Today in North Carolina

Scott Mooneyham: Riding the regulatory winds

October 8, 2013 

For the past three years at the North Carolina General Assembly, Republican lawmakers have tackled the regulatory landscape in the state.

The legislators are responding to widespread complaints from business executive and owners that the environmental regulations, which allow them to build and operate, have become too tilted against business.

A notion prevalent among the business community is that state government regulators look for reasons to deny permits.

With that perception, Gov. Pat McCrory came into office talking about “serving customers” and making government more “customer-friendly” as it relates to environmental permitting.

The political rhetoric, though, is mostly vague.

Republican legislators, and some moderate Democrats, say regulation is needlessly choking business; environmental groups respond that Republicans are loosening rules that will harm the public.

Most people are left scratching their heads, falling back on partisan leanings to figure out where they stand.

The debate becomes more defined when a specific business attempts a specific, high-profile project that has implications that reverberate throughout a community or region.

Right now, one such business is Martin Marietta Materials. It plans to build a limestone mine in Beaufort County. In doing so, it would eventually dump huge amounts of freshwater pumped from the ground into a brackish water, tidal creek, Blounts Creek, which flows into the Pamlico River, where it is essentially saltwater.

The company has been granted most of the required permits for the project, but now faces the prospect of a court fight after the Chapel Hill-based Southern Environmental Law Center challenged one of the permits.

The project has generated opposition, locally and statewide, from those worried about the effects on the creek.

The biggest worry is that dumping all that freshwater – up to 9 million gallons a day – into a brackish water creek will lead to significant changes in the ecosystem. The creek serves as an estuary for saltwater fish species including red drum and spotted sea trout.

The Southern Environmental Law Center argues that the state water quality standards require that “biological integrity” of the creek be maintained.

It is hard to see how dumping that amount of fresh water – more than most towns and cities east of Interstate 95 discharge daily – wouldn’t compromise the ecosystem.

Of course, you won’t hear much from environmental groups regarding Martin Marietta’s need to make a profit with financial feasible projects, and that their mining operations provide building materials critical to roads, homes and the other buildings that we all use.

Still, when companies don’t look for a middle ground, but take advantage of the prevailing winds in Raleigh, it is no wonder that those winds blow hard with them and then turn hard again against them.

Meanwhile, in Raleigh, the politicians tend to forget that, when it comes to environmental permitting, we are all the customers.

We all breathe the air and drink the water.

Scott Mooneyham is the editor of the NC Insider State Government News Service.

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