Rep. Mary Bentley, R-Perryville, pulled down a controversial proposal in committee Wednesday (March 27) that would transfer oversight of the state’s liquid animal waste program from the state Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) to the state Natural Resources Commission, effectively killing Senate Bill 550 until the next legislative session in 2021.
Bentley, after nearly two hours of debate, asked the House Agriculture, Forestry, and Economic Development Committee to move forward with an interim study on SB 550, sponsored by Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch. She said after the committee hearing the bill will not come again before the end of the 2019 session.
“We were going through a two-year process anyway so we will just move forward with our rules and just get things approved as we go along,” Bentley told reporters after the long hearing. “Oftentimes, we pull things down and bring them back up in the next session. We didn’t have the votes today, there were too many questions, and I respect my colleagues and will move forward with the study.”
Earlier this week, Gov. Asa Hutchinson told reporters during a media-only press availability that we would prefer Stubblefield and Bentley pull down the bill as his administration seeks to push through his 2,500-page transformation package that would create new cabinet-level Departments of Energy & Environment and Agriculture.
“I do believe it is not the right time for it,” Hutchinson told reporters in his State Capitol offices on Monday. “I know that the motivation behind the sponsors is that this will lead to some efficiencies. But I look at it from the standpoint that transformation is important and right in the middle of (a legislative session) is not the time for making dramatic changes in our rule-making process for large-scale animal feeding operations.”
Hutchinson also noted that part of his reasoning for requesting SB 550 be deferred was a letter sent to ADEQ Director Becky Keogh from Anne Idsal, regional administrator at the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s office in Dallas. That letter said if SB 550 were enacted into state law, the EPA would review that legislation to see if it met all requirements to issue permits under the Clean Water Act.
Earlier during Wednesday’s standing-room only committee hearing, Bentley and Arkansas Farm Bureau officials made the case that handing over permitting authority of the animal waste program to the ANRC after the sponsors amended the original bill approved by Senate last week in a vote of 25-5.
Those changes include adding several new steps of transparency to SB 550 and inserting a so-called Wall Street-type “poison pill” to clarify the bill’s original intent that regulations at ANRC be the same as they were at ADEQ. It also included moving authority of ANRC under the purview of the state Department of Agriculture in the governor’s omnibus plan to streamline state government for the first time in nearly 50 years.
John Bailey, executive director of environmental and regulatory affairs at the Farm Bureau, began the “special order of business” on SB 550 by noting his 15-year career at ADEQ, where he oversaw the permitting and inspection divisions of the state agency’s water resources division.
He said discussions to transfer current authority of the state’s animal waste program to ANRC only began after Farm Bureau officials met with Gov. Hutchinson last summer to support his transformation efforts. Bailey said those talks put the Farm Bureau on the path to drafting legislation to put the animal waste program under ANRC control.
“After that conversation, many of our members were excited about that and thought, well here’s an opportunity for Farm Bureau to step in and help streamline some of this process as well,” said Bailey, adding that detractors had distorted facts concerning SB 550 to rouse opposition against the bill.
Following Bentley’s and Bailey’s testimonies, a long line of opponents and supporters of SB 550 came before the House panel to debate the merits of the bill. Representatives of the state’s two largest water systems, Central Arkansas Water in Little Rock and Beaver Water District in Lowell, spoke out strongly against the proposed legislation.
Colene Gaston, staff attorney for the Lowell-based water district that serves nearly 350,000 water consumers in Benton and Washington counties, told the committee that SB 550 would have unintended consequences because it was poorly written and not fully vetted by all the affected stakeholders.
CAW Chief Executive Tad Bohannon, which oversees the state’s largest water district, later told the House panel that SB 550 has the potential to expose many of the state’s most important natural resources including public drinking water reservoirs to liquid animal waste.
Gaston also further testified that SB 550 would weaken public notice requirements and state Freedom of Information Act rules, as well as lessen penalties for violations of state water resource rules under the ANRC authority. She said the water district’s CEO, Alan Fortenberry, couldn’t attend the legislative hearing because he was in Washington, D.C. meeting with the state’s congressional delegation to express concerns about the possible impact of SB 550 if the EPA chose to step in and take over the program.
“Our concern is that there is a lot missing from this bill,” Gaston said. “We believe to have a robust permitting program, you also have to have the stick of enforcement. It does act as a deterrent.”
Paul Means, former director of public affairs at Entergy Arkansas, testified that while he wasn’t for or against SB 550, the legislation drafted by the Farm Bureau would put the state animal waste program in danger of being taken over by the EPA if there were violations of the federal Clean Water Act.
“We have experience before with these (EPA) letters. So, the potential for EPA to take action is real. It is not a speculative thing,” he said.
As noted by Gov. Hutchinson earlier this week, Means also reminded the legislative panel that the EPA intervened in 2013 to terminate the state’s right to review some water discharge permits in Arkansas after Act 954 was passed into law. During the 2013 session, Rep. Andy Davis, R-Little Rock, introduced House Bill 1929, which removed the default drinking water designation from Arkansas waterways not already being used as such and changed other aspects of how mineral concentrations are calculated.
While the bill had support from industry groups, officials with the EPA warned lawmaker’s the bill’s language conflicted with requirements of the Clean Water Act. After former Gov. Mike Beebe signed the bill into law as Act 954, lawmakers had to come back to Little Rock for a special session to repeal the law.