NC Environmental Retrospective
[from The Conservation Council of NC]
A Year's Retrospective: NC's Most Important Environmental Stories of 2006
Congress Changes for the Greener in Mid-Term Elections
The biggest environmental story of the year nationwide had to be the turnover of Congressional leadership through the mid-term elections. More than a simple change in party control, these Congressional elections removed majority support from the most anti-environmental leadership in modern American history. They were replaced with a bunch whose voting records are generally very green, according to the non-partisan League of Conservation Voters (LCV). The story is exemplified by the 2006 LCV environmental voting scores of the outgoing vs. incoming House Speakers: 0% for outgoing Rep. Dennis Hastert (R-IL), and 100% for incoming Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).
Among the nine members of LCV's designated "Dirty Dozen" members of Congress (including an astounding four incumbent Senators) who went down in defeat was one of North Carolina's own. U.S. Rep. "Chainsaw Charlie" Taylor (R-NC11) was defeated by political newcomer Heath Shuler, who made his pro-conservation values a big part of his campaign.
Conservation Ranks Grow in General Assembly
The results were less dramatic—party control of neither chamber changed hands—but there was still a noteworthy growth in the number of conservation-oriented members of the N.C. General Assembly in the November elections. 100% of the Conservation Council's endorsed incumbent legislators in the November voting won re-election, and at least three big changes worked in the environment's favor. In the N.C. House, Ty Harrell in Wake County and Cullie Tarleton in Watauga and Ashe counties defeated incumbents with poor environmental voting records. In the N.C. Senate, Tony Foriest of Alamance County upset long-time incumbent Hugh Webster, who had one of the worst environmental voting records in that chamber. In the process of working these elections, the Conservation Council's CPAC further strengthened its reputation for impacting close races, while putting a record amount of financial resources into campaigns.
New Green Leaders Emerge in Legislature
Even before the fall elections, we saw a distinct pattern of new environmental leadership emerging in the General Assembly. After years of having to lean on a few heroes like Joe Hackney, the environmental movement saw new help stand out in this year's short session. Among the new green leaders: Rep. Pricey Harrison, who showed her savvy in the battle for a greener state budget; Rep. Grier Martin, who successfully championed the "Schoolchildren's Health Act" to final passage, and who led a "youth" uprising in the House to spring the landfill moratorium bill from committee to a successful floor vote and passage; and Sen. Janet Cowell, who led Senate efforts for the successful "Drinking Water Supply Reservoir Protection Act".
Stormwater Controls Expand After Battle
After a long, hard struggle, North Carolina now has substantially expanded controls on stormwater runoff in key areas of the state. In a late-passing compromise bill, stormwater management requirements were expanded to 26 full counties under the Phase II rules; all municipal jurisdictions within those counties are covered by the same tougher requirements; and the impervious surface percentage limits on new development near shellfish waters, which triggers engineered stormwater control requirements, was dropped from 24% to 12%.
Good and Bad Bills Break Through Late Jam During Short Session
Of course, not all of the General Assembly results were goodness and light. The sneak-goblins which emerged and were shoved through late included an outrageous giveaway to Duke Energy of exempting its proposed new Cliffside coal units from full environmental impact reviews; and a partial retreat from new standards requiring that new developments in two key river basins pay for their true environmental impact mitigation costs. On the other hand, the above-mentioned moratorium on permitting of new mega-landfills also passed late, and some other mischievous proposals were blocked from passage when strengthened environmental legislative leadership stood firm in opposition.
U.S. Supreme Court Moves Backward
This is a developing story that we've started worrying about this year, even though the full impact hasn't shown itself yet. Two new appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court were individuals with highly worrisome records on regulatory issues. We fear that as cases come forward for final judicial rulings, the new Court may strike down long-standing precedent permitting regulation of pollution and environmental impacts. We'll watch further developments with concern.
N.C. Court Elections Bolster Environmental Precedent
On the state level, the judicial news was better. Four of the seven N.C. Supreme Court seats were up for election this year due to a combination of term expirations and retirements. Some of the candidates for these seats had signaled extremely worrisome views on regulatory authority and so-called "property rights". To our great relief, they lost. Mainstream jurists who are likely to continue to support established precedent in favor of reasonable regulatory authority over land use and pollution control won all four seats. Whew!
