Senate Bill Could Backfire on Charlotte

Bruce Henderson HeadshotThis guest post was written by Bruce Henderson, writer for the Charlotte Observer, and originally published on the Observer’s Earth & Energy blog.

The North Carolina Senate’s move to purge members of three state energy and environmental commissions could upset the Charlotte region’s plan to meet a federal smog standard.

The region’s air quality meets the ozone standard set in 1997, according to smog readings. But the Environmental Protection Agency wants the state to make a last tweak to its air-quality rules before officially designating it in compliance.

That’s where Senate Bill 10, which would replace all members of the state’s Environmental Management Commission, comes into play. The N.C. Division of Air Quality held a hearing on the rule change EPA wants in January, and the commission is expected to make it final in March.

A change in the EMC’s membership — terms would end when the bill is adopted — could throw off that schedule. If the rule is not adopted and the EPA designation isn’t completed, a hot, smoggy spring and summer could conceivably put Charlotte back in violation of the air standard.

“Not fixing this could affect a lot of small businesses,” that might face stricter regulations if the city violates the standard, said Mecklenburg County air-quality chief Don Willard. Federal transportation funding could also be blocked if the region violates the standard.

“It would be nice if this were a non-issue,” Willard said.

State environmental officials had nothing to say about Senate Bill 10′s potential effects on Charlotte. My questions to the Division of Air Quality were routed to an assistant secretary of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, who referred them to a department spokesman, who told me to call Gov. Pat McCrory’s spokeswoman.

But lawyer and blogger Robin Smith, a former assistant environment secretary who left DENR in December, agreed with Willard that Charlotte could get caught in a timing crunch on the smog standard. Smith also raised other issues with Senate Bill 10, related to conflicts of interest among EMC members.

The bill deletes existing language that says at least nine EMC members must have get no significant income from entities the commission regulates. That language existed partly, Smith says, to meet federal requirements for permitting programs delegated to the state under the federal Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act.

“Complete repeal of the language may cause EPA to question North Carolina compliance with federal rules governing those delegated programs,” she wrote.

DENR, in a memo to legislators the N.C. Coastal Federation published Friday, warned of similar conflicts the bill could pose for the Coastal Resources Commission. In addition to firing the CRC’s current members and deleting seats for environmentalists, the bill removes language limiting how many members may have ties to developers.

Those changes would likely have to pass muster with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which partners with the states under the federal Coastal Zone Management Act, the memo said. That partnership includes an important provision that says federal activities and permits in North Carolina’s coastal counties have to be consistent with state policies.

“In any case, the proposed bill will result in a significant level of public review and extensive reviews by a range of state and federal agencies,” the DENR memo said.

The N.C. Senate approved Senate Bill 10 in a little more than a week. It’s now before the N.C. House.

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