Environment, Legislature

Senate passes leachate aerosolization bill; now heads to Gov. Cooper

Sen. Trudy Wade (Photo: NC General Assembly)

D uring her political career, Sen. Trudy Wade, a Guilford County Republican, has often heeded the beck and call of the solid waste industry. She has sponsored bills to relax protective buffers between landfills and wildlife refuges, to allow garbage trucks to be only “leak-resistant” rather than leak-proof, and to discontinue electronics recycling.

This afternoon, Wade again came to the defense of the garbage business, this time cheerleading on the Senate floor for House Bill 576. Sponsored in the House by Rep. Jimmy Dixon, the Allow Aerosolization of Leachate bill would allow waste companies and municipalities to spray leachate — essentially juice that has percolated from the garbage into tanks — over the surface of a landfill.

There are several problems with this bill, one being that DEQ is forced to allow the technology to be used as long as certain basic siting requirements are in place.

While DEQ supports the bill, there could be a number of strategic reasons for that. Facing a devastating 10 percent budget cut by the Senate, DEQ has to decide where to spend its political capital. Or perhaps the agency really does think it’s a good idea.

“Don’t you trust DEQ?” Wade asked a fellow senator, who was questioning the bill language requiring the agency’s cooperation.

Do the lawmakers? By giving DEQ such a directive, legislators — their occupations ranging from CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelical Association (Sen. Deanna Ballard), veterinarian (Wade), auctioneer (Tom McInnis) and the catch-all job of consultant (Andrew Brock and many others) — have wrestled science from the hands of state regulators into their own. And then they’ve passed on the scientific decision-making to the landfill companies — the same companies that contribute to many of their campaigns.

Another issue is that there has been no safety testing of this technology. Ostensibly, the toxic contaminants would fall to the ground, leaving innocuous mist to drift — onto homes, schools, parks — miles away. But peer-reviewed studies have shown that size of the contaminant particle, wind, humidity, topography — all these factors can influence how far the mist can go.

Wade insisted the technology is safe; although like Dixon, she could produce no data or studies supporting that assertion. Nor could DEQ at an earlier committee hearing. And Wade falsely stated that the system had been tested in North Carolina. DEQ has issued four permits for leachate aerosolization — again at the agency’s discretion — and is requiring Republic, the holder of three of those permits, to monitor for contaminants.

That process is not as rigorous as most environmental advocates would like, but at least a landscaper isn’t the decider.

What Wade omitted from her defense of the bill is that the leachate system’s inventor, Kelly Houston, contributed $5,000 to her campaign during the last session. The timing of that contribution coincided with Wade as a conference committee co-chair, as she tried to hash out a larger environmental bill, which included, yes, leachate aerosolization.

Several Democratic senators — Angela Bryant, Jay Chaudhuri, Ben Clark and Mike Woodard, among others, vehemently opposed the bill. Clark unsuccessfully tried to amend the bill to require landfill owners to test the aerosol for contaminants and to determine the “fate” of the spray as it travels.

Chaudhuri also attempted — again, unsuccessfully — to allow DEQ to consider approving the systems, but not requiring the agency to do so.

The bill passed along party lines. It now goes to Gov. Roy Cooper.


Environment, Legislature

Dust-up over riparian buffers stalls environmental bill in Senate finance

Sen. Jerry Tillman: Not sold on tax-free buffers (Photo: General Assembly)

House Bill 56, an omnibus environmental bill that had sailed through the full House, became a legislative Hindenburg today when a committee co-chair pulled the measure citing “too many unknowns.”

Republican Sen. Jerry Tillman and several of his GOP colleagues in the Senate Finance Committee were taken aback by language in the bill that would give property owners a tax break if they built riparian buffers on their land. That acreage would be removed from the county tax rolls.

“We need reports from counties,” Tillman told Sen. Andy Wells, who is responsible for the buffers section. “There are a lot of unknown factors involved.”

The fact that Republican lawmakers opposed a tax decrease indicated their level of discomfort with the financial hits their districts could sustain.

