By air, by land and by water: General Assembly rolls back environmental protectionsWritten by Becky Johnson
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Back in January, a group of environmental advocates gathered for after-work beers at Craggie Brewery in Asheville where they heard a sobering message from one of their green-minded compatriots. In just a couple weeks, new leadership would take the reins of state government in Raleigh, and things probably weren’t going to be pretty on the environmental front.
“That has certainly been born out in spades,” said Julie Mayfield, who was the invited speaker that week at Asheville Green Drinks, a standing meeting for those in the environmental community.
While they were bracing for less-than-friendly legislation from the new Republicans majority, Dan Crawford, a lobbyist with the League of Conservation Voters, said they were “shocked with what we got.”
“To see the environmental assault that took place this session was quite surprising,” Crawford said. “It is like a game of whack a mole — there are all these new laws popping up that we’ve been trying to fight. I call this the 87-day war on the environment.”
Keeping up with the so-called assault was more than a one-person job. Close to 2,000 bills were introduced this session, and the League of Conservation Voters flagged about 200 to watch. Crawford’s group pays for a bill tracking service to keep on top of what’s being introduced or amended.
But that wasn’t what made this year one of the worst in history for environmental lobbyists.
“It was very hard to get the ear of our legislators on anything related to the environment,” said DJ Gerken, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Asheville. “There was very little interest from the leadership or bill sponsors to hear concerns from counter viewpoints.”
When the writing was on the wall and there was no hope of stopping a bill, they at least tried to lessen its blow.
“It is better to drink the poison that makes you sick than the poison that kills you,” Crawford said. “There were many times in the session that we went down fighting.”
What environmentalists have dubbed rollbacks, however, others consider needed reform. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, said environmental regulations in the state have run amok, and it is time to reassess many of them.
“For myself and my kids and my grandkids, I want clean water and I want clean air as much as the next person. But regulation, in my opinion, some of it is onerous and in some cases it is counter-productive,” Davis said.
The new Republican majority in the General Assembly has overturned a host of environmental policies. Some bills are a direct answer to request from industry, like a repeal of the state’s toxic emission standards specifically sought by Evergreen paper mill in Canton. There’s even the vaguely worded “Act to amend certain environmental laws,” a catch all where legislators seemingly inserted fixes to address pet peeves of constituents — from increasing the size of dams that need a state permit to lifting the ban on incinerating plastic bottles.
Meanwhile, new rules are being blocked from going on the books. Bills in the General Assembly have barred any new environmental rules that are more stringent than federal limits. And environmental agencies can no longer set their own policies.
“The more regulations we have means more regulators and the more hoops we have to jump through, so I think it is time to take a breather and sit back and examine them,” Davis said.
Sometimes, environmental rules bear an uncanny resemblance to a make-work program for regulators. Davis pointed to emission limits for arsenic imposed on Jackson Paper. As soon as one target was met, regulators raised the bar.
“It ensures their job for one thing. If all these goals are met, then we have to find another goal to impose on people,” Davis said. “Frankly, we have a lot of business in the United States that just says The heck with this. I am moving to Malaysia or Mexico or China where we don’t have to deal with these issues.’”
But Gary Wein, executive director of the Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust, doesn’t want to see the state move backwards in its environmental protections.
It may make it easier for industry to operate, but society will bear the cost in the long run, said Wein.
“We are still cleaning up messes from 50 to 60 years ago when there were no environmental regulations,” Wein said.
On the Highlands-Cashiers plateau, a scenic beauty and a healthy environment is vital not just to tourist but a healthy second-home economy, said Michelle Price, director of the Jackson-Macon Conservation Alliance.
“I think a lot of folks come to North Carolina because of the environment,” said Price. “If we are not protecting our environment, they will go somewhere else.”
George Ivey, a farmland specialist and conservation consultant in Haywood County, said the environment is actually valued by companies.
“When businesses are looking to relocate, they are looking for places with high quality of life and the environment is part of it,” Ivey said.
Crawford said he doesn’t know how long it might take to undo the anti-environmental policies promulgated this session. If a new legislature takes over next election, it’s doubtful they would burn precious political capital restoring environmental policies.
