From fracking to sea-level rise, the General Assembly's assault on the facts | Exile on Jones Street | Indy Week
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From fracking to sea-level rise, the General Assembly's assault on the facts 

Sometime in early May, the draft of a new Senate version of House Bill 819, which contained the now notorious sea-level rise legislation, started making the rounds.

You didn't have to be a geologist to understand what the new language in it was getting at. When it passed the House last year, the bill said nothing about sea-level rise. The new version said a lot.

It said there would be only one state-sanctioned prediction of how much the sea would rise. It said state and local governments would be forbidden from using anything other than the official state-sanctioned rate of sea-level rise for planning or in drafting rules and ordinances. It said that the state-sanctioned rate could be determined only through historical means and that the use of observation, the cornerstone of science, was not permitted.

More important, HB 819 said something about where this General Assembly is going and where our state is heading if the vision now in vogue on Jones Street comes to pass.

The economic crisis has been used to drive an unprecedented surge in the power of corporations and business interests to influence and, in some cases, to write legislation. What is unfolding is the result of the conflict between these interests and the regulations and rules that have been implemented over the past 30 years. While it's pitched as a push to unfetter business and streamline government, the way it has played out is more old-fashioned.

Regulations are being rolled back not for some lofty free-market aim but as favors to industries and businesses. Attacking the science behind a regulation—or the product of that science—has evolved into a key part of the strategy.

In the case of sea-level rise, it was fairly clear that the legislation was driven by development interests who want the maximum amount of coastal land available to build on and as few laws as possible to regulate that building.

Although the General Assembly may have taken a good beating over the bill, a slightly watered-down version of HB 819 still managed to clear the Senate. This might have re-enforced the notion held by the rest of the country that North Carolinians are climate-change denying yahoos, but there was method in the madness.

The legislators who are pushing the measure include Johnston County Republican Sen. David Rouzer. Rouzer, who led the fight for the bill, is running for the 7th Congressional District against Democratic incumbent Mike McIntyre, who is polling well in a redrawn district that heavily favors a Republican.

Rouzer, supported by U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's Young Guns PAC, will need a lot of coastal support to win the district. Since he's an inland state senator, he's been trying to get coastal residents' attention, including pushing for the sea-level rise legislation.

(On Tuesday, the state House voted 114-0 not to concur with the Senate's move, sending the bill to a conference committee.)

Should it become law, the biggest practical impact of HB 819 would be in the development of flood zone and shoreline maps. Special interests and lawmakers commonly influence how these maps are drawn, and in some cases prevent them from being made at all. This benefits developers because maps constrain how a property can be developed, including density limitations and stormwater controls. Maps tell potential homeowners and insurance agents a different story than what's pitched on the sales brochure.

Last year, the Legislature eliminated a landslide hazard-mapping program in western North Carolina that would have eventually detailed the areas prone to slides in 19 western counties. The project started in 2000 and kicked into high gear after flooding from Hurricanes Ivan and Frances in 2004 triggered dozens of landslides, killed four people in Macon County and caused millions of dollars in property damage.

With a staff of a half-dozen specialists in hydrogeology and engineering, the state searched for the danger zones. Once they started producing maps, though, it became clear that the program posed problems for some powerful real estate interests. Agents are required to reveal hazards associated with properties, including information contained in these maps, which were public and on the Web. The backlash from developers was so intense that at one point Macon County, one of the areas that were mapped, scrubbed the maps from its website.

Despite the General Assembly's decision to shut down the program, mapping hazards haven't stopped. Some counties are drawing their own maps at their own expense, because of the Legislature's move.

Some hazards are easier to track than others; those that are airborne are the most difficult of all.Last year, the state's air toxics program was one of several environmental enforcement programs put under review by the General Assembly. It's the first program to drastically change under a plan aimed at eliminating redundancy among state and federal regulations.

Except there is no redundancy.

Though they regulate some similar emissions—those identified under the federal Clean Air Act—the way the state and their federal counterparts at the Environmental Protection Agency go about it is vastly different. The state measures the emissions, while the federal rules set the bar for what technologies are used to control them. The move is nothing more than favor for air polluters. They worked hard to get it.

A recent report by watchdog group Democracy North Carolina outlined the extensive spending in the past three years by 27 companies and industry groups. Labeled the "toxics lobby," these groups spent a staggering $8.2 million in lobbying fees and campaign contributions on an agenda that included gutting the air toxics rules.

The effort remove the state from the air monitoring business culminated this week with the passage of new air toxics legislation. Although the bill is not as drastic as first proposed, it still damages the public's ability to know and react to what plants are emitting.

The see-no-evil approach doesn't bode well should this state become the mecca of fracking. While there are many environmental concerns about fracking, more troubling is that its potential legalization is happening amid the wholesale retreat of regulation and oversight.

We're not streamlining environmental protection in North Carolina, we're dismantling it. By undercutting the science behind those protections, whether through budget cuts, rewriting laws or denying reality through legislative fiat, we're putting people at risk.

If you can prevent the air toxins from being measured, certain chemicals from being included in groundwater testing or the organisms used to determine the health of a body of water from being counted, you can change the impact of environmental laws on certain businesses. But you can't change the effects of unsafe air and contaminated water on living things, no matter what you choose to call science.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Science fiction."

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