Just below the Falls Lake dam, the Neuse River is so shallow you can walk across it and barely get your ankles wet. But it’s what is on the far bank that has Matt Starr concerned. He’s the Upper Neuse River Waterkeeper, and he’s pointing across the river at a house, probably built in the 1970s.
“And you can see that they have manicured lawns, literally to the bank of the Neuse River,” Starr said. “And just 75 yards further downstream, you can see a forested buffer.”
This matters because a lawn means fertilizer, and with no buffer to filter and stop it, rain will wash that nitrogen-rich fertilizer right into the river. That means algae blooms and fishkills downstream.
“Right here on the Neuse, you have a nutrient impaired body of water,” Starr said. “Well, that will become exponentially worse.”
Back in the 1990s, the Neuse River was much more impaired than it is now. Millions of fish were turning up dead along its banks because of loose rules regulating runoff.
And the Neuse is important. It’s a huge watershed – about 6,000 square miles. Along its shores are highly-developed neighborhoods in Wake County, corporate hog farms further east, and finally coastal lowlands that support oysters and fish. It’s also the sole source of drinking water for many towns and cities like Goldsboro and Kinston.
So after the fishkills, hundreds of scientists, landowners, developers, elected officials, and others came together to develop new rules. Among them was the 50-foot buffer, a rule that stated the vegetation 50-feet out from the river’s edge must be left alone, to serve as the first line of protections against polluted runoff.
That plan has largely worked. While there are still some fishkills, they aren’t nearly as large as they once were.
But new legislation, if passed, would shrink the buffers almost in half. Other bills would change environmental regulations in significant ways, as well. Provisions in HB 44, HB 765, and others would cut funds that pay for TV and electronic recycling programs, define isolated wetlands, and even pigeon hunting.
“The Regulatory Reform Act of 2015 will increase government efficiency, reduce unnecessary regulatory reforms on citizens and the business community, and protect private property rights,” explained state Senator Trudy Wade (R-Guilford County) during a floor debate over HB 765 on July 1.
The Regulatory Reform Act started out as a one-page bill that dealt with moving gravel on trucks. When it re-appeared, it was a massive 50-plus page reform bill.
The Department of Environment and Natural Resources objected to many of the provisions, and negotiated several changes.
Environmental advocates say they didn’t go far enough.
“As these roll backs come into effect, we are going to see dirtier water, we’re going to see dirtier air,” said Dustin Chicurel-Bayard of the North Carolina Sierra Club. “And that’s really a shame, and something North Carolinians really aren’t used to.”
Among the proposed changes that could have the largest impact is one that would put anyone who brings a civil suit against DENR, and loses, on the hook for the state’s legal fees.
Another would absolve any corporation or landowner from civil or administrative penalties if they self-report an environmental violation.
“It’s just way too much of a polluter freedom and a free pass for these folks,” says Chicurel-Bayard of the self-audit provision. “We do need accountability. We do want polluters to report when something goes wrong, but we do want to make sure that they are still able to be held responsible when they do pollute the public’s air and the public’s water.”
Lawmakers in both parties had little time to digest the changes before votes took place. But Democrats did try to address the self-audit provision, and offered an amendment that would have removed it.
During the floor debate, Senator Wade argued against it.
“If you can self-audit, you can say please, ‘I’ve made a mistake here, please come in, tell me what I need to do to clean it up,'” Wade explained. “So I would ask that you vote against the amendment.”
Wade’s Republican colleagues did just that, and the amendment failed along party lines.
After passing the Regulatory Reform bill before the Fourth of July holiday break, the legislation has somewhat slowed.
The many provisions will now be chips in a complicated budget negotiating process between state House and Senate leaders.
Those negotiations will take place behind closed doors.