Tag Archives: Wastewater Systems

Making Polluters Pay

March 14, 2018. To follow on the last blogpost, some background on a  polluter’s legal responsibility to pay for environmental damage and limits on the state’s ability to use penalties to fund environmental protection programs.

Scope:  The issue has come up in response to GenX , but this blogpost should not be taken as legal advice with respect to pending or future  GenX litigation.  The blogpost also focuses on what the state can require a polluter to pay under its authority to enforce federal or state environmental laws.  A person harmed by pollution  (such as groundwater contamination) can also sue and ask a court to order compensation for individual injury or property damage. Different legal principles govern those personal injury/property damage cases.

The Prompt. In January, the North Carolina House of Representatives passed House Bill 189  to legislatively address  GenX and other emerging contaminants. In addition to creating a number of studies, the bill proposed to appropriate $2.4 million to the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) for wastewater permitting, water quality monitoring, and analysis of emerging contaminants.  Senate President pro Tem Phil Berger had a very negative reaction to the proposed  appropriations:

“[H 189] leaves North Carolina taxpayers holding the bag for expenditures that should be paid for by the company responsible for the pollution, fails to give [the Department of Environmental Quality] authority to do anything they can’t already do and authorizes the purchase of expensive equipment that the state can already access for free.”

The Senate refused to consider the House bill in January, but adopted its own version of H 189 when the legislature reconvened briefly in February. The Senate version included new appropriations, but funds directed to DEQ could only be used for purposes identified in the bill (such as a historical study of the state’s wastewater permitting program). The Senate bill did not allow DEQ to use any of the appropriated  funds for wastewater permitting, compliance inspections, water quality monitoring, or purchase of analytical equipment, suggesting that Senator Berger has held to the  position that the polluter should cover most of the cost of GenX response.  Note: The House and Senate versions of H189 have not been reconciled so no GenX legislation has passed and it is unlikely the legislature will return to the issue again before the next regularly scheduled legislative session in May.

Can the state require a violator  to contribute to the cost of environmental permitting, water quality monitoring, inspections of permitted facilities, or other regular program activities?

No.  The N.C. Constitution (Article 9, Sec. 7) requires that the proceeds of   “all penalties and forfeitures and of all fines collected in the several counties for any breach of the penal laws of the State” must be used exclusively to  support the public school system. In the 1990s, the N.C. Supreme Court ruled that all state civil penalties –including those for environmental violations —  must go to the “school fund”.  In 2005, the court ruled that environmental agencies cannot enter into a settlement agreement that allows a violator to put funds toward a third-party project to conserve natural resources or improve the environment in place of a penalty.  In the court’s eyes, the payment continues to be a “penalty” assessed in response to a specific violation of environmental rules and the money must go the school fund. (The 2005 case on funding of an “environmental enhancement project” as a substitute for a civil penalty is N.C. School Boards Association v. Moore.)

Although the court has not ruled on this specific question,  the same principle seems to apply to requiring a violator to provide funds to support state environmental program activities in place of or in addition to a civil penalty.  Once a payment becomes associated with a specific violation,  the N.C. Supreme Court is likely to view it as  a “penalty” for purposes of the N.C. Constitution.  In that case, the money  would have to go to the public schools rather than to environmental protection programs.

Permit fees can be used to support basic permitting, enforcement, and monitoring activities and many state environmental permitting programs have graduated permit fee schedules based on the type and size of the permitted facility. Making compliance history another factor in setting permit application/renewal fees probably would not conflict with N.C. Constitution — although it also may not generate significant additional revenue for environmental programs.

Can the state require the company responsible for pollution to pay anything other than a civil penalty? 

Yes, but generally only the cost of  response to the specific pollution incident and the environmental harm that it caused:

