2016 Environmental Legislation: Place Matters!

About the Author

Jeff Hughes

Jeff Hughes was the Director of the Environmental Finance Center (EFC) at the UNC School of Government between 2003 and 2019. Hughes currently serves as a Commissioner in the North Carolina Utilities Commission.

How much the last legislative session impacted environmental management in your community largely depends on where you live in the state. It was a “short” legislative session and relatively few bills were passed, but several of the bills that were passed contained significant provisions likely to impact environmental quality in specific regions of the state. For example, the Drinking Water Protection/Coal Ash Cleanup Act requires that the owners of coal ash impoundments (ponds) that were shown to pollute groundwater provide impacted households with a permanent alternative water source. The Act also lays out the process and deadlines for dealing with coal ash ponds across the state to reduce further environmental impacts.

This year’s budget contained several important environmental management and funding provisions that will have a major impact on a number of communities. The main purpose of an annual budget bill during the second year (short session) of a two year legislative session is to make adjustments (typically fairly modest) to the spending that was specified in the budget prepared in the previous year. However, budget bills both at the state and federal level have begun being the home for important environmental policies that do not make it into standalone environmental bills (the omnibus environmental regulations bill did not pass this year).

This year’s budget bill delayed key aspects of the nutrient management rules that had been enacted to reduce nutrient pollution entering into Falls Lake and Jordan Lake. The budget also provided funding for a series of additional studies to inform future pollution management efforts. The debate over nutrient rules highlight the challenges of balancing the economics of development with controlling the unwanted pollution impacts associated with reduced impervious (green) area in the state’s high growth and sensitive watershed areas. The budget also included provisions for several studies related to the connection between economics and the environment in coastal communities including a study to look at improving oyster aquaculture and a series of studies to look at the economics of beach nourishment.

Finally, the budget did what budgets typically do and allocated funds for environmental projects across the state. This year’s budget appropriated over $25 million for specific water resource/drainage projects and targeted water and sewer projects for specific communities. These funds come on top of recurring and expanded funding appropriated to key state environmental funding programs. The State Water Infrastructure Authority/Division of Water Infrastructure and the Clean Water Management Trust Funds, programs which see their funding often track overall state economic conditions, continued to be funded at relatively “healthy” levels compared to recent years. The Clean Water Management Trust Fund received additional funds to support environmental buffers near military base ($1,000,000) as well as non-recurring expansion funds bringing its total annual appropriation to over $22 million, the most it has received in years.

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