January 6, 2016. The past year brought significant changes in environmental laws, environmental rules and funding for environmental protection and conservation. Sometimes the overall picture only becomes clear at the end. First, a look at the impact of 2015 budget decisions on environmental and conservation programs.
— Separation of environmental research, education and conservation programs from environmental protection programs. The state budget moved a number of nonregulatory programs from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to a new Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. The programs being transferred: the Division of Parks and Recreation, N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, N.C. Aquariums, the N.C. Zoo, the Natural Heritage Program and the Clean Water Management Trust Fund (CWMTF). The new department combines those programs with historical and cultural programs previously in the Department of Cultural Resources. The 2015 reorganization continues a series of program transfers intended to reduce the state’s environment agency to just the environmental regulatory programs. (In previous legislative sessions, the General Assembly transferred the Division of Forest Resources and the Division of Soil and Water Conservation from DENR to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.) In some cases, the transfers have separated regulatory and non-regulatory water quality programs originally intended to work as partners in a common effort. DENR has now been renamed the Department of Environmental Quality or “DEQ”.
— Reduction in state funding for voluntary efforts to improve and protect water quality. The General Assembly created the Clean Water Management Trust Fund (CWMTF) in 1996 to fund projects to prevent water pollution and restore water bodies impaired by pollution. CWMTF complemented the water quality regulatory program by providing incentives for voluntary measures such as preservation of riparian buffers and extension of sewer lines to areas with failing septic systems. Since 2008, the General Assembly has reduced annual appropriations to the Trust Fund by 90%. In 2014, legislation diluted the original CWMTF focus on water quality protection by authorizing use of the Trust Fund for acquisition of historic sites and development buffers around military bases. In 2013-2014, the General Assembly pulled funding away from the core CWMTF competitive grant program for use in a legislatively mandated pilot project and the 2015 budget earmarks additional funds for the Solar Bee project. (See an earlier post on Jordan Lake for background on the Solar Bee pilot project.) The 2015 reorganization has the effect of also moving the Clean Water Management Trust Fund into a new department with a focus on management of public attractions rather than environmental quality.
— Disinvestment in data collection on rare and endangered species. Since 1985, the N.C. Natural Heritage Program has researched, classified and inventoried the state’s natural resources, including rare and endangered plant and animal species. Information collected by the program can be used to document the natural resource value of property donated for conservation purposes and to assess the environmental impacts of development projects. State agencies like the Department of Transportation, local governments and private developers have relied on the Natural Heritage Program for information necessary to plan projects and meet environmental standards. Following significant cuts in the previous budget cycle, the 2015 budget reduced funding for the Natural Heritage Program by another 40%. The program now has a statewide staff of six people. Disinvestment in state collection of information on rare and endangered species will not make the requirements of the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act go away. Loss of the Natural Heritage Program as a reliable and current source of information may, however, increase the amount of time and money developers have to invest to comply with those requirements.
— Less state funding to cleanup petroleum contamination from underground storage tanks/ lower cleanup standards. The budget eliminates a state fund for cleanup of petroleum contamination from small petroleum underground storage tanks (USTs) such as home heating oil tanks. The Noncommercial UST Trust Fund has assisted property owners with the cost of soil and groundwater remediation caused by leaks from farm, home and small commercial USTs. The budget allocates additional money to cover pending claims, but petroleum releases reported to DEQ after October 1, 2015 will not be eligible for funding. As a trade off for loss of state assistance with cleanup costs, the budget bill limits the amount of soil remediation DEQ can require. See an earlier post for more on the change in cleanup standards for noncommercial UST sites. Elimination of the Noncommercial UST Trust Fund means that the cost of cleaning up petroleum contamination discovered in the future will fall entirely on the homeowner, farmer or business.
The budget reduced funding for the Commercial UST Trust Fund (which helps offset the cost of cleaning up petroleum contamination from larger USTs) by $600,000. The budget also replaced the Commercial UST Trust Fund’s ongoing annual appropriation from the Highway Fund with a one-time appropriation and a requirement for legislative review to determine whether the Commercial UST Trust Fund should be continued. The Commercial UST Trust Fund operates like an environmental insurance program for the owners of large, commercial USTs. The existence of the Trust Fund allows commercial UST owners to comply with federal rules requiring tank owners to have financial assurance to cover environmental remediation costs. In the absence of the Commercial UST Trust Fund, tank owners would have to meet those requirements through self-insurance, bonding or purchase of an environmental insurance policy.
— Elimination of transfers from the Highway Fund to environmental programs. For many years, the General Assembly has earmarked a small percentage of Highway Fund revenues for environmental programs related to transportation. The most significant recipients have been the Commercial and Noncommercial UST Trust Funds, DEQ’s air quality program, and the Shallow Draft Navigation Dredging Fund. The 2015 budget replaces Highway Fund transfers to the Commercial UST Trust Fund, the Mercury Pollution Prevention Fund, and DEQ’s air quality program with onetime appropriations and directs legislative appropriations committees to study whether the transfers — and the programs receiving the transfers — should be continued in the future, funded differently or eliminated entirely. The transfers represent a significant amount of funding for the Commercial UST Trust Fund (approximately $13.3 million in 2015) and the air quality program ($7.2 million in 2015). On the other hand, the budget actually increased the transfer from the Highway Fund to the Shallow Draft Navigation Dredging Fund.
— Increased funding for oyster cultivation, water/sewer infrastructure grants, dam safety inspectors, shale gas exploration, coastal dredging and state parks. A few programs received increased funding for the two-year budget cycle. The largest budget increases went to maintenance dredging of shallow draft navigation channels at the coast ($40 million); state water/wastewater infrastructure grants for rural and economically distressed communities ($17.4 million); and the state parks system ($11 million). The budget also earmarks $500,000 for additional state testing to identify potential shale gas deposits.
— Eliminating special fund accounts for environmental permit fees. For many years, the General Assembly created “special fund” accounts in the DEQ budget for permit fees. The special fund accounts existed to insure fee revenue would be used only to support the permitting program; for example, mining permit fees went into the Mining Fund to be used exclusively to support the mining program. These special funds were “non-reverting” accounts which means any fee revenue unspent at the end of the state fiscal year rolled over into the next fiscal year budget for the permitting program instead of reverting to the state’s General Fund. Business and industry tended to support creation of special fund accounts to insure permit fees didn’t subsidize unrelated state government activities. In 2015, the General Assembly continued a several-year trend of eliminating special fund accounts and shifting fee revenue in those accounts to the General Fund budget. This year, the General Assembly eliminated special fund accounts for mining fees, stormwater fees, and soil remediation fees. State law still requires DEQ to use the fee revenue to support the permit program that generated the fees, but any unused funds will revert to the state’s General Fund at the end of the fiscal year. Once reverted to the General Fund, the legislature can appropriate the fee revenue for any purpose.
1. A smaller, more strictly regulatory, environment agency.
2. A reduced state commitment to voluntary water quality improvement projects and collection of information on rare and endangered species.
3. A smaller state role in cleanup of environmental contamination from privately owned petroleum underground storage tanks. (A role that may shrink further depending on the results of legislative review of the Commercial UST Trust Fund in 2016.)
4. Increased legislative control over fee revenues generated by environmental permitting programs.
5. Uncertainty about future funding for air quality programs and the Commercial UST Trust Fund.
6. Increased state investment in programs potentially affecting economic development such as state parks, water and sewer infrastructure, maintenance of navigation channels, shale gas exploration, and oyster cultivation.