  1. Natural resource damages. Several state and federal laws allow the state to recover for injury to the state’s natural resources. The compensation goes to the state as trustee for natural resources — such as fish and wildlife  — held by the state for the use of all of its citizens.  A  patchwork of laws allow recovery of natural resource damage; some  apply only to particular kinds of environmental harm (fish kills, for example) or specific types of pollution events (such as an oil spill). The Clean Water Act does not include a  specific provision for natural resource damage caused by a wastewater discharge that does not involve oil or a “hazardous substance”;  most chemicals found in a wastewater discharge, including GenX,  are not EPA-listed hazardous substances.  The federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) allows state natural resource damage claims for harm specifically caused by a  spill of oil or an EPA-listed “hazardous substance”. N.C.  law has a somewhat broader provision that allows  DEQ  to require compensation for natural resource damage caused by any release of pollutants that results in a  fish kill or injury to wildlife.  In  those cases, the  state recovers only  the value of the natural resource lost — not program costs. Under the state law allowing recovery of damages for injury to fish and wildlife,  the amount of damages is based on a Wildlife Resources Commission estimate of the value of the lost fish or wildlife. [N.C. General Statute 143-214.3(7).]
  2. Cost of State response to a spill of oil or an EPA-listed hazardous substance.   N.C. General Statute 143-215.88 allows the state to recover the cost of state response to a spill. An example of state costs would be initial emergency response, such as putting booms in the water to control an oil spill. These are usually costs the state incurs early in spill response when the source of the spill may not be known. Later, the polluter would be expected to carry out the response.
  3. Investigative costs.  Under several state laws, DEQ can recover the costs of investigating a pollution incident. These laws only apply to costs associated with the specific event and not the costs of maintaining DEQ’s ongoing inspection/compliance/pollution monitoring programs.
  4. Measures to eliminate a  threat to public health and safety;  clean-up groundwater and soil contamination; or restore other kinds of environmental damage (such as wetlands disturbance) caused by a violation. Most environmental laws, including the Clean Water Act,  make restoration of environmental harm the responsibility of the violator. Both EPA and the state water quality programs have the authority to seek a court order to stop an unlawful discharge and require the violator to take steps to prevent future unlawful discharges. Under state law, DEQ routinely requires violators to cleanup  groundwater and soil contamination caused by a pollution incident. These expenditures are different from the kind of environmental enhancement or conservation projects struck down in N.C. School Boards Association v. Moore because they are limited to addressing the direct impact of a  specific violation.

What does this mean for funding a better state response to GenX and other emerging contaminants?

The N.C. Constitution does not allow DEQ to use the proceeds of any penalty for violation of environmental laws and rules — or anything that looks like a substitute for a penalty — to support environmental protection programs.  Past N.C. Supreme Court decisions suggest the court would view assessment of environmental program costs against a violator as another form of  penalty that must also go to the public schools. Given the constitutional provision, funds to strengthen the state’s response to emerging contaminants like GenX will largely have to come from state appropriations, permit fees and EPA grants.

Regulatory Reform 2014

September 23, 2014.  Late last week, Governor Pat McCrory signed Senate Bill 734 (the Regulatory Reform Act of 2014)  on the final day to either sign or veto the bill.  The bill, now Session Law 2014-120, includes both substantive  changes to environmental laws and  amendments to the state Administrative Procedures Act  affecting environmental rule-making and administrative appeals. Below, some of the more significant  environmental provisions; a future post will look at the administrative law changes.

Air Quality: Open burning and fireplaces. Section 24 of Senate Bill  734 eliminates the need for  a state air quality  permit for open burning of leaves, stumps, logs, tree branches, yard trimmings under certain circumstances.  It  also  prohibits a city from banning or limiting open burning of debris in the city’s  1-mile extra-territorial jurisdiction unless the city provides yard waste pickup or access to drop off centers in the area to the same extent provided to residents in the city.  These provisions are the latest in a series of  legislation actions over the last three years to reduce  regulation of open burning.

Section 24(h) prohibits local air pollution control programs and the state from regulating any combustion heater, fireplace, etc. in a private dwelling except as required by federal law. This appears to be a preemptive move; I am not aware of any state or local air quality initiative  to regulate residential fireplaces and heaters.

Coastal Development:  Coastal stormwater;  inlet hazard areas; and permit appeals.

Coastal Stormwater. Section  25 of   Senate Bill  734 extends a  grandfathering provision in the coastal stormwater rule,  15A NCAC 02H .1005,   to expansion of the grandfathered development onto adjoining  property.

Inlet hazard areas. Since ocean Inlets  often move in response to changing nearshore condition and cause  accelerated  shoreline change, state coastal development rules have long put additional density and size limitations on development in  designated inlet hazard areas. In 2012, the General Assembly directed the Coastal Resources Commission (CRC) to study the Cape Fear River Inlet Hazard Area.  Within the past year,  the CRC expanded the review  to all  inlet hazard areas. Although the CRC review has not been completed,   Senate Bill 734 preemptively  removes some coastal shorelines  from existing inlet hazard area designations:

(1)  An inlet hazard area associated with an inlet that has been closed for at least 15 years.  The provision applies only to Mad Inlet in Brunswick County. The inlet originally separated Sunset Beach from Bird Island to the south, but  closed naturally in 1998.  The CRC  had already amended coastal management  rules to remove the Mad Inlet hazard designation earlier this year.

