Major new policies on resilience and flood mitigation and a return to high levels of conservation and water quality funding have been hailed as the major win in this year’s state budget, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t large swaths of concern amid the more than 1,200 pages of fund allocations and policy provisions.
The two-year budget is the first full biennial budget to become law since 2017. The resilience and flooding provisions will be put into action with allocations totaling close to $1 billion, much of that legislation received the strong backing of the state’s environmental organizations.
Cassie Gavin, senior director of governmental affairs with the North Carolina Sierra Club, said the initiatives showed strong commitments on resiliency and conservation, but there were provisions scattered through the document that wouldn’t have passed scrutiny otherwise.
“There were some big highlights,” she said, “and then definitely, we had some special provisions that shouldn’t belong in the budget at all.”
‘Snag and drag’
One section that’s drawn criticism would pump $38 million into a program for stream debris removal that allows contractors to operate outside water-protection and fire-control rules.
“We’re very concerned about snag and drag and all the exemptions in the provision,” Brooks Rainey Pearson, attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, recently told Coastal Review.
The program would direct the money from a state capital and infrastructure fund to the Department of Environmental Quality.
DEQ would then develop a plan and schedule for stream debris removal within five “targeted watersheds” — the Neuse River basin, Cape Fear River basin, Lumber River basin, Tar-Pamlico River basin and White Oak River basin.
DEQ is to contract with private companies to do the work, but budget language authorizing the program restricts the department’s authority over the projects and exempts contractors from requirements for stormwater or water quality permits as well as all state game laws and forestry statues on open burning. It also directs DEQ to waive any rights of certification under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act for projects funded by the program.
Rainey Pearson said the combination of exemptions means contractors will be able to drag debris up on the banks and burn it with little oversight.
Grady McCallie, policy director for the North Carolina Conservation Network, said the provision as written would greatly reduce the amount of input state regulators would have in reviewing projects, even if they’re required to have a federal permit.
“If you have to get Army Corps of Engineers-permitted for doing stuff in waters of the United States, you still have to get that permit. This doesn’t change that, but it does eliminate the state’s ability to condition and comment on that permit to protect water quality,” McCallie said. That takes the state out of its role in water quality protection and reduces the input of people with on-the-ground familiarity with the watershed. “It’s not a good idea to get rid of that.”
The legislature did delay funding any stream debris removal projects under the program until at least the first draft of a statewide flooding blueprint is completed. That could give the legislature time to go back and tweak the oversight exemptions as well as analyze the impacts, McCallie said.
“It would be really dumb just to spend this money and end up increasing flooding, by speeding up the movement of water downstream on to other communities,” he said. “There’s every chance that you can do that if you do without studying what you’re doing and without environmental review. You could think that you’re taking water off one community but what you’re really doing is just speeding it down to the next and flooding them.”
Career jobs to become political appointments
Another provision that’s getting attention from environmental groups would shift five positions in the Office of Administrative Hearings from career positions to political appointees.
Although those positions haven’t been named, Rainey Pearson said the worry is how the shift could impact administrative hearings going forward.
“That’s often the first stop for environmental cases,” she said.
McCallie said the administrative judges oversee challenges to environmental permits known as contested cases.
“What we don’t know is whether these five positions would be administrative law judges. There’s been nothing in writing to say that one way or another, but we’re concerned about the politicization of that office,” he said. “They need to be impartial, and having career civil servants doing that makes them more familiar with the laws that they are reviewing. That makes a lot of sense.”
The provision would give the chief administrative law judge authority to designate the five from existing positions. The chief judge is appointed by the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Last summer, new Chief Justice Paul Newby appointed Donald van der Vaart, who served as DEQ secretary under Gov. Pat McCrory, to the position.
Local government wins, losses
Gavin said that as the negotiations were winding up, there was an all-out effort to dial back many of the environmental provisions aimed at restricting local governments.
Earlier versions of the budget included limitations on local governments to implement tree-protection ordinances and water-quality requirements.
Those provisions were stripped in the final round of talks on the bill, Gavin said. So was another provision aimed at reducing wetland protections.
One long-sought set of changes benefitting the billboard industry did make it into the final bill. Gavin said those changes further reduce authority over billboards by both local governments and the Department of Transportation and could clear the way for more digital signs as well.
“It’s all the little things that the outdoor advertising industry has previously sought before but not gotten,” she said. “It’s essentially a previous bill that was vetoed by the governor in past years and it’s stuck in there to get through the legislature even though it wouldn’t normally.”