Published 12:06 pm Wednesday, July 23, 2008

By Staff
Panel often caught
in disputes among
differing factions
Staff Writer
On its face, the N.C. Environmental Management Commission is a regulatory body, writing environmental rules that state officials use to issue permits that control development and other activities that affect the state’s environment.
But in the face of some public outcry, the General Assembly has rewritten two sets of stormwater regulations the commission recently proposed, including a set of regulations for coastal counties that were passed by the General Assembly last week.
Now, advocates from both sides of the negotiations who brokered the final compromise on the coastal stormwater rules are questioning the effectiveness of the state’s environmental rule-making process.
Officials from local governments believe the commission is too cavalier with local livelihoods in its pursuit of environmental protection.
Environmental advocates believe the intervention of lobbyists and politicians is polluting and undermining an otherwise scientifically based process.
And the commission’s chairman finds the interventions frustrating.
Amy Fulk, chief of staff to Sen. Marc Basnight, president pro tempore of the state Senate, said the key is to protect the environment without burdening individual residents.
By statute, Basnight appoints three members to the commission.
In the most recent case, the commission proposed new, more-restrictive rules governing stormwater runoff in many eastern North Carolina counties. Designed to help protect shellfish beds, the rules were to be applied county-wide in all counties close to shellfish beds.
That meant that people in areas such as Pinetown would have faced the more-stringent permit requirements, even though the only shellfish waters in Beaufort County are near Aurora and Pamlico Beach.
But 12 coastal counties, including Beaufort County, hired a lobbyist and worked, along with pro-development groups, to change the rules. They argued the proposed regulations would impede an already-foundering real-estate market.
In the end, the General Assembly relaxed the new rules significantly, limiting the most-stringent restrictions to areas within a half a mile of shellfish waters.
The final regulations emerged from a negotiation process that included representatives from both sides of the issue.
But it was a negotiation process both sides said should have been made unnecessary by the commission’s own in-house process, which takes years to review prospective rules.
Heather Jacobs, the Pamlico-Tar River Foundation’s riverkeeper, said that while the compromise bill maintains most of the core items that environmentalists had wanted, those items aren’t as thorough as what the commission first proposed.
She said the rewriting of the commission-proposed rules by a political body is “the thing that bothers me the most” in the stormwater-rules process, ahead of the concessions the environmentalists made during the negotiations.
She praised the science and engineering backgrounds of many commission members, and she said constant intervention by the General Assembly raises the possibility of a process in which lobbyists have more input in environmental regulation than scientists.
Beaufort County Manager Paul Spruill, who was the lead county manager in the 12-county coalition that fought the rules, said the General Assembly’s intervention was needed because the commission pays disproportionately more attention to environmental effects than to effects on people.
The 19-member commission does specifically include one agricultural representative, one industrial representative and one municipal government representative. It also specified the process by which the commission makes rules, with that process including opportunities for the public to comment on those proposed rules.
Spruill said he attended commission meetings and did comment, but he still ended up fighting the commission’s proposed rules.
Commission lawyers are reviewing the new permitting standards. Moreau said he is worried those standards may not meet, in all cases, the federally set standards — which come from legislation including the Clean Water Act — that the commission is charged with upholding.
The next set of regulations Moreau believes could cause controversy are rules designed to improve water quality at B. Everett Jordan Lake south of Raleigh, he said.
Municipalities in the Triangle area may oppose the tougher standards on nitrogen and phosphorous levels in runoff because they could require retrofitting of existing municipal infrastructures, he said.
The proposed regulations are before the N.C. Rules Review Commission, he said.