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NC farm bill raises concerns for wetland protections

The North River Wetlands Preserve in Beaufort, NC on Feb. 6. The 6,000 acre preserve used to be farmland. Now it's been restored back to wetlands to help improve water quality of downstream esturaries.
Josh Sullivan
The North River Wetlands Preserve in Beaufort, N.C., on Feb. 6, 2023. The 6,000-acre preserve used to be farmland. Now it's been restored back to wetlands to help improve water quality of downstream estuaries.

The state House has approved legislation that critics worry could eliminate protections for wetlands and water quality.

The controversial provision is part of the legislature’s annual farm bill, which includes a variety of agriculture legislation. The bill would prevent state regulators from enacting wetlands rules that are stricter than federal regulations.

Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, says that would effectively revoke existing regulations that keep pollution away from wetlands.

“I don’t think I’m overstating it to say this could be devastating to our state’s ability to deal with flood resiliency, with water quality, and with habitats for wildlife,” she said.

But the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin, says state agencies can still regulate wetlands but need to request a change in state law.

“If the agency desires to regulate wetlands lawfully, then they must request permission from the legislature,” he said.

The farm bill would also:

  • Create stricter penalties for drivers who spill animal waste on roads. It’s a response to concerns from a town in Sampson County where trucks hauling animal waste have left behind spills that are costly to clean up.
  • Establish a new state equestrian trail that would span from Richmond County to Chatham County.
  • Encourage public schools to serve muscadine grape juice. It’s similar to a provision in another bill that passed the House to require the grape juice, but the farm bill describes it more as an “aspirational goal” than a mandate.
  • Redesignate the official state fruit as the muscadine grape. It’s currently listed as the scuppernong grape, but that’s a subset of the muscadine, and lawmakers want a broader designation.
  • Require the N.C. Veterinary Medical Board to give veterinarians a written notice that their facilities are scheduled for an inspection. Harrison said she worries that change could make inspections less effective because veterinarians would be expecting it.

The bill passed the House on Wednesday in a 77-38 vote, with eight Democrats joining all Republicans in support of the bill. The Senate has already passed a similar version of the bill but will need to take another vote on changes made in the House.

Colin Campbell covers politics for WUNC as the station's capitol bureau chief.
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