Small print in budget worries conservationists

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Governor Roy Cooper signs the state budget on November 18, his first since taking office in 2017. Photo: Governor’s office

Major new policies on resilience and flood mitigation and a return to high levels of funding for water conservation and quality were hailed as the main victory in this year’s state budget. , but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t broad expanses of concern amid the over 1,200-plus pages of funding allocations and policy provisions.

The biennial budget is the first full biennial budget to become law since 2017. The resilience and flood provisions will be implemented with allocations totaling nearly $ 1 billion, much of this legislation has received the fort support from state environmental organizations.

Cassie Gavin, senior director of government affairs at the North Carolina Sierra Club, said the initiatives show strong commitments to resilience and conservation, but provisions scattered throughout the document would not have passed scrutiny otherwise.

Cassie Gavin

“There were some great highlights,” she said, “and then definitely we had special arrangements that shouldn’t be part of the budget at all.”

“Hang and hang around”

A section that has drawn criticism is reportedly pumping $ 38 million into a stream debris removal program that would allow contractors to operate outside of water protection and firefighting rules.

“We’re very concerned about the snags and streaks and all the exemptions from the provision,” Brooks Rainey Pearson, an attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, recently told Coastal Review.

The program would direct money from a state investment and infrastructure fund to the Ministry of Environmental Quality.

DEQ would then develop a plan and schedule for the disposal of stream debris in five “targeted watersheds”: the Neuse River Basin, the Cape Fear River Basin, the Lumber River Basin, the Tar-Pamlico River Basin and White Oak River Basin.

Brooks rainey pearson

DEQ must contract with private companies to do the work, but the budget wording allowing the program restricts the ministry’s authority over projects and exempts contractors from stormwater permit or water quality permit requirements. water, as well as all state game laws and forestry statutes on open burning. It also orders the DEQ to waive all certification rights under article 401 of the Water Treatment Act for projects financed by the program.

Rainey Pearson said the combination of exemptions means contractors will be able to drag debris along the riverbanks and burn them with little supervision.

Grady McCallie, director of policy for the North Carolina Conservation Network, said the provision as drafted would significantly reduce the amount of input state regulators would have in reviewing projects, even though they are required to ‘have a federal license.

“If you need to get permission from the Army Corps of Engineers to do things in United States waters, you still need to get that permit. It doesn’t change that, but it eliminates the state’s ability to condition and comment on this permit to protect water quality, ”McCallie said. This removes the state’s role in protecting water quality and reduces the contribution of those who know the watershed on the ground. “It’s not a good idea to get rid of it.”

Grady mccallie

The legislature has delayed funding any stream debris disposal project under the program until at least the first draft of a statewide flood plan. be completed. This could give the legislature time to go back and tweak the surveillance exemptions as well as analyze the impacts, McCallie said.

“It would be really stupid to spend this money and end up increasing the flooding, speeding up the movement of water downstream to other communities,” he said. “Chances are you can do it if you do it without studying what you’re doing and without an environmental review. You might think you’re taking water from one community, but what you’re really doing is just rushing it to the next one and flooding them.

Career jobs to become political appointments

Another provision that is catching the attention of environmental groups would move five positions in the Office of Administrative Hearings from career positions to policy appointees.

While those positions have not been named, Rainey Pearson said the concern was how the change might impact administrative hearings in the future.

“It’s often the first stop for environmental affairs,” she said.

McCallie said administrative judges oversee challenges to environmental permits known as contested cases.

“We don’t know if these five positions would be administrative law judges. There has been nothing in writing to say this one way or another, but we are concerned about the politicization of this office, ”he said. “They have to be impartial, and having career civil servants makes them more familiar with the laws they are reviewing. It makes sense.”

The provision would give the Chief Administrative Law Judge the power to designate the five people from the existing positions. The Chief Justice is appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Last summer, new Chief Justice Paul Newby appointed Donald van der Vaart, who served as DEQ and, before it was renamed and reorganized, secretary of the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources to the post. under the direction of Governor Pat McCrory.

Local government wins, loses

Gavin said that by the end of the negotiations, a total effort was made to reduce many of the environmental provisions aimed at restricting local governments.

Earlier versions of the budget included limitations on local governments to implement ordinances on tree protection and water quality requirements.

Those provisions were removed in the last round of talks on the bill, Gavin said. The same applied to another provision aimed at reducing the protection of wetlands.

A long-sought-after set of changes to benefit the billboard industry were incorporated into the final bill. Gavin said the changes further reduce authority over local government and Department of Transportation notice boards and may pave the way for more digital signs as well.

“These are all the little things that the outdoor advertising industry has looked for before but didn’t get,” she said. “This is basically a previous bill that the governor has vetoed over the past few years and is blocked from going through the legislature even though it wouldn’t normally be.”


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