Environmental rollbacks clear first NC Senate vote

The Associated Press

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RALEIGH — A bill requiring local governments and state agencies to roll back environmental regulations passed its first full vote in the North Carolina Senate on Wednesday.

The Republican bill requires cities, counties and numerous state agencies to repeal or rewrite rules that go beyond federal law. It also allows businesses or utilities with decommissioned buildings to dispose of waste on site rather than transporting it to a landfill and potentially weakens standards to mitigate damage to wetlands.

The vote was 36-12, with some Democrats crossing party lines to support the Republican majority.

A provision removing buffers for development along the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico river basins that are intended to protect water quality was stripped from the bill through an amendment from Sen. Neal Hunt, R-Wake.

Environmental groups have noted that the Neuse buffers were enacted in the mid-1990s in response to massive fish kills blamed on pollutants. The Neuse remains under a binding federal cleanup program.

They've also asked for changes to specifically exclude certain contaminants from on-site disposal and the removal of wetland mitigation changes that would allow developers to offset damage outside of the affected area.

Democratic senators pounced on the portions of the bill forcing local governments to purge their books of rules that go beyond federal regulations.

Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, said the bill "turns on its head the way federalism works," citing examples of specially tailored stormwater ordinances in Camden County designed to help the low-lying area deal with flooding, rules in Emerald Isle that incentivize the adoption of stricter standards to lower insurance rates, and ordinances in Raleigh designed to fight sewage backups from oil and grease.

"The state should not be dictating to local communities how they protect their people," he said.

Other Democrats and environmentalists have argued federal laws are meant to provide a baseline that local law complements.

Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow and the bill's lead sponsor, noted that the bill allows local governments to keep their ordinances if they protect against a "serious and unforeseen" threat to public health or they're needed to comply with other acts of the state, federal government or courts. He said his town hall tour last year seeking feedback on regulations people would like thrown out showed that the business community feels overburdened.

"In just about all of those cases, anybody who had a business interest at all — farmers, you name it — they all had complaints about regulations we have in the state," he said.

Stein said the language of the exceptions would still strike down the examples he gave because those ordinances defend against already known problems, not "unforeseen" threats.

The bill passed the Commerce Committee last week but drew criticism because of a last-minute swap from the Senate's environment committee and the admission of a state Department of Environment and Natural Resources official that he hadn't seen the latest version of the legislation. Sen. Andrew Brock, R-Davie and a bill sponsor, said the legislation was moved to Commerce because he and another sponsor are chairmen of the environment committee.

Stein objected to a final vote Wednesday, so the bill will return at a later date. It would still need House approval if the Senate signs off.