SEPA review covers many types of publicly funded projects, including landfills. Photo courtesy U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
SEPA review covers many types of publicly funded projects, including landfills. Photo courtesy U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

A bill that passed the N.C. House will overhaul the process for state-funded projects.

By Gabe Rivin

In the waning hours of Wednesday night, House lawmakers approved a bill to overhaul a state law intended to protect the environment and the public’s health. The vote came at nearly 10:00 p.m., eight hours into a session, as lawmakers rushed to approve bills before a self-imposed Thursday deadline.

SEPA review covers many types of publicly funded projects, including landfills. Photo courtesy U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

The bill, HB 795, would rewrite central requirements of the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA), a 1971 law that
requires state agencies to review the environmental effects of some public projects.

Under SEPA, state agencies must review activities that involve state spending and lands, and that may have harmful effects on the environment, including on issues that can affect the health of people.

Agencies must broadly consider the extent of a project’s environmental effects and consider options to reduce those effects. Throughout this process, local governments and affected citizens have a chance to provide comments to state agencies.

Projects that fall under SEPA review include, for example, wastewater-treatment plants and landfills.

If signed into law, HB 795 would add several qualifiers to the SEPA process.

The bill prohibits SEPA review for state-funded projects that cost less than $10 million. Currently, SEPA does not set a monetary threshold for environmental review.

HB 795 also limits the scope of this review. Under current regulations, agencies may consider indirect and secondary effects of a project. But under HB 795, agencies may only consider direct environmental effects.

Rep. John Torbett (R-Gaston), one of the primary sponsors of the SEPA reform bill. Photo courtesy: NCGA

Finally, the bill sets a threshold for projects that affect public lands. HB 795 limits SEPA review to projects that impact five or more acres of upland property.

House members voted 74-41 in favor of the bill, with the majority of “ayes” coming from Republicans and the majority of “noes” coming from Democrats.

A de facto repeal?

The bill’s sponsors, in committee hearings and during the floor debate of the bill, stressed that North Carolina has instituted numerous environmental regulations since SEPA was signed into law.

“We are no longer in 1971,” said Chris Millis (R-Hampstead), in an April 23 committee hearing on the bill.

Millis said extensive water-pollution permits and air-pollution permits are now required statewide.

“The environmental protection is there,” he said.

John Torbett (R-Stanley), another primary sponsor of the bill, acknowledged that by setting a monetary threshold for SEPA review, many projects would be excluded.

“It will cause a lot of projects to go away,” he said, referring to the initial proposal of a $20 million threshold, which was amended during the full House debate Wednesday evening.

While the “aye” votes on the bill mainly came from Republicans, the bill’s critics were bipartisan.

Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Hendersonville), a vice chairman of the House Environment Committee, argued that the bill’s authors were masking their true intent.

Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Hendersonville)

“This professes to be a reform, when it’s actually a repeal,” he said, during a floor debate of the bill.

McGrady said that SEPA is intended to make state spending transparent. It ensures that state agencies and the public are aware of a project’s environmental impact, he added.

But a $10 million threshold would exclude many projects from scrutiny, he said.

McGrady was one of five Republicans who voted against the bill. Rep. Rick Catlin (R-Wilmington), the chairman of the environment committee, also voted against the bill.

Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Greensboro), also a vice chair of the environment committee, echoed McGrady’s criticisms.

“As I understand it, this is basically going to repeal SEPA,” she said during the committee’s hearing of the bill.

Advocacy groups have spoken loudly both for and against the bill, with the N.C. Chamber publicly pushing the bill in an op-ed that ran in the Raleigh News & Observer, and environmentalists at the Sierra Club saying HB 795 would effectively gut SEPA.

Though the bill passed the House, it must now pass the Senate and gain Gov. Pat McCrory’s signature before becoming law.

Rose Hoban contributed reporting to this story.

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Gabe Rivin

Gabe is our former environmental health reporter from 2014-2016. He is a former editor of The Cooperative Business Journal, and a former reporter for Inside Washington Publishers, where he covered federal...