Category Archives: Nutrient Pollution

2017 NC Legislative Session in Review: The Budget

July 16, 2017. A few notes on the final state budget which became law following legislative override of the Governor’s veto.

Funding for Environmental Protection Programs. The final budget continues a 7-year trend of annual reductions in environmental protection programs. (See an earlier post  describing the impact of those earlier reductions.) The most significant new cuts to programs in the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ)  affect:

     Energy Programs. The budget takes almost $1 million from energy programs. The budget reduces pass-through funding for university-based energy centers from around $1 million to a total of $400,000 divided equally between centers at Appalachian State University and North Carolina A& T University. North Carolina State University’s Clean Energy Technology Center will receive no funding. The budget also eliminates 3 of 5 positions in DEQ’s Energy Office.

     Regional Offices/Division of Environmental Assistance and Customer Service.  DEQ’s seven   regional offices house frontline permitting, compliance and technical assistance staff for multiple environmental programs including water quality, water resources, air quality and waste management. Since 2011, the legislature has made the regional offices a particular target  for reductions in positions and funding. The 2017 budget reduces appropriations supporting DEQ’s  Division of Environmental Assistance and Customer Service by $500,000 and requires DEQ to meet the cut in part by eliminating one position in each of the seven regional offices. The Division of Environmental Assistance and Customer Service is a non-regulatory program that provides technical assistance to businesses on water conservation, energy efficiency, waste reduction and other measures to improve environmental compliance.

Conservation Funding. Most funding for conservation programs, such as the Clean Water Management Trust Fund and the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund now go through the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources budget. The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services also manages some conservation funds through the Farmland Preservation Trust, which purchases conservation easements on agricultural lands. Conservation funding in both departments generally remained stable. The legislature increased funding for the Clean Water Management Trust Fund and the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund, earmarking a combined  $1 million of the increase for an acquisition project on Archer’s Creek (Bogue Banks). The budget also allocates an additional $2.6 million to the Wildlife Resources Commission for acquisition of gamelands and an additional $2 million to the Farmland Preservation Trust Fund.

Surprisingly, the budget did not include state funds to match a federal Department of Defense (DOD) challenge grant of $9.2 million to acquire conservation lands to provide buffers around military installations. DOD announced award of a Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration (“REPI”) grant to North Carolina earlier this year for acquisition of buffers around the Dare County Bombing Range and endangered species habitat near Camp Lejeune.  The federal award  anticipated a state contribution of an additional $10.1 to be put toward the projects.  The final state budget failed to earmark any funding for the state match. The  Clean Water Management Trust Fund and other state conservation agencies could provide some  of the state match, but in the absence of a legislative earmark the REPI projects would be competing with other applications for those grant funds.

Special provisions. As usual, the budget bill (Senate Bill 257 ) includes a number of “special provisions” that  change existing law. Those include:

     Air quality. The budget allows DEQ to use fees from automobile emissions inspections to support any part of the air quality program. Previously, inspection fee revenue could only be used to implement the automobile inspection and maintenance program. In the past, the legislature has tilted toward keeping inspection and maintenance fees as low as possible while still providing adequate reimbursement to inspection stations. The 2017 provision  divorces the fees from the needs of the vehicle inspection and maintenance program for the first time.

The budget also requires legislative approval of DEQ’s plan to use approximately $90 million the state will receive from the Environmental Protection Agency’s  national settlement of an air quality enforcement case against Volkswagen.  (The case concerned  VW’s installation of software to defeat vehicle emissions control systems.) Funds from the settlement will be divided among the states and must be spent for purposes specifically allowed under the EPA settlement agreement.  The agreement gives states a number of options and the legislature clearly wants to influence DEQ’s decision about use of the funds.

     Solid Waste. The budget shifts $1 million from a fund for assessment/cleanup of contamination caused by old, unlined  landfills to the City of Havelock to be used for “repurposing” property previously owned by a recycling company.  (See Sec. 13.3) Phoenix Recycling operated on property just beyond the city limits, but closed in 2000 as a result of environmental violations.  In 2012, the City of Havelock received a state grant to assess environmental contamination on the property. In 2015, Havelock’s city manager advised the town council that if the city acquired the property, it could be eligible for up to $550,000 in federal “Brownfield” grant funds under an EPA program to support cleanup and redevelopment of contaminated sites.  In 2016, the city acquired the property and annexed it into the city.  It isn’t clear whether the city ever applied for the federal Brownfields grant. The 2017 budget provision would instead provide state funding for redevelopment of the property. A Progressive Pulse blogpost provides a good overview of how the earmarking of these funds for the Phoenix Recycling property will reduce funds available to cleanup other, higher priority contaminated sites.

Another provision (Sec. 13.4) allows the owner of an old, unlined landfill site to exclude the property from a state program to cleanup contamination  from  “pre-1983” landfills.  (Modern standards for solid waste landfills went into effect in 1983).  Under the provision, the owner can remove property from the state cleanup program by accepting liability for any contamination and providing financial assurance to address contamination. Financial assurance would not be required if the landfill had received solid waste from a local government (which was often the case). This is a very odd provision in several ways:

♦ Under current law, DEQ has responsibility for assessment and cleanup of pre-1983 landfill sites;  revenue from a statewide solid waste disposal tax pays for the remediation. Under the new provision, a property owner would  waive state responsibility for cleanup and potentially accept environmental liability they might not otherwise have.

♦ The provision has not been restricted to sites that present a low environmental  risk; the only limitations seem to be the property owner’s willingness  to take on the liability and ability to provide financial assurance if required.

♦ The provision describes the opt-out as a “suspension” of the state cleanup program for as long as the person owns the property. That clearly means the state itself would not undertake any assessment or cleanup activity on the site, but the law does not suspend enforcement of state groundwater standards and other environmental remediation requirements. Those programs normally seek remediation by the person(s) responsible for the contamination; under the new provision, the property owner  must volunteer for the liability whether they contributed to the contamination or not.

♦  The implication of a “suspension” is that the state may again have responsibility for the site if it changes ownership in the future. Suspending environmental remediation until a change of ownership could simply delay necessary cleanup activities without regard to environmental risk.

It isn’t clear why a property owner would ever choose to do this.

The budget bill also requires a study of DEQ’s use of revenue from the solid waste disposal tax. The opt-out in Section 13.4  may be a hint of additional changes to the solid waste disposal tax and the state cleanup program for pre-1983 landfills.

     Water Quality: Nutrient Pollution.  The (now annual) budget provision concerning nutrient management strategies directs DEQ to use $1.3 million to test use of algaecides and phosphorus-locking technologies as an alternative to state rules imposing tighter wastewater limits and stormwater controls to address excess nutrients  in  Falls Lake and Jordan Lake. Those rules have been temporarily suspended by the legislature.  (For background on the nutrient rules, see a previous post;  the proposal for an automatic sunset  of the nutrient rules described in the earlier  blogpost was ultimately replaced by legislation further delaying implementation of the rules and a university-based study.)  Based on discussion in committee, legislators had a specific technology developed by a North Carolina-based company in mind.

House-Senate Compromise on Watershed Rules

June 30, 2016. The House has begun debate on a  compromise version of the 2016-2017 budget bill (House Bill 1030) that resolves differences between House and Senate budget proposals. The new budget bill includes a modified version of a Senate provision on watershed-based water quality rules. See an earlier post  for more on the original Senate provision in Sec. 14.13 of the budget bill. The significant pieces of the compromise provision:

The scope  of the budget provision has been reduced. The new version of Sec. 14.13 only applies to nutrient rules adopted for the Falls Lake and Jordan Lake watersheds.

The provision no longer sunsets existing nutrient rules. The budget provision still funds a UNC study of nutrient rules (focused on the Falls Lake and Jordan Lake rules) and directs the Environmental Management Commission to review and readopt  those nutrient management rules based on recommendations from the study.  But the bill no longer automatically sunsets existing rules.

The UNC study of nutrient management strategies.  The budget provision now funds the study for six years at $500,000 per year ($3 million for the entire study) and has separate report-back dates for the two watersheds — December 31, 2018 for  Jordan Lake and December 21, 2021 for Falls Lake. In part, the provision requires UNC to compare water quality trends  in Falls Lake and Jordan Lake to implementation of the different parts of the nutrient strategies. Since a number of the nutrient rules have not yet gone into effect because of legislative delays, evaluating the effectiveness of the rules based on water quality trends will be difficult. That is particularly true for wastewater discharge limits and stormwater controls that have never been implemented or only partially implemented in the two watersheds.

Delayed implementation of the Jordan Lake and Falls Lake rules. The provision further delays implementation of the nutrient management rules until at least 2019 for the Jordan Lake watershed and 2022 for the Falls Lake watershed.

DEQ study of in-situ technologies to address nutrient-related water quality problems. The budget provision continues to require a DEQ study of in situ technologies to reduce nutrient problems — now focused on algaecides and phosphorus-locking technologies. The DEQ study will be entirely separate from the UNC study of nutrient management strategies and  receives a separate appropriation of  $1.3 million for a trial of in situ technologies.    The final report will be due on March 1, 2018.

