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State bill could hurt Mecklenburg County waterways, officials say

A measure before the N.C. legislature could wipe out ordinances that protect Mecklenburg County’s water-supply lakes and streams, local officials say.

The bill is the third in three years aimed at lowering state, and now local, environmental rules to the minimum required by federal law. In doing so, local officials say, it removes controls that are tailored to local conditions.

Among those in Mecklenburg County are standards that protect Mountain Island Lake, the chief water source for Charlotte, by buffering streams from new development and requiring builders to design structures to control erosion once construction is complete.

“It really is hard to know what all’s going to get swept up in the dustpan with it,” said Rusty Rozzelle, chief of Mecklenburg County’s water quality programs. “Our biggest concern is that we think these ordinances were developed out of very clear processes with very clear objectives.”

The N.C. Senate passed the amendment Thursday. It now goes to the House. Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, a Jacksonville Republican who is the bill’s primary sponsor, did not return calls for comment.

A law passed in 2011 prohibited state environmental agencies from adopting new standards more restrictive than the federal government’s. The most recent Senate bill orders such agencies to repeal or rewrite existing rules that exceed federal requirements.

It also says local ordinances like Mecklenburg’s can’t be stricter than state or federal law.

The bill would also make it harder to force utilities to clean up contaminated groundwater near coal-ash lagoons, including Duke Energy’s Riverbend plant west of Charlotte, said D.J. Gerken, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Cost of mistakes high

The center has filed a lawsuit aimed at forcing state officials to require cleanups of contaminated groundwater inside a 500-foot “compliance boundary” around ash ponds. The proposed legislation would move the compliance boundary to the property line.

The legislation, Gerken said, “means you don’t have to lift a finger to remediate groundwater until after it’s contaminated your neighbor’s groundwater.”

“It turns the whole program on its head,” Gerken said. “State law now makes a lot of sense because its focus is on preventing groundwater contamination. Rather than prevention, the whole plan now is cleanup.”

Duke said in a statement that the bill only “confirms the implementation of the (groundwater) rules and standards that have been used for almost 30 years by the water quality division and upheld by decisions of the Environmental Management Commission.”

The bill, it added, “simply puts the same language used by regulators into statutes.”

The measure also allows “fast-tracking” of stormwater- and erosion-control permits without government review if they meet minimal state standards.

Mistakes made in self-certified plan reviews could end up costing taxpayers or residents more money for repairs, said Daryl Hammock, Charlotte’s water-quality program manager.

“This definitely would cut the legs out from a lot of stakeholder involvement that was done over many years,” Hammock said. “We wrote a lot of concessions into our (post-construction) ordinance to accommodate these groups.”

A series of concessions

The Real Estate & Building Industry Coalition, or REBIC, agreed to the local post-construction ordinance after concessions were made that allow developers to pay a fee instead of building stormwater structures.

Executive Director Joe Padilla didn’t return a call for comment. But REBIC’s blog says the group has advocated for the legislation, which, it says, “could save developers millions in infrastructure costs and substantially open the market for redevelopment of long-neglected in town sites.”

Jamie Kritzer, a spokesman for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said the department is still reviewing the legislation.

“There are things within that bill that concern us and things we see as things that could probably be done,” he said. “But we can’t elaborate on what either of those are.”

The version of the bill passed Thursday deleted a provision that allowed private property owners to avoid a state requirement that riverside buffers be protected in the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico river basins of eastern North Carolina.

It’s still unclear under the legislation what would happen when federal rules create regulatory frameworks but leave the details for states to work out, wrote environmental law blogger Robin Smith, a former assistant secretary of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. North Carolina’s water quality, solid waste and coastal management programs are examples.

State rules that might have to be repealed, Smith said, include those designed to keep sewage sludge applied to farm fields away from groundwater and streams, and control incinerator emissions of arsenic, she said.

“It isn’t clear that these are the kind of ‘regulatory reforms’ that the General Assembly actually wants to see,” she wrote.

Henderson: 704-358-5051; Twitter: @bhender
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