RALEIGH — In a move that highlights legislative tensions over the scope of new environmental legislation, a N.C. House committee will hold a public hearing this morning on a state Senate bill that weakens numerous environmental regulations.
Rep. Rick Catlin, R-New Hanover, the House Environmental Committee chairman, said the hearing, scheduled for 10 a.m. today, is intended to give the public a chance to weigh in on the bill, which passed the Senate July 2 with little chance for public comment.
“I don’t think a lot of people know what’s in the bill,” Catlin said last week after announcing the hearing.
Senate leaders transformed a one-page House bill on gravel trucks into 50 pages of regulatory changes. Among a long laundry list of environmental changes that Republicans says are needed to promote business are provisions that roll back rules to control coastal stormwater, loosen air and water quality protections, set up a system of self-auditing that gives polluters legal immunity, reduce the number of wetlands under state protection and make it more expensive for people and groups to challenge state actions.
A number of changes in the bill, the Regulatory Reform Act of 2015, are similar to provisions rejected by the House in past battles over changes to environmental protections.
Molly Diggins, state director of the North Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club, said the hearing gives the public a voice in the process, which the Senate was unwilling to do.
It held two committee meetings on the bill, which were dominated by discussions on proposed amendments. Only three speakers were allowed to comment at the initial hearing on the bill by the Senate’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee and no public comment was allowed at a subsequent meeting of the Senate Finance Committee.
“The House is insisting on an open process and transparency,” Diggins said.
The move is a somewhat rare departure from the usual process for resolving differences between House and Senate versions of a bill. Typically, such negotiations are handled by a conference committee and almost always held out of public view.
“We certainly appreciate the House taking this unusual move,” Diggins said.
One thing she says she’ll be watching for is whether industry groups that have backed some of the more controversial sections will be making their case at the hearing as well. “It will be interesting to see if we’ll hear from some of the people who want these provisions and have enjoyed anonymity so far,” she said.
Today’s hearing is likely a prelude to rejection by the full House.
Rep. Pat McElraft, R-Carteret, the sponsor of the original one-page bill, said earlier this month she planned to ask her colleagues to reject the Senate’s changes. “I am going to ask that we do not concur so that we can negotiate a more moderate approach to some of these items added to the bill,” McElraft said in an email response to Coastal Review Online.
Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, said the hearing should help bolster the House’s case during negotiations with the Senate. “I think the speaker (Rep. Tom Moore, R-Cleveland) deserves a lot of credit for wanting this to be transparent,” she said. “The Senate dropped a lot of bad stuff into this bill with very little public notice and almost no time for feedback.”
She said the public is not served by the strategy of using large omnibus bills to push through so many large changes in policy.
“Substantive provisions like these deserve a more full hearing in the House and Senate,” she said.
One key change to coastal environmental regulations is a new provision the Senate added that would roll back impervious surface standards passed in 2008 after a study of the old standards found they failed to protect shellfish waters from bacterial contamination in runoff.
The provision would change the current 12 percent impervious surface standard back to 25 percent. It also calls for further study of the effect after the reinstatement of the old standard.
Mike Giles, a coastal advocate with the N.C. Coastal Federation, said it might make sense to look at the current rule and see if it’s working and whether they are some situations where it doesn’t work. “But why would you go back and study a rule that was a dismal failure,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Other sections of the bill would:
- Change the process for challenging air quality permits, allowing projects to proceed before a court decides on a challenge;
- Expand the size of isolated wetlands west of Interstate 95 that could be destroyed without a permit to one acre;
- Eliminate roughly half of the state’s air quality monitors;
- Expand the state’s risk-remediation program and
- Allow certified engineers to approve on-site wastewater systems rather than local health departments.
House Bill 765: http://www.ncga.state.nc.us/gascripts/BillLookUp/BillLookUp.pl?Session=2015&BillID=H765&submitButton=Go