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This week in disappointment: 751 South, private water utilities and landfills



No sooner did Durham City Council vote against annexing and extending water and sewer to the controversial 751 South development last month than Senate Bill 315 started rolling off the copier at the Legislature.

The bill originally dealt with design of a new Durham police station. Alas, thanks to Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, and a friend of the developer's lawyer, Cal Cunningham, it now contains language that would strongarm the city to meet 751 South developers' demands.

At a public hearing at the Legislature last week, 10 citizens spoke against the development; four spoke in favor—five, if you include the developer, Alex Mitchell, who told lawmakers, "As you can see, I have no horns, I'm not a monster."

Opponents are concerned about environmental impacts but also the power of state lawmakers to meddle in a local decision, which has been among the hallmarks of this legislative session.

Three members of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People supported the bill, saying the mixed-use development will create 3,000 jobs. However, that figure is merely speculative and could entail largely low-wage service work—certainly not enough money to live in one of the 1,300 homes.

The measure passed the Senate; it is scheduled for a third reading in the Hosue on Monday, July 8.

More water woes: If you're one of the thousands of people in North Carolina on a private water or sewer system such as Aqua NC, you'll likely pay more to take a shower—and there's nothing you can do about it.

A private utility's best friend, Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law HB 710, Water Utility Recovery, which allows these companies to bypass public comment and a rate request review by the N.C. Utilities Commission.

The commission regulates private water and sewer companies, as well as electric, gas and other utilities. Previously, the commission had to accept public comment and review requests for all rate increases before approving them.

Under the new law, private utilities can hike water and sewer rates 5 percent without going through that process. They would still need approval for higher rate increases. In other states, these increases can go only toward existing infrastructure. But the N.C. law allows utilities to build new pipelines and infrastructure, which promotes sprawl.

Aqua America, the publicly traded parent company of Aqua NC, helped craft similar legsislation in Pennsylvania, where the company is headquartered.

In a press release, Aqua America Chairman and CEO Nicholas DeBenedictis commended lawmakers and McCrory on the bill's enactment

Private utilities contend that circumventing the review process will allow them to more quickly upgrade their infrastructure. However, as INDY Week reported last year, Aqua NC, for example, intentionally buys troubled water systems, but fails to adequately fix problems.

The utilities commission must approve a company's request to invoke the new law, at which point the public can comment. However, after the commission okays the request, it's a done deal.

Brain dump: Paging DENR Secretary John "Mr. Science" Skvarla: SB 328 could damage the environment near wetlands and national wildlife refuges.

The bill trashes a 2007 law by eliminating buffers between landfills and wetlands, while reducing the protective area for national wildlife refuges.

Currently, landfills must be five miles from a national refuge; the new measure calls for that to be downsized to a mere 1,500 feet. To get an idea of that distance, imagine the Legislative Building on Jones Street as a landfill and a three-tenths of a mile north, William Peace University as a wildlife refuge.

North Carolina has 11 refuges totalling 400,000 acres. Six are within five miles of active and closed landfills.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is so concerned about the bill that Ecological Services Supervisor Pete Benjamin wrote a letter to Skvarla on June 19, telling him of the scientific basis for the agency's objection. "We are providing this information again for your use in providing scientifically sound input to the legislative process," Benjamin wrotes.

The Senate passed SB 328; it's now headed for the House Environment Committee.

Additional reporting by Raia Mihaylova.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Is the Legislature trashed?"

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