According to a fiscal note provided with the bill, Wake County estimated it could lose up to $7 million in property tax revenue on the 60,000 acres that could be declared riparian buffers. Gaston County, adjacent to Mecklenburg County, projected its 4,400 acres of potential riparian buffers would decrease its tax revenue by $1.2 million.

In all, 43 counties  in six river basins or watersheds could be lose money as a result of the change. Those areas are the Neuse, Catawba, and Tar-Pamlico River Basins; and the Jordan Lake, Randleman Lake, and Goose Creek Watershed.

Wells tried to persuade his colleagues to pass the bill by arguing first, that $7 million isn’t that much money to Wake County, which has a $1.2 billion budget. That reasoning swayed no one. Wells then reasoned that riparian buffers increase property values. Thus, any loss of tax revenue from the buffers would be offset by higher taxes on the rest of the acreage. Buffers are 50 feet wide and the length of the water feature on the property.

Sen. Tommy Tucker, a Union County Republican, was unfazed by Wells’s argument.

“The Association of County Commissioners are not real happy with what they are about to lose,” Tucker said. “We don’t want to make a substantial tax impact on counties that can’t afford it.”

Most counties haven’t even provided their dollar estimates yet. However, the NC Department of Environmental Quality calculated that 19 percent of the land area in Rockingham County, for example, could qualify as buffer land — about 68,000 acres. That county is not rich: 18.4 percent of its population lives below the federal poverty line, according to census figures.

Hugh Johnson of the Association of County Commissioners told the committee that, “We see this as having a significant fiscal impact to counties.”

Wells did himself no favors in amending the bill to allow local law enforcement to clear a portion of buffers in watersheds and river basins if officials believe crime is occurring there. Original bill language limited the area to buffers only in the Jordan Lake watershed.

But how to pay city and county employees to clear the buffers requires tax dollars — a portion of which is jeopardized by Wells’s property tax proposal.

“I heard questions from other areas with riparian buffers,” Wells said, justifying the change to include all river basins and watersheds in the state.. “It’s a crime prevention tool.”

“Are there issues now that law enforcement has no authority to go in there?” Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr., a Durham Democrat, asked Wells.

“This clarifies the authority,” Wells replied, noting that he had heard of “activity going on around tributaries in my district.”

Throughout the life of the bill, Wells has been asked for crime data about riparian buffers. He has yet to provide it.

“If you don’t tax the buffer, there are no taxes to help support the law enforcement clearing the buffer,” said Tillman, who represents Randolph and Moore counties. “If Randolph County loses millions of dollars and  has to pay law enforcement to beef up patrol, they’re not going to be happy to raise the tax rate to recoup the loss.”


A quick visual – comparing the budgets for economic development and education

The North Carolina House and Senate leaders are now negotiating a final state budget. It’s likely that the end result will be significantly different from Governor Cooper’s recommended budget for 2017-2019, which was released in March. Some of the largest gaps between the budgets of Cooper, the House, and the Senate are in economic development and education. Below, we highlight a few of these differences.


Environment, Legislature

Quick hit: Renewables bill a “fundamental shift” in the state’s energy policy”

(Photo: Creative Commons)

This is a developing story and will be updated this week. This post has also been updated with comments from Duke Energy.

I t’s a strange day indeed when the  Americans for Prosperity, Duke Energy and the NC Sustainable Energy Association support the same bill.

But that’s what happened in the House Energy and Public Utilities Committee today, which introduced a new version of HB 589 — 20 pages of dense jargon that only a utility lawyer could love. While there’s still a lot of deciphering of the bill language to be done, essentially the measure would lift several restrictions on the proliferation of solar power in North Carolina while still protecting the utilities’ bottom line — sometimes at the customers’ expense.

Rep. Dean Arp, a Republican from Union County, co-sponsored the bill. “This is a fundamental shift in energy policy in North Carolina,” he told the committee, cautioning, “It’s a very, very complicated bill.”

“It’s a major step forward in energy policy,” said Rep. John Szoka, a co-sponsor and Cumberland County Republican. “It will make sure North Carolina remains competitive in the global economy, and is a leader in renewable, reliable cleaner solutions.”

