Pricey Harrison

Friday, August 05, 2005

Improve Enviornmental Enforcment

A bill that would strengthen enforcement for environmental violations passed House Finance on a very tight voice vote last Thursday. HB1283, Improve Environmental Enforcement, Bill Culpepper (D-Chowan), raises penalties for violations of the Sedimentation Pollution Control Act, Coastal Area Management Act, Solid Waste Management Act, and Wastewater Systems Act(pdf file). It also allows the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to recover investigative costs, and authorizes DENR to require violators to take environmental educational courses or perform community service in lieu of or in addition to paying fines. Additionally, the bill authorizes DENR to undertake a 4-year pilot program to retain actual costs of collection. Under the North Carolina Constitution, public schools receive all fines and penalties collected by the State, minus the department's cost of collection, which in DENR's case has been limited to10% regardless of the actual cost of enforcement, which is often higher than the payment received.

Predictably, several interests spoke against the bill. Paul Wilms, Homebuilder's Association, said developers were concerned about the steep increase in fines and the granting of authority to DENR to prescribe education or service in lieu of fines, which, he said, was a power traditionally reserved to the courts. He did acknowledge some changes to the bill which helped him "feel better about it," including limiting the number of statutes under which a developer could be fined - for instance, a developer could be fined under either the Sedimentation or Coastal statutes, but not both. Mac Boxley, NC Aggregates Association and John Long, Martin Marietta, echoed Wilms' concerns. Boxley said the bill would have a "chilling effect on efforts to attract and retain quality businesses." (Though if they're quality, they shouldn't have anything to worry about, right?) Leanne Winner, NC School Boards Association, objected to the pilot funding project, saying she has offered to work with DENR on a more limited pilot. Robin Smith, DENR, spoke for the bill, saying the pilot will enable the agency to collect more fines - 30% currently go uncollected - thus benefiting schools, and that fines need to be raised to deter violations.

Among committee member debate, Rep. Bruce Goforth (D-Buncombe) said the bill could bankrupt small companies and "drive up the cost of road building" - unwittingly making the argument for the bill that violations are currently commonplace. Rep. Curtis Blackwood (R-Union) complained there had been no stakeholder involvement and the bill was "unilaterally ramming something down their throats." Russell Capps (R-Wake) called the bill "extremely radical." Rep. Pryor Gibson (D-Anson) noted that stakeholders have had plenty of time to weigh in, and added, "I have no sympathy for anybody that intentionally violates environmental laws in our state." Rep. Jennifer Weiss (D-Wake) defended the bill, noting that sedimentation is the number one cause of water pollution in North Carolina, and increased penalties are needed "so it is not just the cost of doing business to violate these laws."

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