Exclusion of areas within the Jordan Lake watershed from stormwater requirements. The compromise  budget includes a new  subsection 14.13(f)  that says new impervious surface added in the Jordan Lake watershed between July 31, 2013  and December 2020 (after study and readopting of the rules as required under the budget provision) should not be counted as built-upon area for purposes of developing nutrient reduction targets under the Jordan Lake stormwater rules.  It isn’t entirely clear what this means.

Under  federal Clean Water Act requirements, the state has an obligation to cap discharges of any pollutant causing impaired water quality. These caps (called a Total Maximum Daily Load  or “TMDL”) must be approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The Jordan Lake rules cap nutrient loading at a level necessary to address impaired water quality in the Jordan Lake reservoir; meeting the TMDL  requires a reduction  in nutrient loading  from the   baseline years  of 1997-2001. The rules then allocate the reductions proportionately to the different arms of Jordan Lake and to major nutrient sources in those watersheds – wastewater dischargers, stormwater runoff from developed areas, and agricultural activities.

So  the new Sec. 14.13(f) raises several issues –

  1. The new subsection  is written as though local governments in the Jordan Lake watershed develop their own stormwater nutrient reduction targets and can change the reduction target by excluding newly developed areas.  In reality, the reduction targets have been based on  allocation of the  reductions required  to meet the Jordan Lake TMDL under  EMC rules and a watershed model developed by DEQ.
  2. It  assumes that the nutrient reduction target assigned to stormwater would change based on development over this 7-year time period, but the target is based on reduction from the historic baseline of 1997-2001. The one thing that changes by delaying implementation of the Jordan Lake stormwater rules is that more areas will fall under requirements for stormwater retrofits of existing development rather than stormwater rules for new development projects.
  3. If the intent is to exclude these recently developed areas from future implementation of  Jordan Lake stormwater rules for new or existing development, DEQ may have to allocate greater reductions to other nutrient sources in order to meet the Jordan Lake TMDL approved by EPA.

A new cross-reference to Chesapeake Bay stormwater measures. Another new subsection, Sec. 14.13(i),  requires the state to allow stormwater measures approved by the Chesapeake Bay Commission for use in meeting the Chesapeake Bay  TMDL to also be used to meet the Jordan Lake  and Falls Lake TMDLs  based on the same nutrient reduction credit allowed under the Chesapeake Bay program.  The Chesapeake Bay Program (rather than the Chesapeake Bay Commission) maintains the Chesapeake Bay TMDL model and seems to be the gatekeeper for pollution reduction credits included in the model. Credits for nutrient removal under the Chesapeake Bay model  will likely turn out to be a range based on the type of stormwater measure; the area; the volume of stormwater treated; etc. It isn’t immediately clear  what — if any — stormwater measures would be authorized under this provision that are not already allowed under state rules.

The Future of Watershed-Based Water Quality Rules

June 22, 2016. A controversial water quality provision in the N.C. Senate’s proposed budget would repeal (and perhaps replace –that is less certain) all state rules adopted over the last twenty years to address pollution problems caused by excess nutrients.  Sec. 14.13 in the Senate version of House Bill 1030 further delays full implementation of the Falls Lake and Jordan Lake rules; creates a  $2 million study of nutrient management programs; and repeals all existing water quality rules addressing nutrients pollution effective December 31, 2020.

The Senate Proposal.  The provision requires the state’s Environmental Management Commission (EMC) to adopt new nutrient management rules based on the study results, but repeals all  existing rules at the end of 2020  even if no alternative  rules are in place.  In addition to Jordan Lake  and Falls Lake, the repeal/replace provision would affect water quality rules in the Tar-Pamlico River Basin; the Neuse River Basin; the Catawba River Basin; the Randleman Reservoir watershed; and the endangered species management plan in the Yadkin-PeeDee River’s Goose Creek watershed. It would also apply to any other riparian buffer requirements identified by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).   Still hoping for an alternative to  rules, the Senate budget also appropriates $500,000  to  study use of freshwater mussels to reduce the water quality impact of excess  nutrients.

In most cases, state nutrient management rules also satisfy a federal Clean Water Act requirement to reduce the discharge of a pollutant (in this case nitrogen and/or phosphorus) causing impaired water quality. In North Carolina’s  “nutrient sensitive” river basins and watersheds,  the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)  has approved the nutrient reduction targets in state rules as meeting Clean Water Act  requirements.   To achieve the reduction targets, the rules require reductions in nutrient  discharges by wastewater treatment plants and nutrient runoff from agriculture and development activities. Walking away from the nutrient reduction targets has implications for Clean Water Act enforcement and the state’s delegated water quality permitting programs.

Although the Goose Creek rules rely on similar pollution reduction tools (including riparian buffers and stormwater controls),  those rules protect endangered species habitat.  The rules resulted from a lengthy negotiation with the  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service which has responsibility for enforcing the federal Endangered Species Act. Repeal of the rules would likely bring both U.S. Fish and Wildlife  and EPA into the conversation.

Nothing similar to the Senate provision appears in the House version of the budget or in any other legislation pending in the House.  The two chambers are currently negotiating this (and other) differences between the House and Senate budget bills.

Have the Nutrient Rules Failed? The Senate provision describes the state’s existing nutrient management  programs as failures. In reality, legislation has prevented full implementation of the Falls Lake and Jordan Lake nutrient rules.  The rules that have been fully implemented  — such as those in the Neuse River and Tar River basins — significantly reduced nutrient loading from wastewater discharges, agriculture and stormwater runoff.  In judging the effectiveness of watershed-based strategies, some things to keep in mind: 1.  Population growth and development in the watersheds continued to increase; and 2. Existing nutrient reduction strategies do not address all potential nutrient sources (smaller wastewater treatment plants; failing septic tanks; atmospheric deposition of nitrogen; and soil erosion).

DEQ has tracked the effect of nutrient rules in the Neuse River and Tar-Pamlico River basins; some of the results can be found here.  A  number of independent academic researchers have also studied the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico  river basin rules.  All of the studies confirm that sources covered by the rules significantly reduced their nutrient discharges. Wastewater treatment plants met the goal of reducing nitrogen discharges by 30% from the baseline years even as population and wastewater flows increased. Agriculture met or exceeded the 30% reduction goal for agricultural operations through use of  Best Management Practices. A recent EMC report confirmed  the value of  riparian buffers as part of a watershed-based plan to reduce nutrient runoff from developed areas.

Complicating the picture is the fact that  total  in-stream nutrient concentrations  have not consistently remained below  baseline levels.  A DEQ  study completed in 2008 found that in-stream concentrations of inorganic forms of nitrogen  (nitrates and ammonia) declined at the monitoring sites, but  increases in organic nitrogen offset those reductions.   The rules haven’t  failed; given population growth and increased development in the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico river basins,   nitrogen concentrations would have been higher in the absence of the rules. But the rules have not fully solved the problem of nutrient over-enrichment.

Opposition to the Nutrient Rules.  Opposition has tended to be strongest in the communities on the Haw River arm of the Jordan Lake watershed affected by the Jordan Lake rules. (The Haw River watershed includes the cities of Greensboro and Burlington.) Since EMC adoption of the Jordan Lake rules in 2009,  legislation to repeal or delay implementation of the rules has been introduced every year.  Objections  have focused on the cost of wastewater treatment plant upgrades to meet tighter discharge limits;  expansion of  stormwater programs;  and the development impact of new riparian buffer requirements. To these upstream Haw River communities, the costs have no local benefit; water quality improvements benefit downstream communities. (Although many of the downstream communities have met similar requirements under the Neuse River rules for years to benefit the Neuse River estuary.)

The City of Durham and Durham County, affected by both the Falls Lake and the Jordan Lake rules, also have concerns about the feasibility and cost of meeting nutrient reduction goals.

Also in the background — riparian buffer requirements have long been unpopular with real estate developers and homebuilders in all of the river basins/watersheds where buffers have been part of a nutrient reduction strategy.

DEQ’s Position.   DEQ has not taken a public position on the Senate proposal, but a February presentation by DEQ Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder to the legislature’s Environmental Review Commission questioned the effectiveness of the watershed-based nutrient rules.  Reeder’s presentation tended to emphasize the cost of the nutrient rules and  limited impact on instream nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations.  Asked what alternative to the nutrient management rules would protect the Falls Lake and Jordan Lake drinking water supplies, Reeder responded that drinking water treatment may become more expensive. The presentation suggested little DEQ commitment to defend watershed-based nutrient rules and a willingness to shift the cost of impaired water quality to communities using  Falls Lake and Jordan Lake as drinking water sources. Reeder’s presentation did not  address the impacts of a failure to reduce excess nutrients  on natural resources such as fisheries; recreational use of these rivers, lakes and estuaries; or compliance with the Clean Water Act.

