Environment, Legislature

“The military isn’t here today to defend itself”: At last minute, four-year moratorium on wind energy emerges in House Bill 589

H ouse Bill 589, a piece of complex renewable energy legislation, was supposed to epitomize the spirit of cooperation. As the bill was unveiled on April 5, lawmakers heralded a nearly year-long process in which representatives from the utilities and clean energy industries hammered out a measure that, while imperfect, they could nonetheless agree on.

But that collaboration, in both spirit and letter, was upended today in the Senate Rules Committee, when a four-year moratorium on wind energy abruptly appeared in the fourth edition of the bill.

Over the next four years, the legislature would hire the Matrix company to draw maps showing where potential interference between 600-foot wind turbines and military training exercises could occur.

Sen. Harry Brown, who’s responsible for the anti-wind provision, called lawmakers’ failure to “protect the military” and its economic value to eastern North Carolina “the biggest injustice the legislature has ever done.”

Brown has repeatedly cited the turbines’ potential interference with the military as a reason to stop wind energy development. He tried to smother wind energy during the last session, but was foiled by disagreements in a conference committee. This time, though, the Onslow County Republican used a complex bill  — with perks for nearly every interested party — as a vehicle for his anti-wind obsession.

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“This bill is the product of delicate negotiations by a lot of stakeholders,” said Sen. Floyd McKissick, Jr. The Durham County Democrat opposed the bill because of the anti-wind provision. “Why do we need to put the moratorium in this bill? Why not deal with it independently?”

“This is the perfect bill for it,” Brown replied.

Perfect, because the other ironclad and hard-fought provisions in the bill make it hard to oppose.

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Environment, Legislature

Republicans, inspired by Ayn Rand, and Democrats, sticking up for trees, join forces to kill billboard bill

House Bill 581 was about as popular as the Edsel. (Photo: Old Cars Weekly)

A fter an hour-long debate last night that contained references to both Ayn Rand and The Twilight Zone, HB 581, aka the billboard bill, failed by a 49-66 vote.

Thirty Republicans and 36 Democrats voted against the measure; 43 Republicans and six Democrats voted for it. The bill was sponsored by Harnett County Republican David Lewis.

“This is the worst billboard bill I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” said Rep. Chuck McGrady, a four-term Republican from Henderson County. “It’s a corporate welfare bill.”

Even after slogging through several committees, the bill was packed with perks for the billboard industry. Although outdoor advertisements couldn’t be built where they are currently prohibited — the Town of Cary and parts of Durham, for example — it otherwise stripped local governments of their control over where billboards could be built.

The measure consolidated power within existing, large billboard companies, making it difficult for smaller ventures to enter the market and compete. A billboard permit would become as coveted as a yellow taxicab medallion in New York City.

Rep. Grier Martin, a Wake County Democrat, proposed an amendment that would have broken up the large companies’ monopoly, but it failed.

In the first of the evening’s two mentions of Ayn Rand, Rep. Jay Adams paraphrased from Atlas Shrugged, noting that the bill used government regulations to prop up a failing industry. Today’s free market, it seems, does not favor billboards, especially ones that don’t blink every six seconds.

HB 581 allowed billboard companies to replace conventional signs with digital billboards. “These are not merely upgrades,” said Rep. Ted Davis, a Republican from New Hanover County, who would probably like to keep his district’s beaches from looking like a carnival. “Going from a static billboard to an electronic one would have a major impact on our state in terms of visual clutter.

I’m getting more confused,” said Rep. Jeff Collins, a Nash County Republican who supported the bill. “Am I in the House of Representatives or The Twilight Zone?” (As if occasionally, they aren’t one and the same.) “What industry do we not let keep up with the times?”

The bill removed protections for redbud and dogwood trees, which under current law, can’t be cut down to make room for billboards. Lewis, the bill sponsor, had included that language, he said, because municipalities were using redbuds and dogwoods as a “tactic” — like a pawn in a chess game, apparently — to block the construction of billboards.

Rep. Brian Turner, a Buncombe County Democrat, tried to convince his fellow lawmakers to pass an amendment to protect the trees. He argued that the flower of the dogwood tree is the official state flower. The amendment failed.

Although appeals to nature didn’t sway lawmakers, the giveaways to the billboard industry were too unpalatable for many Republicans, albeit a minority of them. Thirty-six Democrats pushed the bill across the finish line.

Environmental groups saw the bill’s failure as a rare mark in the win column.

“Tonight’s vote is a victory for North Carolinians who appreciate our state’s scenic beauty,” said Molly Diggins, state director of the Sierra Club, one of many environmental groups that opposed the bill. “It also shows respect for local governments and the wishes of their constituents.”

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Environment, Legislature

More bad environmental news in the budget: Clean Water Management Trust Fund takes an 18% hit

From which glass would you rather drink? The chronically underfunded Clean Water Management Trust Fund, charged with financing projects that protect water quality, received 18 percent less in state appropriations than last year. (Photo: Creative Commons)

At first glance the budget line item for the Clean Water Management Trust Fund looks generous by this legislature’s standards: $18 million. But the legislature’s largesse was not so large. The appropriation is down 18 percent from 2016, when lawmakers appropriated $22.4 million to the trust fund.  Gov. Roy Cooper included $25 million in his budget for the fund.

Either amount is minuscule compared to the fund’s $40 million appropriation in 2000, and the $100 million it was supposed to receive annually from 2004-05 through 2011-12. However, the fund never got the full amount. In fact, appropriations continued to decrease, at one point dipping as low as $6 million.

