Ask Your NC Legislator to Oppose HB 795

The NC General Assembly is proposing to gut the law (SEPA) that requires consideration of environmental costs and benefits when public money is spent or public land is used. This law has helped us expose wasteful projects that would harm the Catawba River and allowed us time to work out a better solution, including unnecessary inter-basin transfers and wasteful highway projects that would increase sprawl.

Ask Your NC Legislator to Oppose HB 795

IBT Hearing

April 20, 2015

(The following description was prepared by Cassie Gavin and Molly Diggins with the NC Chapter of the Sierra Club)

What is SEPA?

In 1969, the US Congress passed one of the nation’s great environmental laws, NEPA, or the National Environmental Policy Act. In 1971, the North Carolina General Assembly enacted and Gov. Bob Scott signed into law the NC Environmental Policy Act of 1971, known as SEPA. House Bill 795 would gut this fundamental state environmental program, leaving a shell in place.

SEPA offers North Carolinians the assurance that when public funds are spent or public land is used, the environmental impacts, and costs & benefits of a project are assessed, and alternatives considered. It offers taxpayer protection as well as environmental protection. It also ensures transparency, safeguarding the public’s right to know. It requires bureaucrats to consult the public before finalizing major decisions.

SEPA protects taxpayers by requiring disclosure when taxpayer funds are used on projects with environmental impacts. Adopted in 1971, SEPA requires environmental assessment for projects that potentially have a significant environmental impact, need a state approval (such as a permit), and involve either the use of public funds or public lands. Unlike its federal counterpart (the National Environmental Policy Act or "NEPA"), the state law has never applied to privately funded development projects no matter how significant the environmental impact. To require an EIS under SEPA, there must be some public investment (by either state or local government) or use of public land. Typical projects requiring an assessment under SEPA would be an interbasin transfer of water, a new wastewater treatment plant; a county landfill; a major development project on state-owned submerged lands.

“…it shall be the policy of the State to seek, for all of its citizens, safe, healthful, productive and aesthetically pleasing surroundings; to attain the widest range of beneficial uses of the environment without degradation, risk to health or safety; and to preserve the important historic and cultural elements of our common inheritance.”

The NC Environmental Policy Act of 1971

HB 795 would severely limit the number of projects requiring an environmental assessment under North Carolina’s Environmental Policy Act.

● House Bill 795 proposes to limit SEPA review to projects involving $20 million or more in public funding or land-disturbing activity affecting 20 acres or more of public land. Many public infrastructure projects would likely fall below these thresholds. Controversial proposals for use of state-owned marshes and state parks could also avoid SEPA review because -- whatever the other impacts of the project - an assessment would only be required for land-disturbing activity that permanently alters the landscape and affects 20 acres or more.

● Even projects that exceed the new size and funding thresholds, may avoid environmental review because HB 795 provides additional SEPA exemptions if a project receives one of several types of other state approvals. But some of the approvals listed in the bill, such as a certificate of convenience and necessity for a public utility project, do not involve any environmental review.

● The bill also narrows the scope of the assessment and the public’s right to know the impacts of a project. Under the bill, the assessment would only describe direct project impacts -- eliminating consideration of indirect and cumulative impacts. Indirect impacts – such as flooding of nearby properties that could result from changes in the landscape – can be just as significant as direct impacts.

● Projects exempted from the EIS requirement would still need necessary environmental permits, but permit reviews tend to be narrower than an EIS. The EIS evaluates environmental impacts of a project as a whole -- which can include consideration of noise, traffic, endangered species, historic sites, and effects on minority and low income communities as well as natural resource impacts.

● Projects requiring a federal permit could still trigger NEPA review, but what North Carolinians stand to lose is a comprehensive review and public input process on projects that do not require a federal permit - which may include some landfill projects and inter-basin transfers.

● Passage of HB 795 would result in many projects avoiding any environmental and cost/benefit review even if tens of millions in taxpayer funding were being used. SEPA offers North Carolinians the assurance that when public funds are spent, the environmental impact of a project is assessed, and alternatives considered. It offers taxpayer protection as well as environmental protection. It also ensures transparency, safeguarding the public’s right to know. This change would not be fair to taxpayers and would reduce government transparency at a time when people are looking for more, not less, disclosure of how public funds are used.

Sponsors: Reps.Torbett, Hager, Millis

For more information please contact Cassie Gavin, Director of Government Affairs, NC Chapter Sierra Club,, (919) 833-8467 (ext. 104)

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