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Environmental Review Commission Holds Final Meeting Prior to Start of 2014 Short Session

Poyner Spruill

It seemed fitting that the Environmental Review Commission (the Commission), met yesterday, Earth Day, for its last scheduled meeting before the start of the 2014 short session.  Yesterday’s meeting was chaired by Representative Ruth Samuelson.  The Commission heard presentations from Tom Reeder, Director of the Division of Water Resources at DENR, Paul Newton, North Carolina State President of Duke Energy, Edward Finley, Jr., Chairman of the North Carolina Utilities Commission, and Chris Ayers, Executive Director of the North Carolina Utilities Commission Public Staff.  At the close of the meeting the Chairwoman entertained public comment for close to an hour.

Duke Energy presented its support for a coal ash plan that could potentially incorporate several options into one solution and addresses, not only the Dan River, but other active and retired sites.  Duke Energy presented three scenarios to the committee.  The first plan, costing $2.0-2.5 billion, 1) incorporates the use of hybrid caps in places of the closure of some sites, 2) moves some sites to new lined structural fills or landfills, 3) continues the Asheville structural fill, and 4) converts some sites to dry fly ash.  The second plan, costing $6.0-8.0 billion, would incrementally excavate ash from 10 sites to landfills over a 20 to 30 year period.  The third plan, costing $7.0-10.0 billion, would incrementally move the ash to all-dry pneumatic bottom ash handling systems and include the thermally-driven evaporation of other process water.  Mr. Newton stated Duke believed the answer was somewhere between the first and second options.

The Sierra Club, the Roanoke River Basin Association, and the Catawba Riverkeeper, among several others, offered their comment.

The Sierra Club urged that the General Assembly set minimum standards for the closure of coal ash ponds such that Duke Energy could propose alternatives that adequately demonstrate effective protection of water supplies.  The Sierra Club also asked the legislature to bring coal ash under its waste management laws, since North Carolina is the only state that does not treat wet coal ash as solid waste.  Finally, the Sierra Club asked legislators to regulate structural fills and require liners and groundwater monitoring when coal ash is used as structural fill.

Other speakers asked the Commission to require the drainage and removal of coal ash from all open coal ash pits and the storage of all coal ash in dry, sealed above-ground containers or the reuse of the ash in products such as concrete.

The Commission did not take any votes and did not introduce any potential legislation.  The Commission had previously met on April 9th of this month and voted to approve its final report for the 2014 short session, which includes the Commission’s legislative proposals.

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U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Michigan’s Law Prohibiting Use of Race in College Admissions

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On Tuesday, April 22, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion that upholds a Michigan law prohibiting the use of race as a factor in admissions to public collegesand universities. In Schuette v. BAMNCase No. 12-682 (argued Oct. 15, 2013) the high court reversed a Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that overturned the voter-enacted state constitutional amendment referred to as “Proposal 2” or Article I Section 26. Although the court’s 6-2 opinion stated “this case is not about the constitutionality, or the merits, of race-conscious admissions policies in higher education,” the decision is likely to influence other states to adopt similar constitutional bans on affirmative action in state-funded higher education.

Since 2003, Michigan has provided a venue for legal challenges to affirmative actionprograms in education. In that year, the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the constitutionality of race-based admission policies of both the University of Michigan’s undergraduate college and its graduate law school. The outcomes of these cases were mixed. In Gratz v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 234 (2003) the court struck down the undergraduate admission policy as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment. In contrast, the court ruled in Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003) that the school’s more limited admissions policy for its law school was constitutionally permissible. Following those decisions, a number of states, including Texas, California, Oklahoma, Florida and Washington, have adopted constitutional amendments or other laws that prohibit affirmative action in school admissions and public employment.

In 2006, Michigan voters approved the following amendment to the state constitution by a margin of 58-42 percent: “The University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Wayne State University, and any other public college or university, community college, or school district shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.” In a 8-7 decision issued in November 2012, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals held this language as unconstitutional because Proposal 2 placed “special burdens on minority interests” by targeting a program that “inures primarily to the benefit of the minority.”

In Justice Kennedy’s opinion, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito, the court considered whether authority existed to overturn a constitutional amendment adopted by a state’s ballot initiative. In order to do so, and based on the appellate court’s strong reliance on Washington v. Seattle School Dist. No. 1, 458 U.S. 457 (1982) the court would be able to overturn a ballot initiative that made it “more difficult for certain racial minorities than for other groups” to “achieve legislation that is in their interest.” This expansive reading, Justice Kennedy reasoned, could not conform to principles of equal protection because courts should not be required to declare which political policies serve the interests of a group defined in racial terms. Justice Kennedy cautioned: “…in a society in which those [racial] lines are becoming more blurred, the attempt to define race-based categories also raises serious questions of its own. Government action that classifies individuals on the basis of race is inherently suspect and carries the danger of perpetuating the very racial divisions the polity seeks to transcend.”

This significant decision upholds states’ rights to enact constitutional amendments by voter ballot initiatives. The broader implications of the Schuette decision are unclear. However, the outcome confirms public universities and government employers have a vested and ongoing interest in the changing shape of affirmative action policies.

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