Legislation takes aim at environmental groups

Published 7:09 pm Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Tuesday morning, more than 30 members of the public spoke out against proposed legislation that could loosen environmental regulations in the state. The speakers included a former mayor of Kure Beach, a former N.C. Supreme Court Associate Justice, oyster farmers and a representative from Orvis Fly Fishing stores.

The public hearing was held before the N.C. House of Representatives’ environmental committee.

In addition to regulations on pipes, intermittent streams, cases challenging air permits and ATVs, House Bill 765 also proposes to waive penalties on any industry that self-reports environmental violations, which some argue would make such penalties ineffective. The language of the measure calls for voluntary disclosure of a violation: made within two weeks of discovery, an action is taken to resolve the issue and the entity corrects the noncompliance within a reasonable amount of time. The bill also calls for a preemption of any “local law, rule, ordinance, or permit condition” that would limit state immunity granted those who voluntarily report violations.

“Basically it’s saying, ‘As long as we do our own laundry and report that we’re violating, we can never really be held accountable,’” said Heather Jacobs Deck, Pamlico-Tar riverkeeper with the regional environmental group Sound Rivers, Inc.

Local environmental advocates are also concerned about a measure that would penalize people or organizations filing a lawsuit against the state for environmental reasons — should the plaintiffs lose in court, they would be required to pay the state’s cost.

“If somebody brings a case against the state, the loser would have to pay the state’s attorney’s fees, even though the state wouldn’t have to do the same thing if they didn’t win,” Deck said.

“H765 is a barrier from citizens using courts for environmental issues,” Bob Orr told the House environment committee Tuesday. Orr is a former N.C. Supreme Court Associate Justice and also former head of the North Carolina Institute for Constitutional Law.

Sound Rivers, a joint entity formed recently by Pamlico-Tar River and Neuse River foundations, filed a lawsuit in 2013 against the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources challenging its issuance of a permit that would allow limestone mining company Martin Marietta Materials Inc. to discharge up to 12 million gallons of freshwater per day into Blounts Creek, changing the pH of an area designated by the state as a nursery for many saltwater species.

“It’s basically aimed at SELC (Southern Environmental Law Center), and an attempt to prevent groups like us from filing suits.”

While the House committee on environment voted Tuesday to not recommend that the House concur with the Senate’s version of the bill, HB 765 has been placed on the calendar again for today.