Industrial looking monitors for air quality as a proxy for air quality standards
An air quality monitoring site. Under SB , many air monitors could be dismantled. Image courtesy N.C. DENR

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After months of back and forth, a sweeping environmental reform bill passes in the final hours of the 2015 legislative session.

By Gabe Rivin

The state House of Representatives passed legislation late Tuesday night that would rewrite several environmental rules, a move that now sends the bill to Gov. Pat McCrory for a signature.

House Bill 765 touches on a number of regulatory issues throughout the state, including occupational licensing boards and workers’ compensation.

An air-quality monitoring site. Under HB 765 , many air monitors could be dismantled. Image courtesy N.C. DENR

But a large portion of the bill addresses environmental rules. The legislation, if signed by McCrory, will, among other things:

  • repeal idling restrictions for heavy-duty vehicles;
  • require the state to potentially discontinue its use of some air-quality monitors;
  • allow farmers to burn plastics used in agriculture rather than sending them to landfills or recycling them; and
  • prohibit state regulators from enforcing federal standards intended to reduce air pollution from wood heaters.

In the House, votes for HB 765, the Regulatory Reform Act, were largely split along party lines, with Republicans voting for it and Democrats in opposition. The Senate was also split when it approved the bill Sept. 28.

Environmental groups say that the bill will roll back important state rules that protect the environment and the public’s health.

“Coupled with the effective repeal of the State Environmental Policy Act earlier this year, this General Assembly seems intent on subsidizing developers by removing protections that were put in place to protect the state’s lands and waters for future generations,” said Molly Diggins, the director of North Carolina’s Sierra Club chapter, in a press statement.

Pat McElraft, the bill’s sponsor, said the environmental provisions will not harm air quality or water quality. Photo courtesy N.C. General Assembly

But Rep. Pat McElraft (R-Emerald Isle), the sponsor of the bill, disputed environmentalists’ concerns, calling the bill “clean, green and not extreme.”

“We haven’t loosened any environmental regulations that would hurt our water, our air, our state in any way,” she said during House debate of the bill. “No one wants any pollution or bad air quality.”

Regulatory-reform legislation has become something of an annual tradition in the General Assembly over the past few years, as legislators have looked to rewrite state rules that they say harm job creation. McElraft, echoing this sentiment, cited the North Carolina Chamber’s support of her bill, and said her legislation would bring new jobs to the state.

But Rep. Paul Luebke (D-Durham) said job growth was strong even before legislators initiated what he called regulatory-repeal bills.

“It’s important to recognize that when you make these regulatory changes, that on balance you are weakening the regulatory structures of the state, and you’re repealing them in a way that is not necessarily in the public interest at all,” he said.

Repeals and rewrites

Several provisions in the bill do in fact repeal environmental rules. One provision eliminates idling restrictions for large diesel trucks and other heavy-duty vehicles. Under current rules, many heavy-duty vehicles cannot idle for more than five minutes every hour.

Another provision would eliminate restrictions that prevent farmers from burning agricultural plastics, which are used in hoop houses and ground covers, among other applications. The bill, however, would prohibit burning the plastics if doing so would violate air-quality standards or create a public nuisance.

One provision that has drawn environmentalists’ ire is a potential reduction in air-quality monitors. Under the provision, the state’s newly renamed Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ, would need to seek permission from the federal government to remove ambient air-quality monitors that aren’t required by federal law.

HB 765 would allow heavy-duty vehicles, such as 18-wheelers, to idle indefinitely. Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force

A similar provision was initially included in the 2014 regulatory reform bill, but was later dropped.

McElraft said the provision would not necessarily reduce the state’s fleet of air monitors, but that it would allow the DEQ to seek permission to do so.

“If DEQ thinks there is an area that they want to keep that regional monitor in, they have the right to do so,” she said.

DEQ spokeswoman Crystal Feldman said in an email that the bill “gives the department discretion to maintain monitors if it deems them necessary to protect public health, safety, and welfare; the environment; and natural resources.”

McCrory’s staff have not responded to questions about whether the governor will sign HB 765.

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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...