Delaying action on GenX is unacceptable

North Carolina Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger in 2017.
North Carolina Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger in 2017. rwillett@newsobserver.com

State Sen. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover) has proposed legislative changes that he says will better address how the contaminant GenX endangers drinking water in the Cape Fear River basin. Upon offering the revisions, he said: “Water quality is not a political issue.”

Lee was wrong. In the state Senate water quality is a political issue. And while Republicans led by Senate leader Phil Berger play politics with it, people in Wilmington, Fayetteville and other areas continue to worry about whether the water they’ve been drinking from the Cape Fear River and private wells might contain a toxic contaminant. The chemical GenX is used in Teflon and other products. State officials say the Chemours company discharged GenX into the Cape Fear River for years from a factory it operates just south of Fayetteville.

The state House addressed the problem directly. That often polarized body unanimously passed a bill on Jan. 10. The legislation would provide the state Department of Environmental Quality with resources to assess pollution involving GenX and similar contaminants that can pass through municipal water filtering systems. House Bill 189 by state Rep. Ted Davis, a Wilmington Republican, would allocate $2.3 million to the state DEQ to buy a tool that detect the elusive contaminant – a $500,000 device called a high-resolution mass spectrometer – and hire five new scientists to use it.

Berger said the Senate would not take up the bill. He said polluting companies, not taxpayers, should pay for the GenX response and the spectrometer is an unnecessary expense. He said the state can use spectrometers owned by the Environmental Protection Agency and the UNC system. This is an absurd demand for frugality in the face of a public health issue that has thousands of people buying bottled water and is causing untold commercial losses to Wilmington and its tourist industry.

The Senate’s changes to the House bill remove funding for a mass spectrometer. It also specifies that the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory at UNC-CH help with research into GenX and related chemicals. The revised bill also calls for extensive study of how well DEQ has administered the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permitting program since 1975. The substitute bill goes to the House, where it is now parked in committee. It may not be taken up until the legislature convenes for its short session in May.

What’s really going on? Berger’s explanation is an unconvincing concern about a small expense for a state of 10 million people with a $23 billion annual budget.

His Senate leadership has been marked by a steadfast commitment to limiting the size of government and reducing state regulations, especially environmental regulations. Providing DEQ with equipment and staff to detect and regulate a new generation of hard-to-detect contaminates could increase state regulation and costs to the companies that discharge those contaminants. His response to the DEQ problem is to delay and study rather than detect and act.

And the Senate proposal to direct DEQ to work with the UNC group, instead of DEQ’s Science Advisory Board, is a short-sighted attempt to strip authority away from the executive branch, which is charged with enforcing environmental rules and laws.

The House saw a significant environmental problem and moved responsibly and unanimously. Cooper should take action where Berger and the Senate won’t. Cooper should call the legislature back for a special session to address the problem now.

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