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Landfill restrictions loosened

By Annalise Frank
afrank@newsobserver.com

Lawmakers in the House and Senate approved a bill Thursday that loosens restrictions on landfills, allows billboard owners to cut down more foliage around signs on interstate exit ramps, and loosens restrictions on coal ash storage facilities.

House Bill 74 has 60 sections, about a dozen of which have been criticized by environmental groups, municipalities and counties, and Republican and Democratic lawmakers. It’s an amalgam of two other regulatory bills.

“This continues our focus on bringing jobs to North Carolina (and) keeping existing companies here,” said Sen. Thom Goolsby, a Wilmington Republican.

Its sponsors have said the legislation removes outdated or useless regulations, possibly revitalizing the state’s economy.

Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Hendersonville Republican, deplored the politics of constructing the bill, saying a section that loosens regulations on sanitary landfills was added in the dark and hadn’t been properly vetted. He tried to get the bill moved back to the House rules committee, but withdrew the request after a brief recess.

“I think we could have gotten a better bill here if we’d used our normal processes,” he said.

That section allows landfills to be built closer to state gamelands. It also eases rules about how landfills must maintain the systems that keep landfill liquids from getting into groundwater.

Environmental advocates also were concerned about a provision that expands the area in which coal-ash-storing facilities are allowed to pollute without needing to remove the contaminants, which include arsenic, lead and mercury.

“This is codifying existing language on how (this boundary compliance) is supposed to be done,” said Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a Republican from Charlotte.

Duke Energy pushed for the change, said Rep. Pricey Harrison of Greensboro, a Democrat.

A Duke Energy ash basin in Gaston County along the Catawba River has been the centerpiece of resistance efforts because the area in which it will be allowed to pollute under the bill includes a stretch of the river.

That contaminated water could reach Charlotte’s drinking water supply, said Mary Maclean Asbill, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.

If testing revealed a health danger or that certain aquifers were affected, facilities would need to take action by law – no matter how big the boundaries. But Cassie Gavin, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, said it’s difficult to clean up ash once it’s already in a body of water.

One provision stops counties and municipalities from creating environmental ordinances that are more stringent than state or federal ones. Another provision allows students to have lawyers, parents or other advocates present when they’re accused of breaking a university’s or college’s rules.

Most lawmakers found things to love and to hate in the sweeping act. Sometimes when lawmakers find a few things they dislike, they vote “nay” even if the bill would do a lot of good, said Rep. Jonathan Jordan, a West Jefferson Republican.

“If rules are here to protect public health and safety, we need to pass them,” he said.

He voted for the bill because it would require hotels and other lodging to install carbon monoxide detectors, solving the deadly problem of carbon monoxide poisoning.

The bill passed the House 78 to 34 and the Senate 28 to 18.

Drug testing heads to McCrory

Both the Senate and House have agreed to a bill that requires drug testing of suspicious welfare recipients and expands background checks on them.

House Bill 392 passed Thursday in the Senate 32-4 without debate, despite concerns that drug addicts might be turned away instead of being encouraged to get help. The bill was sent to the governor.

The bill keeps existing Department of Social Services processes intact. DSS workers now conduct interviews and give written tests to determine whether an applicant is using drugs. Under the bill, applicants that county DSS workers reasonably suspect of drug use would need to submit to drug tests to receive benefits through Work First. Applicants would have to pay for the tests and would be reimbursed if they test negative.

Background checks conducted on Work First and food stamps applicants would be expanded to search for people with outstanding felony warrants or probation violations. Counties would be allowed to fingerprint applicants for background checks if they’re suspected of being out-of-state parole violators or fleeing felons.

Frank: 919-829-4870
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