(2)  Inlet hazard area designations that no longer include the current inlet location due to shoreline change.  This provision also applies to Mad Inlet, but it is not clear that the impact will be limited to Mad Inlet. Other inlets have moved due to natural shoreline change or  engineered inlet relocation projects and  a comparison of current inlet locations to the corresponding inlet hazard area will be necessary to fully understand the potential impact of the provision.

(3)  The inlet hazard area surrounding an  inlet providing access to a State Port via a channel maintained by the United States Army Corps of Engineers. This provision eliminates the inlet hazard area designated around the mouth of the Cape Fear River at the entrance to the  Wilmington port,  which now includes part of the Bald Head Island shoreline.  The Village of Bald Head Island had pushed for removal of the inlet hazard area designation.

Shorelines  removed from  an inlet hazard area will be regulated instead under the general standards for  development on ocean and estuarine shorelines.

Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA) Permit Appeals. Section 23 of  the bill  eliminates  the automatic stay of a CAMA permit that has been appealed by a third party.  Under the amended law, a petitioner appealing the issuance of a CAMA permit will have to request an administrative law judge to stay the permit pending appeal. The amendment makes the CAMA appeal statute consistent with stay provisions in the state Administrative Procedures Act, but third parties  seeking to appeal a CAMA permit will continue to face a hurdle that is not imposed on other petitioners  —  the need for a preliminary determination by the CRC that the appeal has merit.

Environmental Permitting. Most permitting programs apply the standards in effect at the time of the permit decision. If  a rule or ordinance  changes during review of a permit application, the project may have to be  modified to meet the new standard.  In those circumstances, Section 16 of Senate Bill 734  now allows the permit applicant to choose whether to construct under the new standard or the old standard. The provision applies to development permits issued under state environmental laws or under  local ordinances. The new law does not define “development permit”, but clearly excludes zoning ordinances from the “permit choice” option.  The provision does not  recognize any exception based on requirements of federal law.

Engineered Plans. Section 29  of Senate Bill 734 makes a number of changes in the way state and local government permit reviewers interact with professional engineers  responsible for  design of a  proposed project. The  legislature’s Environmental Review Commission recommended the provision. See the section on review of engineered plans in an earlier post for more detail and  background on the conflict between PEs and state/local permit reviewers.

Onsite Wastewater Systems: Innovative systems and permitting changes

Innovative wastewater systems. Section 28 of Senate Bill  734 changes the law on approval of innovative onsite wastewater systems using polystyrene aggregate as a substitute for the gravel traditionally used in trenches for dispersion lines. “Innovative” systems do not meet established standards for onsite wastewater systems and require approval by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). The new provision prevents DHHS and the Commission for Public Health from conditioning approval of a system using polystyrene synthetic aggregate on using a certain particle or bulk density.  The provision also requires DHHS and the Commission to rescind and reissue any  approval that may have included  those conditions. The legislative record does not  reflect  any  discussion of the density  conditions  — either the reason the conditions had been imposed or the effect that removal of the density  conditions may have on the performance of the wastewater systems.

Permitting. Section 40  expands the current permitting law to  cover ground absorption systems and removes the 5-year limit on a permit issued for installation of an on-site wastewater system. Under the provision, the permit holder would not require a new authorization even  if   standards for those systems have changed.

Parks. Section 31 of the bill allows the Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources to waive the 25 mile per hour speed limit in state parks for special events and  gives  the Commissioner of Agriculture the same authority in state forests. Media reports during the legislative session indicated the waiver had been requested by groups interested in using  a state park for private race events.  See a  report by the Raleigh News and Observer.

Water Quality: Isolated wetlands and stormwater. 

Isolated Wetlands. Section 54  raises the permitting threshold  for disturbance of isolated wetlands.  (See an earlier post for an explanation of the term “isolated wetlands”.) West of Interstate 95 (the unofficial dividing line between eastern and  piedmont/western  N.C. ), the permitting threshold has been raised  from 1/10 acre to 1/3 acre. East of I-95, the permitting threshold has been raised from 1/3 acre to 1 acre.    During the legislative debate, DENR indicated that raising the permitting threshold to 1 acre east of I-95 would effectively eliminate permitting requirements for isolated wetlands in the eastern part of the state. The bill also  reduces  the mitigation ratio for  all wetland impacts from 2:1 to  1:1 and directs DENR to study the definition of isolated wetlands and whether mountain bogs  should be regulated differently  than other isolated wetlands.