According to a coalition of conservation groups Land for Tomorrow, 135 local governments, conservation organizations, and state agencies requested nearly $68 million from the trust fund in 2017. These groups would provide almost $165 million in matching funds, more than doubling the state’s investment.

Established by lawmakers in 1996, the fund is charged with financing projects that enhance and protect water quality. These projects aren’t sexy: stormwater controls, riparian buffer restorations, stream bank stabilizations. But without them, drinking and surface waters would become more polluted, with all the attendant environmental, financial and public health costs.

Governed by a board of directors, the trust fund was under the NC Department of Environmental Quality until 2015. That’s when then-Gov. Pat McCrory exiled it and the Natural Heritage Trust Fund to the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. Environmental advocates saw that shift as a way to minimize the importance of both projects.

The House is scheduled to hold its first vote on the budget today when it convenes at noon. The Senate is in recess until 4, but is expected to then vote again on the budget.

 

Environment, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

DEQ budget still meager, cuts 16.75 jobs, but includes money for pet projects

“Reorganization Through Reduction”: George Orwell couldn’t have said it better.

The spirit of George Orwell must have been hovering over House and Senate conferees when they drafted the state environmental budget. “Reorganization through Reduction” is the very gentle term budget writers used to tell NC Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan to do a very dirty job: Find $1.9 million in savings over two years — somewhere.

Lay off employees, scale back programs, use fewer paper clips, whatever it takes.

At $77 million in the first fiscal year, the DEQ conference budget, unveiled yesterday at 11:10 p.m. by the House and Senate conference committee, is more generous than the Senate version — a low bar, indeed. It is stingier than the House‘s and it falls far short of the $84.8 million appropriation that Gov. Roy Cooper had recommended.

The second fiscal year is even leaner for DEQ, just $76.8 million, after the Reorganization program concludes.

“The budget cuts core functions beyond the bone,” said Grady McCallie, policy director for the NC Conservation Network. “And it will leave our rivers, lakes and drinking water sources exposed to more pollution while threatening the ability of DEQ to adequately inform the public about environmental health risks.”

The DEQ budget also contains a policy report, which also places further fiscal limitations on the agency.  This document includes restrictions on the allocation of Volkswagen Settlement Funds. North Carolina is due $87 million — certainly not chump change — from a federal lawsuit against the car maker because it cheating on its diesel emissions tests. The state can use the money on projects that will reduce air emissions from cars, trucks and trains. But the conference budget requires the General Assembly, not DEQ or the Department of Transportation, to approve distribution of those funds. Lawmakers, undoubtedly, will want some of that money spent directly in their districts on pet projects.

Speaking of pet projects, the budget’s big winners: SePro, the chemical company whose powerful lobbyist Harold Brubaker has convinced lawmakers to spend $1.3 million on a sketchy algae-killing treatment for Jordan Lake. The City of Havelock,  inexplicably jumps to the front of a very long line of needy projects and receives $1 million to “repurpose” the old Phoenix recycling site.

The budget’s semi-winners: Oysters, which will receive $1 million in recurring funds for necessary sanctuaries. Twenty-nine DEQ employees, including Chief Deputy Col. John Nicholson, whose jobs were saved from the Senate guillotine. NC A&T and Appalachian State universities, who can keep $200,000 each for energy research. (Check back on Thursday for a larger story about rearrangements to the state energy office and general provisions to the energy portion of the budget.)

The budget’s losers — and this is just the short list: NC State University’s energy program, whose funding was eliminated. The myriad other ways DEQ touches North Carolinians lives: fortifying coastal communities’ response to climate change, consistently monitoring water quality in the sounds, protecting people — usually low-income and minority neighborhoods — from contamination in old landfills. And the 16-plus DEQ employees, including seven in the vital regional offices, where much of the permitting takes place. They will have to pack their desks if the cuts survive the full House and Senate votes. Not to worry, lawmakers say, it’s only a reorganization.

Environment, Legislature

Even with coal ash amendments, House Bill 374 takes an unsavory turn for transparency

 

In its original incarnation, House Bill 374 was relatively innocuous. It regulated ZipLines and established rules for the storage and public disclosure of hazardous chemicals. But that was in April.

Now it’s June, time for lawmakers to dust off dormant or placeholder bills and quietly embellish them with often pernicious language. Exhibit A: The new HB 374.

Heard yesterday in the Senate Commerce Committee, HB 374 now limits who can challenge an environmental permit, eliminates public notice on extensions to landfill agreements, and, before a last-minute amendment, essentially killed coal ash recycling requirements.

Under current law, all people or groups who could be harmed by a permitted activity can challenge a DEQ permit. HB 374 would limit the complainants to only those who had previously submitted public comment.

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“This eliminates the appeal rights for people who don’t or can’t comment,” Jamie Cole, policy advocate for the North Carolina Conservation Network, told the committee. “There can be a lack of notice and opportunity.”

Unless someone knows where to find public notices on the DEQ website (under “News” at the homepage) or examines the ultra-fine print in a newspaper’s classified section (those legal notices in publications may soon disappear via another bill), they might not be aware a comment period or hearing is happening.

Limiting public access to the courts guarantees that people won’t get justice,” Brooks Rainey Pearson of the Southern Environmental Law Center, told the committee.

Democratic Sen. Angela Bryant bemoaned the new provision. “This is a significant change,” she told her colleagues. “We’re ramming this through an omnibus bill that involves both a judicial and an environmental process.”

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