Two top state officials have asked lawmakers to appropriate $2.5 million in emergency funds to help their respective agencies address unregulated, emerging contaminants, such as GenX, in drinking water.
Secretaries Mandy Cohen of the Department of Health and Human Services and Michael Regan of the Department of Environmental Quality sent a letter to Rep. Ted Davis Jr. outlining the request. Davis is a Republican representing New Hanover County.
Davis could not be reached immediately for comment.
GenX has been found in drinking water in New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties, a result of discharge of the compound from the Chemours plant in Fayetteville into the Lower Cape Fear River.
Chemicals from the same family, known as PFOS, have also been detected in Greensboro’s water system, according to a nationwide database compiled by the Environmental Working Group.
DHHS is asking for $530,839 to develop a Water Health and Safety unit within the Division of Public Health. This would include four positions, plus other resources for educating the public and analyzing health data.
These are the requested positions, according to the agency:
Medical risk assessor, a physician who has experience with poisoning and environmental toxicity;
PhD Toxicologist, to research and review available studies and develop strategies to lessen harmful health effects;
Informatics/ epidemiologist, to organize data and perform high-level analysis to determine the causes of harm to human health;
Health educator, to establish adequate public notifications and provide educational materials and briefings to the public.
DEQ, which has been decimated by budget cuts and the elimination of 70 jobs since 2013, has requested $2,049,569, detailed here:
- Funding for long-term water sampling for GenX at a cost of $14,000 per week for a full year. Currently the cost is being funded by Chemours, which is responsible for the contamination, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency and private labs, but only temporarily.
- An additional 16 positions within the Division of Water Resources: Four engineers, three environmental specialists, two environmental senior specialists, two hydrogeologists, two program consultants, a business technology Analyst and two Chemist III positions.
“These water quality scientists and experts would work with local governments to identify where contaminants occur and where they came from,” the letter says.
Money would also be used to move the permits from paper copies to an electronic database. This would integrate wastewater, drinking water and groundwater information and allow for easy searches.
The most recent DEQ budget cut 16 positions agency-wide; it also directed Secretary Regan to find $1.9 million in savings within the department. If lawmakers approve the funding when they reconvene in September, this appropriation, although not restoring positions outside of Water Resources, would still allow DEQ to tackle its backlog of wastewater discharge permits.
The review time for these permits can take as long as two years, the letter states. “Adding experts would give us more thorough and timely review … and would strengthen the Division of Water Resources so it can address unregulated compounds in the water discharge permitting program and allow more frequent sampling and faster evaluation.”
“The EPA is not up to speed,” Harrison said. “We don’t know what these chemicals do. We don’t have a handle on it. And we shouldn’t continue to expose our citizens to these chemicals.”
The proposed legislation would also direct the Environmental Review Commission, composed of a dozen lawmakers, to study whether there should be an exemption to the so-called “Hardison amendment.” This amendment prevents the state from enacting stricter standards than the federal government.
Pricey Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat, has long opposed the Hardison measure. “EPA regulations should be a floor, not the ceiling,” she said. “Every state and local area is different; we need local control.”
Conservative lawmakers have often hamstrung DEQ’s efforts to employ stricter standards than the EPA’s. Most recently, during the one-day legislative session last week, lawmakers introduced a new version of House Bill 162, which seemed to quash any hopes of DEQ to enact permanent rules regarding GenX.
“We need to rethink these restrictions,” Harrison said. “DEQ has been handcuffed by the legislature.”
Even in the case of “serious and unforeseen threats,” the bill reads, DEQ could not make permanent rules stricter than the federal government’s. Currently, there are no federal standards for GenX and other “emerging contaminants,” such as Chromium 6, a byproduct of coal ash and also a naturally occurring compound, and 1.4-dioxane, found in the Haw River.
The bill, under protest from Harrison, did not advance to a floor vote. Instead, Speaker Tim Moore sent the measure back to the House rules committee. It could be voted on in September.