StormwaterSection 45 of Senate Bill 734  reverses  a 2013 regulatory reform. The Regulatory Reform Act of 2013 (Session Law 2013-413)  changed   stormwater  standards to  treat gravel areas as “pervious” and to exclude gravel from the calculation of “built-upon” area on a development site.  Since the amount of built-upon area determines the level of stormwater control required, developers had  pushed for exclusion of gravel areas from the calculation as a way to reduce stormwater management requirements. The 2013  provision  also directed the legislature’s Environmental Review Commission (ERC)  to study state stormwater programs “including how partially impervious surfaces are treated in the calculation of built-upon area under those programs”.

The ERC study group  encountered an unexpected complication — the lack of consensus on  the definition of  “gravel” had  created uncertainty  about implementation of the 2013 provision.   Instead of moving  on to the next reform requested by developers, the ERC  focused  on defining gravel and found that gravel  may not be pervious depending on the  nature of the aggregate material and the underlying substrate.   On recommendation of the ERC,  Section 45 of Senate Bill 734 effectively repeals the 2013 provision and directs the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR)  to contract with N.C. State University for a study of the pervious/impervious qualities of different types of aggregate materials.

Water Supply: Interbasin transfer.  Sec. 37 of Senate Bill  734  extends an expedited interbasin transfer  approval process (originally created for certain coastal counties) to allocation of water from  reservoirs managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  The intent may be to speed approval of an  interbasin transfer that would allow the City of Raleigh to take drinking water from Kerr Lake.

The McCrory Administration Remakes the N.C. Water Quality Program

June 25, 2013:   The N.C. water quality program has been innovative, award-winning and a frequent target of complaints — complaints about  excessive regulation and complaints about poor customer service. The complaints probably result in part from the reach of water quality rules. Over the last 15-20 years,  water quality programs have expanded to address pollution that gets to rivers and streams indirectly —  in runoff from parking lots, roads, lawns and agricultural activities, for example. The expanded scope of the water quality program responded to specific state water quality problems and a new (beginning in the 1990s)  federal focus on “nonpoint sources”.  (The term “nonpoint source” distinguishes these indirect sources of water pollution  from “point sources”, such as pipes and ditches,  that directly discharge waste to rivers, lakes and streams.) In the 1970s and 1980s, the Division of Water Quality  mostly regulated municipal wastewater systems and industrial discharges to rivers and streams.  A simple subdivision development only needed a water quality permit if the  construction involved filling a wetland or stream.  Since the 1990s,  water quality rules have had a much greater effect on real estate development, agriculture, and even the activities of individual property owners.  Any regulatory program that touches so many citizens and activities will generate controversy and complaints — some legitimate and  others not.

The McCrory administration has begun moving toward a major reorganization of the  water quality programs in DENR’s Division of Water Quality (DWQ). It is not yet clear what the state’s water quality program will look like in the end or even what the McCrory administration wants to achieve,  but Secretary John Skvarla has been publicly and harshly critical of the Division of Water Quality’s customer service. Word has  started to get out about  first  steps in reorganization of the division.  Both the division director and deputy director  have recently  taken new assignments;  former director Chuck Wakild  will retire in August.  Reports are that the first reorganization move will be to transfer all  stormwater programs from the Division of Water Quality  to the Division of Energy, Mineral and Land Resources effective  August 1 2013.  The transfer will have a big impact — the Division of Water Quality now manages a number of different state and federal stormwater programs.  State stormwater programs include coastal stormwater  rules designed to protect the quality of shellfish waters and stormwater requirements associated with the Neuse River, Tar-Pamlico River, Falls Lake and Jordan Lake nutrient rules. Federal  stormwater programs  (Clean Water Act programs delegated to the state by EPA)  issue permits for municipal and industrial stormwater discharges and construction stormwater permits for active construction sites.

The Division of Energy, Mineral and Land Resources (DEMLR)  has no stormwater experience  (other than a supporting role in  DWQ’s issuance of construction stormwater permits)  and no experience managing  federal  Clean Water Act programs. Taking on the stormwater programs will greatly increase the portfolio of a division already struggling to meet the enormous workload associated with shale gas rule making.  The move will also separate  federal  stormwater programs from other federal Clean Water Act permitting programs delegated to DWQ, requiring a bit more effort to coordinate water quality strategies that require control of both point and nonpoint pollution sources. It appears that the remaining DWQ  programs will become part of an expanded Division of Water Resources.

