A bill that appeared Thursday would weaken storm water rules, change stream water mitigation requirements and affect the way landfills deal with wet waste.
By Rose Hoban
It happens every year during the legislative session, or at least for the past few years, that lawmakers float bills filled with multiple sections, changing or eliminating regulations.
This year is no different, with two regulatory reform bills seeing movement this week and another bill to amend environmental laws appearing late Wednesday evening. That last bill was was heard only 12 hours after it went through major revisions that lengthened it from four to 14 pages.
“We had less than 12 hours to read it, study it, for the senators to think about how it impacts their constituents,” said Mary Mclean Asbill, from the Southern Environmental Law Center.
And while bill sponsor Sen. Trudy Wade (R-Greensboro) downplayed the impacts of the proposed statutory changes, advocates said some of the proposals could have effects on human health.
Changing storm water rules
Several of the provisions in HB 593, “Amend Environmental and Other Laws,” would ease restrictions on developers who might be building in an area that collects lots of water.
There would be fewer requirements around capturing the runoff from a building site. Another provision would allow for more landscaping material like gravel, mulch and sand to run into existing streams and tributaries.
Folks on the downstream end of things found that concerning.
Todd Miller, head of the NC Coastal Federation said that material running into streams, rivers and, eventually, into the ocean, has lots of bacteria in it, from soil, from animals and from people.
“When we develop or use the land, we create runoff that wasn’t there before and increase transport of what’s going downstream,” Miller said. “We have to work to prevent the transport of pollutants off the landscape where they’re in natural abundance.”
He said once that stuff gets into the water, it’s harder to clean it up. It’s better to prevent it from getting there in the first place.
Miller also said that after storms, beaches often need to be closed because of the high bacteria loads, along with shellfish fisheries.
House Democratic Rep. Pricey Harrison (Greensboro), who is a member of the Environmental Review Commission, said that the body considered some storm water proposals, but turned them into matters for study, not for implementation.
“It’s a complicated issue because I think a lot of it is [Environmental Protection Agency] required,” Harrison said. “And we went through a couple of stakeholder-driven processes to develop the rule.”
Spraying near landfills
Another part of HB 593 would allow landfill managers to spray the water that collects at the bottom of the landfills, known as leachate, into the air to get rid of it.
Landfills are dug into the ground, like big bowls, and they have to be lined with clay and other barriers to keep leachate from seeping into groundwater. But after rains, that liquid accumulates at the bottom of the bowl and can cause problems.
Bobby Darden, who runs Coastal Environmental Partnership, a regional solid-waste authority in the northeastern part of the state, said the leachate in his 90-acre landfill currently gets collected in a lagoon and then pumped to a wastewater treatment plant for processing.
“Leachate is a large cost. It’s always something you’re looking for new and better ways to dispose of it,” he said, explaining that the aerosolization has been piloted in several sites around the state.
According to a presentation submitted to the Environmental Review Commission in February, the aerosolization pumps can spray as much as 600 gallons per minute, with netting controlling the mist created by the spray. Darden said the idea is that spraying the stuff onto the existing landfill allows for the liquids to evaporate and the solids to be reintegrated into the rest of the garbage.
“You need a warm sunny, non-humid day to maximize the evaporation,” he said.
“You’re taking leachate, which is a product that has traditionally needed to be treated in order for it to be properly disposed of, and now through this technology, you’re gonna disperse it in the air,” said Sen. Joel Ford (D-Charlotte) as he asked for more information about the process. “There’s some fear about some downwind containment as well as if there’s any contaminants in it that will be on the ground in which it’s gonna fall.”
Sen. Trudy Wade, who proposed the changes in the bill, said there’s been permitting and testing across the state.
However, the February presentation only noted a single pilot site in North Carolina.
And Harrison said she didn’t remember any discussion of aerosolization in ERC meetings.
“I don’t recall it even coming out as a study in our list of recommendations,” she said. “We are very careful in the ERC to study all these issues that we are assigned … and we put forth a legislative package of recommendations which was matters that we considered carefully and then we didn’t recommend anything else.”
Less than 45 minutes after it was introduced, the environmental law amendment bill was through committee and on its way to the Senate floor. No staff from the Department of Environmental Quality were in the room to answer questions.
The process frustrated the SELC’s Asbill, who told the committee the process was too rushed.
Wade responded that the committee and others would have time to look at the bill.
“I’m not sure… which day next week it may run on the floor, but you’ll have a whole weekend, for sure, to look at it,” she said. “And I’ll be glad… to answer any questions that you may have.”
Harrison said that pushing these kinds of bills through late in the session is “an unfortunate way to do business.”
“It happens a lot at the end of session, at the last-minute efforts,” she said, noting that the House passed a bipartisan regulatory reform bill this week that all parties agreed removes unnecessary regulations and doesn’t repeal public-health protections.
“Remember the big fish kills of the ‘90s and the big algal blooms? We don’t have those any more and it’s because we’ve enacted all these protections,” Harrison said. “And it’s gonna unravel again and cost a lot more money … and poison some more water.”
She said that some of the more egregious environmental bills coming out of the Senate have gone straight into a House committee where bills often die.
But she also said there’s a lot of horse trading at the end of the legislative session.
“So you don’t know how important some provision is in the budget and what they’re willing to give up in the process,” Harrison said.