Raleigh, N.C. — House leaders are pushing ahead with a proposal to require state environmental regulators to allow the disposal of landfill wastewater and fluids that leak out by spraying it into the air over their property without a permit.
The process, called aerosolization, is favored by the waste industry and by other industries that deal with large quantities of wastewater. As amended Thursday, however, it would not apply to dewatering coal ash.
House Bill 576 sponsor Rep. Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin, told the House Environment Committee on Thursday that no one is opposed to the bill, but both the state Department of Environmental Quality and environmental groups say that's not the case.
According to Dixon, DEQ under former Gov. Pat McCrory's administration approved a permit for an aerosolization project at the Foothills Regional Landfill in 2013.
"This is a patented process," Dixon explained. "You’ve got nasty water. You stick a hose in it, you pump it out. It goes through a system that aerosolizes the water. The bad stuff will not aerosolize. It falls back into the holding pond.
"The benefit of that is up to 80 percent of the leachate, the fluid that you will be taking out, is vaporized in a very clean state with no contaminants whatsoever," he said, adding that it would save money by reducing the quantity of wastewater that must be transported and treated.
Dixon said he is continuing to work with DEQ on "a couple of very slight potential changes in language," including whether the agency should be directed to consider the process or commanded to accept it: "They prefer the word 'consider.' I prefer the word 'shall.'"
Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, said the regulatory agency should be the body writing the rules.
"There are contaminants in there, and you can’t really guarantee they won’t end up in the soil or on neighbors’ properties," Harrison said.
Dixon said he's confident that no contaminant would drift with the spray. "It would fall out very quickly before it got very far down the road," he said.
The voice vote on the bill sounded close, but Chairwoman Rep. Pat McElfraft, R-Carteret, pronounced it approved.
No public comment on the bill was allowed, although DEQ liaison Anderson Miller was asked about the agency's position. Miller said the agency doesn't support the measure in its current form, but is "looking forward to working with Rep. Dixon."
"We want to make sure there are measures in place to address environmental and public safety concerns with aerosolization," Miller said after the meeting, adding that DEQ staff had met with Dixon after the meeting to discuss their concerns. "We're looking forward to seeing those concerns addressed in the legislation."
The inventor of the patented system, Kelly Houston, was present at the meeting but declined to speak with WRAL News about his system, called the Integrated Mobile Aerosolization System. His company, American Evaporation and Irrigation LLC, is located in the Charlotte suburb of Cornelius.
Environmental watchdogs, on the other hand, had plenty to say about the issue, calling it "SolarBees 2," a reference to the water-churning machines lawmakers insisted would reduce contamination in Jordan Lake that were later pulled out because they didn't accomplish that goal.
Brooks Rainey Pearson with the Southern Environmental Law Center said landfill runoff is known to contain a range of chemicals and toxins, which is why it's required to be processed and purified as wastewater. She said those chemical compounds don't simply fall out of solution when it's turned into tiny droplets.
"They’re not going to be able to take a lot of things out of it," agreed Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Matthew Starr. "It’s a total misconception, and Rep. Dixon told bald-faced lies.”
Pearson asked Houston repeatedly to point her to peer-reviewed research that demonstrates aerosolization is safe, but Houston did not cite any.
"In my research and in my discussions with DEQ and (the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), it might be safe, it might not, which is why we need a permitting process," Pearson told WRAL News. "What we’ve heard is it can be done in very arid climates and very huge landfills. None of the landfills in North Carolina, to our understanding, are dry enough or big enough to be safe. It needs to occur within the boundaries of the landfills.
"If it’s safe, let DEQ do a site assessment and determine that," she said. "If the inventor of the technology and the lobbyist taking him around today tell me it’s safe but cannot point me to a single scientific study showing that, then maybe it’s too soon to set this loose with no permit."
The bill will be heard next in House Agriculture Committee, which Dixon chairs.