Senate Leaders Propose Eliminating Pollution Controls In Jordan and Falls Lakes

Jun 1, 2016

Senate Republicans are proposing eliminating the state’s protections for drinking water from Jordan and Falls lakes, in favor of new measures that could allow polluters to dump into the stream and could treat the water by introducing mussels to potentially feed off pollutants.

The plan, which would repeal nutrient management rules for the Neuse, Tar-Pamlico, Falls Lake and Jordan Lake watersheds, would direct the politically appointed Environmental Management Commission to write new rules by 2019.

The proposal seeks to replace what Senate Republicans see as economically burdensome rules with guidelines based on new research, according to the plan, which is tucked inside the 187-page budget the Senate is considering this week.

The Republican-led General Assembly has delayed the most stringent provisions of the Jordan Lake rules since 2013, heeding the complaints of upstream developers who say complying would be too costly.

"Existing nutrient management strategies ... have rendered hundreds of acres of public and private property useless," the bill says.

Under the federal Clean Water Act, the state is required to clean up Jordan and Falls lakes, which provide drinking water for more than 700,000 Triangle residents. The lakes often exceed state standards for chlorophyll a, the green pigment in algae and plants that thrive off nutrient pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorus entering the lakes.

After years of stakeholder meetings and compromises, the Democratic-led legislature approved the Jordan Lake rules in 2009, though they have never been fully implemented.

In 2014, the Republican-led General Assembly turned to controversial solar-powered machines known as SolarBees to stir the water in Jordan Lake as an alternative to establishing strict construction and development restrictions on upstream communities such as Guilford and Alamance counties.

The state spent $1.3 million to maintain 36 leased SolarBees before the Department of Environmental Quality said this year that the machines weren’t effectively reducing pollution in the lake.

The plan under consideration by Senate Republicans would set aside $500,000 for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to study new nutrient management strategies, and $500,000 for the Wildlife Resources Commission to assess whether freshwater mussel species could help mitigate pollution in Jordan and Falls lakes.

Sen. Trudy Wade, a Republican from Guilford County who presented the plan before a Senate panel, declined to be interviewed on Wednesday. Sen. Mike Woodard, a Democrat from Durham County, said he’s concerned of the potential financial and health costs of putting off the enforcement of existing rules.

"You want another Flint, Michigan, situation?" Woodard said. "It’s not just coal ash that could be in our water now. It’s all the algae and all the things that nitrogen produces in Jordan Lake."