Raleigh, N.C. — Late Tuesday night, House lawmakers gave final approval to a package of regulatory rollbacks that environmental groups say will harm the state's air and water quality. Supporters of the bill say those charges are untrue.
House Bill 765, the Regulatory Reform Act of 2015, makes changes to state regulations in a wide range of areas, but the bill's major focus is on environmental rules.
The bill relaxes requirements that polluted soil and water be cleaned up to pre-pollution standards, removes protections for many isolated wetlands and allows developers to destroy without mitigation short, intermittent streams that aren't protected by federal law. It also offers companies that self-report a spill limited immunity from civil discovery.
"It is clean, it’s green, and it’s not extreme," said sponsor Rep. Pat McElraft, R-Carteret. "We are becoming more friendly to companies. We haven’t loosened any environmental regulations that would hurt our water, our air, our state in any way"
McElraft noted that the House had insisted on several changes brought up at a public hearing on the bill this summer, including moving the minimum age for ATV use back to 8 years old, rather than 6.
"So, we did listen to the public," she said.
Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, disagreed, though she credited McElraft with "taking out a lot of the really awful stuff" in the Senate version of the bill. Still, she argued, "it’s probably doing the most damage that we’ve done yet to the environment this session."
Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Orange, argued against the remediation changes and the self-reporting immunity.
"This bill is saying, 'Come here if you want to pollute. We’re giving you a set of rules on how to do it. We’re telling how many times you can get away with it,'" Meyer said. "Dirty air and water are not a jobs plan. We need an environment that builds a healthy economy."
Rep. Chris Millis, R-Pender, said he was "highly offended" by Meyer's comments.
"In no way is this actually permitting polluters. It’s actually more stringent than the current (Department of Environmental Quality) policy," Millis said.
Rep. Dan Bishop, R-Mecklenburg, lashed out at Meyer: "You either haven’t read it, or you don’t care what it says because you want to make a political point.
"The disregard for truth ought to scandalize us all," added Bishop.
Rep. Jeff Collins, R-Nash, said he had been told by economic developers in 2011 that the state's environmental regulators were often "abusive" and "obstructive" toward businesses.
"If you want a jobs bill, this is the most important jobs bill we can pass this session," Collins argued. "There’s nothing that kills business like not knowing how you’re going to be treated by regulators."
The measure passed 73-39 just minutes before midnight.
Having been approved by the Senate on Monday with little debate, the bill now goes to Gov. Pat McCrory, who will have until Oct. 30 to decide whether to sign it, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature.
In a statement early Wednesday, the N.C. Sierra Club reiterated its criticism of the bill.
"H765 provides a clear path for polluters to avoid accountability. The public deserves the right to know about potentially harmful pollution in our neighborhoods,” wrote NC Sierra Club director Molly Duggins. "Coupled with the effective repeal of the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) 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.”