- Associated Press - Monday, April 27, 2015

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - The legislature’s first crack at its annual “regulatory reform” bill that moved forward Monday includes provisions environmental groups worry could discourage natural pollution protections along streams and rivers.

The measure that cleared the House Regulatory Reform Committee would mean that, starting in June 2016, local deviations from state standards for buffers along waterways couldn’t be enforced unless the Environmental Management Commission agrees they are justified through scientific study. The bill could be on the House floor Tuesday.

State and local governments use riparian buffers to meet water pollution requirements. Although the state standard is 50 feet on either side of a waterway, some cities and counties have made them wider.

Bill sponsor Rep. Chris Millis, R-Pender, said the measure would strengthen the ability of local governments to expand the width of environmental buffers in key basins - provided they back it up with science - beyond state requirements.

The provision “is to make sure from a property rights standpoint that local governments aren’t doing things that are egregious for your constituents,” Millis said.

Matthew Starr, the Upper Neuse Riverkeeper, told the committee that the bill represented restrictions that would shift the cost of the state remaining below pollution thresholds to more expensive controls upon farmers and local governments.

Vegetative buffers are “the cheapest, most efficient and fairest way to keep pollution levels in our rivers from increasing,” Starr said.

Riparian buffer programs are administered within the Neuse, Tar-Pamlico and Catawba river basins, Randleman and Jordan lake watersheds, and Goose Creek watershed.

The lengthy bill also addresses requirements that currently closed swine operations would have to meet to remain exempt from modern waste control technologies should they reopen.

The North Carolina Pork Council backs a provision that would eliminate an administrative rule involving swine farm operations that have not been in service for several years and were exempt from requirements that banned construction of new lagoons to collect pig waste. New, high-tech waste systems are now required when farms expand.

The older farms now remain subject to exemptions only if someone brings animals to the farms for at least 45 days every four years, council spokesman Angie Maier said. The change wouldn’t require the animal movement and would allow a farm to operate again under old rules provided the swine producers has permits and production is no larger than its highest past level.

Maier said perhaps fewer than 20 farms would benefit from the change. Some have been vacant because some pork producers went out of business, she said.

“We’re talking about a small number of farms that have lost the ability to repopulate as a result of this code,” she said.

Tom Bean, a lobbyist speaking for Environmental Defense and other conservation groups, said without changes the measure would “allow the expansion of the hog population on existing farms without the operation being required to upgrade to current standards.”

An amendment passed by the committee also partially revived an effort to scale back a 2007 requirement directing electric companies to generate more power through alternative sources and efficiencies.

Rep. Mike Hager, R-Rutherford, offered the amendment that would cap how much expense utilities can pass along to customers to comply with the 2007 law directing utilities to generate more power through alternative sources like solar and wind power and other measures. The cap would remain at 2014 levels for retail customers, or $12 annually. The law ultimately would allow the rider to reach $34.

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