State Politics

Roy Cooper wants to go on a hiring spree to fight pollution in North Carolina

Gov. Roy Cooper
Gov. Roy Cooper The News & Observer

North Carolina has cut roughly 80 jobs from the main environmental regulatory agency since 2013, and the agency's budget has been slashed by millions of dollars even while the overall state budget has grown.

Gov. Roy Cooper rolled out a plan Tuesday to start undoing some of those cuts, as his office announced nearly $15 million in additional spending on environmental issues that the Democratic governor wants the Republican-controlled state legislature to approve next month.

“Protecting the water we drink and the air we breathe is critical, and my budget recommendations will give state agencies the tools they need to continue keeping North Carolina families healthy,” Cooper said.

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The money he's asking for would create about 50 new jobs in the state's environmental and public health departments. Some would be in the field, testing water samples. Other new jobs would be for scientists working in labs to evaluate those samples, or coming up with health advice for people who may have ingested pollution from the state's waterways.

Pollution like fertilizers, animal waste and other runoff from farms and construction has long been found in lakes and rivers around the state. But creating an even greater sense of urgency in recent months are revelations in 2017 related to a largely untested — and potentially deadly — group of chemicals that the state calls "emerging contaminants."

That includes GenX, a byproduct of Teflon manufacturing that has been found in drinking water in much of southeastern North Carolina, as well as other chemicals found all over the state with acronyms like C8, PFAS and PFOA.

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

A class action lawsuit against the companies that dumped C8 and GenX into the Cape Fear River claims they are to blame for people downstream having abnormally high rates of certain cancers and kidney diseases. And last year state officials accused those companies — DuPont and its subsidiary Chemours — of lying to regulators at the Department of Environmental Quality about what they were putting into the state's drinking water.

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However, Cooper's request is far from guaranteed to find support at the General Assembly. In fact, the current spending plan will cut DEQ's budget even further next year, from $78 million to $77 million, unless lawmakers change that.

And legislators have so far been unwilling to approve even a few million dollars extra for DEQ and its GenX fight — let alone $14.5 million — despite repeated requests from Cooper and the state agencies under his administration.

On Monday, the North Carolina Sierra Club said DEQ needs the money and urged legislators to "act quickly on this matter to give North Carolinians the confidence that state leaders will put their health and safety ahead of partisan differences."

The NC Conservation Network also released a statement asking the legislature to take Cooper's request seriously, saying that "communities across North Carolina are exposed to contamination from industrial chemicals in air, water, and groundwater. DEQ and DHHS require resources and staff to manage permits, test waters and advise on health goals in order to safeguard our health, but they have been constrained by inadequate budgets."

About a third of the $14.5 million Cooper is requesting would be a one-time-only expense to upgrade or purchase computer systems and lab equipment. The other two-thirds, about $10 million, would be spent year after year — mostly to keep the new jobs staffed.

Earlier this year after the House approved a much smaller amount of money for DEQ, the Senate shot it down and later replaced it with a different version that would've given DEQ only some temporary funding. That Senate bill didn't give any money for the equipment Cooper is still trying to get for DEQ; at the time the sponsor of the Senate bill, Wilmington Republican Sen. Michael Lee, said state scientists should be able to use the equipment at local universities instead of buying their own.

"We'll be spending millions and millions of dollars to try to acquire equipment that's already at our institutions, with world-class faculty," he said during the February debate over that bill, which ultimately went nowhere.

Back in February, Lee and others who were hesitant to spend as much as DEQ wanted said they ought to wait until this spring when more reports about the GenX issue will be available. Lee said that "we can evaluate it further" in the May short session, which is now where the Cooper administration has its attention focused as well.

Michael Regan, Cooper's head of DEQ, said Monday his agency has been underfunded for years and needs help catching up on backlogged work, as well as getting the equipment and people needed to deal with the emerging issues facing North Carolina's environment.

“We cannot do our job to the best of our ability without the technology and staff to actively monitor pollution in our state," Regan said in a press release. "We ask that the legislature partner with us to adequately fund DEQ for the first time in nearly a decade."

Regan's department would get the bulk of the $14.5 million Cooper is asking for, and the Department of Health and Human Services would also get some.

“Our administration has taken strong action to hold polluters accountable, but we need meaningful investments in water testing, permitting, and scientific analysis to protect our environment statewide," Cooper said.

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While the state's politicians have been fighting over funding for the state's GenX response since last October with little to show so far, others have been moving forward.

Scientists at local universities and a regional EPA office were among the first to sound of warnings about GenX here, and on Monday the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory at UNC-Chapel Hill announced $430,000 in grants for scientists working on GenX issues.

The $430,000 will fund three projects, mostly led by scientists from UNC-Chapel Hill.

One project will research ways to filter out contaminants like GenX, another project will develop paper strips people can use to test their water for it, and the third will set up a research team focused on data collecting and monitoring.

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