As the McCrory administration  moves forward with reorganization plans, a few things to watch for and think about:

Will the reorganized programs have enough  staff to  review permits, inspect  projects,  enforce  environmental  laws and meet federal grant requirements? Even in the construction stormwater program where there has long been a cooperative agreement between DWQ and DEMLR’s sediment program,  merging staff from the two divisions does not yield a single program with enough staff to meet its responsibilities under state and federal law.  Budget cuts in the sedimentation program over the last five years have take too great a toll.  The temptation to use reorganization as a way to cut positions will be great; it should only be done if the new organization can continue to meet all of its state and federal responsibilities. The same holds true for transfer of DWQ programs to the Division of Water Resources; some programs in the two divisions  appear to do similar things, but in reality have very different purposes.  Reorganization decisions will need to keep those different  program functions in mind.  Staffing levels also affect the federal grants that support much of the water quality program;  state-funded staff positions provide much of the required state match for federal grant dollars and at a certain point eliminating state-funded positions jeopardizes the federal funding.

Will reorganization decisions maintain all of the functions needed to meet Clean Water Act requirements?  Permits are only a small part of the state’s federal Clean Water Act responsibilities. The state must also have an ongoing water quality planning program  that regularly reviews water quality standards; identifies rivers, lakes and streams that are not meeting water quality standards;   develops  plans to improve water quality; and develops best management practices to reduce nonpoint source pollution.

The Division of Water Quality’s water quality planning program provides much of the information and analysis needed to meet the planning requirements of the Clean Water Act.  Planning programs may appear less critical than permitting, but the planning program provides the monitoring data needed to evaluate the effectiveness of water quality rules, pinpoint pollution problems,  and develop the right solution. A planning program that meets federal requirements is also necessary for the state to  have a delegated Clean Water Act permitting program.

Will the reorganization maintain the expertise needed to evaluate water quality trends, find solutions to impaired water quality, provide good advice to permit applicants, and advocate the state’s position on water quality policy to EPA? Many water quality programs (especially the delegated federal programs) are very complex. Water quality staff need to understand both the science and the law to help permit applicants through the process. There are also times that EPA and the state will disagree on an issue that affects a Clean Water Act permitting program;  DENR will need the knowledge and experience to make a case for the state’s position.

— Will changes that affect federal Clean Water Act programs require EPA approval? The answer  will depend on what kind of changes are made (to organization structure, staffing and program functions)  and how the existing program description approved by EPA was written. Generally, program changes have to be submitted to EPA for approval along with a certification by the Attorney General that the water quality program continues to meet requirements of the Clean Water Act.

N.C. has made tremendous gains in water quality over the last 20 years. Some of the more visible signs of progress have been better management of swine waste, innovative approaches to stormwater control, creation of GIS tools to better predict stream and wetland impacts, and development of river-basin water quality plans that provide a big picture of water quality conditions, threats and trends. One of the real challenges of environmental protection programs is that success often means avoiding a problem — success is the swine waste lagoon that doesn’t fail, the fish kill that doesn’t happen, drinking water supplies unaffected by algae. The challenge for the McCrory administration will be to improve what needs to be improved in the state’s water quality programs without undermining their effectiveness. Water supply will be key to the state’s economic future — and the quality of the water is as important as the quantity.

Note: A new version of House Bill 94 (Amend Environmental Laws) came up in the Senate Agriculture and Environment Committee this  morning. The bill included a new section that directs DENR to combine the Division of Water Quality with the Division of Water Resources.  The senator presenting the bill indicated that DENR had asked for the reorganization authority, but the details of the bill language do not match up with reported plans for moving the stormwater programs to the Division of Energy, Mineral and Land Resources.  The version of House Bill 94 approved by the committee shifts the stormwater programs to the Division of Water Resources with other water quality programs. Either the DENR plan has changed or the bill needs a little more work.

The Legislative Game of Jenga

Jenga: A game of skill played with a stack of wooden blocks. Each player removes a block from the stack and balances it on top, creating a taller and increasingly unstable  tower  as the game progresses. (Hat tip to the  Wikipedia  entry for a simple explanation.)  As you may have guessed, the goal  is to not be the player who causes the tower to collapse.

Since the  1990s, the state has adopted several very complex sets of  water quality rules in response to  excess nutrients  in the Neuse  River, the Tar-Pamlico River and  the Falls Lake and Jordan Lake reservoirs. Excess nutrients  in the water (such as nitrogen and phosphorus) can  cause algal blooms and — particularly in hot weather — lead to large fish kills. In a reservoir, algal blooms may also  affect drinking water quality and increase water treatment costs.

Section 5 of Senate Bill 612 (Regulatory Reform Act of 2013)   would pull one block out of the   carefully  balanced  tower of  nutrient management rules in  the Neuse River and Tar-Pamlico River basins by  effectively  eliminating  stream buffer requirements.   Stream  buffer rules  have been  part of the Neuse River nutrient management strategy from the beginning.  Every  set of state nutrient  rules since 1997  builds on the foundation of the Neuse strategy and all include stream buffers as a  critical block.  Before pulling a block out of the tower, it  is worth looking back at how the tower was built.