Possible compromises.  Past studies of the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico rules suggest a need to fill gaps in the nutrient strategies, but do not provide a  scientific case for  abandoning watershed-based nutrient reduction strategies. Nearly seven years after final adoption of the Jordan Lake rules, opponents have not identified an alternative approach to protect drinking water  and meet Clean Water Act requirements.

At the same time, the  EMC’s recent riparian buffer report  identified potential buffer rule changes to ease the burden on property owners while maintaining the buffer’s  water quality benefits.  The legislature could also look at the possibility of  authorizing cost-sharing arrangements to allocate some of the upstream cost of water quality improvements to  the  downstream communities that will benefit. The idea surfaced briefly during development of the Falls Lake and Jordan Lake rules, but wasn’t pursued at the time.

N.C. Environmental Legislation 2015: The Bills

October 12, 2015.   The legislative session finally ended  in the wee hours of September 30 and changes to state  environmental laws continued to be in play until the very end.   Several of the provisions discussed below were enacted as part of  House Bill 765 (the Regulatory Reform Act of 2015) which has not yet been signed by the Governor. H 765 contains too many pieces to completely catalog here; some have been  very controversial.  The other bills referenced in the post have already become law.

Not a complete list, but some of the most significant changes affecting the environment:

“AG-GAG” LEGISLATION.   House Bill 405  allows an employer to take legal action against an employee who:  a.  takes photographs, makes recordings, or copies records; b. in a nonpublic area of the workplace; c.  without permission;  and d. uses those documents “against the interest of the employer”.   H 405 allows  the employer to sue the employee for monetary damages,  including legal fees and a $5,000 per day penalty. Animal welfare activists have characterized these kinds of  bills  as “ag-gag” legislation intended to prevent documentation of animal cruelty at agricultural operations.  House Bill 405,  however,  does not just affect agricultural workers or documentation of animal cruelty. The restrictions could also affect employee efforts to document ongoing environmental violations such as improper disposal of hazardous substances. See an earlier post for more on the implications of H 405. Note: Governor Pat McCrory vetoed H 405, but the General Assembly overrode the veto to allow the bill to become law.

FRACKING.  One of the final bills of the session, Senate Bill 119,  severely limits local regulation of  hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) operations.  First, a little background. 2014 legislation prevented local governments from banning fracking altogether, but G.S. 113-415.1 allowed  cities and counties to continue to apply ordinances applicable  to all development in the jurisdiction — such as zoning and stormwater ordinances —  to fracking operations.  The state’s Mining and Energy Commission had authority to override a  local ordinance that had the effect of precluding natural gas exploration and development.

Senate Bill 119 rewrites the  2014 law to invalidate all local ordinances that directly regulate fracking, preempting ordinances that go beyond or conflict with state standards for hydraulic fracturing operations.  The bill also allows the oil and gas operator to challenge the application of  more general local ordinances (such as zoning and stormwater ordinances) to fracking operations.  These challenges go to the state  Oil and Gas Commission (which has replaced the Mining and Energy Commission in regulating oil and gas operations). The Commission will  decide “whether or to what extent to preempt the local ordinance to allow for the regulation of oil and gas exploration, development, and production activities”.  The  2015 amendments clearly  give the Oil and Gas Commission very broad power to preempt even general development ordinances. Preemption does not require a finding that the ordinance precludes natural gas exploration and development or conflicts with state standards.  As long as the natural gas operator has received  state/federal permits, the bill seems to direct the Commission to preempt application of general development ordinances to fracking operations if the Commission finds that fracking

…will not pose an unreasonable health or environmental risk to the surrounding locality and that the operator has taken or consented to take reasonable measures to avoid or manage foreseeable risks and to comply to the maximum feasible extent with applicable local ordinances.

STATE ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY ACT. For over 40 years, the State Environmental Policy Act  (SEPA) has required environmental review of  projects involving expenditure of public funds or use of public lands.   An earlier post provides some background on SEPA.   House Bill 795  limits  environmental  review under SEPA to projects that:  1.  involve expenditures of $10 million or more in public funds;  or 2. affect 10 acres or more of public lands and result in permanent changes to the landscape.  The  new thresholds mean many public projects with potentially significant impacts will be exempt from SEPA review. For projects that still require SEPA review,  House Bill 795 narrows  the scope of review to  direct project impacts — excluding indirect impacts  and the combined effects of  similar projects. The final version of the bill made some exceptions to these changes as applied to interbasin transfers (the movement of water from one river basin to another for water supply).   All interbasin transfer  proposals will continue to require SEPA review without regard to the amount of public money or public land  involved and the scope of review will include direct, indirect and cumulative impacts.

In an ironic twist, H 795  requires the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ)  to create a  new environmental review process for water/wastewater infrastructure projects that receive loans from the Drinking Water Revolving Loan Fund or the Clean Water Revolving Loan Fund.  Federal rules  require  those projects to go through an environmental review equivalent to review under the National Environmental Policy Act.  Eliminating SEPA review  for smaller revolving loan projects had the  unintended  effect  of shifting the projects back into a lengthier federal environmental review process. In short, legislators liberated the projects from SEPA  only to create a SEPA-like environmental review process to avoid the still worse fate of federal review. The entire debate over H 795 indicated a  lot of  confusion about how SEPA works and the likely impact of the bill.  See another post for more on the misconceptions about SEPA that seemed to shape H 795.

LOCAL ENVIRONMENTAL ORDINANCES.   The legislature also  took aim at local environmental ordinances. Section 2 of  House Bill 44 includes a somewhat opaque provision barring local governments from enforcing “voluntary” state environmental rules. The words “voluntary” and “rule”  do not generally exist in the same space;  a rule, by definition is not voluntary.  The provision  may really be intended to stop local implementation of stormwater ordinances adopted to comply with the  Jordan Lake water quality rules.  Section 2  applies not just to local implementation of  the elusive  “voluntary” state rule, but also to implementation of state rules that have been repealed; rules that have been adopted, but are not yet in effect; or rules that are “temporarily or permanently held in abeyance”. The Jordan Lake rules fall into the last category as a result of earlier legislation delaying state implementation of the rules.

The new provision affects both issuance of new development permits and enforcement of conditions on permits that have already been issued. Barring enforcement of conditions on  previously issued permits  has implications for both developers and local governments.  The questions that immediately come to mind (using the Jordan Lake stormwater requirements as an example): Can development already permitted under the Jordan Lake stormwater standards  move ahead without meeting any stormwater requirements?  or Will the development require a modified permit to reflect  stormwater standards that might have applied prior to local adoption of the Jordan Lake stormwater ordinances?

Section 13 of House Bill 44 limits local government authority to adopt riparian buffer requirements.  The bill defines “riparian buffer”  to mean any setback from surface waters —  which could include a setback imposed for flood control.  But much of the provision has been written to refer specifically to  riparian buffers for the protection of water quality.   Under the bill, a local government cannot adopt and enforce a riparian buffer ordinance for water quality protection  that  goes beyond requirements of state or federal law (or the conditions of a state or federal permit) unless the Environmental Management Commission approves the ordinance.

The bill also requires riparian buffers affecting  residential lots  to be shown on the subdivision plat. And an unusual provision addresses development projects that meet riparian buffer requirements by designating buffers as common area or open space:

When riparian  buffers are placed outside of lots in portions of a subdivision that are designated as common areas or open space and neither the State nor its subdivisions holds any property interest in that riparian buffer area, the local government shall attribute to each lot abutting the riparian buffer area a proportionate share [of the buffer area] ….for purposes of development-related regulatory requirements based on property size, including, but not limited to, residential density and nonresidential intensity calculations and yields, tree conservation purposes, open space or conservation area requirements, setbacks, perimeter buffers, and lot area requirements.

Allocating buffers designated as common area to adjacent property owners for purposes of meeting development standards may create some complications for developers.  Instead of allowing common area buffers to be used to offset density limits (or other requirements) for the development as a whole, the bill requires the benefits to go to  individual  lot owners. For example,  a lot owner may be able to build on a greater percentage of the platted lot because a proportional share of the adjacent buffer would be counted toward the lot area. But whatever flexibility the lot owner gains will be lost to the developer who  can no longer use the riparian buffer common areas to offset  built-on area (for example)  throughout the development as a whole.

ENVIRONMENTAL AUDIT PRIVILEGE/SELF-DISCLOSURE IMMUNITY.  Two of the most important changes to state environmental law can be found in House Bill 765  (the Regulatory Reform Act of 2015). The bill creates a new privilege for information a company gathers on its own environmental violations, preventing use of the information in a civil case. (The privilege does not apply in a criminal prosecution.)   The bill also grants immunity from civil penalties and fines for environmental violations voluntarily disclosed to state regulators.  Supporters of the bill believe these protections will encourage companies to conduct environmental audits to identify and correct environmental violations more quickly.

