- Associated Press - Sunday, April 26, 2015

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Leading North Carolina business lobbying groups are pushing to scale back a 1971 state law that requires government agencies to evaluate the potential results of spending public dollars or disturbing public lands on the environment.

Republican legislation poised for House floor debate Monday narrows the application of the State Environmental Policy Act.

The law directs agencies to prepare environmental assessments or impact statements for items that use government funds or land such as wastewater treatment projects, improvements to state buildings and parkland or landfills. The evaluations offer alternatives and actions to ease negative environmental results. Other agencies and citizens comment upon them. A state clearinghouse may recommend changes before the project moves ahead.

Critics of the law say requiring such reviews are outdated and unnecessary given multiple state and federal environmental regulations and permitting now in place, such as for air and water protections.

“We are no longer in 1971,” said Rep. Chris Millis, R-Pender, one of the bill’s primary sponsors. With other requirements now in place, he added, “the environmental protection is actually there.”

The North Carolina Chamber and other business groups want the changes, too, because they contend are rules are hindering private sector development, according to John Goodman, a North Carolina Chamber lobbyist.

State officials may decide a plant expansion is close enough to state wetlands to require a written evaluation. Outside groups are citing the state law to challenge private projects in court and force delays by demanding an assessment be prepared. Goodman said.

“It’s become a mechanism to slow down the process, not stop the process,” Goodman said in an interview.

Environmental advocates seeking to preserve the current law say the proposed restrictions would essentially repeal it because of the high thresholds and additional exemptions. The review process allows other state government agencies to weigh in about a project’s impact on programs they operate and could lead to negative environmental outcomes, North Carolina state Sierra Club director Molly Diggins said.

The requirement “gives taxpayers more transparency and protects the taxpayers when there’s a use of public money or use of public lands,” said Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, during a House Environmental Committee, which recommended the bill last week.

The Republican-penned measure would limit state environmental assessments or impact statements to when more than $20 million in state funds are being spent or more than 20 acres of public land is substantially disturbed.

The limitations would also add exemptions for wetlands and coastal mitigation projects, as well was public lands that have been offered as part of a government incentives deal for a business. A current incentives exemption only applies when cash is offered for job creation and investment.

An official with the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources at last week’s committee meeting didn’t know how many projects would be affected if the bill became law. A department spokesman didn’t respond to a phone and email messages seeking comment on the bill.

The North Carolina Economic Developers Association and North Carolina Manufacturers Alliance also are lobbying for the bill.

The North Carolina Chamber is “interested in reforming and modernizing our regulatory code all the time so that our state continues to remain competitive,” said Gary Salamido, a chamber vice president.

The Republican-led legislature annually has passed laws designed to scale back what they see as needless state regulations. Some GOP lawmakers have said there needs to be balance between conservation and job creation.

But pulling back the State Environmental Policy Act so much “seems like a quite large overreach,” said Tim Gestwicki, chief executive officer of the North Carolina Wildlife Federation. If businesses don’t want to be subject to the law, Gestwicki added, “don’t take the state money or don’t take the land.”

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