Senate panel votes to ease landfill restrictions

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 20, 2013

RALEIGH (AP) — A state Senate committee voted Wednesday to ease some landfill restrictions imposed six years ago by reducing the distances that dumps must be from protected lands and narrowing the reasons why permit applications can be rejected.
The measure would roll back a 2007 law designed at the time to discourage out-of-state trash from being shipped to eastern North Carolina.
Most Senate Finance Committee members in attendance voted for the legislation, which scales back restrictions approved when Democrats led the General Assembly. Democrats then were seeking to stop construction of at least four large landfills Down East. Republicans now control both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s mansion.
The bill now heading to the full Senate on Thursday would reduce buffer lengths between a landfill and state parks, gamelands and national wildlife refuges, which are currently from 1 to 5 miles, to 1,500 feet.
State regulators estimate that North Carolina’s current landfills for household waste have nearly 30 years of space remaining. Capacity has grown in recent years while existing landfills have expanded.
Sen. Trudy Wade, R-Guilford and the bill’s chief sponsor, said other estimates are that current landfills will run out of space in 15 or 20 years. Wade said the legislation will help the state handle landfill capacity issues in the future. Industry officials say the 2007 law made already difficult landfill siting impossible today.
“We need to address this problem now,” Wade told the committee. “We don’t need to wait (until) we’re out of landfill space and then we have to decide what we’re going to do with the waste.”
Environmental groups, local activists and a representative of a Virginia city said the changes would threaten the state’s natural resources and people who live nearby the potential landfills.
The bill “takes a radical approach to landfill siting, operation and closure that will open North Carolina to mega-landfills designed to import waste from up and down the East Coast,” said Brooks Rainey Pearson, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Bryan Plumlee, an attorney representing Chesapeake, Va., warned the committee that a proposed Camden County landfill that got waylaid by the 2007 law will move forward if the new bill is approved. Chesapeake is just over the border from Camden.
The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which had concerns about an earlier version of the bill, endorsed Wednesday’s version. Many criticisms expressed in Wednesday’s committee meeting about the bill weren’t true, said Mitch Gillespie, the department’s assistant secretary for the environment.
“We feel like our regulatory authority has not been diminished whatsoever in this bill,” said Gillespie, a former legislator. The department feels “extremely comfortable with the way the bill is now, and we can fully support this bill,’ Gillespie said.
Some provisions in an earlier version of Wade’s bill approved earlier this month by another Senate committee were deleted or modified. The maximum height of landfills would remain at 250 feet, not 300 feet as was earlier proposed. Requiring environmental impact reports for commercial landfill applications also was restored.
The bill would extend landfill permits from the current five of 10 years to up to 30 years. Vehicles or containers collecting or transporting solid waste would have to be “leak-resistant” now as opposed to “leak-proof” under current law.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which was involved in crafting the 2007 law, stands behind the current 5-mile buffer distance for the federal wildlife refuges in the current law that was based on studies, said Sara Ward, an agency ecologist in Raleigh. She said after the meeting that federal wildlife refuges in eastern North Carolina have already felt the effects of adjacent landfills.
Said Ward: “We’re concerned about the visitor experience at refuges and about maintaining healthy habitats for wildlife.”