The bill excludes certain types of information from the audit privilege (such as data required to be reported under state and federal law). Although the  bill  creates some exceptions to the audit privilege, most of the exceptions require state regulators to show the violator deceptively withheld information or failed to correct violations in a timely way — which may be difficult without access to the audit information itself. H 765 protects environmental audit information from use  in both civil penalty cases and in actions to compel cleanup of environmental contamination.

Although less clear, the  bill may also shield environmental audit information from a private plaintiff seeking compensation for personal injury or property damage caused by an environmental violation.   The section of the bill creating the audit privilege says flatly that the audit information “is privileged and, therefore, immune from discovery and is not admissible as evidence in civil or administrative proceedings”. That section of the bill does not limit the privilege to  environmental enforcement cases brought by the state.  On the other hand, the section of the bill  on  revocation of the audit privilege has been written only to allow the “enforcement agency” to ask a court to revoke the audit privilege.  The bill needs to be clarified in one direction or the other — either the privilege applies only to state enforcement actions or it applies to other civil actions and the opportunity to ask for revocation of the privilege  should  be broader.

The self-disclosure immunity provisions in H 765  grant immunity from civil penalties and fines based on voluntary disclosure of the violation.  The bill sets conditions that must be met to make a self-disclosure “voluntary”.  The final version of the bill also put limits on  how often a person (or company) can claim self-disclosure  immunity — no more than once every two years; twice in a five-year period; and three times in a ten-year period.  The bill never defines “civil penalties and fines”, leaving some questions about the breadth of the immunity being granted.  For example, the bill is silent on whether “civil penalties and fines” includes natural resource damages. (An example would be  fish kill damages assessed as a result of a wastewater spill.)

For a more detailed comparison to past DENR and present U.S. Environmental Protection Agency enforcement policies on self-disclosed violations, see an earlier post.  Note: EPA has long opposed statutory audit privilege out of concern that  withholding information from regulators will  hamper effective environmental enforcement.

RISK-BASED REMEDIATION. House Bill 765 also makes changes to state laws allowing the person responsible for environmental  contamination (the “responsible party”) to do a partial cleanup of  groundwater and soil contamination by relying on land-use controls to limit future exposure to contamination that remains on the site.  The biggest changes:

♦  Sites where contamination has migrated onto adjacent properties would become eligible for risk-based cleanup.  Existing law requires  contamination that has migrated off the property where it originated to be remediated to “unrestricted use standards”  — meaning  levels safe for any possible land use without reliance on land use controls to prevent exposure to contamination.  That effectively means remediation of contaminated groundwater to meet  state groundwater standards. Risk-based cleanup of contamination on adjacent properties had not been allowed because of the additional complications of managing exposure to those contaminants on property the responsible party does not control. H 765  makes  a risk-based cleanup on adjacent property possible with the property owner’s permission. The cleanup would have to meet the same remediation standards applied to the  source site  with an additional stipulation that the remediation plan cannot cause contaminant levels on the adjacent property to actually increase.

♦ The bill removes statute language that had limited risk-based remediation to contaminated sites reported to DENR  before the risk-based remediation law went into effect in 2011, allowing   lower-cost, risk-based remediation as an option for future pollution events.

♦ H 765 adds new categories to an existing statutory list of sites excluded from these particular  risk-based remediation provisions.  The new exclusions cover coal ash disposal sites and animal waste management systems.

♦ The bill creates a separate risk-based remediation program for above-ground petroleum storage tanks (ASTs). The AST program closely follows  the model of the basic risk-based remediation statute, but imposes lower fees on the person responsible for cleanup.

WHAT DIDN’T HAPPEN AFTER ALL.  Other high profile (and controversial) changes came and went as the legislation session wound down. Among the proposals discarded for now:

Broad changes to riparian buffer rules.  Proposals to significantly roll back riparian buffer requirements for nutrient sensitive waters fell away in negotiations between the House and Senate.  Instead, House Bill 44 requires a study of the buffer rules, including ways to reduce regulatory burden on owners of property platted before their adoption.  The legislature did enact a few limited changes to buffer requirements.  House Bill  44 directs the Environmental Management Commission  to allow case-by-case modification of the requirement to maintain woody vegetation in riparian buffers  if the landowner shows that  alternative measures will provide equal or greater water quality protection. House Bill 765  alters  state stormwater rules to  (among other things)  allow more intensive development in riparian buffers along shellfish waters, outstanding resource waters and high quality waters if stormwater  from the development is collected, treated and discharged through the vegetated buffer. The provision doesn’t put any upper limit on the amount of impervious surface allowed in the area previously known as a buffer, so it isn’t clear how much vegetated buffer will remain to discharge the stormwater through.

Repeal of state fees supporting electronics recycling programs. The repeal proposed by the Senate turned into a legislative study of electronics recycling.

♦  Repeal or significant  rollback  of the state’s Renewable Energy Portfolio standard.  Efforts to freeze the REPS standard at 6% of retail sales failed. (Although not before popping up in multiple bills.)

♦  LImits on the state Environmental Management Commission’s authority to adopt federal air quality standards. The proposal could have put North Carolina’s delegated Clean Air Act program at risk. In the end, the General Assembly settled for a provision prohibiting the state air quality program from enforcing federal standards for wood heaters. The provision doesn’t have any real effect since  EPA has never delegated enforcement of the  standard for wood heaters to the states.

The  next session of the N.C. General Assembly convenes on April 25, 2016.

N.C. Environmental Legislation 2015: The Budget

October 9, 2015. Now that the General Assembly has adjourned, a look at legislative actions affecting the environment. First, the state budget for 2015-2017.

Among the most significant impacts:

♦  REORGANIZATION.   The Clean Water Management Trust Fund and the Natural Heritage Program — originally intended to protect and restore water quality and identify important natural areas — have been separated from the environmental protection programs in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). The budget transfers the CWMTF, Natural Heritage Program, Museum of Natural Sciences, state park system, N.C. Aquariums and N.C. Zoo from DENR to a newly organized Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. The move combines conservation  and ecological education programs with state historic sites and cultural resources. The new department appears to be organized around management of the programs as public attractions rather than as research and education partners to state environmental protection programs.  As a result of the reorganization, DENR becomes the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

Whatever the merits of the move for facilities like the Museum of Natural Science and N.C. Zoo,  the Clean Water Management Trust Fund and Natural Heritage Program do not  fit the new department’s basic organizing principle. Unlike the “attractions”,  the  CWMTF and Natural Heritage Program provide no public facilities and exist primarily to protect  water quality and identify important natural resources.

The General Assembly created the Clean Water Management Trust Fund (CWMTF) in 1996 to fund projects to prevent water pollution and to restore water bodies already impaired  by pollution.   CWMTF’s  non-regulatory approach complemented water quality rules  protecting state waters.  Originally,   CWMTF grants funded acquisition of riparian buffers to reduce polluted runoff into streams and rivers and  extension of sewer lines where failing  septic  systems threatened surface water quality.  In moving CWMTF, the 2015 budget severs its connection with other state efforts to restore and protect water quality.  The move follows 2014  legislation diluting the original CWMTF  focus on  water quality protection by authorizing use of the Trust Fund for acquisition of historic sites and buffers around military bases.

The  Natural Heritage Program researches, classifies and inventories the state’s natural resources, including endangered and rare plant and animal species. Information collected by the program can be used to document the conservation value of property and to assess the environmental impacts of projects requiring state and federal environmental permits.  The program has a much closer working relationship to the environmental  protection programs that remain in DENR than to public attractions like the N.C.  Zoo and Aquariums. (Note: The 2013 state budget eliminated the Natural Heritage Trust Fund which had been a source of funding for conservation of important natural areas;   the CWMTF  has become the funding source for those projects as well.)

♦  LANDFILL PERMITTING. The budget changes landfill permitting, allowing issuance of a single “life of site” permit to cover construction and operation of a landfill that may have a 30-year lifespan.  State rules had previously  required review and approval of the entire landfill site before construction, but also required each 5 or 10-year phase of the landfill to have a construction and operation permit.  Moving to a “life of site” permit  reduces the number of permit reviews for each landfill operation, changing the permit fee schedule and cutting funding for the state’s solid waste management program by 20%.  The change also reduces state oversight of landfill operations.  Landfill construction will continue to be done in phases for economic and practical reasons,  but the “life of site permit” eliminates state compliance review for each new  phase of the landfill.   The change also seems to eliminate the possibility of imposing additional permit conditions for construction or operation of later landfill phases in response to  technological developments  or new knowledge  of  risks to groundwater and other natural resources. The  budget provision does not set minimum inspection requirements in place of the 5 and 10-year phased permit reviews.

The bill also creates a legislative study of local government authority over solid waste collection and disposal, including ordinances on solid waste collection;  fees for waste management services; and potential for privatization.  The study suggests the General Assembly may focus next on reducing local solid waste regulation.  That will be a somewhat different discussion, since solid waste disposal has long been a local government responsibility so  local fees and ordinances have a direct connection to city/county collection and disposal services.

