Senate OKs environmental overhaul bill after tweaks to get DENR support

Posted July 1, 2015

Low-lying wetlands buffer the Neuse River Trail.

— The Senate on Wednesday gave preliminary approval to legislation that would change a wide swath of environmental, business and government regulations after making a series of adjustments to gain the support of the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

After the 30-14 vote in favor of House Bill 765, sponsor Sen. Trudy Wade, R-Guilford, asked that the final vote be delayed until Thursday so people could have more time to digest the 50-plus-page bill, which until late Sunday had been a one-page bill dealing with gravel trucks.

DENR officials on Tuesday balked at numerous provisions in the new bill, which would roll back regulations on air quality, water quality, stormwater runoff, permitting and recycling. The agency's legislative liaison went so far as to send a letter to senators outlining DENR's concerns.

Wade and Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, said senators worked with DENR representatives late Tuesday and early Wednesday to find ways to tweak the bill so the agency could back it.

Apodaca rolled out a series of amendments on the Senate floor, all of which passed unanimously, that deleted a section on stormwater runoff rules, delayed coastal stormwater provisions for a year, turned a section that would have exempted utility line projects from environmental regulations into a study, refined the definition of an "isolated wetland" and ensured the operators of coal ash ponds couldn't evade civil penalties by simply reporting environmental violations.

Senate Republicans turned back efforts by Democrats to make other adjustments to the bill, such as deleting sections that would allow polluters to be exempt from fines for violations as long as they report the violations themselves, make it easier for the state to recover legal fees from groups that unsuccessfully challenge the state's environmental oversight and eliminate the need to mitigate damage to intermittent streams caused by development.

Sens. Erica Smith-Ingram, D-Northampton, and Josh Stein, D-Wake, questioned how DENR could object Tuesday to a provision that would allow half of the air-quality monitors in the state to be removed and say Wednesday that it was fine with the provision, which wasn't changed by any of Apodaca's amendments.

"Clearly, somebody's arms have been twisted," Stein said, calling the loss of monitors to check air quality across the state "exceedingly short-sighted and potentially dangerous."

Wade noted that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency told DENR in 2010 that it could remove the monitors, and the state would be better served by local monitoring.

The Senate easily defeated Smith-Ingram's proposal to delete the air monitor removal provision from the bill.


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