Legislators question $1.65 million Jordan Lake spending item

akenney@newsobserver.comAugust 31, 2013 

— Gov. Pat McCrory signed a controversial delay of the Jordan Lake clean-up effort last month, but the legislative debate’s not over yet. Two members of the N.C. House of Representatives say a $1.65 million plan to buy anti-algae technology may be designed to benefit a single company, circumventing the public bidding process.

The budget provision lays out planned spending for the water-circulating devices that some lawmakers claim will curb algae pollution in the lake. It calls for specifics -- such as “adjustable float arms with a one-inch diameter shaft and turnbuckle,” “Type 316” stainless steel, and polystyrene foam beads to absorb water – that line up in many respects with the features of the SolarBee, a water circulator made by Medora Co., headquartered in North Dakota.

In a letter written last week, which was made public Friday, Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Republican from Hendersonville, and Rep. Rick Glazier, a Democrat from Fayetteville, ask state Auditor Beth Wood to review the budget item, which could put dozens of 16-foot-wide circulators in the lake for two years.

The representatives question whether the budget item is so specific that it would eliminate some companies whose products don’t, for example, “weigh approximately 850 pounds.” That is the exact weight of Medora’s SB10000HW v18 High Wave mixer – and such detail is a warning sign that the legislation could improperly favor Medora, according to McGrady and Glazier.

“The provision reads very much like the terms of a purchase and sale contract,” the letter states. “Further, there is only one company of which we are aware that makes a technology that meets the specifications.”

The budget item and ensuing debate are part of a long-debated plan to clean up Jordan Lake. Legislators from the Triad made a successful push this year to delay requirements for expensive stormwater-pollution reduction efforts in upstream cities. In place of those delayed rules, the legislature plans to pilot solar-powered mixers that could prevent algae from forming in the regional water supply.

If the auditor finds a problem with the budgetary item, “then at minimum, it returns the issue to the legislature,” Glazier said Saturday. “It reopens to public scrutiny at that point -- whether the technology is useful, what the merits are of spending that money. It reopens the question pretty significantly, and one would hope that would lead to a different answer.”

Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Republican from Cary and one of the chief budget writers, said he welcomed his colleagues’ questions.

“If they have any questions, if they want to ask about that and ask about the process, that’s fine,” Dollar said Saturday.

Dollar said he had not reviewed the provision closely enough to say whether its level of detail was cause for concern, although it was a subject of floor debate in July.

“I don’t know if it’s pointed at one company or not, but my understanding is that (the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources) wanted to test the methodology in a pilot to see if it would actually work,” Dollar said.

He said he didn’t remember which legislator or staff member had drafted that provision, which was part of hundreds of pages comprising the state budget.

Kenneth Reckhow, a professor emeritus at Duke University who specializes in water resources, said that the specificity of the item would exclude alternative algae-fighting options.

“The idea that there’s only one company in the world making something that has any chance of doing any good, and it happens to be SolarBee, it boggles the mind,” said Reckhow, who has been critical of the legislature’s push for a “technological” solution to Jordan Lake’s water quality problems.

Kenney: 919-460-2608; Twitter: @KenneyOnCary

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