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.