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NC Senate packs bill with environmental regulation changes

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Senate Republicans began trying again Monday to alter environmental standards they said would trim needless regulation and aid business.

Environmental advocates contend that the changes would give industry and developers more license to pollute.

A divided Senate environmental committee favoring GOP legislators recommended a 50-plus page bill that arrived from the House at less than a page.

The expanded measure, labeled the Senate’s annual “regulatory reform” bill, contains many changes approved by either the House or the Senate since 2014, said Sen. Trudy Wade, R-Guilford.

Committee co-chairman Sen. Andrew Brock, R-Davie, said the measure addresses many problems North Carolina residents have brought up through the years that have never been fixed. But Mary McLean Asbill with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the legislation would cause more problems than it solves.

“This is not a bill that reduces the burden on the regulated community,” Asbill said. “It’s a polluter protection bill.”

Sections approved by the Senate last year include one that would encourage industries to self-report environmental violations to the state or seek a voluntary compliance audit so they could avoid fines and public disclosure of problems. But they would not be exempt from potential criminal charges.

Senators also are attempting again to require the state environment department to remove air quality monitors not required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Matthew Dockham, a legislative lobbyist for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, couldn’t immediately provide committee members the number of monitors at issue. About half would have been eliminated under the 2014 provision.

The measure includes new items, such as lower standards for when legal expenses are awarded to the state when it wins environmental or transportation infrastructure challenges filed by outside groups.

Under the proposal, the state’s recovery of attorneys’ fees would be automatic if it’s victorious in court. But plaintiffs who win over the state in court could still be required to pay their own fees if a judge determines there were special circumstances or the state agency being challenged had been justified in acting.

Sen. Jeff Jackson, D-Mecklenburg, said such uneven handling of attorneys’ fees could discourage groups to file lawsuits for fear of massive legal bills even if victorious. It’s “really stacking the deck against average citizens,” Jackson said.

Dockham couldn’t immediately say whether his department supported the environmental provisions but said it would provide feedback.

The measure, which next goes to the Senate Finance Committee for Tuesday debate, also would authorize the hunting of pigeons and create a state animal cruelty hotline.

An amendment approved by the committee also would make it lawful for parents to let their 6- and 7-year-olds operate all-terrain vehicles. The current minimum operating age is 8. Intermediate restrictions on operating large-engine ATVs for children under age 12 or 16 would be replaced with standards set by vehicle manufacturers.

The House approved a competing 39-page “regulatory reform” bill last month, which among other things changes vegetative buffer requirements along streams and rivers. It also would freeze portions of a 2007 law raising over time the percentage of retail sales that electric utilities must get from renewable energy sources and energy efficiencies.

 

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