 LEAKING PETROLEUM UNDERGROUND STORAGE TANKSThe 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 the Noncommercial UST Trust Fund to cover pending claims, but  limits use of the Fund to  cleanup costs associated with leaks reported to DENR by October 1, 2015.  All claims for reimbursement of those costs must be filed by July 1, 2016.

The budget provision also prohibits DENR from requiring removal of petroleum-contaminated soils at noncommercial UST sites that have been classified as low risk.  The  problem —  risk classifications  have been based on groundwater impacts;  a low-risk classification does not mean that contaminated soils on the property pose no health hazard. Current UST  rules require remediation of contaminated soils to levels safe for the intended land use (residential versus nonresidential) without regard to the overall risk classification of the site.  Soil remediation standards have been based on the potential health risks associated with exposure to petroleum-contaminated soil. Adverse health effects may include increased cancer risk since petroleum products contain a number of carcinogens. The budget provision may allow petroleum-contaminated soils to remain on residential properties at levels putting children at particular risk of adverse health effects.

♦ JORDAN LAKE WATER QUALITY RULES. The budget allocates another $1.5 million (from the Clean Water Management Trust Fund) to continue the 2013 pilot project to test use of aerators to improve water quality in the Jordan Lake system. The budget also has a special provision further delaying implementation of the Jordan Lake water quality rules for  another 3 years or one year beyond completion of the pilot project (whichever is later). The rules had been developed by the state’s Environmental Management Commission to address poor water quality  caused by  excess nutrients reaching the lake in wastewater discharges or in  runoff from agricultural lands and developed areas. See an earlier post  here on the  2013 legislation creating the pilot project.

♦ COASTAL EROSION CONTROL.   A special provision in the budget also changes state rules on use of sandbag seawalls and terminal groins in response to coastal erosion.  State coastal management rules have only allowed use of  temporary sandbag seawalls to protect a building facing an imminent threat from erosion. The same rules prohibit construction of the seawall more than 20 feet seaward of the threatened building. (These sandbag seawalls are substantial structures built on the beach in response to oceanfront erosion; the rules do not apply to sandbags used to prevent water from entering a building during a flood event.) The budget bill allows an oceanfront property owner to install a sandbag seawall to align with an existing sandbag structure on adjacent property without showing an imminent erosion threat to any building on their own property.  Since the bill allows construction to align with the adjacent sandbag seawall, the new seawall  may  also be more than 20 feet seaward of any  building. The irony here — a property owner may want to install a sandbag seawall in these circumstances  out of concern that the adjacent sandbag seawall may itself cause increased shoreline erosion.

The budget bill also increases the number of terminal groin structures that can be permitted at the state’s ocean inlets from four to six and identifies New River Inlet for location of two of the additional structures. See an earlier post  for more on earlier legislation allowing construction of terminal groins as a pilot project. Note: No terminal groins have been completed under the original pilot program, so the state does not yet have any data on the actual impacts of these structures.

♦ RENEWABLE ENERGY TAX CREDIT.  The budget bill allows the state’s 35% tax credit for renewable energy projects to sunset on December 31, 2015. A separate bill provides a “safe harbor” for renewable energy projects already substantially underway by that date. Those projects may qualify for a one-year extension of the tax credit. See Senate Bill 372 for more on conditions that apply to the safe harbor extension.

The Battle Over Riparian Buffers

June 22, 2015. An earlier post  described  changes to state  buffer rules proposed in House Bill 760 (Regulatory Reform Act of 2015).  Last week, the North Carolina Senate put its own set of buffer changes into House Bill 44 (Local Government Regulatory Reform). The buffer provisions added by the Senate look very different from those approved by the House in H 760.

First, the purpose of  riparian buffer rules. In several areas of the state,  water quality rules limit clearing, grading and development activity within 50 feet of  rivers, lakes and streams. For the most part, the state buffer rules responded to water pollution problems caused by excess nutrients.   A  number of large fish kills,  including a 1995  fish kill in the Neuse River estuary that lasted more than three months and killed tens of millions of fish,  prompted  nutrient rules for the lower Neuse River and the Tar-Pamlico River basin.  The rules required stream buffers to  reduce  nutrient runoff and also put stricter limits on wastewater discharges of nitrogen and phosphorus.  More recently, similar nutrient problems led the Environmental Management Commission (EMC) to adopt  buffer rules for the  Falls Lake  and Jordan Lake watersheds.  State buffer rules also apply to the main stem of the Catawba River  and in the  Randleman Reservoir watershed to prevent development of nutrient problems. The rules  require a 50-foot vegetated buffer —  Zone 1  (the first 30 feet back from the water) has undisturbed natural vegetation;  Zone 2  can be graded and replanted.

In Section 13 of House Bill 44, the Senate proposes to  shrink the riparian buffer required under the Neuse River rules from 50 feet to 30 feet and allow more  disturbance within 30 feet of the water.  The  Senate bill then directs DENR and the Environmental Management Commission  to “implement all other rules adopted by the Commission for the protection and maintenance of existing riparian buffers for nutrient sensitive waters”  in the same way until the beginning of the 2016 legislative session. The implications:

♦ Stream  buffers on waters already stressed by excess nutrients will be significantly narrowed; it isn’t clear whether the narrower buffer will be as effective in reducing polluted runoff.

♦  The Senate provision allows grading, clearing and revegetation of the entire 30-foot buffer.

♦  Changes to the Neuse River buffer rule would be permanent, but  changes to buffer rules on other nutrient sensitive waters expire at the beginning of the next legislative session in May 2016.  (Although nothing in the bill suggests the Senate actually  intends to allow those buffer rules to return to their current form  in 2016.)

♦  Whatever happens in 2016, temporarily  reducing riparian buffer requirements on nutrient sensitive waters could set off a frenzy of buffer clearing during the one year interim.

♦ Since the provision only applies to  buffer rules adopted by the EMC  “for nutrient sensitive waters”,  buffer rules adopted for  Randleman Reservoir and  the main stem of the Catawba River  would be unchanged.

The Senate  and  House also differ on the method for measuring riparian buffers on coastal wetlands. The Senate provision (in Section 14 of House Bill 44) requires all coastal wetlands  — even those regularly flooded on the tides — to be considered  part of the riparian buffer.  The change would potentially allow clearing, grading and development activity up to the edge of a regularly flooded  coastal wetland.  H 760 requires the riparian buffer on a coastal wetland to be measured from the normal water level,  likely preventing use of regularly flooded wetlands as the buffer.

The House quickly voted not to accept the Senate changes to House Bill 44; the bill  has been sent to a conference committee to work out the differences.  The Senate has not yet taken up  H 760.  Legislative conferees can sometimes color outside the lines, but as things now stand the choice seems to be between:  1. Maintaining existing 50-foot riparian buffer requirements, but exempting a large number of  properties from the rules entirely (the House proposal in H 760);  or 2. Reducing the riparian buffer from 50 feet to 30 feet on nutrient sensitive waters and allowing grading, clearing and revegetation in the entire buffer  (the Senate proposal in H 44).

Note on Goose Creek: Buffer rules for the Goose Creek watershed protect habitat for a federally listed endangered species. The rules, which were negotiated with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,  require broader buffers than those on nutrient sensitive waters. The Senate buffer provisions in H 44 do not affect the Goose Creek rules.  The buffer exemption in H 760 could apply in the  Goose Creek watershed, which may undo the negotiated agreement with U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

The NC Senate: Budget 2015

June 18, 2015.  Yesterday, the  N.C. Senate  took a first vote to approve a Senate version of House Bill 97  ( 2015 Appropriations Act).   The Senate received H 97 from the House of Representatives on May 22. The Senate  released its  alternative draft of the appropriations bill three days ago and quickly moved H 97  through Senate appropriations committees.  The Senate takes  a very different approach to funding state government than the House, but the Senate version of H 97 also contains many more “special provisions” — changes to existing law that go beyond finance and appropriations.  Some of the more significant environmental provisions in the Senate budget bill  (not by any means a complete list) below.

First, the Senate revisits the organization of state natural resource programs.  Sec. 14.30 of the Senate bill would combine  DENR’s natural resource programs (Division of Parks and Recreation, State Parks, Aquariums, the N.C. Zoo and the Museum of Natural Sciences) with cultural resource programs (such as the Museum of History and state historic sites)  in a new Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.  DENR would become the Department of Environmental Quality. Sec. 14.31  requires the two departments to study  whether  the Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Program,  state Coastal Reserves, the Office of Land and Water Stewardship,  the Office of Environmental Education and Public Affairs, the Division of Marine Fisheries and the Wildlife Resources Commission should also be moved to the new Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

Other changes proposed in the Senate bill by subject (parenthetical descriptions are mine) :

COAL ASH

Sec. 29.18 (Beneficial use of coal ash) requires the Utilities Commission to report to several legislative committees by January 2016 on “the incremental cost incentives related to coal combustion residuals surface impoundment for investor-owned public utilities” including:

(1) Utilities Commission policy on  incremental cost recovery.

