Politicians in South Carolina have revived a plan that curtails the public’s right to sue for enforcement of state pollution laws — and the bill is within a House vote of passing the Legislature.
The House Judiciary Committee voted 13-10 this week for legislation blocking citizens from suing under state law to stop corporations, utilities and others from contaminating the environment. The bill, approved by the Senate more than a year ago, appeared to be dead in the House until it was put on the Judiciary Committee agenda for a vote this week.
Republican House Speaker Jay Lucas, who has supported efforts to limit state citizen suits, attended Tuesday’s meeting and spoke with individual committee members before the vote. Committee Chairman Greg Delleney, a Chester Republican who voted for the bill, declined to answer questions about the legislation when questioned Wednesday by The State newspaper.
Major corporations and some state utilities concerned about legal liability have backed a ban on citizen lawsuits, arguing that such court action isn’t needed in South Carolina and only hampers progress in the state.
The Legislature attempted to impose a ban on citizen lawsuits about four years go, but the bill that passed proved ineffective at doing so.
Of concern to utilities are citizen lawsuits over coal ash, the toxic byproduct of making power. Coal waste ponds have polluted groundwater across South Carolina, from eastern Richland County to the Pee Dee and the Grand Strand. Utilities say they are cleaning up the mess by digging out ash waste ponds, but groundwater contamination remains in some spots.
Democratic Reps. James Smith and Beth Bernstein, both of Columbia, said the committee made a mistake in passing the bill.
Smith said the Legislature is stripping people’s ability to stop illegal pollution discharges. In a citizens suit, a court can require enforcement of the law. Such suits are considered at both the state and federal levels when government departments don’t enforce pollution laws. They aren’t common, but are credited with helping require cleanups of contamination in South Carolina..
“You’re either for letting your citizens stop illegal pollution or you are not,’’ Smith said, calling the committee’s action “pathetic.’’
The bill could be discussed by the House as soon as today, but is expected to be debated in about two weeks. If the House approves the bill, it would go to Gov. Nikki Haley for consideration. The Senate voted for the bill in 2015, but it had received little attention in the House. The version approved by the Senate contained an array of exemptions that allowed many suits to proceed. The House committee stripped many of those exemptions out.
“This is a bad bill,’’ Bernstein said. “Hopefully, we can delay this from passing until the session ends’’ in early June.
The S.C. Manufacturers Alliance has supported similar versions of the bill in the past. Among those backing the legislation this year is Santee Cooper, the state-owned utility that like other power companies has had problems with coal ash contamination.
When asked by The State newspaper, Duke Energy and SCE&G did not directly address whether they support a ban on citizen suits. But the companies signed a letter circulated at the judiciary committee meeting. The letter explained the companies’ commitment to cleaning up coal ash.
State Rep. Stephen Goldfinch, R-Georgetown, said power companies can get “stuck in an untenable’’ position over coal ash.
“Our power companies need remedy and a solution here,’’ he said at Tuesday’s meeting.
Lucas, a Darlington-area resident whose region of the state includes coal ash ponds, was unavailable for comment Wednesday and state Rep. Jenny Horne, who voted for the bill, refused comment. But state Rep. Dennis Moss, R-Cherokee, said Delleney assured him the public has a “right to protest’’ without citizen lawsuits. He noted that the bill would preclude people from other states from taking legal action in South Carolina.
“We’re just trying to streamline the process,’’ Moss said. “It was to just keep some anonymous person from filing a protest or an appeal. That was the way I understood it.’’
The bill contains several exceptions. It includes provisions allowing for lawsuits involving a hazardous waste dump on Lake Marion and a nuclear waste dump in Barnwell County, where contamination leaked for years. The bill also would not preclude federal lawsuits from being filed for enforcement of pollution laws.
A breakdown of Tuesday’s vote was not immediately available, but a recording of the meeting shows the vote was mostly along party lines, with Republicans generally supporting the legislation.
A complete breakdown of the vote was not available Wednesday. Representatives voting for the bill included Bannister, Delleney, Goldfinch, Hicks, Horne, Kennedy, McCoy, Moss, Murphy, Nanney and Thayer, according to a recording of the House Judiciary Committee meeting. Among those voting against the bill were Bernstein, Brannon, Funderburk, McEachern, McLeod, Newton, Norrell, and James Smith.
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