The history of the stream buffer rules begins with development of a nutrient management strategy for the Neuse river basin in the late 1990s.  In 1995,   the  N.C. General Assembly responded to a series of large fish kills in the Neuse River estuary and a toxic algae scare by directing the state’s  Environmental Management Commission (EMC) to adopt rules to reduce nitrogen loading in the Neuse by at least 30% (Session Law 1995-572).   To reach the reduction goal, the EMC  allocated the reduction (in pounds of nitrogen)  among  the  largest  nitrogen sources in the river basin. The allocation was done by source category (wastewater dischargers, agricultural operations and developed areas)  based on the  nitrogen contribution from each type of source.

The final Neuse rules required  large  wastewater  treatment plants  to  reduce  the amount of nitrogen being discharged to rivers and streams;  set up a nutrient trading system to allow  wastewater dischargers to generate and trade credits for additional nitrogen reductions; required farmers to develop best management practices to reduce nutrient runoff from row crop agriculture and  animal operations; and required  maintenance of  vegetated buffers along streams in the river basin.  Just as  tighter wastewater discharge standards and agricultural best management practices reduce nutrient  loading from those sources,  stream buffers  reduce nutrient loading from developed areas by allowing  trees and shrubs  to  absorb nitrogen  in runoff from developed areas. The  EMC then modified  an  earlier  nutrient management strategy  for the Tar-Pamlico River  to add stormwater and stream buffer  requirements  similar to those adopted for the Neuse. By August 1, 2000, stream buffer rules were in effect in both the Neuse and the Tar-Pamlico river basins.

Section 5 of Senate Bill 612 appears to be identical to language supported by the N.C. Homebuilders Association and the N.C. Association of Realtors in 2012.  The proposed exemption is very broad.  It  would exempt   all private property from the buffer rules as long as there was a plat  of the property on record with the Register of Deeds before August 1, 2000.  (The language does not limit the exemption to  residential lots or to lots shown on an approved subdivision plat; it appears that any type of  recorded map  could  qualify a property for the exemption.)  In 2012, concern about this same language led to  compromise legislation.  Session Law 2012-200   extended a stream buffer  exemption that already existed  in the coastal  area to all waterfront lots in the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico river basins.  The exemption (which applies to residential lots platted before August 1, 2000)  allows development activity in the stream buffer if  the lot is too small for construction of a single-family home (and  onsite wastewater system if needed) entirely outside the buffer.

The risk in pulling the buffer rules out of the nutrient management strategy entirely  is that the nitrogen and phosphorus reductions provided by the stream buffers would be lost. Since both rivers have been listed as having  impaired water quality because of excess nutrients,  the  federal  Clean Water Act requires the state to reduce nutrient loading to the rivers.  Loss of the nutrient reductions provided by stream buffers will simply shift more of the burden (and cost) of nutrient reduction to  other sources — local government wastewater treatment plants, industrial wastewater dischargers,  and agricultural operations.

Not to abuse the Jenga metaphor,  but the  General Assembly  has again been asked to  pull a block from  the center of the tower  blindfolded — that is, without being able to see the relationship of one block to the others.  The state’s nutrient management rules are not sacred and untouchable; they were not handed down on stone tablets.  But in developing nutrient management strategies for the Neuse and the Tar-Pamlico river basins,  state environmental programs  began  moving toward something like negotiated  rulemaking — trying to  find the right balance with all of the parties (public and private) at the table. Those other parties also need  a seat at the table before a decision is made to significantly change the rules.

Senate Bill 612 raises two questions. The first:  Can the state solve nutrient problems in the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico rivers without using stream buffers to reduce reduce runoff from developed areas? The second  has implications well beyond the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico rivers: How will the General Assembly  respond to political pressure to change  a rule  in a way that benefits  just one of the many businesses, industries, local governments, and nonprofit organizations who compromised to solve a complicated environmental problem?

The answer to the second question will affect  the state’s ability to   deal with other difficult environmental issues in the future. (Competition for water supply comes to mind.)

The N.C. General Assembly, Water System Operator

The N.C. General Assembly seems to be increasingly tempted to intervene in the operation of local — and particularly municipal — water and sewer systems. Is  this a good idea?

Last year,   Senate Bill 382  tried to  require the City of Durham to extend water service to a  development project outside the city limits.    Senate Bill 382  started  legislative life as  a tax bill, but in  the last few days of the 2012  legislative session  it became the  vehicle for  a House proposal to  legislatively approve a water line extension for a specific development project. (Durham had  refused the developer’s  request for water service in part because of   the high cost of extending a water line to the project.) Senate Bill 382 ultimately failed, but local conflicts over water service  continue to tempt legislators to intervene.

