NC Senate passes 2 major environmental repeals

May. 15, 2013 @ 08:42 PM

The North Carolina Senate passed two major environmental rollbacks Wednesday ahead of a deadline over objections from Democratic lawmakers.

The bills would repeal rules for managing pollutants in Jordan Lake and a host of restrictions on new jetties along the coast that critics say can shift damage to neighboring properties. Bills that don't require tax changes or spending and fail to clear at least one chamber by Thursday night are essentially dead through the end of the session in 2014.

The Jordan Lake bill would repeal a set of rules for local governments along the 1,686 square mile reservoir that took effect in 2009 as well as all related laws. Many of those rules for curbing harmful nutrients in the lake have been delayed by the legislature since and have drawn criticism for their cost and potential effect on development.

The lake, which includes parts of 10 counties in the Piedmont region, was created 30 years ago to provide flood control and water supply. But it has struggled from the outset with high nutrient levels that cause harmful algae buildup.

The bill creates a legislative commission to study new methods of improving water quality and report back in 2014. It also directs state agencies to consult with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency to find ways to renew focus away from efforts to mitigate pollutants upstream--a sore spot for upstream communities that believe they're shouldering too much of the burden but a cause that many consider critical to improving water quality downstream.

Sen. Rick Gunn, R-Alamance, the bill's lead sponsor, lives in one of those upstream communities. He argues the state's Department of Environment and Natural Resources studies show little to no improvement in water quality since 2004 but the rules require major investments and hassles for developers.

"It continues to put tremendous burdens on the counties, municipalities and the private sector," he said.

Democrats and environmental groups, however, say those rules haven't been given a chance to succeed.

Local governments have twice pushed back deadlines for adopting new development standards, successfully delaying implementation to 2014. The city of Greensboro has twice been granted a delay of an upgrade to its wastewater treatment plant, putting off the improvements until 2018.

Elizabeth Ouzts, state director of Environment North Carolina, said the laws were passed in 2009 after much negotiation and study. "The fact is that it's going to take a long time to clean up Jordan Lake, and many of the key deadlines in that law haven't even arrived yet," she added.

Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, said the rules meant to improve drinking water for 300,000 residents sprang from dozens of meetings over five years.

Assistant DENR Secretary Mitch Gillespie said recently that the bill violates federal directives to improve water quality. That could invite lawsuits from the Clean Water Act, said Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham.

The bill passed 31-16 and now moves to the House.

The jetty bill eliminates a cap on the breakwater structures set in a 2011 compromise that ended a 25-year ban with permission to build up to four. The Senate originally wanted no cap in the 2011 law but the House wanted to limit jetties at three.

Proponents say they collect sand and block currents that might erode corners from islands valued by developers and home buyers.

The bill also repeals rules that local governments seek voter approval to borrow money to build a jetty and that applicants show that they're addressing an immediate threat of erosion that can't be controlled in other ways.

Environmental group the North Carolina Coastal Federation opposes the bill, arguing those changes put taxpayers at risk for experimental projects and remove protections for damage to others.

Amendments to restore voter approval and require applicants to put up bonds as compensation for potential damages to neighboring properties either failed or were put down with procedural maneuvers. Bill supporters argued they were indirect ways of preventing jetty construction.

Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick and the bill's lead sponsor, has said the jetties will help protect the state's 14 inlets from erosion that threatens their existence.

Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow and one of the architects behind the 2011 bill said very few states place such restrictions on jetties and opponents mischaracterize the intentions of supporters, many of whom live on the coast. Demand for the jetties among coastal communities exists, but politicians in Raleigh want to hamstring them, he said.

A 2010 study from the legislature found jetties entail up to $10 million in upfront costs and another $2 million annually in maintenance, but it also concluded that long-term economic benefits ranged from $27 million at Ocean Isle to more than $320 million at Bald Head Island.

Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, D-Orange, said the bill tosses aside a hard-fought compromise and threatens the beauty of the coast.

"So what we are doing, essentially, is turning our beautiful North Carolina beaches into New Jersey," she said.

The bill passed 36-11 and now heads to the House.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.