Ratified and en route to the governor, House Bill 600 defangs state environmental law

Legislation rolls back rules over hog and poultry industries, pipeline companies

By: - September 25, 2023 12:00 pm
an aerial photo of a giant hog farm with eight long metal barns and two waste lagoons that appear to be purple

Two hog lagoons and a spray field (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

Update, Oct. 2, 3:05 p.m.: Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed this bill; it now goes back to the legislature, which vote on whether to override the veto. This is the governor’s statement:

“This bill is a hodgepodge of bad provisions that will result in dirtier water, discriminatory permitting and threats to North Carolina’s environment. It also undoes a significant policy to promote fairness in state contracting for historically underutilized businesses as it blocks efforts to encourage diverse suppliers for state purchases, rules that would save taxpayer dollars and help businesses grow. The rules mirror the successful approach used for 18 years in state construction contracting and they were enacted with extensive feedback from state agencies and vendors and they were approved by the Rules Review Commission, which has all of its members appointed by the Republican controlled legislature.”

It began as benign, but over the summer House Bill 600, the Regulatory Reform Act, transmogrified into a behemoth of environmental rollbacks and favors to pipeline companies, the hog and poultry industries and other special interests.

When the bill was filed in April, it contained an anodyne section requiring publicly funded animal shelters to keep records of surrenders and allowed them to participate in catch-spay-and-release programs.

However, by June, as NC Newsline reported, the bill sponsors began to signal their true intent, tacking on section after section to defang or eliminate environmental rules.

And unless Gov. Roy Cooper vetoes it — and the legislature fails to override the veto, which is unlikely — that bill will soon become law.

Here are some of the key environmental provisions in the final, ratified version.

Hog lagoon, swine waste provisions carried over from the June version of the bill: The NC Department of Environmental Quality will no longer be able to deny a hog waste lagoon or swine gas project on civil rights grounds.

Why it matters: The new law forecloses yet another avenue of redress for neighbors of enormous swine operations. For example, from 2017 to 2020 as federal juries were finding Smithfield Foods liable for having been a public nuisance to neighbors and awarding plaintiffs millions of dollars in damages, state lawmakers passed legislation making it impossible to file nuisance suits against hog farms, even if the stench, flies and groundwater contamination significantly impairs a person’s quality of life.

A new provision related to dead chickens and livestock: “The Supply Chain Emergency Act” authorizes the Agriculture Commissioner, currently Steve Troxler, and the Board of Agriculture to allow poultry and livestock farms to bury or “compost” their dead animals without a permit from DEQ. This provision applies in situations when “the Commissioner of Agriculture, in consultation with the poultry and protein processors and slaughter facilities” determines there’s an “imminent threat” to the supply chain because of a lack of space in the landfills or capacity at rendering facilities.

Why it matters: Pathogens from the decomposition of dead animals could harm the groundwater — or even streams and wetlands depending on where carcasses are composted or buried. If DEQ doesn’t have to issue a permit for the composting or burial, then there is no public recordkeeping of where this activity take place.

A new provision about 1,4-Dioxane, a probable carcinogen: DEQ must prepare a human health risk assessment of 1,4-Dioxane in drinking water “supported by peer-reviewed studies.” The assessment is due to the Joint Legislative Commission on Government Operations by May 1, 2024.

The NC Collaboratory “shall” evaluate commercially available technologies to remove 1,4-Dioxane from wastewater discharged by large treatment plants. Those technical and economic details are due in a report, also to Gov Ops, by May 1.

Why it matters: 1,4-Dioxane is a “probable” carcinogen, according to federal health authorities. The chemical is used in industrial processing and as a solvent and has been detected in groundwater throughout the state, as well as the Haw River, Jordan Lake and the Lower Cape Fear River. The sources are industries that send their wastewater into municipal treatment plants. Without advanced and expensive treatment systems, those plants discharge the chemical into surface water.

In some cases, when wastewater sludge containing 1,4-Dioxane is used as fertilizer on agricultural fields, the chemical can seep into the groundwater, drinking water wells or run off into rivers and streams.

Another source is landfill leachate — liquid that collects in tanks at the bottom of landfills. Since 1,4-Dioxane is present in many consumer goods, such as cosmetics, detergents and cleaning products, the chemical enters the landfill when those products are thrown away.

Neither the EPA nor the NC Department of Environmental Quality have established legally enforceable limits on 1,4-Dioxane, even though it’s a known carcinogen. State regulators have established an unenforceable health advisory goal of 0.35 parts per billion in drinking water supplies.

However, DEQ can and must legally enforce limits on 1,4-Dioxane as it can with PFAS, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center. EPA clarified that authority in its recent guidance to states.

Provisions that are largely the same, but with clarifications regarding natural gas pipelines: Section 7 (a) now explicitly says DEQ must grant water quality permits for “projects involving the distribution or transmission of energy or fuel” — pipelines — as long as they comply with state requirements. DEQ can’t impose any other conditions on the permit, such as ensuring downstream communities aren’t harmed by the pipeline construction and operation.

The June version of the legislation required DEQ to issue or deny the permit within 60 days of deeming it complete. The law now clarifies the 60-day time limit applies only to permits without a public hearing. DEQ has 90 days to decide on the permit if the agency holds a public hearing.

The proposed MVP Southgate route (Map: MVP Southgate website)

Why it matters: The MVP Southgate project, which would enter North Carolina in Rockingham County and travel southeast to Alamance County, would be an extension of the main Mountain Valley Pipeline in West Virginia and Virginia. Successful legal challenges jeopardized the main pipeline’s viability until earlier this year, when a compromise in the federal debt ceiling deal revived the project. Now MVP Southgate is also back in play, over intense public opposition.

“Without clean water, all life suffers,” wrote Crystal Cavalier-Keck, director of the group 7 Directions of Service, in response to HB 600’s passage. “What is going through the minds of our elected leaders in Raleigh who continue to sacrifice such a precious and finite resource? For our communities, protecting the health of our streams and rivers has proven to be a nonpartisan issue. Water consistently unites us across differences, and we’re going to keep mobilizing to ensure our laws reflect not only the will of the people, but the ancient laws of nature that treat water as sacred.”

7 Directions of Service is an Indigenous-led environmental justice and community organizing collective based on Occaneechi-Saponi homelands in rural North Carolina.

Coupled with the pipeline provisions in HB 600, other legislation also eases the way for MVP Southgate.  SB 677, which as of last Friday, was resting in the Senate Rules Committee, would allow professional land surveyors and their “agents” or “employees” to enter private property without risking a trespassing violation. 

This measure relates to pipeline routes in that many landowners along the now-defunct Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the MVP Southgate project — still very much alive — have forbidden land surveyors from entering their property to conduct work on easements and rights of ways.

If the bill becomes law, those landowners couldn’t exercise their private property rights to prevent that work from happening. The bill could also affect private property owners whose land adjoins or includes proposed mines, roads and other projects.

Republican Sens. Steve Jarvis, Tom McInnis and Kevin Corbin sponsored the bill; they did not respond to email questions from NC Newsline.

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.