Watching the environment: Trees, water could be in trouble after this session | North Carolina | Indy Week
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Watching the environment: Trees, water could be in trouble after this session 

With the Dan River coal ash spill, the looming threat of fracking and the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources stripped of resources, the General Assembly short session is adding up to be a volatile one for environmental issues.

The short session typically deals with budget. Last year, money was allocated for worthy environmental programs—water infrastructure, parks and recreation, heritage protection and local solid waste management. This year, those programs will have to fight for funding.

Watchdog groups are closely observing to see if funds will be appropriated for deserving environmental programs, or if the Legislature will continue to make cuts. They'll also be watching these issues:

Coal ash:

According to Grady McCallie, policy director at the N.C. Conservation Network, it's likely that several coal ash bills from different lawmakers will emerge in the short session.

Environmentalists want to see proposals to remove coal ash from more than 30 pits in 14 facilities and to place the toxic waste in dry landfills, away from water sources.

In February, the Dan River spill brought Duke Energy's historic mismanagement of the state's coal ash waste to the forefront. Gov. Pat McCrory introduced a coal ash bill in April that mirrored the terms of a settlement the state proposed with Duke Energy last year.

The state dropped its proposal in embarrassment following the spill; McCrory's proposal, which was not coordinated with legislators, was roundly criticized for being too lax on cleanup.

Duke Energy has made it clear that it prefers the method of installing synthetic barriers and capping the coal ash—the cheapest method of remedying the situation.

Fracking:

In 2012, the General Assembly overrode Gov. Bev Perdue's veto on allowing oil and gas extraction in North Carolina. Lawmakers reconstituted the Mining and Energy Commission, tasking it with developing a fracking program for the state.

But the bill contained language that prohibits permits from being issued to drilling companies before fracking is proven to be safe.

However, on the last day of the 2013 session, Gov. McCrory and members of the Senate threw a measure into an unrelated commerce bill that would repeal the moratorium on issuing drilling permits. The measure failed in the House, but given McCrory's outspoken support for both on shore and offshore drilling, Elizabeth Ouzts, the state director for Environment North Carolina, says it's possible that it could resurface.

"There is a priority around keeping the moratorium in place to protect waterways and also not making decisions in a rush," Ouzts said. "We would hate if the Legislature rushes that process and makes decisions before the Commission is finished presenting rules."

The Commission is on schedule to deliver a mammoth package of fracking rules for public comment in August, after the short session has ended. The Commission will adopt a final package in October to be sent to the General Assembly for the 2015 long session.

Some of the problems with the package as it exists include slashing provisions designed to protect drinking water from methane contamination. The Commission wants to reduce liability for drilling companies to entice them to come to the state; McCallie, from NC Conservation Network, says this compromises the safety of our tap water.

He also says the Commission "doesn't have answers" to several problems, including the disposal of toxic fluids and whether pipelines can run across private property.

These gathering pipelines carry gas and are largely unregulated because there are so many; there are health and safety concerns tied to the monitoring of the lines and it is still unclear what happens in the case of a gas leak.

And then there is House Bill 94 from last session, which Ouzts said at various times has contained language that would have allowed oil and gas companies to refuse to disclose what chemicals they would inject into the ground if they are ever allowed to frack in North Carolina.

Old battles, new fights:

House Bill 74 is "a grab-bag of special provisions," according to McCallie. It will likely be reviewed in the short session.

The Environmental Review Commission has already voted to recommend repealing a rule in the bill that allows local governments to adopt environmental regulations stricter than state and federal regulations by unanimous vote only.

The Commission did recommend inserting a restriction on municipalities' abilities to regulate the sale of potent fertilizers that pollute waters with downstream runoff.

While it is unclear whether any cities in North Carolina already regulate the sale of fertilizers, McCallie says the practice works in other states as "a cheap and thoughtful way of managing nutrient pollution coming into waterways."

HB74 also requires the state to review and re-adopt all environmental rules to ensure they are necessary for the public interest.

McCallie says the problem with this is that state boards already repeal rules that are unnecessary and burdensome and the effect of this legislation will be to occupy "huge chunks" of time and resources in going through the process of re-adopting environmental rules.

"It puts 30 years of environmental progress at stake," McCallie said. "It is completely nuts. We'll have to refight battles that we fought before and brought to compromise."

Trees in trouble:

Defunct for several years, the Agriculture and Forestry Study Awareness Commission is an obscure, recently resurrected body. The Commission met last week and drafted two highly questionable pieces of legislation.

The first is a bill that would preempt local fertilizer ordinances and all local tree ordinances.

As the N.C. League of Municipalities warned, the bill "would prevent counties and municipalities from regulating the removal, replacement and preservation of trees on private property within its jurisdiction."

The Commission's second proposal seeks to make state records which identify farms by GPS location, geographical coordinates or aerial photographs exempt from the Public Records Act.

McCallie says he thinks the legislation is designed to suppress environmental groups which take aerial photographs of farms suspected of violating their waste management permits.

"It's an attempt to hide information," he said. "It's a clear assault on press freedom and access to information."

Wetlands Protection:

The Environmental Review Commission recommended legislation to reduce protection for isolated wetlands, which environmentalists say could be problematic for several reasons.

Isolated wetlands are important for groundwater control as they are not connected to streams, absorb rain and don't contribute to flooding. They also serve as habitats for several rare species in North Carolina.

Since North Carolina doesn't have laws that protect rare species, McCallie says burdensome regulations from the federal Endangered Species Act could arise for the state down the road, and having wetlands protection laws in place now is a more efficient way to deal with the issue.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Clear-cutting protections"

  • Legislative preview: coal ash, fracking, wetlands

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