Senators skirmish over shellfish

A proposal to rewrite long-standing environmental rules and spend half a million dollars on a questionable shellfish experiment is moving forward in the Senate budget, despite Democrats' efforts to derail it.

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Laura Leslie
RALEIGH, N.C. — A proposal to rewrite long-standing environmental rules and spend half a million dollars on a questionable shellfish experiment is moving forward in the Senate budget, despite Democrats’ efforts to derail it.

The item is part of a larger section of the Senate budget’s special provisions that would throw out and replace nutrient management strategies in the Jordan Lake, Falls Lake and the Tar-Pamlico and Neuse watersheds.

Calling it "bad science and bad policy," Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham, introduced an amendment to remove the entire section.

"This section is full of hyperbole and contains a number of misstatements," said Woodard.

"Let’s be clear, the current management strategies have reduced nitrogen and phosphorus pollution where they have been implemented," he said. "Thanks to our interference in the process, the Falls and Jordan Lake Rules have barely been implemented. They haven’t had a chance to work yet."

Woodard conceded a decrease in overall nutrient load "could take a couple of decades," but he said the inflow of new excess nutrients has decreased under the current management rules, which include river buffers, enhanced wastewater processing and stricter runoff strategies for residential and agricultural areas in the watersheds of Jordan Lake and Falls Lake, two reservoirs that supply drinking water to 750,000 people in the Triangle.

He compared the plan to see if freshwater mussels can help cleanse the water to the SolarBee experiment, the giant water mixers that were recently removed from Jordan Lake after the Environmental Management Commission concluded they did nothing to reduce pollution. That project cost taxpayers $1.5 million over three years, during which time lawmakers delayed the scheduled implementation of the Jordan Lake Rules.

"The SolarBees were ill-conceived, and scientists told us that. You heard that three years ago. The science community told us they would not work, and they were right," he told Senate Republicans. "Now, we’re going to throw good money after bad."

The provision at issue directs the Department of Environmental Quality and the EMC to adopt a statewide strategy to protect water quality, which Woodard called "flawed methodology."

"Different bodies of water need different types of protections, and if you don’t believe me, ask the federal government, because they’ll sure tell us," he said, referring to the 1972 Clean Water Act, which requires states to take action to address "impaired" bodies of water.

Before the Senate could vote on his amendment, Sen. John Alexander, R-Wake, introduced a substitute amendment – a common tactic used to derail amendments before a recorded vote is taken on them – to make minor changes to the original provision.

Alexander’s amendment added $1.5 million more to a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study of nutrient management strategies nationwide, pushed back the deadline for that report and the rewriting of the rules to 2020 and directed DEQ and the EMC to consider "existing strategies" as part of its rewrite process.

It would, however, preserve the $500,000 mussel experiment.

Alexander said he had heard from concerned northern Wake County constituents about the original language.

"A lot of people were jumping up and down like third-string shortstops," he said.

Woodard argued against Alexander’s substitute amendment, pointing out that the Clean Water Trust Fund, the source of the project’s funding, contains only $5 million.

"Where’s the data to support taking almost half of the Clean Water Trust Fund and putting in this study? And then it’s just another delay," he said. "We’ve been delaying and delaying and delaying. It’s bad science, it’s bad policy, and it’s a waste of money to the taxpayers."

Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, D-Wake, also spoke against Alexander’s substitute amendment, saying a North Carolina State University scientist had told him freshwater mussels would actually add to the lakes’ algae woes in the long run. He also pointed out that the EMC recently declared "in-situ," or in-lake, pollution control measures no substitute for nutrient reduction upstream.

Sen. Trudy Wade, R-Guilford, chief budget writer for the original provision, noted that the Army Corps of Engineers knew Jordan Lake would "always" be impaired when it was created years ago.

"People upstream have done their part," Wade said, citing investments in wastewater technology by Greensboro and Burlington totaling more than $125 million so far. "And guess what? It hasn’t made a dent in the algae in Jordan Lake. It’s just as bad as it was.

"For goodness sake, let’s have some science that shows it’s helping," she said. "We don’t have that. This amendment will help give us time to study."

Wade also took issue with Chaudhuri’s characterization of Jordan Lake as "increasingly polluted."

"It is not polluted. It has algae in it. So, the use of the term pollution is really a little far-fetched. The water can be run through a treatment plant, and it’s very safe to drink," she said. "If there’s a way we could do something to clean it up naturally, that would be a lot better than a man-made way."

"To sit here and to want to put all this on the upstream communities is asinine," protested Sen. Rick Gunn, R-Alamance, estimating that the true cost of the Jordan Lake Rules and the Falls Lake Rules in buffers on real estate over the past seven years has been $2 billion.

Gunn, a longtime opponent of the rules, added that they are "not even documented to make a bit of difference."

The Alexander amendment passed, tabling Woodard's amendment, but not before Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Wake, offered up the endangered mussels that are holding up highway construction in his district.

"Now that mussels have become valuable, we’ve got about a dozen in Wake County we’d be happy to offer," Barefoot joked. "You can come dig them up yourself, Sen. Woodard."


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