State Politics

The fight over GenX funding could be House vs. Senate, not Republican vs. Democrat

This map of EPA data, as prepared by the Environmental Work Group, shows in red the North Carolina counties that have tested positive for GenX or similar chemicals in the drinking water. Gray counties show where the chemicals were not detected, and white counties were not tested.
This map of EPA data, as prepared by the Environmental Work Group, shows in red the North Carolina counties that have tested positive for GenX or similar chemicals in the drinking water. Gray counties show where the chemicals were not detected, and white counties were not tested. The Environmental Work Group

Less than a week after telling legislators they lacked the equipment to identify and study potentially dangerous chemicals in the state’s drinking water, North Carolina environmental officials cleared the first big hurdle in getting the tools – and staff – they’re asking for.

The North Carolina House unanimously approved a bill Wednesday evening that would allocate more than $1 million to the state Department of Environmental Quality to buy a $500,000 tool called a high-resolution mass spectrometer and hire five new scientists to use it.

“We don’t know what’s out there. And this piece of machinery will help us identify what’s in the water,” Rep. Ted Davis, a Wilmington Republican, said in a hearing Wednesday afternoon.

The money is “a much-needed first step,” Michael Regan, the head of DEQ under Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, said during the same hearing.

But the top Senate leader criticized the bill and suggested any further action to deal with pollution linked to the company Chemours would wait until lawmakers’ regularly scheduled business in May. The Senate adjourned Wednesday before the House vote.

The bill “leaves North Carolina taxpayers holding the bag for expenditures that should be paid for by the company responsible for the pollution, fails to give DEQ authority to do anything they can’t already do, and authorizes the purchase of expensive equipment that the state can already access for free,” said Senate leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican.

The House bill directs DEQ to do more studies on pollution and especially on GenX, a relatively untested chemical that’s been found in the drinking water in southeastern North Carolina and is closely related to a different chemical that has been linked to serious health issues – and a corresponding multimillion-dollar legal settlement – in West Virginia.

But they’ll also be looking for other hazards and pollutants that have so far gone undetected in North Carolina’s drinking water.

“Right now, ground zero for this issue is down in my part of the state,” said Rep. Holly Grange, another Republican from Wilmington, said at the hearing Wednesday. “However, what’s to say there won’t be issues that emerge all over the state? We’ll be able to respond to those issues better if this bill is passed.”

Berger’s announcement means it could be months before the bill has a chance to become law. The Senate’s lack of action upset many members of the House.

“I think this is an important first step, and I’m frustrated we’re not getting more support from the other chamber,” said Democratic Rep. Pricey Harrison of Greensboro, who is a member of the river quality committee that Davis leads.

Some key senators in the debate, like Wilmington Republican Michael Lee, wouldn’t say Wednesday what they thought about the House proposal. Instead, Lee pointed to a bill that the legislature passed in the fall of 2017 that gave some funding to UNC-Wilmington and the local water treatment plant to begin addressing the GenX pollution.

“I think a lot of folks are thinking that nothing has occurred,” he said. “But we actually started this months ago.”

At the time, Cooper vetoed that bill because it didn’t include any of the money he had requested for DEQ or the Department of Health and Human Services.

The bill the House passed Wednesday addressed Cooper’s concerns about DEQ, although Republican legislators shot down Democratic attempts to add in the money for DHHS.

Wednesday evening, Cooper’s spokesman Ford Porter noted the lack of DHHS funding and slammed the Senate for leaving without taking a vote at all. The legislature also did not address a bill Cooper supported related to public school class size requirements.

“Today, legislative Republicans walked out on students, teachers and families concerned about overcrowded classrooms and safe drinking water,” Porter said. “When legislators return home today, North Carolinians in their communities should demand they take action to fund our schools and protect our air and drinking water.”

In addition to shooting down the DHHS funding request, Republicans in the House also shot down attempts by Democratic representatives Deb Butler and William Richardson to add amendments that would’ve strengthened environmental regulations statewide.

“I think North Carolina should be in charge of our destiny on this,” Butler, who is from Wilmington, said before the House vote. “It’s time for North Carolina to get tough on polluters.”

But Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Republican from Hendersonville who is the former national president of the Sierra Club and often votes with Democrats on environmental issues, warned that trying to increase regulations would probably doom the bill to fail in the Senate, even if they passed the House – which they ultimately did not.

“Now is not the time or place,” he said.

Colin Campbell of the NC Insider contributed.

Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran

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