For a boatload of lofty, noble and wise sentiments, look no farther than the opening fanfares of Chapter 113A, Article 1, N.C. General Statutes.
The reference is to a law commonly known as SEPA, or the State Environmental Policy Act. It was enacted in 1971, during the great upsurge of the modern environmental movement that saw Americans resolve to curb the pollution that was choking their atmosphere and poisoning their waters. Nationally, it could even be said that President Richard Nixon, that old softie, helped lead the way.
The law sets a high standard. “The General Assembly of North Carolina,” it says, “recognizing the profound influence of man’s activity on the natural environment, and desiring, in its role as trustee for future generations, to assure that an environment of high quality will be maintained for the health and well-being of all, declares that it shall be the continuing policy of the State of North Carolina to conserve and protect its natural resources and to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony.”
To give that policy force and effect, the law imposes a basic requirement: When public money is to be spent on a project or when public land is to be used, the project’s environmental impacts must be analyzed and ways sought to minimize them.
Municipalities and counties also are granted the power to require such impact assessments for large private developments.
Of course it was never the idea to require an impact analysis before a picnic shelter could be erected in a state park or a new dollar store could be built along the main drag out of town. The law speaks in terms of “significant” impacts and “major” projects.
Which fast-forwards us to the General Assembly of 2015, run by Republicans to whom an old-fashioned GOP environmentalist like Richard Nixon probably looks about as unlikely as a two-headed unicorn.
This is a legislature that responds chiefly to the concerns, the demands, the whines of the business and development communities.
- Pressing ahead with a greater reliance on solar power when the state’s electricity-producing behemoth, Duke Energy, would rather not? No need for that.
- Upholding a rule that’s supposed to make new hog farms use environmentally sounder methods of waste disposal? No need for that.
- Allowing municipalities to require anti-pollution buffers along streams that are wider than required by the state? No need for that.
- Letting employers sue employees who have documented unethical or illegal behavior, such as animal abuse at factory farms or even, conceivably, elder abuse at nursing homes? Sure – nothing worse than a disloyal worker.
Then there’s House Bill 795. While its provisions shifted around as it worked its way through the House to final Senate passage on May 26, the upshot is that it shoots a big hole in the 1971 SEPA. It leaves the high-flown policy declarations alone. But the mechanisms to enforce the policy are to be rendered if not powerless, then certainly weaker.
It’s all done in the name of striking a more business-friendly balance between the environment and the economy. It also comes perilously close to converting the SEPA’s proud environmental pledges to empty blather.
To trigger the requirement for an environmental assessment, a public expenditure would have to be “significant” – defined as greater than $10 million. Now, there’s no dollar threshold. What matters is whether there’d be a significant effect on the quality of the environment.
When the bill emerged from a Senate committee, the threshold had been raised from $10 million to $20 million. But a floor amendment, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Angela Bryant of Rocky Mount, restored the $10 million level. Most of her Democratic colleagues ended up supporting the bill, obviously figuring that it could have been worse.
Republican Sen. Andrew Brock of Mocksville helped the process, more or less, with an amendment shrinking the definition of a “major” project from 20 acres to 10 acres, meaning that more projects would be covered. But under current law, the threshold is two acres.
There really was no reason to make these changes – except that some business interests that like to throw their political weight around saw an opportunity to undermine inconvenient rules and gave legislators their marching orders. Add to that an extreme free-market ideology driving conservatives to do things that fly in the face of the public interest and common sense.
The slowdown on solar power is embedded in a so-called regulatory reform bill, H.B. 760, that’s chock-full of sweeteners for the big-business types. Ditto for the constraints on stream buffers. And ditto for the loosened rules on new hog farms. An operator who had shut down a hog farm as long as 10 years ago and then started back up could use the same old lagoon-and-sprayfield waste disposal method that has caused so many pollution and odor problems – provided there was no increase in the size of the herd.
Restarted after being out of business for 10 years, and that shouldn’t be regarded as new? Well, the hog moguls (remember to bow toward China) would say, “We don’t think so.”
From an animal welfare standpoint, if that concept even applies when animals are being raised and slaughtered under grotesque conditions just to satisfy our taste for meat, hog farms are among the worst. They rank right up there with the chicken and turkey operations that are a mainstay of North Carolina’s rural economy.
Employees on occasion have tried to hold these “farms” and packing plants accountable by surreptitiously shooting videos that show cruel conditions and practices. Were some of these employees animal rights activists who went to work with the intent of exposing abuses? Without a doubt. Maybe others became conscience-stricken when they saw what was happening.
See, speak no evil
In any case, H.B. 405 would let employers bring the hammer down on a worker who, without permission, recorded images or otherwise secured documentation of activities at the site. Because of the implications for factory farms, no wonder it’s described as an “ag-gag” bill.
It’s outrageous enough that the bill would make people who exposed shocking, inhumane farm conditions liable to lawsuits. But the bill is so broadly written that an employee who took videos at a poorly run assisted living facility, for example, might also be dragged into court.
Anyone with a proper concern for our vulnerable residents — young or old, or perhaps coping with disabilities — should be appalled by this potential concession to facility owners who’d like nothing better than to shield themselves from accountability. And the factory farm operators who are all too willing to let animals suffer in the name of profit look to benefit even more directly.
The bill enjoyed hefty support in both the House and Senate, with a few Democrats joining nearly unified blocs of Republicans. A veto by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory would buck the conservative tide, and it might not hold. But it would be a brave, sensible gesture that both encourages the humane, environmentally sound operation of the state’s animal factories and tries to withhold undeserved protection from those who would put some of our weakest relatives, friends and neighbors at risk.