At the urging of some of the state’s largest polluters, a committee in the Republican-controlled state House voted Tuesday to eliminate the state program that monitors and enforces clean air regulations.
During an afternoon meeting of the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Pat McElraft, an Emerald Isle Republican, introduced an amendment to eliminate the state's air toxics program.
The measure was added to Senate Bill 308, which would prohibit state agencies from enforcing regulation of greenhouse gas emissions by industry beyond federal regulations. In general, federal air quality rules are weaker than existing state regulations on pollution emitted from the stacks of coal-fired power plants and other industrial activities.
Before Tuesday’s suprise ammedment, the bill had languished in the Republican-controlled committee for three months. McElraft’s amendment was approved without any opportunity for public comment. Officials at the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, were also caught by surprise by the amendment, copies of which had not been provided to them ahead of time.
Five of the state’s largest emitters of hazardous and toxic pollutants, including Duke Power and steel manufacturer Nucor Corp., had urged Republican legislators in writing to repeal North Carolina’s Air Toxic Regulations. These companies account for over half of the hazardous and toxic chemical released in North Carolina, according to a 2009 inventory by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The ammeded bill will now head to a House vote before the end of the week, before returning to the Republican controlled state Senate.
McElraft said the changes bring North Carolina in line with neighboring states, that rely solely on the federal regulations. It cleared the committee over the objections of some committee members, and needs approval in the House and Senate.
“In order to be competitive with business with our bordering states we need to be doing what they are doing and that is allowing the federal government to do the regulation,” she said.
Sheila Holman, director of the state’s air quality division, said the federal regulations don’t go far enough to protect the health of North Carolinians. The state’s existing rules require the air leaving industrial plants and other facilities to meet clean air standards before they reach surrounding neighborhoods.
“The question is do we get a complete picture of the community risk,” Holman said of the federal standards.
Environmentalists were blunt in their assessment of the legislation. “Our public health is at stake here, and we do not want to see this bill move forward,” said Margaret Hartzell, who represents Environment North Carolina.
Among the pollutants that state officials say would not be regulated if the bill becomes law are hydrogen sulfide, nitric acid, sulfuric acid and ammonia.