July 12, 2016. The 2016 General Assembly session resulted in changes to several environmental laws, but ended without final action on a major regulatory reform bill. Among the more significant environmental provisions enacted outside the budget bill:
Coal Ash. House Bill 630 eliminated the Coal Ash Management Commission, giving the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) authority to make decisions about final closure of coal ash impoundments. The bill also changed the criteria for prioritizing impoundment closures and required Duke Energy to provide a permanent alternative water supply to well owners within 1/2 mile of a coal ash impoundments (unless separated from the impoundment by a river or lake) and to other well owners potentially affected by the migration of groundwater contamination from the impoundments. See an earlier post for more detail on H630 changes to the 2014 Coal Ash Management Act.
Commissions. House Bill 630 responded to the Governor’s constitutional objections to three state regulatory commissions — the Coal Ash Management Commission, the Oil and Gas Commission, and the Mining Commission. The Governor successfully challenged the laws creating all three commissions as violating separation of powers; in part, the Governor objected to the legislature’s power to appoint a majority of each commission’s members. A post on the N.C. Supreme Court decision can be found here. The Governor vetoed an earlier bill (Senate Bill 71) attempting to resolve the separation of powers issue by giving the Governor a majority of commission appointments. The Governor’s position on Senate Bill 71 suggested an ongoing objection to any commission exercising executive powers unless the Governor had authority to appoint a majority of the members without legislative confirmation; direct the actions of the commission; and remove commissioners at will.
The Governor’s Office reportedly accepted H630 as a compromise. The bill eliminates the Coal Ash Management Commission, but retains the Oil and Gas Commission and the Mining Commission under conditions the Governor had previously objected to — legislative confirmation of appointees and the ability to remove commissioners only for cause. [Note: Although there have been indications that the Governor’s Office agreed to H630, the Governor has not yet signed the bill.]
Renewable Energy. Two provisions in Senate Bill 770 (N.C. Farm Act of 2016) amended laws related to renewable energy specifically to benefit agricultural sources, such as swine waste-to-energy projects. Sec. 10 of the bill extends the state’s renewable energy tax credit (25% of project costs) to projects in service by January 1, 2020 (previously January 1, 2017) as long as the facility began construction by December 31, 2013. The extension will likely benefit some swine waste-to-energy projects that have been in the works for several years, but are not yet generating electricity. Sec. 18 of the same bill gives poultry and swine waste-to-energy projects priority over other renewable energy generation projects in connecting to electric utility delivery systems.
Sediment Pollution. Sec. 14 of Senate Bill 770 amends G.S. 113A-52.01 to add production of “[m]ulch, ornamental plants, and other horticultural products” to the list of agricultural activities exempt from the state’s Sedimentation Pollution Control Act (or “Sediment Act”). The Sediment Act otherwise requires activities disturbing an acre or more to maintain a stream buffer and use erosion barriers to keep sediment out of rivers, lakes and streams. The addition of ornamental plants will not raise many questions, but mulch is not an agricultural product similar to the others. Including mulch production in the Sediment Act exemption will raise two questions:
1. What kinds of operations will be covered by the mulch exemption? Mulch operations include large-scale municipal waste disposal facilities that mulch yard waste and have no relationship to agriculture.
2. How will the mulch exemption affect Clean Water Act permitting? The exemption seems to go beyond the federal stormwater exemption for agriculture. That is important because most land-disturbing activities in N.C. meet federal construction stormwater requirements by complying with the state Sediment Act. If the Sediment Act exempts activities that don’t also fall under a Clean Water Act stormwater exemption, the activity may require a separate federal stormwater permit.
What didn’t happen. Several efforts to enact legislation significantly restricting wind energy development failed, although Sen. Harry Brown has already indicated an intent to reintroduce a bill prohibiting erection of wind turbines in designated military air corridors in 2017. Proposals to repeal the ban on landfill disposal of electronics and to end the state’s electronics recycling program also failed. Legislators apparently could not reach agreement on bills attempting to clarify the protocol for advising well owners on the heath effects of well contamination — an issue sparked by controversies over conflicting advice given to well owners near coal ash impoundments; those bills never got to a floor vote. The Senate received House Bill 593 (Amend Environmental Laws 2) from the House and expanded the bill to include a number of additional provisions on stormwater, beach nourishment, stream mitigation and other issues. The House did not concur in the Senate changes, leaving those proposals to die with adjournment.