(2) The impact of the current policy on incremental cost recovery on utility customers’ rates.

(3) Possible changes to the current policy on incremental cost  recovery  that would promote reprocessing and other technologies that allow the reuse of coal combustion residuals stored in surface impoundments for concrete and other beneficial end uses.

Although a bit opaque, the Senate seems interested in the possibility of allowing electric utilities  to recover (through charges to consumers) the costs associated with making coal ash in surface impoundments available  for beneficial use.  Duke Energy has previously told legislators  that much of the coal ash in North Carolina impoundments  would require additional processing to be usable in concrete manufacturing.

COASTAL ISSUES

Sec. 14.6 (Use of sandbags for temporary erosion control) amends standards installation of sandbags for  erosion control on ocean and inlet shorelines. State rules now allow installation of sandbags only in response to erosion that imminently threatens a structure. The Senate bill allows a property owner to install sandbags to align with existing sandbag structures  on adjacent properties without showing an imminent erosion threat on their own property.

Sec. 14.10I (Strategies to address beach erosion) requires the Division of Coastal Management to study and develop a strategy “preventing, mitigating and remediating the effects of beach erosion”.

ENERGY 

Sec 14.29  (Federal energy grants) prohibits DENR from applying for grants from two federal programs – the State Energy Program Competitive Grant Program and the Clean Energy and Manufacturing Grant Program.

FISHERIES

Sec. 14.8, Sec. 14.10A and Sec. 14.10C  (measures to increase shellfish restoration and cultivation)

Sec. 14.8  directs the Division of Marine Fisheries to work with commercial fishermen,  aquaculture operations, and federal agencies to open additional areas in Core Sound to shellfish cultivation leasing.

Sec. 14.10A  directs DMF and the Division of Coastal Management to cooperate in  development of a new, expedited  CAMA permitting process for oyster restoration projects. The provision  also  authorizes DMF to  issue scientific and educational activity permits to nonprofit conservation organizations engaged in oyster restoration.

Sec. 14.10C Amends G.S. 113-202 to allow a lease for use of the water bottom to also cover fish cultivation or harvest devices on or within 18″ of the bottom. (Devices or structures not resting on the bottom or extending more than 18″ above the bottom will continue to require a water column lease.)

Sec. 14.10F (Joint fisheries enforcement authority) repeals the Division of Marine Fisheries authority to enter into a joint enforcement agreement with the National Marine Fisheries Service. The joint agreement allows DMF  to receive federal funding to enforce federal fisheries regulations in state waters.

SPECIAL FUNDS

Sec. 14.16  continues a recent trend of eliminating “special funds” that hold fees or other revenue dedicated for a specific purpose outside the state budget’s General Fund. The Senate bill eliminates special funds for mining fees,  stormwater permit fees, and UST soil permitting fees and moves the fee revenue into the General Fund.

STREAM AND WETLAND MITIGATION

Sec. 14.23 (Limiting the state’s role in providing stream, wetland, riparian buffer and nutrient mitigation)  requires DENR’s Division of Mitigation Services to stop accepting fees in lieu of mitigation in the Neuse, Tar-Pamlico and Cape Fear River basins within 30 months.  The provision then allows DENR (with the Environmental Management Commission’s agreement) to also eliminate the state in-lieu fee programs in all other river basins after June 30, 2018.

DENR’s  in-lieu fee program allows a developer to pay  a fee for mitigation  required as a condition of state and federal development permits. DENR  then contracts with private mitigation providers for the necessary mitigation. Payment of the fee transfers responsibility for providing the mitigation from the developer to DENR. Under a Memorandum of Agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the state’s in-lieu fee program can be used to satisfy stream and wetland mitigation required as a condition of federal Clean Water Act permits.

Eliminating  the State in-lieu fee program seems to eliminate the fee-for-mitigation approach as an option for developers. The burden would be back on the developer to find acceptable mitigation through a private mitigation bank or to plan and manage an individual mitigation project.  The change may slow some development projects that can now move  ahead based on the Corps of Engineers’ agreement to accept payments to the state in-lieu fee program as satisfying  federal mitigation requirements.

UNDERGROUND STORAGE TANKS

Sec. 14.16A (Elimination of the Noncommercial UST Trust Fund) phases out the state’s Noncommercial UST Trust Fund which reimburses property owners for the cost of cleaning up contamination from leaking underground petroleum storage tanks. The Noncommercial UST Trust Fund has  benefitted homeowners with soil and groundwater  contamination caused by home heating oil tanks and property owners  with contamination caused by USTs  used to store fuel for personal use — as on a farm. Under the Senate provision, the Noncommercial Fund could only be used for leaks reported before August 1, 2015 and claims for reimbursement filed by July 1, 2016. The Noncommercial Fund  would be eliminated for any petroleum releases  reported or claims made after those dates.

WASTE MANAGEMENT

Sec. 14.20 (Life of site landfill permits) amends G.S. 130A-294 to replace the current  5 or 10 year landfill permits with a “life of site” permit to cover landfill operations from opening to final closure. The provision would require permit review every five years.

Sec. 14.21 (Study of local government authority over waste collection and disposal services) directs the legislature’s Environmental Review Commission to study local authority over solid waste management including local fees; ordinances on waste collection and processing; cost to local government to provide solid waste services; and efficiencies or cost reductions that might be realized through privatization.   Solid waste collection and disposal services are entirely financed and provided by local governments;  many already contract with private entities for waste collection or landfill management.  It isn’t clear what the study might lead to since the legislature doesn’t have a role in  providing or financing local waste management services.

Sec. 14.22  (Privatizing landfill remediation) directs DENR to privatize the assessment and remediation of at least 10 high priority pre-1983 landfill sites. For several years, DENR has received a percentage of the state’s solid waste disposal tax  to fund assessment and cleanup of  contamination associated with landfills and dumps that closed rather than meet environmental standards that went into effect in 1983. Some legislators have expressed concern about the slow pace of remediation (and the resulting high fund balance). Note: Most state-funded remediation programs have a slow ramp-up in spending since it takes time to set up a new program and assess the sites.

WATER QUALITY

Sec. 4.5  (Nutrient management) earmarks $4.5 million from the Clean Water Management Trust Fund for a  DENR study of “in situ strategies beyond traditional watershed controls” to mitigate water quality impairment. The provision specifically mentions impairment by “aquatic flora, sediment and nutrients”, suggesting the study may be a continuation of the legislature’s effort to replace watershed-based nutrient management programs with technological solutions.

In 2013, the General Assembly suspended implementation of watershed-based nutrient management rules in the Jordan Lake watershed and funded a pilot project to test the use of aerators to reduce the impacts of excess nutrients on water quality. Sec. 14.5 allows extension of  the  pilot project contracts for another two years and delays implementation of the Jordan Lake watershed rules an additional two years or one year beyond completion of the pilot project, whichever is later.

Sec. 14.25 (State Assumption of permitting under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act) directs DENR to  hire a consultant to plan and prepare a state application  to assume the  federal permitting program under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.   Sec. 404 requires a permit to fill waters or wetlands that fall under Clean Water Act jurisdiction. The U.S. Corps of Engineers issues Sec. 404 permits,  but a state can assume Sec. 404  permitting authority under certain conditions.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency oversees  404 permitting and would have to approve a state program. In a state that assumes Sec. 404 permitting, EPA retains authority to review  permit applications; a permit cannot be issued over an EPA objection.

Although several states have explored the possibility of assuming Sec. 404 permitting authority, only Michigan and  New Jersey have approved Sec. 404 programs. Individual states have reached different conclusions about the costs and benefits for a number of reasons. One may be cost — there are no federal grant funds to support a state 404 permitting program.   The Clean Water Act also prohibits state assumption of permitting in  tidal waters; water bodies used for interstate and foreign commerce;  and wetlands adjacent to both categories of waters. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would continue to have permitting authority in those waters and wetlands.

Sec. 14.26 (Transfer Sedimentation Act implementation to the EMC) eliminates the Sedimentation Pollution Control Commission and transfers responsibility for implementation of the Sedimentation Act to the Environmental Management Commission.

Once the Senate takes a final vote on House Bill 97, the bill goes to a conference committee to resolve the (considerable) differences between Senate and  House versions of the bill.  Few of the environmental provisions described above appear in the House version of the bill — although that doesn’t necessarily mean all of the Senate additions will be opposed by the House in conference negotiations.

Reforming Riparian Buffers Out of Existence

May 7, 2015.  Yesterday, the N.C. House approved House Bill 760 (Regulatory Reform Act of 2015) after adopting several amendments. House Bill 760 has  attracted a lot of media attention because of  the renewable energy provisions.  Less attention has been paid to part of the bill that will significantly weaken use of riparian buffers to reduce water pollution.

