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Pro-Polluter, Anti-Voting Bills Advance

A little over a month ago, we wrote about a raft of state legislation that would harm hog farm neighbors, trees, and voters. At the General Assembly last week, legislators advanced pro-polluter and anti-voting provisions in the Farm Act (Senate Bill 605) and in the Senate’s version of the annual budget (Senate Bill 105).

One of the farm bill’s provisions fast-tracks the permitting of systems that capture hog waste methane emissions and then pipe the gas for sale as fuel. Instead of each farm having to seek individual permits for these systems as under current law, they could instead get a general permit under which a broad set of projects receive minimal individual review prior to approval. These permits are only appropriate for categories of projects which have little environmental impact — a description which certainly does not fit hog waste lagoons.

Communities impacted by the stench and pollution of large hog waste lagoons have vigorously objected to such special treatment for those facilities, and public health advocates call for a more fundamental overhaul of hog waste disposal. These capture systems may mitigate but would not eliminate methane emissions at farms, but they would only increase demand for methane for burning as natural gas fuel, which would continue to harm our climate. And they would also continue to cause harm to their neighbors, predominantly Black and low-income, whose air is polluted by farmers spraying the liquid waste that remains after methane capture on fields that abut their property, much of which blows with the wind onto neighbors’ property and into their lungs.

Differing versions of the Farm Act have passed the House and Senate, although both versions contain the controversial biogas general permit provision, despite one House member’s attempt to amend it out, which failed along party lines. A legislative conference committee will likely be needed to resolve the differences before the bill is sent to the governor for approval or veto. Gov. Cooper has threatened to veto another section of the bill that harms farmworker rights. That provision was taken out by the House but may be put back in during conference.

Meanwhile, the Senate passed a version of the annual budget which included unrelated special provisions to strip the governor, Attorney General, and state Board of Elections of their powers to protect the public’s right to vote and to settle lawsuits over state actions which unconstitutionally limit voting rights. This is part of a nationwide attack on processes which expand the freedom to vote, under the false guise of “election security” or “integrity.” The attacks focus on procedures like early voting, same-day registration, and voting by mail, which are disproportionately used by Black and other minority voters.

Other budget provisions would bar the Attorney General from participating on behalf of the State in most federal or out-of-state lawsuits. Observers note the cases which have most raised objections from pro-polluter legislators have been those in which state Attorney General Josh Stein has joined other state Attorneys General in defending stronger federal clean water and clean air rules. The special provisions also targeted the governor’s emergency powers, following Gov. Cooper’s justified use of those powers to protect public health during the COVID pandemic.  

“This bill appears to be less of a budget document and more of a power grab against the governor, the attorney general, and the state Board of Elections,” said Sen. Jay Chaudhuri (D-Wake) during Tuesday’s budget committee discussion.   

Environmental and voting rights advocates will push to have these and other pro-polluter provisions stripped from the farm and budget bills before final approval. If they remain, the governor will have to veto the budget for the fifth year in a row. His last two vetoes have been upheld after his party pierced the pro-polluter supermajority in 2018. Hopefully that trend continues if legislators don’t give him a budget he can sign. Tell them to support the governor’s budget proposals protecting our right to clean air, water, and energy!

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