With Republicans taking control of the North Carolina General Assembly for the first time since post-Civil War days, environmental issues may be more difficult to advance through the legislature, Julie Mayfield, executive director of the nonprofit Western North Carolina Alliance, told the crowd gathered for the Jan. 12 Green Drinks get-together. The party in power, she explained, schedules all hearings and votes, and it drives the process for how committees operate. “If they don’t want your issue to get heard, that’s it — it won’t get heard,” Mayfield asserted.
What’s more, electoral redistricting — which happens every 10 years in response to the U.S. Census — will allow the party in power to redraw the lines delineating voting districts in the state, which will influence election results for years to come.
Mayfield also reviewed the environmental voting record of large blocks of the N.C. House and Senate, focusing on what’s happened with the legislative “swing voters” who may side with either party, depending on the issue. “We’ve lost a lot of [them], and we’re now looking at a much stronger block of legislators [who] don’t typically support our issues. We have a pretty steep hill in front of us to climb.”
She also analyzed other key environmental issues. Recent advances in energy efficiency and renewable energy standards could be gutted, Mayfield argued. And power companies are expected to seek new nuclear plants funded by rate payers. On wind power, the threat is that the new state legislature will repeal the ridge law, which was the crux of the fight last time around, and leave it to local county governments to decide whether wind turbines will be allowed in their counties.
Meanwhile, last session’s effort to strengthen steep-slope development standards will not likely go anywhere in the current session, she continued. “The worst thing could happen there — a weak law that allows folks to conclude that we’re done” with steep-slope development standards, Mayfield concluded.
Regarding water, North Carolina is unique in the South, she remarked. “Our standard for contaminated groundwater cleanup is quite rigorous: It says pollutors have to cleanup to [natural] background levels. Elsewhere, companies only have to clean up to state-defined ‘safe’ levels.” Mayfield expects North Carolina’s more rigorous standard to be stepped back. One bright spot: a water-efficiency bill, based on one passed in Georgia, one of the best in the country.
And there was more bad news: The state’s continuing fiscal woes will probably lead to gutting the trust funds that provide money for land protection for parks and green space, according to Mayfield. “Tens of millions of dollars that local governments use to provide open spaces — gone,” she warned. And she predicted that the new Republican majority will act to eliminate rules North Carolina now has in place to regulate environmental hazards to a level above those set by the federal government — a regulatory environment preferred by many pollution-generating businesses.
If such predictions hold true, Mayfield said, enviros are partly to blame. Environmentalists “haven’t cultivated relationships with the Republican leadership — we haven’t had to,” Mayfield said. The shift in the N.C. legislature demands a new strategy, she argued. “It’s gonna be a challenge. But we don’t give up.”
She suggested three strategies for folks concerned about the environment: “One: Pay attention. Read the paper, or read a blog online to keep in touch with what’s going on” with the issues. She suggested monitoring electronic alerts such as those offered by the WNC Alliance or the N.C. Conservation Network. “Two: Start building relationships with local leaders —county commissioners, city council people— who will be elected next session.” And finally, “Three: Show up and let elected officials know what you think. Write them. Call them. Make your issues their issues.”