RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A North Carolina state environmental program designed to protect the health of residents from exposure to dangerous chemicals would be scaled back and defer to overlapping federal rules in proposed legislation developed in part by business interests.
A key environment committee at the General Assembly heard Thursday about a draft proposal crafted with the blessing of Republicans now in control of the Legislature. They want to curb what they call redundancies in state and federal air toxics programs that lead to additional paperwork and business costs but don't protect human health, air and water commensurately.
"It will eliminate a level of regulatory duplication that exists today that hinders expansion at manufacturing sites and also hinders our ability to attract new companies to our state," Preston Howard, president of the Manufacturers & Chemical Industry Council of North Carolina, said after the meeting. "Most companies can get through this process. It just takes so long and when the time from decision to produce to getting a product to market is a concern ... then we're losing every time."
A leading Democrat on the panel that heard the draft, however, called the effort a "rush to the bottom" by North Carolina and other states to offer the lowest level of environmental protection.
"While it does not eliminate the program, it probably eliminates most of it," House Minority Leader Joe Hackney, D-Orange, said after the meeting.
Under the proposal, the rules of the state Air Toxics Program would no longer apply to business operations such as power plants, paper mills and chemical manufacturers already required by federal regulators to install equipment to reduce emissions by the maximum achievable amounts.
The state program would still monitor nearly 100 toxic air pollutants emitting from hundreds of plants statewide by measuring concentrations at property lines and their effects on human health nearby, according to Rep. Mitch Gillespie, R-McDowell, co-chairman of the Environmental Review Commission. He is shepherding the proposal through the panel meeting Thursday.
The bill also would place permanently into state law a rule that has given leaders at the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources the ability to require permits to eliminate emissions considered an unacceptable risk to human health, which the agency has rarely used. It was used in the mid-1990s at a foam production company plant in Randolph County.
Gillespie labeled the bill consensus legislation worked out between business lobbying organizations such as Howard's group and the North Carolina Chamber and with top department regulators. He said the measure doesn't go as far as some people seeking regulatory overhauls would like — Gillespie and other Republican lawmakers included. Some GOP legislators backed last year doing away with the state program.
"This is pretty middle-of-the-road," Gillespie said an interview. "I might have some problems with my own (party) on this."
Environmental groups weren't at the table to draw up the changes, but Gillespie said their lobbyists were told before Thursday's meeting about the proposal and have offered alternatives that will be considered. But he said the business community would have to sign off on those changes, too.
The federal program seeks to reduce emissions involving 187 listed pollutants, 76 of which also are monitored by the state.
One-third of the 784 facilities currently subject to state air toxic rules must also follow the federal regulations, according to state Division of Air Quality, which runs the state program.
But Dan Conrad, legislative counsel for the North Carolina Conservation Network, said he calculated that pollution emitters in North Carolina that currently must meet the federal equipment standards account for roughly two-thirds of the toxic air pollution in the state. That raises significant concerns, he said.
"We think this program has done a lot of good to secure public health and protect the environment," Conrad said. He added that there are possible ways the sides can reach consensus because "there are places where compromise can occur."
Howard, a former state environmental regulator, said people shouldn't sell the federal program short. He said the amount of reported emissions of toxic air pollutants in North Carolina have fallen dramatically since the federal program's "maximum achievable" pollution reduction equipment standards came in to effect in 2000.
The commission planned to debate the legislation more at its March meeting. Any recommended changes would still have to clear the full House and Senate when it returns in May before going to Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue's desk for her possible signature.
The Perdue administration will review the proposal it received Thursday and looks forward to hearing from stakeholders on the issue, Perdue spokesman Mark Johnson said. About 100 medical professionals wrote the governor last month urging her to block efforts to weaken the state program.
"The governor supports regulatory reform that doesn't compromise public health," Johnson said.