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Pipeline and water treatment plant locations in North Carolina would be secret under a bill proposed in the state’s legislature. If it becomes law without changes, at least one environmental group’s effort to abate the health risks of lead pipes in drinking water systems would be in jeopardy, it said.
Earlier this month, a state House committee amended a major bill on regulatory policy to include a provision shielding a broad swath of public security-related records. The issue, top bill sponsor Rep. Dennis Riddell said, was brought to his attention after hackers breached the Colonial Pipeline, leading to a gas-buying frenzy.
If the bill becomes law, the public could be left in the dark on plans for future pipelines, details of existing ones and information on one of the government’s most important functions: ensuring the public has access to safe drinking water.
The bill would also make secret public security plans in “information storage systems,” a measure that opponents of the bill say is overly broad.
The sweeping language could make agencies that have custody of records hesitant to give away any kind of information about state buildings, said NC Open Government Coalition President Kym Hunter, who is also an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center.
“I just worry about the language being interpreted more broadly than it’s written,” Hunter said.
After hearing concerns about the provision from lawmakers, environmental groups and public records advocates, Riddell, a Republican from Alamance County, agreed to work on a fix but asked fellow committee members to still vote in favor of the bill during a committee hearing July 10.
The committee passed the bill, advancing it to the next step of the legislative process, but in the meantime, lawmakers and environmental groups are working to make changes to the language, said Rep. Graig Meyer, a Democrat from Orange County, who raised concerns about the legislation in committee. Meyer is also Hunter’s partner.
“We shouldn’t be restricting public records about how the water is treated,” Meyer said. “The public needs to know how its water is being treated so we know whether we’re drinking clean water or not.”
As its currently written, the NC Conservation Network said the bill would prevent the organization from addressing local environmental concerns.
The network’s environmental justice policy director, Sherri White-Williamson, recently founded a Sampson County community organization, and among the group’s priorities is addressing health risks associated with lead pipes in drinking water infrastructure, environmental justice advocate Will Hendrick said.
House Bill 911 would prevent the organization’s “access to records necessary to address local environmental justice concerns,” he said.
Environmental groups said the provision could also stunt opportunities for public comment, Cassie Gavin, the N.C. Sierra Club’s senior director of governmental affairs, told The News & Observer.
As written, Gavin said, the provision could make it difficult for members of the public to provide informed comment about permits that fall under the categories outlined in the bill.
“We think it’s too vague, probably overly broad,” Gavin said. “Perhaps it should be fixed to be more specific so we’re protecting the public’s ability to be noticed on these applications and have an opportunity for public comment that’s real.”
Gavin said there is likely a compromise that would help increase security for critical infrastructure while also giving members of the public enough information about potential projects.
If Meyer’s efforts are successful, an amendment to the bill would do exactly that.
Meyer hopes to “draw a line between what you want to restrict around security versus what does the public need to know about how our utilities provide what we can trust them to provide,” he said, which would bring North Carolina more in line with other states who have similar laws on the books.
A handful of states, including Alabama, err on the side of letting the public have access to records unless doing so would jeopardize public safety.
Riddell pointed to the need to safeguard water and wastewater treatment facilities, as well as the electrical power grid and other utilities.
“We don’t want to be held for ransom in our different public utilities,” Riddell said.
Riddell said he didn’t know if there have been any past security threats to water or wastewater treatment plants in the state.
The bill is scheduled to go to the House’s finance committee next, where some tweaks to the language could be made.
For more North Carolina government and politics news, listen to the Under the Dome politics podcast from The News & Observer and the NC Insider. You can find it at link.chtbl.com/underthedomenc or wherever you get your podcasts.
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