The most striking provision would legalize third-party leasing of solar power, with utility commission approval. This would open the marketplace to small solar providers to provide rooftop systems. The bill’s success could be instrumental in a court case currently being weighed by three judges on the state appellate court. As NCPW reported in March, NC WARN and Duke Energy are at odds over the nonprofit’s right to sell or lease — depending on the semantical argument — solar power, even in minute amounts. The judges have yet to rule on the case.

Their decision could be irrelevant if HB 589 becomes law. As long as NC WARN gets utility commission approval, it could continue to sell power via a very small, 5.25-kilowatt system on the roof of Faith Community Church in Greensboro.

Under Szoka’s proposal, the solar developer would own the solar panels and lease them to the homeowner or business owner for a monthly fee, as long as the fee is not directly tied to the amount of electricity generated by the solar panels. NC WARN was charging the church based on electricity usage. The property owner, in exchange, will get electricity from the panels, which will reduce the power bill from Duke Energy.

Charlotte-based Duke Energy supports the proposal because it’s structured as a financing arrangement, not as a direct sale of electricity to a Duke customer by a third party, said Duke spokesman Randy Wheeless. Duke customers have had a similar leasing option in South Carolina since 2015.

Similar third-party provisions were floated in a bill in 2015, but even with bipartisan support, the legislation died in committee and never made it to a vote.

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agriculture, Environment, Legislature

House reallocates $250K from rural grant program to “protect” rural areas from EPA


Many storefronts in downtown Ahoskie are vacant or dilapidated. Rural grant programs can help small towns rehab the buildings, revitalize the area and create jobs. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Ahoskie, population 5,000, is nicknamed “The Only One,” because it is the only such named town in the world. Located in Hertford County, Ahoskie has seen better days, with its downtown revitalization occurring in very small steps: A coffee shop here, a theater there — and crumbling buildings in between.

Rep. Chris Millis sponsored an amendment to the House budget that would siphon $250,000 from a grant program to revive rural areas like Ahoskie and then funnel it to the Department of Agriculture in order to sue the EPA.

The Agriculture Department could use the money to hire outside counsel to fight the federal Waters of the United States rule, which clarifies the types of waterways that are regulated under the Clean Water Act. These include streams and wetlands that contribute to “navigable waters” already under CWA jurisdiction.

A Republican, Millis represents Onslow and Pender counties, both strongholds for industrialized hog and poultry farms. Those farms could be subject to stricter environmental regulations if their runoff reaches waterways regulated under WOTUS.

“We have to protect rural North Carolina,” Millis said in defense of his amendment. “It’s a federal land grab.”

Downtown Ahoskie (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

But the rural grants program, housed within the state Commerce Department, provides building renovation and economic infrastructure grants for job creation. Local governments in Tier 1 and 2 counties, among the state’s most economically distressed, can apply for money to renovate or demolish buildings or to upgrade their infrastructure. Millis did have other ideas for vacant, dilapidated buildings. In an earlier House ag appropriations meeting, he suggested amending the budget to fund “urban warfare” training for law enforcement, using these structures. The amendment failed.

While some buildings can’t be salvaged — and are eligible for demolition grants — others have value in their new lives. earlier this year, the town of Newton, population 13,000, received a $70,000 grant to renovate a vacant building into an Urgent Care center. The closest similar facility is a 15-minute drive away, according to the town website.

The House budget had appropriated $3.7 million for the rural grant program, plus another $2 million or so in transfers from an industrial fund.

Many conservatives and rural residents oppose WOTUS, including Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler.

However, the agriculture department didn’t request the money, said Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Democrat from Guilford County. And besides, she noted, in February the Trump administration indicated it would roll back the rule. It’s also likely to get hung up in the courts.

For these reasons, Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Republican from Henderson County, called the appropriation to the department “not a wise use of taxpayer money.”

“We don’t know what Trump’s going to do,” replied Rep. Pat McElrath, a Republican representing Carteret and Jones counties. “We’re erring on the side of caution.”

The House Agriculture/Natural Resources Committee didn’t include the appropriation in its part of the budget. The Senate version transfers more money — $1 million — from the NC Department of Environmental Quality, apparently as payback for the agency withdrawing from the lawsuit, filed by the previous administration.