This year, three western legislators have introduced  a bill that would force the City of Asheville to turn its  water system over to the Metropolitan Sewerage District of Buncombe County (MSD).  You will not find any mention of the City of Asheville or the  Metropolitan Sewerage District  by name –the bill avoids naming the parties by using a generic description that happens to only apply to them — but  House Bill 488 is the latest in a series of skirmishes over control of  the Asheville water system.  The history behind the Asheville water system conflict is  long and complicated, but — as in Durham — some amount of the friction has to do with the relationship between water service and development.

One long-standing issue  has to do with  water rates  for Asheville water system customers who live outside the city limits.  Asheville is the only city in the state prohibited by law from charging water customers outside the city a higher rate — a common practice of other municipalities.  (Higher rates may be used to recover higher costs of providing the service or to offset some of the additional taxes paid  by in-town customers.) Just as friction over a development decision  led to the Durham controversy, the history of the Asheville water system  includes a  thread of  concern about the city’s  ability to use water system decisions to influence  development outside the city. Until last year, extension of water and sewer service gave cities a strong basis for forced  annexation and fear of annexation seems to have created some of the tension  between Asheville and surrounding areas.  Although the annexation process has changed,  cities like Durham and Asheville can still find themselves in conflict with developers and county officials over  development conditions tied to extension of city services or (as in the Durham case)  denial of  service  to a new development outside the city limits.  In short, decisions about extension of water and sewer service  touch two hot buttons —   money  and regulation of new development.

These conflicts have a  very direct connection to environmental protection. Water and sewer  systems are creatures of environmental and public health regulation;  environmental protection programs fund water and sewer infrastructure in many North Carolina communities.   Like many other cities,  Asheville and Durham have the challenge of  expanding water service to accommodate new development  while also maintaining or replacing the aging  infrastructure  that serves existing residents.   The land use regulations sometimes attached to extension of water and sewer service can  provide a number of environmental protection benefits, but maintaining the  fiscal health of a water system has its own environmental  value. Decisions about when and how to extend water or sewer service can have significant  financial  implications; a financially strained system will have much more difficulty providing the maintenance needed to meet public health standards and avoid environmental damage.

To run  a water or sewer system responsibly, local officials   sometimes  have to make controversial decisions about service, rates and financing.  It becomes even harder to make  a tough decision knowing the General Assembly may step in and reverse it.    Forcing the transfer of infrastructure from a city without providing for compensation — as in the case of Asheville — particularly sends the wrong message to cities  that need to invest in water or wastewater infrastructure.  Legislation affecting the  capital assets of a water or sewer system also carries the additional risk of  undermining planning and financing for system improvements.

These bills  raise another question — is it in the General Assembly’s power to force an extension of water and sewer service or to divest a city of its water system.? The answer isn’t clear to me. Local governments are  subdivisions of the state — the General Assembly can change municipal boundaries and expand or contract the authority of cities. It is less clear that the General Assembly can directly intervene in decision-making about a water and sewer system without circumscribing local government authority. In 2012, Senate Bill 382 attempted to compel an expansion of the Durham water system without actually changing the law governing the City of Durham’s authority to operate a water system. House Bill 488 directs the City of Asheville  to transfer ownership of its  water infrastructure also without  changing state laws  authorizing cities to own and operate water and sewer utilities. (The sections of House Bill 488 that require the transfer of property from Asheville to the MSD  do not amend existing statutes governing local government water and sewer systems.   The sections of the bill that enact new  statutes to cover the operation of metropolitan water and sewer districts allow, but do not require,  transfers of property between cities or counties and a district.)

Article II, Section 24 of the  N.C. Constitution prohibits the General Assembly from adopting a piece of legislation relating to “health, sanitation or the abatement of nuisances”  that applies  to  only one local jurisdiction. Since water systems fall into  all three categories, the Constitution seems on its face  to prohibit  the  General Assembly from reaching down to make decisions related to an individual water system. Legislators frequently try to draft around the Constitutional restrictions on local acts by using language that appears to be generic, but in fact only describes a single city or county. At some point, the fiction simply becomes too strained.

For  constitutional law junkies: Since state law treats cities as “persons” for many purposes, can city property be taken (even by the State) without compensation? Would the U.S. Supreme Court consider a city to be a “person” under the Fifth Amendment’s just compensation clause? A research project for another day.

The Governor’s Budget: A Low Priority for Water and Wastewater Infrastructure?