“The environment is not the only area that has been attacked by this General Assembly. There are plenty of other things that have to go into the fix bag,” Crawford said.
The environmental community is pinning modest hopes on a governor’s veto, but was selective in which bills it is looking for help with.
“It would be unrealistic to ask her to veto everything. We are one interest group of many and she has her hands full,” Crawford said.
Read on for a snapshot of a few of the budget cuts and bills that environmental advocates are fretting over.
Senate Bill 781
This is environmentalists’ public enemy No. 1. Environmental agencies would lose their ability to enforce regulations and adopt rules, instead placing that power with the General Assembly and falling back on federal standards.
“The regulatory authority of our state agencies is under assault by this bill,” said DJ Gerken with the Southern Environmental Law Center.
The General Assembly would have to sign off on anything that resembles an environmental standard, from designating trout streams to determining emissions standards for factories.
“It really handcuffs the ability of agencies to do their job,” said Tom Bean, lobbyist with the N.C. Wildlife Federation.
The Wildlife Commission couldn’t even adjust innocuous hunting laws, like setting a new opening day for squirrel season, since it classifies as a “rule making” by an environmental agency. Bean said the General Assembly probably doesn’t realize exactly what they’ve bitten off.
“There would be a bottleneck initially and they will have to undo some of this because it will be so unworkable,” Bean said. “Program by program, they are going to have to have broader authority reinstated.”
The bill, which passed both chambers, is billed as “regulatory reform.”
Backseat to federal standards
An environmental provision in the budget forbids new environmental rules that are stronger than federal minimum standards. North Carolina has several environmental laws that go beyond the bare minimum required at the federal level.
“Here in the west, trout buffers, the Clean Smokes Stack Act and the Ridge Law have made an extraordinary difference in our environment,” said Julie Mayfield, director of the WNC Alliance. “If the philosophy is, we should only protect the environment to the extent the federal government tells us we should, we wouldn’t have any of those things.”
Catch-all regulation rewrite
House Bill 119, a loosely titled act to “amend certain environmental and natural resource laws” is chock full of technical rule changes that provide loopholes and exemptions from environmental permits. One of the many changes in the bill would allow even larger dams to be built without a permit, doubling the threshold for how big it must be before triggering state oversight.
In Jackson County, when an earthen dam on the golf course of Balsam Mountain Preserve collapsed three years ago, it sent a torrent of muddy water downstream, wiping out the aquatic ecosystem and filling the water with sediment for miles downstream. That dam was barely large enough to need a state permit, but even at its size wrought major environmental damage when it collapsed due to faulty design.
Loss of conservation funding
Less money for conservation this year means special tracts of lands won’t get protected but instead will be sold for development.
“We have interested land owners with high-quality, high-priority lands, but the grant money is not there to protect those assets so they remain at risk of development, losing the potential to be a source of fresh food, fresh water, food production, scenic views, flood protection, all of those values, even tourism,” said George Ivey, a farmland specialist and conservation consultant and grant writer in Haywood County.
Land trusts rely on state trust funds to help with the cost of preserving special places. But this year, the Clean Water Management Trust Fund — the primary source of money for land conservation in the mountains — has been cut from to $11.5 million from last year’s amount of $50 million, and a precipitous drop from historic levels of $100 million up until two years ago.
“It really has been a bumpy ride for Clean Water (trust fund),” said Gary Wein, executive director for the Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust.
Wein was working with a landowner in Jackson in hopes of protecting a tract of several hundred acres, but the loss of incentive funds will likely sideline the effort.
Another project to improve trout habitat in the Cullasaja River will be stopped in its tracks as well. A two-part plan was hatched to cool down the water, which was unnaturally warm and unable to support trout.
A channel flowing through the Cullasaja golf course would be redesigned from its shallow, slow-moving course to a deeper swifter one. And, the flow coming off a reservoir would be altered so the river runs out of the bottom of the pond where the water temperature is cooler instead of flowing off the top.
Other pots have been reduced too, like the Farmland preservation Trust Fund, Parks & Recreation Trust Fund and the Natural Heritage Trust Fund.