A breathtaking (literally) attack on the environment

A breathtaking (literally) attack on the environment

- in Weekly Briefing

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The astonishing scope of the Senate’s latest polluter protection bill

Quick: What’s the most terrifying environmental threat that confronts long-term human wellbeing? Global warming? Loss of topsoil and desertification? Air, soil and water pollution? Overpopulation? Deforestation? Uncontrolled sprawl? The rapid growth in toxic and nuclear waste? The growing number of species extinctions and the loss of biodiversity? Sea-level rise?

These are obviously just a few of the myriad monumental problems that confront a fast-growing species of more than seven billion as it races into the 21st Century. It wouldn’t be hard to come up with a dozen more.

For anyone who cares at all about the welfare of their children and grandchildren, it’s difficult to understand how such lists don’t provoke an urgent and universal societal demand for strong and immediate public action. After all, when the very future of life on Earth as we know it is at stake, little things like paperwork hassles and who wins next year’s election in state Senate seat X are rather beside the point. Even if players in this drama differ on details and methods, the basic goal – long-term sustainability of life – would seem like the biggest no-brainer of all time.

Or so one would think.

Unfortunately and distressingly, such straightforward and obvious truths continue to escape a large segment of the American political establishment. For a variety of reasons – plain, old-fashioned and shortsighted greed and sloth, an ideology that holds up the unfettered “free market” as essentially divine, religious leaders who promote human exploitation and subjugation of nature as a sacred duty – a large group of American politicians is committed not just to combating new environmental protections, but to aggressively rolling back decades of progress.

The disastrous experiment in North Carolina

For years, North Carolina did a respectable job of resisting these reactionary forces. Despite a hugely powerful business community and the pressures caused by a rapidly growing and increasingly affluent population, the state took numerous important steps in curbing pollution, preserving open space and just generally thinking and acting in a way that looked beyond the next election.

Tragically, all of this changed in 2011 with the rise of new conservative leaders in the General Assembly and really took off with the arrival of the McCrory administration in 2013. For five years now (and especially in the last few years), state political leaders have been dismantling state environmental rules and regulatory agencies at an alarming clip in the name of “fighting burdensome regulations.”

The latest and perhaps most egregious iteration of this destructive trend is a new and remarkable legislative proposal that has emerged in recent days in the North Carolina Senate.

An editorial in the Winston-Salem Journal summarized it this way:

The ‘regulatory relief’ act the state Senate passed Thursday is an Orwellian name for what is still really a polluter protection bill, as critics have aptly termed it….

The Senate took a one-page House bill on transporting gravel and quickly transformed it into a regulation-revocation bill of more than 50 pages.”

As rammed through committee, the bill went so far that even the McCrory administration was forced to issue a 12-page letter explaining its opposition to the bill. And while Senators eventually made the administration’s opposition go away by softening a handful of provisions and just generally acting like a bully, the bill remains a 58-page monstrosity with more than a dozen destructive provisions.

With help from recent memos by experts at the North Carolina Conservation Network and the League of Conservation Voters, here are just some of the dreadful polluter wish list items that remain:

  • A provision that attempts to chill private individuals from contesting state projects or permits for polluting activities, by requiring courts to force them to pay the state’s attorney fees if they lose the challenge. (Such attorney fee awards are normally considered by the court in its discretion and granted only when the claims filed were frivolous.)
  • An almost laughable (if it weren’t real) provision that would allow polluters to “self-audit” and avoid any penalties for unlawful pollution if they “self-report.”
  • Provisions that would significantly expand a state program that currently allows incomplete cleanup of soil and groundwater contamination. As expanded, the program will cover virtually all sources of contamination, past, present and future, and will sharply reduce final protections for neighbors, communities, and the environment at most of those sites.
  • A section that would change the state “Brownfields” law to adopt some federal definitions that are used for different purposes. This change in our state definition might allow an owner who actually caused contamination to get liability protection.
  • A section that would allow engineers to essentially self-permit onsite wastewater systems, such as septic systems, currently governed by local health departments. The change would make the property owner’s engineer completely responsible for both design and installation of the system.
  • A section that further tilts the field in favor of applicants for air pollution permits by mandating that a permit issued by the state will go into effect even when it is challenged in court by a private party who would be injured by it. (It’s almost unheard of for a court to order a permitted plant or operation to shut down after it’s up and running.)
  • Provisions that severely limit state protections for isolated wetlands and intermittent streams, both of which can be critical to protecting clean water in other streams and rivers across the state.
  • A section that would allow more development to be considered “low density” under the coastal stormwater rules and that would eliminate one of the current triggers for requiring non-residential development to comply with the coastal stormwater rules.
  • A provision to repeal recycling requirements for discarded computer equipment and televisions. Currently, North Carolina has an electronics recycling program that is comprehensive, free and convenient. The local recycling programs are funded by fees on television and computer manufacturers. The bill would repeal that funding mechanism and undermine progress the state has made to deal with a unique and growing waste stream.
  • A section that would repeal heavy-duty vehicle idling restrictions, which will be extremely detrimental to air quality.
  • A provision that would force the closure of about half of the state monitors used to assess air quality. Without these monitors, the public and the N.C. Division of Air Quality will be kept in the dark about increases in pollution, which is especially concerning since many of these monitors are located in areas with historically poor air quality.

In short, the bill is a disaster that flies directly in the face of what a responsible state should be doing in 2015. As a Fayetteville Observer editorial put it last week:

Some cynics are calling it the ‘Off-The-Wall Act of 2015.’ Others suggest a better title might be the ‘Polluter Protection Act.’

In both cases they’re right.”

Going forward

Environmental advocacy groups are calling on the House to reject the Senate giveaway to polluters, but given that the House has been almost as aggressive in recent years in passing such “regulatory reforms,” this seems like a thin reed on which to hang one’s hat. Similarly, although the Governor has finally been roused to confront the General Assembly’s worst excesses on occasion of late (for example, he called their process in ramming through a bill to redraw the map of Greensboro City Council districts “shameful”), he continues to give no indication of any real ability to make legislators heel or do his bidding.

The Winston-Salem Journal editorial condemning the legislation was entitled “This polluter protection bill needs to die.” Unfortunately, from the look of things, it seems more likely that large numbers of humans and broad swaths of our natural environment are more likely to face the grim reaper before state leaders see the error of their ways.