House environmental budget appropriates money for flood control … then rolls back flood control protections

High water during Hurricane Florence

Update: The House amended the budget Wednesday night to strip the isolated wetlands language from the bill.

The House released its $25.7 billion budget proposal this week, and unlike previous legislative sessions when lawmakers held a veto-proof majority, there are no dire cuts to the Department of Environmental Quality. (Considering past slashes to DEQ’s budget, there’s little left to trim.)

That said, the DEQ portion of the budget is not completely benign. It contains some regulatory rollbacks that work at cross purposes to the appropriations.

The Senate has already passed its version, and the two chambers will have to compromise on a final version before it goes to the governor.

The budget funds five new full-time positions — $487,000 per year — for an emerging compounds unit to address PFAS and 1,4-Dioxane contamination. The Senate budget allocated money for 10.

Regardless of income, residents whose private drinking water wells are contaminated with PFAS can apply for a grant from the Bernard Allen Memorial Drinking Water Fund. The fund typically is reserved for low-wealth households, but in cases of PFAS contamination, the income limitation is lifted.

Left hand, meet right hand: Lawmakers appropriated a lot of money for resilience and flood control while relaxing and eliminating rules that would help with resilience and flood control.

DEQ would receive $1.45 million in one-time money for coastal resiliency grants and temporary coastal resilience planners, plus $98,000 for a new permanent resilience coordinator, and $5 million in non-recurring funds for a pilot project in the flood-prone Stoney Creek area of Goldsboro. The Department of Natural, Economic and Cultural Resources would get $20 million in non-recurring funds for floodplain grants.

This funding is necessary to help the state adapt to the vicissitudes of climate change, but buried halfway through one budget document is a provision that would prohibit local governments from enacting stormwater ordinances that are stronger than the state or federal rules. Ditto for riparian buffers, which keep development from sensitive areas near waterways, usually 50 to 100 feet away, depending on the river basin. Both stormwater ordinances and riparian buffers help with flood control.

Nor would the state require a permit for “activities” (read: filling) in isolated wetlands currently not protected by the federal Waters of the United States rule.

Wetlands are key to filtering pollutants and controlling flooding, which is why they have been legally protected.

Since there are no maps that identify these wetlands — known as “non-jurisdictional” — it’s impossible to predict what projects could affect these wetlands, according to a DEQ presentation last month to the Environmental Management Commission. However, the Division of Water Resources estimated 99 isolated wetlands would be unprotected. Data gathered by a non-governmental organization indicated that more than 900,000 acres of wetlands in just two river basins could be non-jurisdictional, according to the presentation.

WOTUS, as it’s known for short, is under revision by the EPA and the US Army Corps of Engineers, so certain isolated wetlands could be protected in the future, but that would be too late for the ones filled in.

Another tool for flood control: dams. Yet the budget would strip DEQ’s ability to classify a dam as high hazard if a private engineer determines it doesn’t merit that designation. DEQ would have to defer to the engineer’s opinion for dams less than 20 feet tall and that can hold up to 653,400 cubic feet — or 4.8 million gallons — of water.

According to the state’s dam inventory, 789 dams fit that height and capacity criteria. Of those, 152 are currently classified as high hazard.

Department of Health and Human Services

Not in the DEQ budget, but potentially related, DHHS would receive $150,000 in one-time money for an Huntersville ocular melanoma study. Twenty-two people have been diagnosed with this rare cancer since 2009, most of them young women. The majority of people diagnosed with ocular melanoma are men over 50.

This study would follow up on a 2017  investigation, in which DHHS gave a $100,000 grant to the Town of Huntersville, to try to determine if there is an environmental link to the disease in the area.

Another $150 million in the DHHS budget would go toward removing lead and asbestos in schools, child care facilities and residential housing. Lead, often present in older plumbing and paint, is a neurotoxin; children who are exposed to lead and have high levels of it in their blood can suffer irreversible neurological damage. Asbestos exposure can cause cancer and other debilitating or fatal respiratory diseases.

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