Environmental rollback heads for Senate vote

A massive proposal to gut state and local environmental rules is headed for the state Senate floor after a few minutes of public debate Thursday morning.

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NC River Basin Map
Laura Leslie
RALEIGH, N.C. — It took just 45 minutes Thursday morning for the Senate Commerce Committee to approve a massive rollback of rules and regulations meant to protect the state's environment. 
Senate Bill 612 would require cities and counties to repeal any rules stricter than state or federal law. It would also require a list of environmental oversight boards and agencies to repeal or rewrite any state rule stricter than federal regulation on any given matter.

Those agencies include the Mining and Energy Commission, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the Environmental Management Commission, the Commission for Public Health, the Pesticide Board and the Coastal Resources, Marine Fisheries, Wildlife Resources and Sedimentation Control commissions.

The bill would also do away with riparian buffers on private property throughout the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico river basins.

Those two basins cover a huge swath of eastern North Carolina, stretching from the Virginia border through Raleigh and Rocky Mount all the way to Greenville and New Bern at the coast.  Watersheds include Eno, Falls Lake, Crabtree, Lake Mattamuskeet and Swan Quarter estuaries. 

Senate sponsors said they did not know how many acres the riparian repeal would affect. The buffers are intended to protect river water quality from the pressures of development. 

The bill would also permit demolition crews, including those working on old power plants, to dispose of potentially toxic materials on site, instead of transporting them to a landfill. 

Sponsor Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, said the bill "will roll some of these rules and regulations back to make this state more business-friendly."

The proposed committee substitute, unveiled just hours before the meeting, is much larger in scope than the original measure that was available to the public before the meeting.

It was originally referred to the Environment Committee, but was re-referred to the Commerce Committee on Tuesday. 

Representatives for various interest groups were caught off-guard by the changes. No one from DENR was even in the room to comment on the proposal till halfway through the meeting. 

Asked about the riparian buffer and state law rollbacks, Deputy Water Quality Director Ted Bush said, "I don't know DENR's position," adding, "I had not seen this language prior to today." 

Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, asked for the reasoning behind banning local governments from enacting ordinances and rules stricter than federal rules, which, he pointed out, are "meant to establish a floor, not a ceiling" for environmental regulation.

McKissick said communities in the mountains might have different local needs than those in the Piedmont or at the coast. "Why wouldn't we want to allow some local variation?" he asked.

"This says local government can't go any farther than the state and federal rules that are out there," Brown reiterated. "It takes a look at some of those rules and puts them back to some common sense, to be quite honest."

The only member of the public who accepted the invitation to comment on the bill was Mary Maclean Asbill with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill. She urged the committee to delay a vote on the measure until they could get more information about its likely effects. "There's some really meaty issues in this bill," she warned. "It's massive." 

The committee approved the bill on a voice vote that appeared to be on party lines. Its next stop is the Senate floor, where it could get a vote as soon as Monday night.

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