The  infrastructure  needed to provide wastewater disposal and safe drinking water (treatment plants, pipelines, pump stations and intakes) may not be glamorous, but it is critical to public health, environmental protection and economic development. Since 2008-2009,  state grants  to help local governments  pay for  environmental infrastructure  have fallen  off a cliff.  In Governor McCrory’s proposed budget, infrastructure grant funding  hits  bottom.

In 2008, the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center and the Clean Water Management Trust Fund (CWMTF)  issued a total of approximately $160 million in grants to rural and economically distressed communities for water and sewer infrastructure.  In the 2011-2012 fiscal year  (July 1-2011-June 30 2012),  state budget cuts had reduced the amount granted by the two programs to just over $20 million. (Note: Most CWMTF grant awards go to stream/wetland restoration, stormwater management and riparian buffer protection.  The state law creating the CWMTF only allows  grants for wastewater infrastructure needed to address a specific water quality problem.)

It isn’t clear  that  the two programs will have any  water and wastewater infrastructure grants to give in FY 2013-2014.   Governor Pat McCrory’s proposed budget  makes significant cuts to both agencies — reducing total appropriations for the CWMTF to $6.75 million in the first year of the biennium ($0 in the second year) and cutting the total Rural Center Budget from $16.6 million to $6 million. Given the other demands on those agencies, the budgeted amounts  do not allow for much — if any — future infrastructure funding.

The state has not issued bonds for water and sewer infrastructure since an $800 million bond issue in 1999; all of those funds had been committed by 2004.  Once the bond funds had been exhausted, direct appropriations to CWMTF and the Rural Center became the  only  source of state grant funding for water and  wastewater system improvements. The other major sources of  infrastructure funding  have been the Drinking Water and  Clean Water  revolving loan funds  managed by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).  A much  smaller  amount of federal funding for infrastructure  comes through community development programs in the  Department of Commerce.

Grants provided through the Rural Center and CWMTF have filled needs that cannot  be met by the  DENR  revolving loan funds alone. Congress created the  state revolving funds (SRFs)  to help local governments meet the cost of complying  with Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act requirements — not to meet  all local infrastructure  needs. Both  the Drinking Water SRF and the Clean Water SRF (which funds wastewater projects)  are largely  capitalized by federal grants to the state. ( Each  federal  grant  requires a 20% state match.)    There are at least two major gaps in SRF funding:

1.  Under federal rules, the  SRFs  must be used to meet drinking water and water quality standards; generally,  SRF loans cannot be used for projects (such as water and sewer line extensions)   to serve new development projects.

2. All of the SRF awards are made in the form of loans and some low income communities  have a very limited ability to  take on more debt. In the last few years (starting with federal stimulus funding for water and sewer projects in 2009), many  SRF loans have included some amount of principal forgiveness — but the local government still has to qualify for the loan.

Grant funds provided through the CWMTF and the Rural Center  fill those gaps. Rural and economically distressed communities  can  reduce their  debt burden by using a grant as  part of a larger  project  funding package that also includes loan funds.  There has been  debate in recent years about how much state infrastructure funding should be made available as grants versus loans,  but  the mix  needs to include some amount of grant funding  for economically distressed communities and emergency projects.

The CWMTF and Rural Center grant programs also make funds available for  infrastructure projects that  are not eligible for SRF loans.  The  Rural Center’s Economic Infrastructure Program funds infrastructure needed to serve  new economic development projects —  such as extension of  water and sewer lines  to an industrial park. Many of those projects would not qualify for an SRF loan. The Rural Center has also provided grants for extension of water lines to  homes with contaminated drinking water wells. Making those projects happen can be very difficult since a water line extension to serve a small number of homes far from an existing line can be  prohibitively  expensive to the local government. In several cases,  grant funds from the Rural Center helped make those projects possible.

The state’s population continues to grow.  Existing water and sewer infrastructure continues to age.  Water and sewer service continues to be a necessary condition for much economic development.   A 2004  report issued as part of the Rural Center’s  Water 2030 Initiative  estimated that North Carolina communities would need  $15 billion  to cover  water and wastewater infrastructure needs between 2005 and  2030.  The most recent  needs survey of North Carolina  water and wastewater systems (used by Congress to predict demand on the state revolving loan funds) reached a similar estimate  —  $16 billion over the next 20 years.  Although  70% of the water and sewer projects in the state are funded by private borrowing,  a significant number of communities  rely  on  a combination of low interest loans and state grants to upgrade aging infrastructure and plan for growth.

The Governor’s  budget provides state match money needed for the next  round of federal  SRF awards, but eliminating funding for  state water and sewer infrastructure grants should not be an unintended casualty  of the budget process.