Bill narrows the thresholdfor environmental reviews

RALEIGH — The General Assembly finalized Thursday how it wants to narrow the times a government agency must perform a formal environmental review of a pending project when it spends public funds or disturbs public lands.

The Senate and House separately voted for compromise legislation that scales back the scope of the 1971 law called the State Environmental Policy Act, which directs officials using state dollars to evaluate potential environmental problems and alternatives.

The bill now goes to Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who has not spoken publicly on the measure but whose administration would be affected most by the changes. The law often applies to wastewater treatment projects, improvements to state buildings and parkland or landfills.

The change creates minimum thresholds for public spending (more than $10 million) and disturbing acreage (more than 10 acres) before reviews must be performed. The reviews could only look at the direct environmental results, not indirect. It also would raise the acreage threshold before a local government could require a review for something like a shopping center or housing development.

Legislators supporting the measure have said there are many more environmental controls and regulations in place compared with 1971 to protect the environment.

The North Carolina Chamber and other business-minded groups had lobbied for the bill as part of a longer effort to reduce government regulations. The Act has occasionally been used to delay private-sector projects, such as a proposed cement plant in Southeastern North Carolina.

Opponents said many public projects will no longer be reviewed if the bill becomes law, but no one has calculated how many.

The law has provided “government transparency and accountability to ensure that taxpayers’ funds are stewarded responsibly and alternatives are evaluated,” said Molly Diggins with the North Carolina state Sierra Club. “The public deserves this layer of protection when public funds or public lands are involved.”

The final negotiated bill passed by veto-proof majorities — 41-8 in the Senate and 74-40 in the House.