State Politics

Republicans move GenX bill forward, over Democrats’ objections

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

A new version of a bill to address North Carolina’s GenX pollution issue passed a Senate committee Wednesday night, clearing the way for a vote soon.

The bill already passed the state House of Representatives – unanimously – but Senate leader Phil Berger wouldn’t let it come up for a vote in the Senate last month. And this new version of the bill makes several changes to the House version.

Sen. Michael Lee, a Wilmington Republican, led Wednesday’s heated discussion. Eventually the committee approved it along party lines, with Republicans in support and Democrats opposed.

“I get a lot of political flak for this, from both sides of the aisle, but I think this is the best plan,” Lee said.

Democrats questioned why Lee’s version of the bill removed a key part of the House bill, which would have given the NC Department of Environmental Quality money to buy a piece of equipment called a mass spectrometer. Berger has questioned the claims of DEQ officials who say they need one to figure out what all is in the water here, other than GenX.

GenX is an unregulated chemical, used in Teflon and other products. State officials say the chemical companies DuPont and Chemours secretly dumped it into the Cape Fear River for years, from a factory they have operated just south of Fayetteville.

That river serves as the main drinking water source for much of southeastern North Carolina, and a new class action lawsuit claims the companies knew the chemicals they were dumping into the river have been tied to cancer and other diseases.

Instead of giving DEQ money to buy the new equipment and hire scientists to run it, the new bill would direct DEQ to work with the Environmental Protection Agency or the state’s university system to borrow the use of a mass spectrometer.

Lee said that will save the state time and money.

This new proposal would also give $2.4 million to DEQ this year to conduct several studies.

In the next fiscal year, however, that money would go away and DEQ’s budget would be cut by another $1 million.

The House version of the bill would have 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.

Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, a Democrat who represents northeastern North Carolina, asked to amend the bill. She wanted more spending to eliminate a months-long backlog of environmental permit reviews at DEQ, and to hire more people to analyze the state’s water quality.

“Seventy positions have been eliminated since 2013 that would help us address these emerging compounds,” she said.

But Lee discouraged any amendments, which he said could jeopardize the bill’s chances of passing the full Senate. He said the legislature needs to do something soon, and that lawmakers can always do more later.

“I live in Wilmington,” Lee said. “I drink the water in Wilmington. My kids drink the water in Wilmington. This is not political.”

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

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