State Politics

Roy Cooper blasts legislators for putting off pollution bill

This June 15, 2017, file photo shows the Fayetteville Works plant near Fayetteville, North Carolina. Wilmington, Delaware-based Chemours Co. has faced questions about an unregulated chemical with unknown health risks that flowed from the company’s plant near Fayetteville into the Cape Fear River.
This June 15, 2017, file photo shows the Fayetteville Works plant near Fayetteville, North Carolina. Wilmington, Delaware-based Chemours Co. has faced questions about an unregulated chemical with unknown health risks that flowed from the company’s plant near Fayetteville into the Cape Fear River. AP

State lawmakers’ disagreements on how – or whether – to spend more money now or in the future fighting pollution were apparently too tough to deal with for now.

So they decided Tuesday to leave the issue alone for at least another three months.

Gov. Roy Cooper was not pleased, calling the legislature’s delay “unconscionable.”

In January, the North Carolina House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill that would give extra money to the state’s environmental regulators to address a chemical called GenX. But Senate leadership didn’t allow an immediate vote on it. The Senate then made several major changes, passed the bill over Democratic objections, and sent it back to the House. But on Tuesday the House adjourned without voting on the new version.

That means that now, the earliest that legislators might get back to trying to address GenX will be when they return to Raleigh on May 16 for the “short session” held in election years.

The short session will include debates on many unrelated issues, so it’s unclear how much attention GenX will receive then.

Just before the House adjourned Tuesday, Rep. Deb Butler, a Democrat from Wilmington, blasted her colleagues for not trying harder to find a compromise.

“The urgency doesn’t really seem to be there,” she said.

Why is GenX a problem?

State regulators say a plant near Fayetteville owned by Chemours, which is a spinoff of the chemical company DuPont, secretly dumped pollutants into the river for years.

The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, which has been hit with massive budget cuts over the last decade, has faced criticism in the legislature for not catching the pollution sooner.

A new class action lawsuit is claiming the companies knew about the health dangers behind the pollution. The lawsuit blames above-average rates of liver disease and various cancers in southeastern North Carolina on that pollution.

The former mayor of Wilmington, Harper Peterson, recently told legislators he doesn’t think people should be drinking the city’s water.

On Tuesday, DEQ announced it had issued Chemours another “notice of violations,” which alleged that the company hasn’t done enough to stop pollution or to deal with the fallout. It’s the second notice related to GenX; this new one also alleges air pollution is a problem in addition to water pollution.

DEQ and Department of Health and Human Services, both in the Cooper administration, say they need millions of dollars more to buy scientific equipment and hire staffers to dig into pollution issues.

In the House, Republicans and Democrats alike agreed that giving DEQ more funding and flexibility in how to use it was the right move. During the debate last month, Republican Wilmington Rep. Holly Grange said that “ground zero for this issue is down in my part of the state. 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.”

But in the Senate, it was only the Democrats who agreed with that.

Republicans, like Wilmington Sen. Michael Lee, said the House bill had unnecessary spending. Lee said their changes would speed up the process and save money.

In addition to removing proposed new funding for DEQ to buy equipment and instead ordering the agency to borrow or rent the equipment, the Senate also wants to give key duties to the NC Policy Collaboratory – a new group at UNC-Chapel Hill that employs the former science adviser to Senate leader Phil Berger.

Senate Republicans said the collaboratory is well-positioned to coordinate scientists all around the UNC System. But Democrats have voiced concerns that it might instead have a politicized, anti-regulatory agenda.

Cooper’s office stayed out of that fray. It was more focused on the fact that the legislature left town with nothing, and no plans to try voting again until May or later.

“It’s disgraceful that after months of stalling, Republican legislators have gone home without doing anything to protect clean drinking water for North Carolina families,” Cooper spokeswoman Noelle Talley said in a press release Tuesday.

“People in the Cape Fear region have a right to be angry that legislative leaders have failed to do their duty and give state scientists the tools they need to deal with GenX and other emerging contaminants.”

Next steps

Between now and May, a House committee on river quality led by Republican Rep. Ted Davis will consider the Senate’s changes to the original House bill his committee put forth.

It will start its work next week, with a Feb. 21 meeting in Raleigh.

The question now is which chamber will get its way in the end, or if there will be a compromise between the House and Senate.

Environmentalists weren’t overly excited about either version of the bill, but many said the House version was the better starting place.

“The Senate version is so restrictive to DEQ that it wouldn’t really be effective in addressing these concerns,” N.C. Sierra Club lobbyist Cassie Gavin said Tuesday.

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

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