Responding to concerns of Democrats, the North Carolina Senate amended an anti-pollution bill Friday, giving more spending flexibility to environmental regulators and expanding their duties.
Many Democrats voted against the bill anyway, saying it still didn’t go far enough. Among other concerns, they said the $2.4 million it gives the state Department of Environmental Quality is one-time spending, instead of a permanent boost.
The bill is part of the state’s response to pollution of the Cape Fear River by a chemical known as GenX, which a class-action lawsuit claimed is tied to cancer and other diseases.
The bill passed 27-13, and it now goes to the House for approval.
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Republican Sen. Michael Lee, who wrote the Senate bill, said he amended it Friday to give the added spending flexibility because of comments from Democrats during a contentious committee meeting Wednesday night.
Those changes would let DEQ use a third of the $2.4 million to create new jobs – temporarily – to cut down on the department’s months-long backlog to review permits, or to get more people in the field analyzing air and water for pollution.
Before the changes, the money would only have been used to carry out several studies.
“That was something that was expressed in the committee,” Lee said. He later added: “This is an amendment to give more flexibility to DEQ ... this is not partisan, not political.”
However, Democrats had other political complaints. Some said they voted against the bill because it gives responsibilities to the NC Policy Collaboratory, a controversial new center at UNC-Chapel Hill whose chief researcher is Jeff Warren, a former adviser to Republican Senate leader Phil Berger.
Republican supporters say the collaboratory will be able to find all the right experts and coordinate people from different UNC System schools, so the GenX response happens as quickly as possible. Democratic opponents say the collaboratory is likely to be more concerned with conservative politics than with solving an environmental crisis.
“Senator Berger is refusing to fully fund our state regulators, instead shoveling money to one of his cronies who helped author some of the most notoriously anti-environment bills in North Carolina’s history,” Kimberly Reynolds, the executive director of the NC Democratic Party, said in a press release. “If the Senate was serious about fixing our GenX contamination, they would fully fund our environment and health regulators – and done it six months ago.”
The collaboratory was not mentioned at all in a previous version of the bill that unanimously passed the House last month, but which Berger would not allow to come up for a vote in the Senate. Instead, the House version would’ve given some of the responsibilities to a group of scientists appointed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration, the NC Secretaries’ Science Advisory Board.
In another change that Democrats saw as a politically motivated shot at Cooper’s administration, the Senate version of the bill also got rid of a provision in the House bill that would’ve paid for DEQ to hire new scientists and buy the equipment its leaders say is necessary to find and study GenX and other so-called “emerging contaminants.”
The Senate bill instead told DEQ to find that equipment, called a mass spectrometer, elsewhere.
Lee strongly defended that change. He said it will save money, speed up the process and get some world-class scientists in on the project.
He said the Gillings School of Public Health at UNC-Chapel Hill is already willing to help – a researcher there previously told legislators her lab typically charges about $100 an hour – and that it’s the No. 2-rated public health school in the country, behind only Harvard University.
“This gets the samples analyzed as quickly as possible, by the best folks in the world, who are right in our back yard,” he said. “... I mean, shame on us for not leveraging the resources of our UNC System sooner.”