The Cape Fear River has a scary-sounding name, but the Republican-controlled state Senate is content to let the river’s water quality be frightening, too.
In late 2016, scientists discovered a potentially dangerous chemical contaminant known as GenX in the river that supplies drinking water to Wilmington and other areas downriver from the source, an industrial site in Cumberland County. But the Senate is ignoring a House bill that would help state environmental officials study the extent of the pollution, determine how hazardous it is and suggest ways to clean it up. Meanwhile, people along the river are left to wonder whether they should drink what comes out of the tap.
State Rep. Deb Butler, a Wilmington Democrat who no longer cooks with her tap water, said the Senate’s stonewalling is intolerable. “It’s malfeasance of the first order,” she told me. “This is an emergency. We are talking about carcinogens in the water.”
GenX is the commercial name for a chemical used in the manufacturing of fluoropolymer resins, which are used for nonstick coatings and other purposes. It was developed to replace cancer-causing chemicals previously used in such resins as Teflon, but now the safety of GenX also is being questioned.
GenX is made by the Chemours Co., which is part of the Fayetteville Works industrial site along the Cape Fear River, about 100 miles upstream from Wilmington. The chemical can pass through municipal water filtering systems. Discharges from the plant have been suspended, but since the chemical was also released into the air it has been found in groundwater and soil and can enter the river with storm runoff.
The state House passed House Bill 189 by a vote of 116-0 on January 10. It would provide $2.3 million to buy a mass spectrometer that can measure hard to detect contaminants. Some of them, like GenX, are not yet covered by federal standards. The bill would also fund staff to assess the problem and recommend steps to alleviate it.
The Senate conveniently adjourned before the bill got to the upper chamber, but it could take it up when the General Assembly next convenes. Senate leader Phil Berger has dismissed the House bill, saying it charges taxpayers for what polluting companies should pay for and “authorizes the purchase of expensive equipment that the state can already access for free.”
Molly Diggins, head of the North Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club, thinks there’s a different reason why Senate Republicans aren’t eager to buy sophisticated devices and add staff to detect pollution: It could force polluting companies to make expensive changes.
“If you monitor, you find problems and if you find problems you will have to do something. So that would be the case against purchasing the equipment,” she said.
Despite the Republicans’ lack of response, they’ve cast the GenX problem as the fault of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, saying his environmental department is failing to protect public health.
In what is an early contender for the 2018 General Assembly chutzpah award, four Republican senators who’ve helped weaken the Department of Environmental Quality sent a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Jan. 23 asking it to “evaluate and advise us” on whether DEQ is properly protecting water quality. The senators – Andy Wells, Michael Lee, Bill Rabon and Trudy Wade – did not respond to requests for comment.
Republican lawmakers have approved annual cuts in DEQ’s budget and curtailed environmental regulations. Since 2013, DEQ has lost 76 positions in its water quality and water resources programs.
Rep. Butler said the request for an EPA review amounts to more stalling. “I want action, not audits,” she said. “I want to call a chemist, not an accountant.”
Geoff Gisler, a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, wrote to the authors of the letter to the EPA urging them to drop their request. Citing the DEQ budget cuts and staff losses he said, complying with a federal audit would further burden the agency while doing nothing to detect and remove GenX and similar chemicals. Instead, he urged them to pass HB 189.
In an interview, Gisler said of the GenX threat: “In some ways it’s very complex and in some ways very easy. People are not able to drink their water and that needs emergency action.”
Let’s hope that Senate Republicans, finally, drink that in.
Barnett: nbarnett@newsobserver. com 919-829-4512.