Weakening Environmental Standards for Landfills

June 8, 2013:  On Thursday, the Senate’s Agriculture and Environment Committee approved a radically rewritten version of  Senate Bill 328 (Solid Waste Management Reform of 2013) in very short order.  The bill undoes  a number of environmental standards adopted in a  2007 rewrite of the state’s landfill permitting laws, weakening protections for  parks, wildlife refuges, wetlands,  endangered species habitat and sensitive or high quality surface waters. It also changes some longstanding environmental standards for landfill operation that predate the 2007 law.

A little history first. In 2006, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) received  several  permit applications from private waste management companies proposing construction  of  new and  very large landfills in the coastal area of the state.  Reacting to the controversy over those landfill proposals, the N.C. General Assembly put a one-year moratorium on landfill permitting to allow time for a study of permitting standards.   After the study, the General Assembly adopted a major piece of legislation,  Session Law 2007-550, that set new landfill permitting standards, including setbacks from wildlife refuges, parks and gamelands;  increased   bonding requirements for landfill operators; and  stronger standards for leak prevention and detection. The bill also, for the first time, created a state solid waste disposal tax and dedicated the tax revenues to recycling programs and cleanup of contamination from old,  unlined landfills.

Waste management companies fought the solid waste disposal tax and opposed some of the new environmental standards.  A  Raleigh-based company, Waste Industries, U.S.A.,  sued to challenge the final law. (Some of the new landfill standards affected plans for a large Waste Industries landfill  near Dismal Swamp State Park and Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Camden County.)   In 2012, the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled against Waste Industries and upheld the law. Senate Bill 328  appears to be a new  effort by landfill developers and operators to legislatively undo many of the standards adopted in 2007 and change some  requirements that were in place long before  2007.

Senate Bill 328 changes specific to landfill design, construction and operation are described in more detail below.  Among the most important  would be repeal of several standards for denial of a landfill permit. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) would no longer be able to deny a  permit because construction or operation of the landfill would cause significant damage to parks, wilderness areas, habitat for threatened and endangered species, critical fisheries habitat or other natural and historic areas of regional and statewide significance. (See Sec. 2). Instead,  a permit could be denied only if  the landfill would  be located in critical habitat for threatened or endangered species; in a historically or archaeologically sensitive site of more than local significance; or within 1500 feet of a national or state park, forest, wilderness area, recreation area, a segment of the Natural and Scenic Rivers system, a  National Wildlife Refuge, a wildlife preserve or management area, critical fisheries habitat, or other high quality waters. (See Section 3 of the bill).

The changes mean that DENR could  only consider location of the landfill itself and not impacts from construction and operation in making a permit decision. Removing those grounds for permit denial will also make it difficult for DENR to put conditions on construction and operation of the landfill to protect those natural resources.  As a result, the bill would leave some very sensitive   resources  vulnerable to damage from landfill construction and operation. With respect to habitat for threatened and endangered species,   failure to consider damage from construction and operation may make the bill inconsistent with requirements of the federal Endangered Species Act.

The bill also:

—  Repeals the requirement for  an environmental impact statement (EIS) for  new landfills.  (Section 3).   Repeal of this language would remove the EIS requirement in the solid waste statutes, but does not exempt local government landfill projects from the  State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA).  SEPA requires an EIS for any state-permitted project that  involves expenditure of public funds or use of public lands and may have a significant impact on the environment.  The odd result could be  an EIS for public projects, but not for commercial landfill projects that may be as large or larger.

— Eliminates the requirement for any buffer between a waste disposal unit (the actual landfill cell where solid waste is deposited) and wetlands.   The change could allow  waste disposal immediately adjacent to wetlands that are directly connected to surface waters.  (Section 3)

— Reduces the buffer required between landfills and national wildlife refuges, state parks, and gamelands managed by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission to 1500 feet. (Section 3).  The 2007 law required a buffer of five  miles from a National Wildlife Refuge, two miles from a state park, and one mile from state gamelands. Those buffer requirements reflected the recommendations of parks and wildlife officials,  but waste management companies saw the 2007 buffers as a legislative  attempt to kill specific landfill projects.

— Allows construction of a landfill in wetlands that fall outside federal Clean Water Act jurisdiction. (Section 3). Many court cases and law review articles have tried to clarify the line between federal and state wetland jurisdiction, but one possible result of the bill would be to allow  landfill construction in “isolated” wetlands  that  may not have a direct connection to surface waters,  but have a connection to groundwater.

— Eliminates the requirement for regular cleaning of leachate collection lines.  (Section 3).

— Raises the maximum landfill height from 250 feet to 300 feet, but creates additional closure and vegetative cover requirements for landfills of greater than 100 feet in height.  (Section 3).

—  Limits the landfill operator’s responsibility to assess  a release of landfill leachate  and take corrective action unless  leachate reaches the compliance boundary. (Section  5).   Leachate is water that  percolates through the  landfill, picking up contaminants from the waste material. Permits for waste disposal sites often allow  groundwater standards to be exceeded immediately  under a waste  disposal site as long as the groundwater meets all standards at a designated compliance boundary. For  landfills  permitted since 1983, the compliance boundary is generally 250 feet from the waste disposal site or 50 feet inside the property line (whichever is closer).  Corrective action requirements for landfills have been in place for many years and  always required the landfill operator to take steps to stop an ongoing leak or spill. The Senate Bill 328 language is so broad that it could be interpreted to excuse the operator from doing even that unless leachate actually reaches the compliance boundary. Excusing a landfill operator from corrective action to stop an ongoing  release of leachate  under any circumstances would likely be inconsistent with federal solid waste rules.

— Eliminates a requirement that vehicles carrying solid waste must be leak proof and instead requires only that  vehicles be “designed to be leak resistant”, changing a standard for transport of solid waste that has been in place for 25 years. (Section 7).

— Removes the minimum financial assurance requirement. Senate Bill 328 would still require financial assurance to cover closure of the landfill as well as assessment and cleanup of any spills or leak, but  removes the statutory floor of $2 million and gives DENR complete discretion to set the amount of the financial assurance.

One  part of the bill has impacts beyond landfill construction and operation. Section 6   would prevent  the Environmental Management Commission from reviewing state groundwater standards more often than every five years. Groundwater standards guide permitting of many  activities  that present a risk of groundwater contamination and provide the benchmark for  groundwater remediation.  Slowing the revision of groundwater standards may have unintended consequences for industry generally, since new research on health impacts sometimes provides support for a less stringent groundwater standard.

The bill makes other changes, but I will stop there. Senate Bill 328 will be on the Senate calendar for June 11.