Editorial: Federal rules and local control

  • Posted: Tuesday, April 30, 2013 12:10 a.m.

Rather than weakening state and local implementation of rules designed to safeguard North Carolina’s natural resources and its citizens’ health, state legislators should be looking for ways to strengthen that oversight.

The opposite would happen under a bill making its way through the N.C. Senate. The measure, whose sponsors include Sen. Andrew Brock of Davie County, would require municipalities, counties and some state agencies to repeal or revise regulations that go beyond federal law. Supporters contend those laws are stifling businesses and job creation rather than protecting the environment.

One of the strongest arguments against this bill comes from recent history. The state’s air is healthier today than a decade ago in part because of North Carolina’s Clean Smokestacks Act, an intensely negotiated piece of legislation that required significant reductions in pollution from coal-fired power plants in North Carolina, including emissions of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide. Approved in 2002, that measure went beyond then-existing federal requirements to reduce pollution that contributes to smog and particulate matter; advocates praised the act as setting a model for other states.

It might never have been implemented if the state had been hamstrung from designing regulations beyond the federal standards. Federal regulations — which have faced their own headwinds in an anti-regulatory environment — were never intended to be the only bulwark against environmental degradation. Instead, they set a broad framework — a national baseline — for environmental protection in specific areas such as air, water and wetlands. When the federal Clean Air Act was passed decades ago, it gave state and local agencies a lead role in enforcement because they had the most thorough knowledge of local industries, geography, travel patterns and the like. That’s just as true today.

That doesn’t mean that environmental regulations and their enforcement can’t benefit from periodic reviews and revisions. As we’ve seen from Salisbury’s streamlining of its permitting process, bureaucracies can create too much red tape and hinder new or expanding businesses. But along with red tape, we also need to consider the red-letter warnings telling us, even today, that some fish in High Rock Lake have unhealthy levels of mercury, while bass in Lake Norman have potentially toxic levels of PCBs. Or consider the high stakes that local governments and their citizens may have in regulatory oversight if fracking operations set up shop in North Carolina.

Too much regulation can frustrate economic growth, but too little compromises health and quality of life. A balanced approach works best — and that won’t come through weakening state and local governments’ abilities to address environmental concerns within their own boundaries.

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