senate Rules chair Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, said he intends to introduce legislation, but other members of the House and Senate leadership have been more cautious. Late last week Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, said Democratic lawmakers plan to introduce a plan for clean-up and better oversight.
Samuelson said at last week’s meeting that the April meeting will be the last for ERC before the session begins, but that a special meeting could be called to address a coal-ash bill.
For now, what is under review by the ERC — though still not in final form — are at least seven proposed bills, which are scheduled for discussion April 9. If approved, they would be introduced after the session opens.
One key proposed bill represents a win for local governments, which have been under a year-long legislative mandate requiring a unanimous vote of town boards and county commissioners to approve any environmental ordinances.
The legislation, included in last year’s omnibus, was a compromise worked out in part by Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, and Rep. Pat McElraft, R-Carteret, over local governments’ authority to adopt environmental regulations.
Rep. Chuck McGrady
Brown pushed legislation that would have stripped local governments of the authority to adopt ordinances that exceeded similar state or federal standards. McElraft wanted to go to a complaint-based system that would have allowed the state to step in if a local government went too far. The compromise put the unanimity requirement in place and set up a study of the issue under the ERC.
At last week’s meeting Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, who co-chaired the group looking into the matter, said there were a number of unintended consequences to last year’s provision. McGrady said without a clear definition of what is meant by an environmental law, ordinances and regulations on hunting and aesthetics and appearance rules were being affected.
Legislation proposed for the new session would eliminate last year’s provision and asks DENR and state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to file an annual report for the next two years on any local ordinances that are interfering with any area subject to regulation by the departments.
Erin Wynia, Legislative and Regulatory Issues manager for the N.C. League of Municipalities, said the repeal of the provision makes sense because it was so broadly drawn it ended up capturing a wide range of regulations.
While attempts by legislators to rein in local governments are not unusual, the recent efforts have had a consistent problem, she said.
“They have to really clearly define the problem,” she said. “They haven’t done that yet.”
Grady McCallie, policy analyst for the N.C. Conservation Network, said while the bill does seem to represent a win for local governments, an additional provision added to it on regulation of fertilizers raises concern.
The provision gives sole authority to regulate fertilizers to the state Board of Agriculture. It also prohibits cities and counties from adopting new rules and requires the discontinuation of local regulations on fertilizers now in place.
McCallie said while the provision might make sense to some in the context of agricultural operations, it would also take away regulation of lawn fertilizers, something that’s been effective in other states to reduce the flow of nitrogen and phosphorus to impaired waters.
“This is one of the cheapest ways local governments can reduce nutrients,” he said.
Other bills under review by the ERC for the next session include:
- A bill to terminate a McCrory executive order last year to circumvent legislation that loosened restrictions on garbage haulers.
- A bill that stems from the Dan River coal ash spill and a major discharge of untreated sewage into the Haw River putting in place additional reporting requirements for major spills and reducing the time operators are required to notify the public from 48 hours after the spill reaches state waters to 24 hours.
- Study legislation on water system mergers with a focus on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utility Department, the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority and Two Rivers Utilities.
- Study legislation asking DENR to review rules on inter-basin transfers with a report due to the legislature by Oct. 1.
- A bill that would make changes to state rules on gravel and mandates a study by N.C. State University on the effect of various types of aggregate surfaces.
- An amendment to the state’s regulatory requirements on isolated wetlands setting thresholds for impacts triggering additional review to one acre east of I-95 and one-third of an acre west of I-95.