An earlier post  described the original riparian buffer provisions in House Bill 760. By amendment,  the House changed the provision on measurement of riparian buffers adjacent to coastal wetlands.  The new language requires the buffer to be measured from the normal water level, recognizing that some coastal wetlands regularly flood on the tides. The bill continues to have confusing language on  local government authority  to adopt riparian buffer ordinances outside of the river basins and watersheds covered by state buffer rules. Amendments  improved those provisions a bit,  but I am not sure even the amended bill  allows for all of the circumstances in which a local government may need to adopt a buffer ordinance to meet state and federal environmental standards.

But in what may be the most under-discussed section  of House Bill 760, the bill  still creates an exceptionally broad exemption from riparian buffer rules that apply in the state’s nutrient impaired river basins and watersheds. None of the amendments  to House Bill 760 narrowed the scope of the  buffer exemption.  In  areas covered by state nutrient sensitive waters (NSW)  buffer rules, the bill exempts all tracts of land platted before the buffer rules went into effect — even if the property could be developed for its intended purpose in compliance with the buffer requirement. (There are already exemptions and variances that cover previously platted lots that cannot be developed in full compliance with the buffer requirement.) The only condition on the exemption:

Other than the applicable buffer rule, the use of the tract complies with either of the following:

a. The rules and other laws regulating and applicable to that tract on the effective date for the applicable buffer rule set out in subsection (a) of this section.

b.The current rules, if the application of those rules to the tract was initiated after the effective date for the applicable buffer rule by the unit of local government with jurisdiction over the tract and not at the request of the property owner.

The conditions  don’t narrow the exemption  much — if at all.  Enforcing (a)  requires someone in the present to  determine whether use of the property complies with laws and rules in effect as much as 15 years ago.  And (b) appears to be the “Get Out of Jail Free” card that allows a property owner to claim the exemption based on meeting all current local ordinances other than the buffer rule. Unless  I am missing something, the property owner can just opt out of the riparian buffer requirement as long as a development project meets other current standards.

The exemption applies whether the riparian buffer rules are enforced by the state or by a local government with  delegated authority to enforce the  buffer requirements.  The exemption also seems to apply to both undeveloped properties and to properties already developed and currently in compliance with the buffer requirements.  If so, owners of developed properties would be free to clear vegetation and create new encroachments in the buffer. (Failure of the bill to distinguish between developed and undeveloped properties in applying the exemption criteria may have led to some unintended consequences —  although the exemption language is so aggressively broad,  I am not sure that is the case.)

The buffer  rules are  part of  broader  water quality restoration plans designed to meet  federal Clean Water Act requirements. The Clean Water Act requires the state  to adopt a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) —  a cap —  for any pollutant causing impaired water quality. A number of state  water bodies, including the Neuse River estuary, Falls Lake and Jordan Reservoir,   have had impaired water quality due to excess nitrogen and phosphorus.   For those river basins and watersheds, the nutrient management rules provide the underpinning  for  TMDLs that set nitrogen and phosphorus reduction targets.

North Carolina ‘s longstanding  policy has been to share the burden of pollution reduction among all of the major nutrient sources so the rules include tighter controls on wastewater dischargers; measures to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus leaving agricultural lands; and stormwater controls and riparian buffer requirements to reduce nutrient runoff from developed areas.  Each set of nutrient management rules reflects a long negotiation  involving  all of the  interests  affected — local governments, agriculture, landowners, real estate developers, environmental organizations — to balance the pollution reduction burden.

The House Bill 760 buffer exemption has the potential to upset the balance of the nutrient management plans and jeopardize the state’s ability to meet nutrient reduction targets in the TMDLs.  Understanding the impact of the exemption will require the answers to a number of questions yet to be asked or answered in the legislative debate:

1.  How many properties in each nutrient sensitive  river basin or watershed potentially qualify for the exemption and what percentage of riparian area  could be affected?

2.  How much nutrient reduction has the Division of Water Resources credited to protection of the riparian buffers in the approved TMDLs?

3.   Would the exemption affect the state’s ability to meet nutrient reduction goals for these impaired water bodies?

4.  Would the state have to ask for more nutrient reductions from other sources (such as wastewater treatment plants and agricultural operations) to make up the difference?

The bill now goes to the Senate, which has more often been the starting point for legislation to  limit use of stormwater controls and riparian buffers to restore water quality in impaired waters.

2015 Environmental Bills — Part II

April 17, 2015. A continuation of the previous post. Not a complete list, but hopefully  most of the significant bills.

Amend Environmental Laws.  In the category of you just can’t have too many — there are actually three “Amend Environmental Laws” bills this session (so far).  As noted in the previous post, House Bill 157 (Amend Environmental Laws) has already been enacted into law and House Bill 593 (Amend Environmental Laws-2)  amends  laws allowing reimbursement for third-party damage claims as a result of leaking petroleum storage tanks. I missed House Bill 576 (Amend Environmental Laws-1); at the moment, the bill  amends  solid waste laws to allow  the white goods tax (currently used by local governments to manage discarded refrigerators and other large appliances) to also be used for programs to manage discarded electronic devices.    Amend Environmental Laws-1 may also pick up additional provisions as it moves through committee.

Contaminated Sites. House Bill 748 (Establish Contamination Source Removal/Disposal Bd) creates a new full-time  (salaried) board to take over DENR’s responsibility for cleanup of contamination at pre-1983 landfills and other contaminated sites. The “pre-1983 landfills” are unlined waste disposal  sites — in some cases,   simply  dumps –that stopped operating before 1983 to avoid having to comply with federal standards for waste disposal facilities.  Many have groundwater contamination.  A 2007  state law  gave DENR responsibility for assessing and remediating the sites. Many of the landfills had been operated by local governments, so the 2007 legislation freed local governments of the potential environmental liability in return for a state solid waste disposal tax to fund cleanup.  House Bill 748  expresses concern about the slow pace of remediation.  It will be interesting to get more of the back story on the bill.  The concern may be as much about unspent funds earmarked for the cleanup as it is about unremediated contamination;  a  pot of money always attracts attention.  Reality is that contaminated sites require a  lot of assessment work before actual cleanup can begin.  Most  state-funded remediation programs have had a slow start up before making significant outlays for remediation.

Also,  a note that  House Bill 639 (Risk-based Remediation Amends) proposes the same amendments to remediation laws that appear in the Senate regulatory reform bill. You can find a description of those provisions in an earlier post.

Fracking. House Bill 773 would strengthen  requirements for public disclosure of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing fluid.

Riparian Buffers. House Bill 760 is the  House regulatory reform bill.  The environmental provisions include significant changes to state laws allowing use of riparian buffers to protect water quality. It isn’t clear exactly how broad the bill’s restrictions on local government buffer ordinances are intended to be.  The bill amends a law written to allow  state delegation of riparian buffer programs under the nutrient sensitive waters (NSW) rules to local government, but  some of the bill language could be interpreted to prohibit local adoption of riparian buffer ordinances for any other purpose:

Units of local government may impose restrictions upon the use of riparian areas as defined in 15A NCAC 02B.0202 only within river basins where riparian buffers are required by the State.

Local riparian buffer ordinances  are sometimes adopted in response to other  state/federal water quality mandates  — such as Phase II stormwater permit conditions, water supply watershed regulations and endangered species management plans. So a local buffer ordinance may be needed to meet a water quality standard or  permit condition, but  not specifically required under state rules applicable to the entire river basin.  Assuming  the bill did not intend to prohibit use of riparian buffer ordinances to meet  other state and federal water quality mandates, it would be helpful to make that clear.

In  areas covered by the NSW buffer rules, the bill exempts residential lots platted before the buffer rules went into effect — even if the property could be developed for its intended purpose in compliance with the buffer requirement. (There are already exemptions and variances that cover previously platted lots that cannot be developed in full compliance with the buffer requirement.)  The buffer  rules are  part of  broader  water quality strategies designed to meet  federal Clean Water Act requirements. The Clean Water Act requires the state  to adopt a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) –in effect, a cap —  for any pollutant causing impaired water quality. A number of state  water bodies, including the Neuse River and Falls Lake,  have impaired water quality due to excess nutrients  — particularly nitrogen and phosphorus.   The nutrient management rules provide the regulatory  underpinning  for  TMDLs that set nitrogen and phosphorus reduction targets for  those  rivers and lakes.    The rules include  riparian buffer requirements as a critical  tool in reducing the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus that runs off the land into surface waters. One question may be whether such a broad exemption from the buffer rules will allow the state to meet the federally-approved TMDLs.

The bill would also require that riparian buffers on shorelines bordered by coastal wetlands or marshland be measured from the waterward edge of the wetland. The term “coastal wetland” includes both wetlands that regularly flood on the tides and wetlands that flood on wind tides and seasonal high tides.  Under the provision, the “buffer” would often consist of wetlands with a frequent, direct  connection to coastal waters;  in some cases,  the buffer would effectively be in the water. The change would seem to defeat the purpose of having a buffer to allow polluted runoff to infiltrate through the soil rather than go directly into the water.

