State Politics

After failed attempt, legislature looks to address GenX pollution

In this 2004 file photo, Billy Locklear, from Robeson County, brings his tackle box down to the shores of the Cape Fear River at the William O. Huske Lock and Dam off NC 87 in Bladen County.
In this 2004 file photo, Billy Locklear, from Robeson County, brings his tackle box down to the shores of the Cape Fear River at the William O. Huske Lock and Dam off NC 87 in Bladen County. AP

After a previous attempt by state lawmakers to address the GenX pollution scandal ended in an abrupt dismissal by the North Carolina Senate, legislators are set to try once again this evening.

A Senate environmental committee will meet at 5 p.m. Wednesday and will take up a new Senate Republican version of a bill that Senate leadership shot down last month.

Both versions aim to give the Department of Environment Quality access to equipment it says it needs to check water supplies for pollution.

As of 11 a.m. Wednesday the bill was not listed on the committee’s agenda, and the new version of the bill was not yet available to the general public via the General Assembly’s website, but a copy was shared with the News & Observer.

In the budget passed last summer, DEQ’s budget was set to be $78 million this year, and then cut to $77 million next year. This new version of the bill would add at least $2 million to its budget for this year only, bringing the total up to $80 million before dropping back down to $77 million next year.

The version of the bill that unanimously passed the House earlier this year also gave some funding to DEQ. The House bill directed DEQ to work with the Secretaries’ Science Advisory Board to review health goals; that board was created earlier this year by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

The new version of the bill removes all references to that board and instead directs DEQ to work with the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory at UNC-Chapel Hill, a new science group with a former science advisor to Berger in a top job. The choice of that advisor, Jeff Warren, as research director for the center spurred complaints by university professors who feared politics might outweigh research.

The version of the bill that passed the House had extra money to buy the equipment DEQ says it needs – known as a mass spectrometer – and hire scientists to operate it, but Berger objected to that, saying DEQ should try to borrow one instead. Berger said there’s equipment available that the agency can access for free.

This new version of the bill that might come up in the Senate on Wednesday doesn’t call for DEQ to buy a mass spectrometer, but it does dedicate $1 million a year for the next two years from the UNC collaboratory’s budget to work on the GenX problem.

The new version of the bill tells DEQ to work with the federal Environmental Protection Agency to use a mass spectrometer the EPA owns; if that fails, it gives the collaboratory the authority to coordinate the use of tools and faculty throughout the UNC System to achieve DEQ’s goals.

Senate Republicans said in a news release that their bill would make available more than 100 mass spectrometers.

“Water quality is not a political issue – it is a public health issue, and a deeply personal issue to me,” Sen. Michael Lee of Wilmington said in the release. “The health of my constituents in Southeast North Carolina, neighbors and family depend on what we do, and I am pleased this bill will leverage the expertise of our university system’s world-renowned scientists and utilize state-of-the-art equipment that already belongs to our taxpayers to research ways to improve and protect our drinking water.”

Correction: A previous version of this story said the Senate bill would provide money to the NC Policy Collaboratory. The bill would dedicate existing money from the collaboratory’s budget to the GenX problem.

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