The Senate Budget and the Environment: Policy

May 21, 2013

Like all budget bills, the  Senate budget bill released on Sunday evening  makes  a number of changes to environmental laws — some related to the budget and some not. Here is a quick outline:

Conservation and Parks Programs

Section 14.3 creates a new Water and Land Conservation Fund by combining the Clean Water Management Trust Fund with the Natural Heritage Trust Fund.  The statutes creating the Natural Heritage Trust Fund  would be repealed. Staff of the Clean Water Management Trust Fund would move to DENR and the combined staff of CWMTF and the Natural Heritage Program  would work under an executive director appointed by the DENR Secretary. The existing Clean Water Management Trust Fund Board and Natural Heritage Trust Fund Board would be replaced by a new Water and Land Conservation Authority made up of nine members; appointments would be divided equally among the Governor, Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate. The bill gives the Authority power to both develop criteria for grant awards and to make grant decisions.

Section 14.4(a)  reduces the  size of  the Parks and Recreation Authority from fifteen members  to nine.   Appointments  would be divided equally among the Governor, the Speaker of the House and  the President Pro Tempore of the Senate. Section 14.4(b) ends the terms of all current members of the Authority on June 30, 2013 to allow  for appointment of new members.

Bernard Allen Memorial Emergency Drinking Water Fund

Section 14.14  makes a number of changes to the law creating the Bernard Allen Memorial Emergency Drinking Water Fund. The fund was created in  2006 to  pay  for well testing in areas with suspected groundwater contamination and to provide a clean water supply to low income residents with contaminated drinking water wells. The changes, recommended by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, do three things: 1. Allow  more frequent retesting of wells in areas where groundwater contamination may be migrating; 2.  Increase (from $10,000 to $50,000) the amount that may be spent per home  to provide  a new, clean  water supply. (The  increase is largely intended  to allow DENR to contribute more funding toward water line extensions that can be too expensive for a local water systems to do alone.);  and 3. Give priority to groundwater contamination that is manmade rather than naturally occurring.

Noncommercial Petroleum Underground Storage Tanks

Section 14.15 amends the law governing the state’s  Noncommercial Underground Storage Tank Trust Fund. The Noncommercial Fund pays the full cost of assessing and cleaning up groundwater and soil contamination from noncommercial petroleum underground storage tanks (such as home heating oil or farm supply tanks). The owner of the leaking  tank pays only to have the leaking tank removed. The changes  proposed by the Senate would for the first time require both a $1,000 deductible and a 10% co-pay by the owner of the tank.  The Senate budget  also appropriates $3.5 million to the Noncommercial Fund.

Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Funding

Section 14.21  creates a new Division of Water Infrastructure in DENR and a Water Infrastructure Authority. The new division would  combine the infrastructure loan  programs under the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (now in the Division of Water Resources) and the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (now in the Division of Water Quality)  and  add  a grant program. The Appropriations/Base Budget Committee Report  describes the grants  as  “planning and supplemental” grants to local governments for drinking water and wastewater projects. The budget allocates $3.2 million in 2013-14 and $4.7 million in 2014-15 for the grant program. Note: Creation of the DENR water infrastructure grant program  seems to be related to Section 15.27 which eliminates all new state funding for the  N.C. Rural Economic Development Center.  In recent years, the Rural Center has received the only state grant funds for water and sewer infrastructure. The Rural Center funds have been  awarded through two different water and sewer grant programs –one for planning and supplemental grants and  another for  economic development projects. The Senate budget appears to divide the existing Rural Center grant programs between the proposed DENR Division of Water Infrastructure (which would award planning and supplemental grants) and  the new Division of Rural Economic Development in the Department of Commerce (which would make water and sewer grants for economic development projects). In an odd twist, Section 15.23 leaves it to the two cabinet secretaries (DENR and Commerce) to work out an agreement  to divide staff  in the Community Development Block Grant program (now in Commerce) between DENR’s Water Infrastructure Division and the Commerce Rural Economic Development Division.

Appointments to Environmental Commissions

Section 14.23  has the Senate changes to the makeup of the Environmental Management Commission (EMC). The language appears to be identical to language in  the failed House/Senate compromise on Senate Bill 10. Like earlier Senate versions of the EMC reorganization, the  budget bill  repeals  conflict of interest language now in the EMC appointments law. See an earlier  post about  the controversy over removal of that language.

Section 14.24  has Senate changes to the makeup of the Coastal Resources Commission. Again, the language appears to be very similar to the  last version of  Senate Bill 10. One thing that appears to be missing is the language requiring members of the CRC to either live or own property in the coastal area. That could be an oversight; sometimes language gets lost when legislative staff tries to cut and paste a provision from one bill to another.

Section 14.25 changes membership of the Coastal Resources Advisory Council. This language seems to match language in Senate Bill 10.

Oregon Inlet Jetties

Section 15.24 creates a 13-member  Oregon Inlet  Land Acquisition Task Force to look at the possibility of acquiring the land on either side of Oregon Inlet from the federal government “to preserve Oregon Inlet and to develop long-term management solutions for preserving and enhancing the navigability of Oregon Inlet.”  In short, the purpose of the Task Force  will be to  revisit the now ancient conflict over construction of jetties at Oregon Inlet. The federal government owns the land on either side of the inlet. Those lands are managed by the National Park Service (Cape Hatteras National Seashore) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ( Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge) .  Federal management plans for the  wildlife refuge and national  seashore do not allow construction of  permanent erosion control structures on the shoreline, making federal approval of the jetty project unlikely.  This is the latest chapter in a very old story that is  partly about  environmental policy and the effect of jetties on ocean shorelines and partly about money.  If you are interested in  more  information on the possible costs, benefits and environmental impacts of the Oregon Inlet jetty project,  the most recent analysis may have been a 2002 General Accounting Office report .