Stormwater. On the face of it,  House Bill 141 (Stormwater/Flood control) authorizes cities to use existing stormwater management programs to address flood risk by purchasing properties at high risk of flooding, elevating existing structures, and retrofitting  structures to reduce flood risk. The bill seems  intended to allow  cities in more populated counties to expand the purpose of existing stormwater programs to include flood management as well as water quality protection.  (The bill would limit the new authority to cities in a county with a population of 910,000 or greater and at least one city with a population of 500,000 or greater.)  One possible pitfall  — the bill could be interpreted as limiting the authority of other North Carolina towns and cities  to take similar actions through flood hazard mitigation projects.  For example, the small coastal town of Belhaven  has done a major flood hazard mitigation project  to elevate structures in areas repeatedly flooded due to hurricanes.   House Bill 141 may need to be clarified to avoid undermining cities and towns’  existing authority  to reduce flood hazards.

Regulatory Reform and the Environment II: Targeting Environmental Rules

November 21, 2013.   In North Carolina,  “regulatory reform” has had a strong focus on environmental rules for  nearly twenty years. An earlier post sketched a very broad history of regulatory reform in N.C. starting with the creation of the Rules Review Commission in 1986. But from 1977 into the early 1980s,  the General Assembly  actually had an Administrative Rules Review Committee made up of legislators. The committee tracked the number of rules adopted by state agencies and reviewed rules for statutory authority. I was able to find committee reports from 1979-1983. (After that, the online  trail went cold.)  The reports list all of the rules the committee objected to for lack of statutory authority and how those objections were resolved. Environmental rules didn’t  receive  much   attention from the committee; some of the most common objections concerned rules assessing fees not authorized by law; state agencies creating criminal penalties by rule;  and professional licensing  boards overstepping their authority.

Environmental rules may have had a lower profile simply because of  the times. Congress  had just adopted the major federal environmental protection laws  in the early to mid-1970s —  the Clean Air Act  in 1970, the Clean Water Act  in 1972, the  Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974 and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (regulating hazardous waste)  in 1976.  In the 1970s and early 1980s,  state environmental agencies were  adopting rules  needed to run delegated permitting programs under those federal laws: water quality  and air quality standards; drinking water regulations;  hazardous waste permitting rules;  and regulations for petroleum underground storage tanks. Environmental rulemaking may not have been without controversy, but  there was also significant support for environmental programs and for the most part  the General Assembly seemed to let the  regulatory agencies  handle the controversies.

That started to change as water quality rules in particular began to have a greater impact on development activity. The first generation of  environmental permitting rules largely affected local government and  industry.  In the water quality program, local government wastewater treatment plants  and industries directly discharging wastewater to a stream  needed a Clean Water Act permit.    A developer only needed an environmental permit if the project involved filling wetlands or a segment of stream.  As  the state  began to grapple with the impact of development activity on  coastal resources and water quality in the late 1980s, environmental  permitting came to have a much greater effect on developers and private property owners.

By 1984, the state’s Coastal Resources Commission had adopted the first standards for development on the state’s ocean and inlet beaches. Those rules included oceanfront setbacks and restrictions on use of seawalls and jetties to protect oceanfront structures from erosion.  In the late 1980s, the state’s water quality program  began  work on  rules to address high bacteria levels in coastal shellfish waters.  Those  rules included the first state stormwater management requirements for new development projects.  Since then, a  series of water quality initiatives have used stormwater  standards, density limits and  riparian buffers to reduce the impact of polluted runoff from developed areas. A combination of density limits, buffers and stormwater controls became part of the basic water supply watershed program designed to prevent pollution of drinking water supplies. Those same tools became part of the comprehensive water quality strategies to reduce nutrient over-enrichment in the Tar-Pamlico River, Neuse River,  Falls Lake and Jordan Lake.  In the nutrient  strategies,  development standards represented one part of a much larger set of pollution reduction measures  that also  included  tighter controls on wastewater discharges and  best management practices to limit agricultural runoff.

Legislative  Disapproval of  Environmental Rules.  Legislative action on regulatory issues can  take other forms, but tracking disapproval bills gives a fair indication of where legislative attention has been  focused. For the first few years after the General Assembly amended the Administrative Procedure Act to allow for legislative disapproval of rules, virtually all of the disapproval bills concerned environmental rules.  The first disapproval bills introduced in the General Assembly (in 1998) targeted the Neuse River stream buffer rules and the Tar-Pamlico nutrient  rules (which also included buffer and stormwater requirements).   Based on a  search of the General Assembly bill database, legislators introduced bills to disapprove at least 41 state agency rules between 1998 and 2012.   Sixteen of the disapproval  bills  targeted environmental protection rules;  in some cases, a single bill  covered multiple rules. Another four bills proposed to disapprove Wildlife Resource Commission regulations. All of the other regulatory programs in state government (public health, worker safety, building code, occupational licensing boards, food safety, insurance regulation, etc.)  accounted for just another 16 disapproval bills during the same period. (See Legislative Disapproval Bills for a complete  list of the disapproval bills that I  found.)

Of the 16  bills to disapprove environmental  rules, ten concerned water quality rules.  The list  includes the Neuse River  buffer rules, the Tar-Pamlico River nutrient rules, coastal stormwater rules, rules classifying streams as trout waters or Outstanding Resource Waters,  water quality standards for municipal storm sewer systems,  and the Falls Lake and Jordan Lake nutrient management strategies. That list of water quality rules includes  the most debated (and negotiated) environmental rules adopted in the last 15 years, addressing some of the state’s most complicated water quality  problems. One common thread  is that all of those regulations  use development standards as one tool to address a water quality problem. The other common (and related) factor is that all encountered opposition from realtors,  developers, and owners of waterfront property.

Amending the APA to make environmental rulemaking more difficult. There has also been an effort to make environmental rulemaking more difficult by putting limits or requirements on environmental rules that don’t apply to other kinds of regulations. In 2005, the General Assembly  amended G.S. 150B-21.4 ( fiscal notes on rules) to require a special fiscal analysis of environmental rules — and only environmental rules — affecting state highway projects. The change responded in part to expansion of   stormwater  requirements,  which affected state highway projects as well as conventional building projects.

In 2009, several House and Senate bills proposed to put a moratorium on  rulemaking by the state’s Environmental Management Commission (the citizen commission  that adopts air quality and water quality rules).  House Bill 1335 actually passed the House and received a favorable report from a Senate committee before being pulled off the Senate floor without a vote.  But the 2011 Regulatory Reform Act, Session Law 2011-398, picked up the effort to restrain environmental rulemaking  and put new  limits on environmental rules that do not apply to other state rules.   G.S. 150B-19.3 prevents a state environmental agency from adopting a rule that is more stringent than a corresponding  federal environmental rule except in very limited circumstances.  As a practical matter,  the new law  will  be much more difficult to apply than legislators may have expected. Many federal environmental rules  provide  a framework for regulation rather than comprehensive standards and permitting procedures, making the “more stringent than” comparison difficult to impossible — although it should provide fertile ground for argument.  More about the policy implications of handcuffing state environmental regulations to federal rules in  a future  post.

The focus on environmental regulations continued in the  2013 Regulatory Reform Act, Session Law 2013-413.  The  most recent  legislation requires review of existing rules every ten years causes rules to automatically expire if the review does not occur. Although the review requirement  applies  to all state regulatory programs, the legislation specifically directs the  Rules Review Commission to schedule existing state water quality and wetland rules for the first round of review in 2014. The legislation also puts a one-year moratorium  on adoption of local government ordinances that address environmental issues  covered  by state and federal environmental rules. During that year,  the legislature’s Environmental Review Commission will study local government authority to adopt environmental ordinances. Like the 2011 limitation on state environmental rules, the moratorium on local ordinances almost certainly has some unintended consequences. More about that in a future  post as well.

Why has regulatory reform come to focus so heavily on water quality rules?   In one way, water quality rules seem  to be an odd focus for so much regulatory reform activity since federal requirements drive so many of the rules.  But while  federal law requires the state to  reduce  pollution causing impaired water quality  (like the nutrient problems in the Tar Pamlico River, Neuse River, Falls Lake and Jordan Lake), federal rules do not dictate the remedy.  The legislative disapproval bills have targeted the remedy —  a comprehensive strategy that reduces direct discharges of the pollutant (from wastewater treatment plants and industrial dischargers) and indirect runoff from agriculture and developed areas.

In these instances, things happening under the banner of “regulatory reform” are not so much about eliminating unnecessary and burdensome regulations. It is really about how the state will  solve complicated environmental problems and whether  the burden of pollution reduction will be shared by all of the sources contributing to the problem.  Since  2013  legislation also delayed further implementation of the Jordan Lake rules to  convene a  legislative study committee on Jordan Lake water quality (see Session Law 2013-395), the current General Assembly will have  a chance to  struggle with  those questions.