The Williams Water Treatment Plant reservoir in Durham, North Carolina.
State funded water treatment plant projects are another place where SEPA regulations would apply. The Williams Water Treatment Plant reservoir in Durham, North Carolina. Photo courtesy Ildar Sagdejev, Wikimedia Commons

By Gabe Rivin

Under a new law, state agencies must limit their reviews of projects that can impact the environment and the public’s health.

The new law, signed last Friday by Gov. Pat McCrory, reforms the State Environmental Policy Act, or SEPA, a decades-old law that critics say has grown unnecessary and burdensome, but which supporters say provides an important tool to protect the environment.

SEPA reviews apply to many kinds of state and local projects, including road construction. Photo by Joe Mabel, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

SEPA requires state agencies to review the environmental effects of some state-funded projects. Until now, SEPA didn’t force agencies to consider the costs of a project in determining whether to do a review.

But under the reform law, HB 795, projects may only be reviewed if they cost more than $10 million or affect more than 10 acres of public land.

HB 795 is significant in part because SEPA takes into account the public’s health. The law considers a project’s effects on groundwater, air pollution and the creation of hazardous wastewater, among other issues.

The votes for HB 795 were largely split on partisan lines, with Republicans offering the bulk of support for the bill. Still, the bill’s dissenters included two notable Republicans from the House Environment Committee: Rep. Rick Catlin (R-Wilmington), a chairman of the committee, and Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Hendersonville), a vice chairman.

“They’re calling it reform,” said McGrady, referring to the bill’s supporters. “For all practical purposes, it’s a repeal.”

McGrady said that under the new law, the monetary thresholds will prevent most projects from triggering a SEPA review.

At the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, that would have been the case for recent projects, according to Tom Reeder, the department’s assistant secretary for the environment. Reeder couldn’t say with certainty how many previous projects would have been affected by the new law; the department doesn’t track projects’ cost.

But of the 14 projects reviewed last year under SEPA, “Probably most of them would be kicked out” from SEPA review, he said.

How SEPA works

SEPA was signed into law in 1971 in an effort to protect the environment and the public’s health and to ensure that taxpayer-funded projects would receive public scrutiny for their environmental effects.

[pullquote_left]Where else could you read this story? NC Health News fills a valuable need, reporting on stories the other guys skip. Please consider a donation to support this vital service![/pullquote_left]SEPA reviews apply to activities that meet three criteria.

An activity must involve a state agency’s action. This can include an agency’s decision to issue a pollution permit or to build a sewer-line extension, for example.

The activity must also use public money, from state or local governments, or state lands.

And the activity must potentially impact the environment or the public’s health to a significant degree.

Having met those criteria, agencies perform a SEPA review. In the reviews, agencies look at several issues, including a project’s environmental effects, measures to lesson those effects and possible alternatives to the project.

SEPA’s supporters and opponents

SEPA’s supporters say the process helps applicants prepare for future environmental permits and that SEPA reviews consider broader potential effects than those considered under some regulatory programs, such as air pollution permitting programs.

State-funded water-treatment plant projects are another place where SEPA regulations would apply. The Williams Water Treatment Plant reservoir in Durham. Photo courtesy Ildar Sagdejev, Wikimedia Commons

The N.C. Chamber, which championed HB 795 in the General Assembly, said that SEPA has been burdensome for businesses.

“This drawn-out and often unnecessary process can add years to the development of new economic opportunities and impede job growth,” said Gary Salamido, N.C. Chamber’s vice president of governmental affairs, in a press release.

Kenneth Waldroup, an assistant director for public utilities in Raleigh, said that while he doesn’t advocate a repeal of SEPA, the public should consider the large number of environmental requirements already placed on public projects. The combination of state and federal laws, he said, “has made permitting projects extremely complicated.”

HB 795 does not repeal any state programs that regulate pollution, such as air pollution or water pollution. These regulations are required under different state laws.

Reeder, of DENR, said he expects the new law to have negligible effects on the environment.

“These projects will still undergo a comprehensive environmental review,” he said.

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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...