RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina environmental groups say a provision tucked into a Republican-backed bill could allow polluters free rein to contaminate the state's air and water without penalty or public scrutiny.
Introduced this week, the Regulatory Reform Act of 2014 won preliminary approval Thursday in the GOP-led state Senate. The bill's three co-sponsors said in a joint statement that the measure removes "many ambiguous, onerous and obsolete regulations that increase the burden and expense on North Carolina families and job-creating businesses."
Some of the changes appear straightforward, such as getting rid of a century-old ban on cursing while on state highways. But environmentalists are alarmed by a section that encourages industries to self-report environmental violations to the state or to seek a voluntary compliance audit. As an incentive, the state could waive civil penalties or fines for the self-reported pollution and the audits pertaining to the violations would be kept confidential.
Parts of the provision appear to have been copied word for word from a model bill displayed on the website of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an association of corporations and conservative lawmakers that seek to influence legislation nationwide.
"This is more customer service from the legislature to polluters," said Derb Carter, the North Carolina director of the Southern Environmental Law Center. "Penalties are a deterrent to polluters. Waiving civil penalties for self-reported violations creates an incentive to pollute then self-report later."
Sen. Trudy Wade, R-Guilford and a primary sponsor of the wide-ranging regulatory overhaul, told colleagues the idea of self-audits was designed to encourage companies and other potential polluters to clean up problems proactively. The state is never going to have enough regulators to find all violations, she said later.
"It's just a common-sense way to improve the environment," she said in an interview.
The bill contains "limited immunity" from civil and administrative penalties if an environmental agency certifies the violation was corrected within a reasonable time period. The company or individual seeking the waiver also must prove the disclosure is voluntary.
"That doesn't mean that if you are caught doing something that harms the environment that you won't be fined," Wade said before the bill was tentatively approved by a 37-10 vote.
The provision also does not consider voluntary violations that were "willful, intentional or criminally negligent." However, criminal prosecutions for environmental violations are very rare in North Carolina.
A summary sheet explaining the bill provided to senators, a copy of which was obtained by AP, indicates the immunity provision was recommended by the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
Drew Elliot, spokesman for the agency, said Thursday that isn't true.
"We are still reviewing the bill language," Elliot said shortly before the Senate vote. "About half the states in the nation have similar provisions, so this is not a new concept."
Molly Diggins, the North Carolina director of the Sierra Club, said the group successfully fought a similar measure from becoming law in the state during the mid-1990s. A note on the ALEC webpage says the language was first approved by the organization's board in 1996.
"This provision allows companies to hide information that may document knowing, intentional and ongoing violations," Diggins said. "It gives companies the ability to avoid potential enforcement action, penalties and bad publicity. It would better be called the 'environmental secrecy' provision."
Wade, who is not an ALEC member, said she didn't know exactly who asked for the provision in the omnibus bill that covers several dozen changes. She said it was modeled in part on a South Carolina law and the 1990s proposal.
Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, and Wade said they would be talking before a final Senate vote next week about potential ways to amend the self-auditing provision. The bill also will be scrutinized in the House. Stein said he likes the concept.
"We want for every company to be proactive and figure out if they have environmental problems, and fix them," Stein said Thursday. But he also was concerned the legislation, as currently written, might lead to blanket immunity for polluters.
"It's a get-out-of-jail free card," he said.
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