North Carolina is a beautiful state that is celebrating the 30th anniversary of its own Wilderness Act this year. On the other hand, it received significant national attention to the recent political shifts which occurred in its executive and legislative branches, along with a continuing focus on the subsequent actions of the state's governor, legislature and attorney general on everything from same-sex marriage to New Year's opossums.
The state also draws national attention on numerous environmental topics; this includes a February coal ash spill that resulted in a recently aborted attempt at legislation addressing the state's coal ash ponds. Last year, the state passed many other controversial bills, such as a roll-back of rules protecting Jordan Lake's water quality in favor of water agitators.
The General Assembly passed five more controversial bills related to the environment in the 2014 short session, profiled here. With more work scheduled for mid-August and November, other legislation could resurface - including the coal ash bill, transit-limiting sales tax caps and more.
Energy Modernization Act (S 786)
Along with coal ash, hydraulic fracturing (or "fracking") was one of this year's most controversial environmental topics in the state. The method of drilling for natural gas trapped inside shale rock is linked to air and water pollution, along with concerns about land rights and even earthquakes.
The 2012 fracking bill included language requiring the General Assembly to vote on rules drafted by a state commission to regulate fracking prior to the issuance of permits. However, this year's legislation allows fracking to move forward as early as May of next year without a proactive vote on the part of the General Assembly.
Environmentalists decried what they saw as a broken promise not to rush fracking into the state, as well as a failure to address issues such as wastewater pollution and forced pooling - in which hold-out property owners must join others who lease their drilling rights. The bill also restricts how local governments can zone against or prohibit fracking.
Mitigation Buffer Rule/Wastewater Treatment (S 883)
Concerns about water quality rose to further prominence last year after the General Assembly delayed the Jordan Lake clean-up rules. Rather than place upstream restrictions on development, the legislature appropriated funds for remediation through the use of in-lake mixers.
Water quality rules weakened again this year with S 883, which forces the adoption of a new set of requirements on the buffers used to protect waterways from pollutants and runoff. A group of industry stakeholders and mitigation bankers, including state Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary John Skvarla's former company, crafted the substituted regulations. This is in contrast to the previous rules, which involved a broader stakeholder group including environmentalists.
Building Reutilization for Economic Development Act (H 201)
Less noticed was a bill which lowers the requirements for building energy efficiency. As suggested in its title, the act is ostensibly aimed at economic redevelopment, although it may be geared towards one project.
The bill ultimately lowers energy efficiency by 30 percent in some redeveloped commercial buildings by allowing them to comply with older standards under the 2009 North Carolina Energy Code. Some of these buildings are also now exempt from environmental impact reports under the North Carolina Environmental Policy Act and - in an additional blow to water quality requirements - do not have to follow stormwater runoff rules.
North Carolina Farm Act of 2014 (H 366)
Last year's undercover revelation of animal abuse at a Butterball turkey farm likely prompted an unsuccessful "ag-gag" bill decried by many as damaging to undercover investigations. This year saw a similar set of events.
North Carolina was the nation's second-largest hog and pig producer in 2012, and its hog farms often led to headlines about their ills. However, the most recent environmental disputes at hog farms involved the national outbreak of porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED). The Waterkeeper Alliance used aerial photographs of improperly buried hogs killed by PED as evidence of possible water pollution. The state Department of Agriculture delayed action.
The purported fear of backlash from false allegations against farms prompted the latest ag-gag provisions in H 366. The bill prevents the release of complaints about agricultural operations until the Department of Environment and Natural Resources determines they are valid. The bill is still unsigned.
Omnibus Election Clarifications (S 403)
A true ringer, the title of this bill suggests little about its environmental implications. However, those following the course of the bill entitled "Local Sales Tax Options/Economic Development Changes" (H 1224) - now stalled in the House - may understand its relation to transit and education.
This legislation contains revisions to election laws which many consider beneficial, such as mandating electronic campaign reporting for candidates who spend or raise high amounts. The controversial provision in the bill involves the requirement to hold tax- and bond-related referenda in most counties in even-numbered years.
Aside from forcing counties into decisions on when to hold certain kinds of referenda, the bill may completely preclude Wake County from passing a transit tax - critical to regional transit development - if H 1224 passes. The latter legislation caps the local sales tax in Wake and certain other counties at 2.5 percent unless a referendum is held to raise the sales tax by one-quarter percent this year. Legislators found this provision unrealistic when debating H 1224 in isolation, noting that Wake might not feasibly place and publicize a tax proposal on the November ballot in time.
Given the passage of S 403, which still requires the governor's signature, and the possible revival of H 1224 later in the session, Wake County may be precluded from raising its sales tax for transit development.