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N.C. budget includes changes to environmental regulation commissions

RALEIGH — The budget before the legislature this week would make significant changes to two commissions that adopt environmental regulations in North Carolina.

The bill would end the terms of nearly all the members on both commissions, giving Gov. Pat McCrory and current legislative leaders unprecedented power to appoint new environmental rule makers. It would also shrink the size of both commissions and eliminate some seats designated for people with certain interests and expertise.

Terms for all but three members of the 19-person Environmental Management Commission would expire at the end of the month. The EMC is responsible for setting a range of environmental regulations, including allowable levels for air and water pollutants and rules for protecting groundwater, managing stormwater and guiding development in environmentally sensitive areas.

For four decades, EMC members served staggered six-year terms, giving successive administrations an opportunity to replace members over time, according to Steve Smith, a member appointed by Gov. Mike Easley, a Democrat, in 2005 and who served as chair for five years until being replaced this month by McCrory.

“It is unprecedented to eliminate all of the current members on a commission like the EMC,” Smith said. “I don’t know what the make-up of the new EMC will be. My fear is that the new appointees will be selected to follow the radical agenda of the current Republican leadership.”

The terms of all but four members of the Coastal Resources Commission also would expire on July 31. The CRC oversees activities in coastal counties such as construction, shoreline stabilization and dredging.

“It’s a very significant change as to how things have been done in the past,” said Bob Emory, the current chair of the CRC and one of four members whose terms won’t expire until June 2014.

Both boards have rules specifying the expertise that needs to be represented by its members. For example, the CRC must have members with experience in fields such as commercial fishing, coastal agriculture, engineering and land development.

But under the budget bill, it would no longer be required to have a marine ecologist or someone with ties to a conservation group.

Joan Weld, the vice-chair of the CRC, found it difficult to believe that the conservation seat she holds would not remain on the new commission.

“I think that’s pretty flagrant, quite frankly,” said Weld who worked previously for the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources and with conservation groups. She said she thinks the restructuring is intended to make the CRC more business-oriented.

Many of the requirements for member expertise on the EMC would remain intact, including those for hydrology, air pollution control, agriculture, and industrial manufacturing, but some would be consolidated. Current rules call for a member with wildlife conservation experience and a member experienced in marine or freshwater biology. These two positions would be combined into one seat. A position for a public health expert would be eliminated.

“That’s a concern,” Smith said. “Decisions on environmental questions have an impact on public health, whether it’s air or water.”

The proposed changes written into the budget are a revised version of legislation that appeared in a failed bill last year and again in January as part of Senate Bill 10, the Government Reorganization and Efficiency Act, which was tabled earlier this session. Four sponsors of Senate Bill 10 – Republicans Neal Hunt of Wake County, Tom Apodaca of Henderson County, Bill Rabon of Brunswick County and Andrew Brock of Davie County – did not respond to requests for comment.

Smith, the former EMC chairman, said the historical makeup of the commission, with a range of philosophical and political perspectives, led to a balance of business and environmental interests. These legislative changes have the potential to upset that balance.

“There’s no doubt that clean water and clean air are good for business and good for the economy,” Smith said.

The near-term effect on environmental rule making depends on how many of the existing members get reappointed and how long it takes to get new members up to speed, said Emory, the CRC chairman. Ongoing CRC efforts to draft regulations for the Cape Fear region and a legislative mandate to conduct a sea-level rise assessment by 2016 are long-term projects that Emory hoped would not be affected.

Benne Hutson, the new chair of the EMC whose term will also expire at the end of the month, wasn’t sure if the commission would be delayed by the changes. The EMC is expected to make a decision soon about raising the acceptable levels of arsenic that can be emitted by factories into the air.

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