A swamp in Hoke County (Photo: Lisa Sorg)
This story was originally posted June 23; it was updated June 27 at 2:45 p.m., after the House overrode the governor’s veto.
The House overrode Gov. Cooper’s veto of the Farm Act today, stripping 2.5 million acres of wetlands — an area one and half times larger than the state of Delaware — of environmental protection. The vote was 78-40 in favor of the override.
State Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat who has served in the legislature nearly 20 years, urged her House colleagues to sustain the governor’s veto. She called the measure “the most destructive environmental bill since I was elected in 2004.”
State Rep. Abe Jones, a Democrat from Wake County, said the bill could be “much, much, much better if we extracted all the junk” — meaning the wetlands provision.
The Senate overrode the governor’s veto Monday by a 29-17 margin, with the votes landing along party lines.
Gov. Cooper vetoed Senate Bill 582 last week because it would strip legal protections from half the state’s wetlands.
The removal of these protections would mean “more severe flooding for homes, roads and businesses, and dirtier water for our people, especially in eastern North Carolina,” his veto message read. “The General Assembly has allocated tens of millions of dollars to protect the state from flooding, and my administration is working to stop pollution, like PFAS and other contaminants. This bill reverses our progress and leaves the state vulnerable without vital flood mitigation and water purification tools.”
Roughly 2.5 million acres of wetlands composing 7% of North Carolina’s land mass could lose environmental protection, the fallout of a one-two punch by state lawmakers and the U.S. Supreme Court.
The figures are based on preliminary estimates by the NC Department of Environmental Quality, which show that another 367,000 acres are at moderate risk of losing protection. That means the wetlands could be filled in, paved and polluted without penalty.
Grady McCallie, policy director for the NC Conservation Network, issued a statement about the governor’s veto:
“Gov. Cooper’s rejection of S582 — a bill that would strip protection from at least half of North Carolina’s wetlands — is a sensible use of his veto power. Losing these wetlands would worsen future floods, threaten drinking water, and put lives and property in harm’s way. We urge members of the NC General Assembly to take the responsible course and let the veto stand.”
In the late 1990s, DEQ inventoried all wetlands in North Carolina larger than one acre. At the time, the project was one of the largest of its kind ever undertaken by any state. The agency catalogued 4.3 million acres of wetlands, although that number does not include wetlands less than an acre, those that no longer exist, and others that might have already lost protection under state law.
(View the public wetlands on a DEQ map.)
Wetlands lost their first layer of Clean Water Act protections last month, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that the law does not apply to “isolated wetlands.” These wetlands aren’t located next to other wetlands, ponds, lakes, streams and waterways. For example, wetlands that are connected by groundwater to a regulated lakes or stream are no longer be protected. Nor are wetlands physically separated from those waters by human-made dikes or barriers.
The court’s ruling overturned an EPA rule finalized under President Obama that recognized the ecological value of isolated wetlands in providing flood control and wildlife habitat. It did not, contrary to the rule’s opponents, apply to most farm ditches, farm ponds, and stormwater retention areas in housing developments.
The second line of defense fell with the state legislature’s passage on June 13 of Senate Bill 582, also known as the Farm Act. It prohibits the state from regulating wetlands that lost protection under the Supreme Court ruling.
“We call on the legislature to sustain Governor Cooper’s veto of SB582 – The Farm Act. This bill shouldn’t have passed in the first place. It allows for mass destruction of our wetlands – millions of acres representing half of those currently protected. The real beneficiaries of this legislation are builders and developers; nobody who calls themselves a friend of the environment, clean air, or clean water can consider this anything other than a catastrophic rollback of protections fought for over the past 50 years,” wrote Dan Crawford, director of governmental affairs for the League of Conservation Voters. “This bill is bad for clean water, bad for flood and storm mitigation, bad for the environment, bad for taxpayers, and bad for North Carolina.
An analysis by the Southern Environmental Law Center found that in the Neuse and Cape Fear River basins alone, about 900,000 acres of wetlands are now at risk of pollution and destruction.
“Protecting wetlands protects our communities,” said Geoff Gisler, program director at the SELC. “By eliminating laws that have been in place for years, the legislature puts wetlands and our communities in harm’s way. This bill is the single most destructive action taken in North Carolina in decades—the legislature has abandoned our great natural resources, the rivers we depend on, and communities across the state.”
Wetlands are key natural solution to reducing the harm from climate change. They reduce flooding by absorbing and containing excess water; a one-acre wetland can hold about a million gallons. Wetlands also filter pollutants. They store carbon in the soil, preventing it from being released as carbon dioxide, a primary greenhouse gas and driver of climate change, into the atmosphere. And they provide valuable habitat and feeding areas for aquatic life, birds and animals.
Sen. Brent Jackson, a primary sponsor of the Farm Act, issued a statement rebutting the governor’s veto:
“His objection fails to consider our obligation to comply with federal law and regulations,” the statement reads in part. “The 2023 Farm Act ensures North Carolina is in compliance with federal laws.”
The legislature previously passed laws forbidding North Carolina from enacting more stringent rules and regulations than the federal government. This is known as the Hardin amendment.
Before the Farm Act’s passage this year, Republican state lawmakers had tried several times to roll back protections for isolated wetlands. In 2021, a version of the House budget stripped those protections, but the language was removed. In 2017, under Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, the legislature appropriated $250,000 to the state Department of Agriculture to sue the federal government, arguing the EPA’s wetlands and stream protections were too stringent.
On the Democratic side, while the legislature was assailing the Clean Water Act, the Cooper administration was trying to defend it. In 2020 DEQ and Attorney General Josh Stein sued the Trump administration over its defanging of the Clean Water Act.
Read previous NC Newsline stories about wetlands, streams and the definition of “Waters of the United States.”
Click on the You Tube video to hear Rep. Pricey Harrison discuss wetlands protections in her floor remarks about the Farm Act earlier this month.
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