The paper mill in Canton was the subject of challenges to its environmental permits for more than five years. That case was settled in 2012.
The paper mill in Canton was the subject of challenges to its environmental permits for more than five years. That case was settled in 2012. Photo Alex Ford, courtesy flickr creative commons

Environmental-protection regulations written by local governments would face repeal or revision under a new bill that passed quickly through the Senate this past week.

By Taylor Sisk

A bill that would require the North Carolina’s city and county governments to repeal or rewrite any environmental-protection rules that are more stringent than state or federal regulations passed the Senate on Thursday and now heads to the House of Representatives.

The paper mill in Canton was the subject of challenges to its environmental permits for more than five years. That case was settled in 2012. Photo Alex Ford, courtesy flickr creative commons

The Regulatory Reform Act of 2013 would also require state agencies to repeal or rewrite, no later than Sept. 1, any environmental protections that are more restrictive than federal laws.

Businesses need help, said state Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, and proponents of the bill believe it will provide businesses some relief.

In a prepared statement, Berger, the Republican leader from Rockingham, said, “North Carolina businesses have been choked by government red tape for far too long and need the freedom to operate efficiently in order to compete and create jobs.”

Senate Bill 612, he said, would “cut through unnecessary and duplicative rules and regulations that hinder economic growth in our state.”

‘Not our business’

Some of Berger’s colleagues took exception to limiting local governments’ ability to cater regulations to meet particular needs.

“The mountains are different from the Piedmont, which is different from the coast,” Sen. Josh Stein (D-Raleigh) said from the Senate floor on Wednesday during debate on the bill.

The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), he said, issues model ordinances that are then tailored by local governments as they deem appropriate for their communities.

Stein cited several examples.

Fayetteville negotiates with car washes to limit the amount of water they use during times of shortage. Raleigh has an ordinance that restricts the disposal of fat, oil and grease because they clog its sewage system.

Emerald Isle, Stein said, gives points to property owners who effectively deal with stormwater, and those points earn them reductions in their property and insurance rates. “This will raise those rates,” he said.

“What we’re now saying,” Stein said, “is that whatever that model ordinance is, that’s what that local community is stuck with for time immemorial.”

Bill co-sponsor Sen. Harry Brown (R-Jacksonville) said there are exemptions in the bill that allow for some control by local governments, citing a “serious and unforeseen threat to the public health, safety or welfare.”

But Stein responded that none of those exemptions applied to any of the local circumstances he had described. Raleigh is aware it has problems with sewage, he said. “It is foreseen, so we can’t benefit from that one.”

“This is another example of us getting into what is not our business,” Stein said.

Other provisions

The bill calls for fast-tracking the permitting process for stormwater-management systems and approvals of erosion- and sedimentation-control plans. It would allow for the on-site disposal of demolition debris, including that of decommissioned power plants.

It also states that multiple contiguous properties under one ownership that have been issued permits for waste-disposal systems will be “treated as a single property with regard to determination of a compliance boundary.”

Mary Maclean Asbill of the Southern Environmental Law Center called this language “very alarming.” She said it seems to suggest that a property owner could buy an adjacent property, thereby extending the compliance boundary, and disregard contaminants.

The bill previously included a provision that would have eliminated the requirement for riparian buffers on private property along the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico river basins. An amendment by Sen. Neal Hunt (R-Raleigh) removed that language.

Some last-minute additions to the bill caught DENR officials unaware. Drew Elliot, DENR’s communications director, said that is reviewing the latest amendments.

“In general, we have been concerned with some aspects of it and supportive of others since it was filed,” he said. “We will continue to work with the General Assembly as it goes through the process.”

‘Stepping back’

Asbill said she’s concerned about both the substance of the bill and the way it’s been handled by the legislature.

“We think the bill includes a lot of bad policy,” she said, “and it’s just bad politics – doing it so quickly and not consulting with the agencies, not consulting with local governments, just ramming it through.”

The bill, Asbill said, would make North Carolina an outlier among the states in which the Environmental Law Center works. “It would be stepping back a couple of decades.”

Historically, state and federal regulations have been viewed as “a floor, but not a ceiling,” Sen. Floyd McKissick (D-Dem) said.

“We really need to allow that autonomy and control at the local level,” he said. “That’s where people have a voice; that’s where they uniquely understand the concerns of their communities, and that’s where they can best tailor fits and solutions that are appropriate – not a one-size-fits-all solution that comes from Raleigh or from Washington.”

But Brown contended that there’s strong support for the bill. He told of traveling the state in 2011 with other legislators, holding public meetings to discuss regulatory reform.

“In just about all those cases, anybody who had a business interest at all – farmers, you name it – they all complained about the rules and regulations that we had in the state,” he said.

The bill passed the Senate by a 36-11 vote.

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Rose Hoban

Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...