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The end is nigh: Just 36 hours until controversial environmental bills meet their fate

If the environment could talk — come to think of it, she does, actually, through climate change — she would protest the myriad insults she has suffered in the legislature this session. As on the federal level, the environment has lost — or threatens to lose — most of its state battles: Budget cuts to the NC Department of Environmental Quality, an undermining of renewable energy, coal ash recycling requirements, the rights of citizens to contest environmental permits. The environment can celebrate only one major victory of this very long legislative session: the defeat of the billboard bill.

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Illustration by Nelle Dunlap

With thirty-six hours, give or take a few, until the final gavels drop, here is the status of key environmental bills:

Bills that are alive or at least on life support:

House Bill 589:  [2]Crafty lawmakers often don’t play their full hand until the waning hours of the session. That’s the time to introduce controversial measures — when their colleagues are exhausted, delirious and dreaming of the beach. This year, the June surprise [3] arrived courtesy of Sen. Harry Brown [4].

Just this week, the Republican from Onslow County tacked on a four-year wind energy moratorium to a hard-fought consensus bill that would encourage more solar power in the state. His rationale is that the wind turbines could interfere with military training exercises emanating from Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. However, the Defense Department has stated it has no issues with North Carolina law regarding the placement of wind farms; it also approved of the Amazon Wind Farm, which was built near Elizabeth City.

Lawmakers have already spent $253,000 to hire a private company, Matrix, which drew several maps showing the farms would not jeopardize military training or the future of its bases.

Last night’s epic Senate floor debate pitted Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, [5] a Democrat from Northampton County who opposes the moratorium, against Sens. Brown and Bill Cook [6] as well as Tommy Tucker, [7] who said, “I don’t wish to engage your preparation or intellect on this matter.”

“We have circled this wagon before,” Smith-Ingram told Brown, who unsuccessfully introduced similar legislation last session. “I was hoping since the last time I asked you the question you would have recent information. Do you have any statements from the Department of Defense? I still have public statements from 2016 that military supports North Carolina law.”

Brown continued his line of reasoning about the military concerns and that wind turbines could prompt the federal government to shut down bases in the next round of closures. Cook came to his defense, reading a letter from the commander of Seymour AFB expressing concerns about potential interference in Tyrrell County. Dated July 16, 2012, the letter was addressed to former Gov. Perdue.

“Senator Cook, can you clarify date of the letter?” asked Smith-Ingram, who had at the ready a copy of the joint land-use study indicating the military’s satisfaction with North Carolina.

“July 16, 2012,” Cook replied.

“Are you aware that’s before 2013, when we passed legislation to address the military concerns?”

Cook paused and murmured, “Yes. But my point in reading this,” he added, his voice growing louder, “is that there are people with concerns.”

Smith-Ingram is also concerned about the $1 billion in tax revenue the wind energy industry could contribute to eastern North Carolina. “To take $1 billion from my district” — one of the poorest areas of the state — “is unconscionable,” she said.

If a moratorium must be implemented, she said, it should be limited to no more than two years, after the Defense Department completes its next round of base closures.

Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr [9]., a Durham Democrat, said any vertical structure taller than 600 feet — a 50- or 60-story building, for example — should be subject to the moratorium. He also asked that two projects currently undergoing federal permitting be grandfathered. The Senate heeded neither suggestion.

Several residents in Perquimans County have reportedly complained of headaches and dizziness from the turbines’ flickering lights. “Those persons that have headaches and all kinds of conditions need to file a nuisance lawsuit,” said Sen. Paul Lowe Jr. [10]a Forsyth County Democrat. His was a backhanded reference to legislation passed earlier this session that prohibits people living near hog farms who suffer headaches, dizziness and other health problems from filing nuisance lawsuits.

“I heard a lot of talk about wind energy and it really sounds like it’s something this state does not want,” Lowe added. “And if that really is the case, just say that. We can move on.”

The House failed to concur with the Senate on the bill. So leadership from both chambers appointed a conference committee to work on the legislation. The Senate members are Harry Brown, who inserted the anti-wind language into the bill, plus Paul Newton and Chuck Edwards. Representing the House are John Szoka, Dean Arp and David Lewis.

The committee is working throughout the day; it’s expected to present edited legislation this afternoon or tomorrow.

House Bill 374: [11] includes language that would weaken coal ash recycling requirements and strip many citizens of their the right to contest environmental permits. It is currently in House awaiting concurrence. Check The Progressive Pulse blog later today for updates on the bill status.

Bills that are resting their eyes:

HB 56, aka “the plastic bag bill [12]“: Environmental advocates (and turtles and sea birds) are relieved that as of today the plastic bag ban [13]remains intact in coastal counties of Dare, Hyde and Currituck. However, at 12:30 today, House Speaker Tim Moore announced a conference committee had been appointed to work on the bill.

Sen. Bill Cook, a Republican representing the Outer Banks and several coastal counties wants to repeal the ban, [14]ostensibly to help businesses in his district. Yet, in a Senate Agriculture Committee meeting, Cook presented no data that the ban was hurting coastal businesses. In fact, the numbers show no such correlation. In fact, the most recent economic data from the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce reveal that in Dare County, retail sales taxes increased seven percent from 2015–2016. Over the same time period, Currituck reported a 5.8 percent increase. Only Hyde had a decrease — just one percent — and one that would be difficult to attribute the ban as the cause.

It gets better for the banks, even without bags. From 2014 to 2016, the number of Dare County businesses, including those serving food and drink, increased from 642 to 885, according to state commerce department data. Currituck also reported an uptick: 26o to 311 over the same time period. (Data for Hyde County for that time period is not readily available, although in 2016, the number of businesses remained the same: 80.)

The potential expiration of H 56 also means that law enforcement would no longer be expected to roam riparian buffers looking for criminals. Sen. Andy Wells had declared war on buffers in this bill, including in the law enforcement provision a requirement that buffers be trimmed to keep out the riff-raff. It would have also deprived counties of vital revenue via property tax breaks for buffer owners; that provision was later demoted to a study.

If the bill ultimately fails, private property could not be condemned by out-of-state companies to build pipelines. That provision seemed to cater to Virginia-based Dominion Energy, which, with Duke Energy, plans to construct the Atlantic Coast Pipeline through eastern North Carolina.

HB 581, aka “the billboard bill” [15]: As much as House sponsor Rep. David Lewis tried to sweeten the bill language, the controversy over several provisions persisted: The stripping of local governments of regulatory power, especially regarding digital billboards, the cutting of protected dogwoods and redwoods, the propping up of a fading industry. The fiscal ramifications were also significant. Over the next five years, the state highway fund would have lost $15.4 million [16]through expenditures and decreased revenues. These factors conspired to prompt the House to kill the bill on second reading.