While most political observers are watching the state budget process, an important environmental bill has been winding through the legislature with little fanfare.

On July 14, there were testy exchanges in a House Judiciary committee meeting between proponents and opponents of Senate Bill 700, which amends the 1997 Dry Cleaning Solvent Act.

The primary solvent used in many dry cleaners, perchloroethylene, or perc, contaminates groundwater, seeps as a gas into buildings and is suspected to cause cancer.

While the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the dry cleaning industry support the bill, calling it “an improvement,” many environmental activists oppose it because it reduces the time the public can comment on or request a hearing about a contaminated site or its cleanup.

If signed into law, it would halve the public comment period from 60 days to 30 days and reduce the time to request a hearing from 30 to 21 days. Dexter Matthews, director of waste management at DENR, said these reductions “help expedite the process.”

The measure is sponsored by Sen. Tony Rand and Rep. Pryor Gibson. Gibson noted that “the bill is supported by regulators and the industrya rare occurrence.”

However, the two groups agree about the bill, says Sue Dayton of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, because DENR’s dry cleaners stakeholder group, composed mostly of industry representatives, helped craft the legislation.

On the upside, the bill extends the collection of dry cleaning solvent taxes 10 years; that money helps fund the cleanups.

It’s a timely bill, considering the concerns about a former dry cleaning site, 1103 W. Club Blvd. in Durham. Perc has been detected in the groundwater beneath the building, which has housed a dry cleaners, a BB&T bank and, most recently, a church. The city condemned the building after DENR found “unacceptable” levels of perc in the air; however, church members may have been exposed to the chemical for as long as two years. The building is now vacant.

DENR has information at its Web site www.ncdsca.org. Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League offers analysis at www.bredl.org/drycleaningsolvents.htm. Download the bill (PDF, 28 KB).