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Complicated bill moving through NC Senate prompts fears of water pollution

The Haw River provides drinking water for Pittsboro. PFAS and 1,4 dioxane have been found in its waters.
Celeste Gracia
The Haw River provides drinking water for Pittsboro. PFAS and 1,4 dioxane have been found in its waters.

Environmental groups are sounding the alarm about a bill moving in the North Carolina state Senate. They say it could lead to more water pollution and make it easier to build new natural gas pipelines and hog farms.

The controversial provisions were recently added to a 36-page regulatory reform bill. It deals with a variety of business regulation issues — everything from charity raffles to minor league baseball wages.

Three provisions added by Sen. Norm Sanderson, R-Pamlico, have drawn criticism from environmentalists. The changes would make it easier to get permits from the state Department of Environmental Quality, but opponents say they could put the state in violation of federal law.

One provision would prevent the state from adopting its own limits on chemicals entering the water supply — if the EPA hasn’t imposed what’s called a numeric standard for that chemical.

Brooks Rainey Pearson with the Southern Environmental Law Center says that could stop the state from regulating PFAS chemicals in drinking water sources.

"So, if this had been in place, and DEQ was not allowed to regulate anything that doesn't have a numeric standard, DEQ could not have stopped Chemours from dumping GenX into the Cape Fear River," she said. "DEQ would not be able to regulate 1,4-Dioxane, which is of great concern to communities in the Haw River Watershed. There's 1,4-Dioxane problems in Reidsville, Greensboro, Asheboro. So, anyone downstream of emitters of these pollutants would just have free-flowing pollution."

But Sanderson says he’s heard confusion from local governments that aren’t sure what PFAS standards to use at their water and sewer treatment facilities.

"The reasons for that is that the final rules haven’t been made, and so we’ve got the state of North Carolina operating on one set of standards, the federal government is looking at another set of standards, and they’re not the same," Sanderson said. "And so if we begin to penalize people and make cities begin to conform so that they come under the state level, and all of a sudden, the federal level — which overrules the state — is higher, then we’ve caused a lot of financial burden on a lot of our municipalities, before we have the final number."

The WUNC Politics Podcast is a free-flowing discussion of what we're hearing in the back hallways of the General Assembly and on the campaign trail across North Carolina.

Sanderson says he’s hearing the EPA will issue numeric standards for PFAS soon, and state regulators should hold off until that happens.

Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, says the change could put the state in violation of the federal Clean Water Act. That could prompt the EPA to step in.

"The EPA could take back over the delegated part of the Clean Water Act," Harrison said. "And it's going to make getting a permit pretty complicated and expensive, and delayed, because it would mean going to Atlanta."

Another proposal for state permitting in the bill could remove hurdles for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a natural gas pipeline that had been rejected. Action by Congress is giving the project new life, including its section in North Carolina's Rockingham and Alamance counties.

The bill says regulators can’t consider aspects of the project such as sediment runoff from construction. And they’d have to make a decision on the permit within 60 days, or it would be automatically approved. Pearson says that’s not a realistic deadline because of staffing shortages at DEQ.

"So, if we just start letting permits go by default, and the permit isn't correct, then we could have projects that are discharging pollutants without any penalty, because it's not correctly regulated by their permit," she said.

Sanderson says the goal is to make sure the Mountain Valley Pipeline’s permits aren’t dependent on what regulators do in neighboring states like Virginia.

The third controversial piece of the bill deals with permits for animal waste systems, a key component of hog farms. Pearson says the change would prevent DEQ from considering federal civil rights regulations – something that’s currently the subject of a lawsuit.

"I assume this is meant to get around that by saying ‘no DEQ, you can't consider the impact on communities of color when permitting hog farms,’ and to me that is very troubling, and not at all the direction we want to go," Pearson said.

But Roy Lee Lindsey with the North Carolina Pork Council says the legislation has nothing to do with civil rights. He says in an emailed statement that the bill would simply clarify how DEQ has already been handling the permits.

"There are some ambiguities in the law that needed to be cured by having certain provisions in the law more clearly apply to animal waste permits," Lindsey said. "One of these would be to ensure that the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality is able to enforce groundwater violations and cleanup, for example."

The three controversial sections weren’t part of the House’s version of the regulatory reform bill. That means the bill could end up getting further revisions after its upcoming Senate vote. It's currently awaiting a hearing from the Senate Rules Committee.

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