Struggle Continues Over National Forests
In Washington, the Bush Administration continued its ill-considered effort to sell off great blocks of public lands in our National Forests, and to open other roadless areas up for ill-advised short-term exploitation. However, a bipartisan wave of Congressional representatives and governors pushed back hard. The governors of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia all opted to protect their states' roadless areas in National Forests; and a clear majority of even this year's Congress just said "no" to the foolish proposal to sell public lands for short-term operational program money.
Offshore Drilling Ban Holds
A long year of dramatic back-and-forth Congressional votes on cracking the offshore drilling ban along the mid-Atlantic closed with the ban still standing. We don't want to grow over-confident, but with new greener leadership taking over Congress, sane offshore policy may have weathered its worst storm.
Mercury Rules Approved
After another long year-plus of rulemaking debates, North Carolina's Environmental Management Commission (EMC) adopted new controls on mercury air pollution that clearly go beyond the weak rules proposed by the Bush EPA. The new state rules were a product of compromise, and their effectiveness is heavily dependent on assertive enforcement by state Air Quality regulators. In theory, however, they present a good chance to reduce emissions of polluting mercury faster and farther than the feds proposed. The Rules Review Commission actually did the right thing as well, and slam-dunked a late, weak challenge from the flat-earth society more formally known as the John Locke Foundation.
Cooper, NC Demand Stronger Interstate Pollution Controls
In February, N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper filed a federal lawsuit against the Tennessee Valley Authority, demanding faster and stronger cleanup of damaging pollution from their coal-fired power plants. In June, Cooper filed a petition with the U.S. Court of Appeals, asking for help in making the EPA act favorably on North Carolina's request for aid in controlling such interstate pollution. So far, the federal courts have refused requests by the defendants to dismiss these claims, and they continue to move forward.
Utilities Ask for More Nukes
Not all this year's requests for action on power plants were environmentally welcome. Both Duke Energy and Progress Energy kicked off the process of asking federal and state regulators for permission to build new commercial nuclear power plants in the Carolinas. Duke even wants to go back to the legislatively-abandoned old scam of guaranteeing that ratepayers will foot the multi-billion dollar bills for new construction—even if it is never completed and used. Why, we can't expect Duke's stockholders to bear the risks for bad construction decisions, now can we?
Catawba Water Transfer Request Ignites Storm Over Interbasin Transfers
The cities of Concord and Kannapolis started a firestorm over water, when they asked for up to 26 million gallons a day of water from the Catawba River be transferred to their use in the Yadkin basin and not returned. The howls of river advocates and local governments in the Catawba River basin were heard all the way to Raleigh. A decision by the EMC was postponed for more hearings and comment, and the EMC is now scheduled to rule on the request in January. If the decision favors the transfer, the Catawba basin governments—and the state of South Carolina—have promised to sue. This case points out the weak guidance provided by current legislation for settling disputes over water rights between those who have water for future growth—and those who don't, and want their neighbors to have to hand it over.
Greenhouse Gases Reach Supreme Court
Here's another environmental player to be named later—does the EPA have Clean Air Act authority and responsibility to regulate greenhouse gases (especially carbon dioxide)? A coalition of states and environmental groups reached the U.S. Supreme Court late this year with the argument that the answer is "yes". The Supremes should let us know their view sometime in 2007.
Nowhere Road May Have Reached End
With the fall of Rep. Charles Taylor, the last major Congressional defender of the proposed "Road to Nowhere" into the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the nowhere road may have reached its final end. New Rep. Heath Shuler has promised to back the alternative cash settlement with Swain County, which would put the ill-advised road to rest. We're pulling for this bad cat to have given up its ninth life, and head in 2007 for the ash heap of history.
Energy Policy Emerges as Central Debate
Our final big story of 2006 requires some interpretation. During the election campaigns nationally, poll after poll showed the public to be fed up with "big oil" and rising energy prices, and to be ready for a major effort to promote energy efficiency and the development of clean renewable energy sources. The election outcomes largely seemed to bear out those numbers. We look for Congress and state legislatures around the nation to take this lesson in political numbers to heart beginning next year. Of course, that could be interpreted as a prediction—so let us say instead that we hope that they will take this lesson to heart.