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New provisions about wells and water have been written in and out of Senate Bill 734, a regulatory reform bill. The bill’s language has raised eyebrows among public-health advocates.
By Stephanie Soucheray
Headlines from this year’s General Assembly short session have focused on big issues such as Medicaid, Common Core education standards and teacher salaries. But some doctors and public-health officials have been worried by a few short sentences changing regulations on private wells and drinking water.
The language means the monitoring of wells and drinking water in the state could undergo big changes if it makes it into law.
Originally, the language appeared in Senate Bill 734, the Regulatory Reform Act of 2014, which had many provisions about the environment. That bill was heavily amended. Now many of the environmental regulations have reappeared in a different bill, Senate Bill 38, Amend Environmental Laws 2014. And while advocates say they’re pleased the language is gone – for now – they worry it could reappear with little notice.
Movement of statutory language from one bill to another is not uncommon near the end of the legislative session as lawmakers engage in deal-making over the budget and other initiatives, using smaller bills as bargaining chips.
The sponsors of Senate Bill 734 initially suggested transferring the rulemaking authority for public drinking water and private wells from the Commission for Public Health to the Environmental Management Commission. Critics say this move would be unprecedented and, moreover, confusing.
“I sent my representative an email not to mess with that,” said the environmental health director of Alamance County, Carl Carroll. “It’s crazy to do that. It’s a public-health issue. Why do you want to have it in an environment commission?”
According to Carroll, the EMC, a 15-member committee of appointed citizens, does not have the manpower nor the expertise to engage in rulemaking for water safety.
“We’re the people that are carrying out the rule,” said Carroll. He explained that water has always been seen as a public-health issue and that in his county, where lots of properties have wells and stand on unzoned land, having public-health officials check waste water and well water makes sense.
“The public-health commission regulates wells and water,” he said. “If this bill passes and we needed to change a rule, we would have to go through the EMC, but they don’t look at public health.”
Holly Biola is a public-health physician in Raleigh who said she’s very concerned about the proposed language in the bill and doesn’t understand the rationale behind it.
She argued that North Carolinians need to have even stricter water management in light of new legislation that allows for hydraulic fracturing (commonly known as “fracking”) in parts of the state.
“I’ve been emailing and calling different people and agencies trying to figure out who is behind this bill,” said Biola. “I don’t know who thinks this is a good idea.”
Benne Hutson, chair of the EMC, said his committee will do what’s required of them by the General Assembly.
“There’s been discussion for sometime as to whether those rules [concerning drinking and waste water] are environmental or health,” he said.
Hutson said that the provision could make sense because wastewater has been increasingly viewed as an environmental issue.
“In our groundwater and air regulations, we have to take into account environmental and health aspects,” he said. “This is not a new idea, but this is the first time in my memory it has made it [in] and is moving through the legislature.”
Historically, Hutson said, the EMC has had the responsibility for setting groundwater quality standards. “Before I went on the commission, I used to question as to why solid-waste rules go to public health,” he said.
If the EMC gets the rulemaking authority over wells, Hutson said the commission would abide by the federal safe drinking-water act.
Currently, there are 2.7 million private well users in North Carolina. If a property currently has a well, a wastewater and well permit is required by individual counties. Carroll said routine testing of well water is handled by the Commission for Public Health.
Biola said other states’ experiences with well contamination near fracking sites worry her.
“Perhaps the industry has learned how to not contaminate, but it seems prudent to keep public-health professionals, whose focus is the health of our state’s population, involved with the regulation of drinking water and wastewater,” she said.
As of publication, the well-water provisions were gone from Senate Bill 734 and from Senate Bill 38. Acy Watson, a legislative assistant for Sen. Brent Jackson (R-Autryville), who sponsored SB 734, said he didn’t know what would happen to the environmental sections of SB 734.
One part of Senate Bill 38 reads: “Local well programs shall use the standard forms created by the Department for all required submittals and shall not create their own forms unless the local program submits a petition for rule making to the Environmental Management Commission.” That’s currently the only mention of the EMC in the bill.
What remains unclear is whether the rest of the bill will be amended to give the EMC jurisdiction over rule making for wells or whether the language is an oversight that will have to be corrected down the road.