House Bill 56, already laden with the plastic bag ban and modified-but-still-controversial riparian buffer language, took on more freight Wednesday night with a $435,000 appropriation to combat GenX in the Cape Fear River.
But that money would not go to the state environmental and health departments, for which Gov. Roy Cooper had requested a $2.58 million emergency appropriation. Instead, $185,000 would be appropriated for the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority with another $250,000 for UNC Wilmington. “This addresses the immediate concern of how to take GenX out of the water system,” said Rep. Pat McElraft, who is also a member of the Environmental Review Commission. “There will be more funding down the road. This is just a start.”
The House Rules Committee debated the bill, which details how the money would be spent.
CFPUA is to use $100,000 to “study the identification and deployment of water treatment technology to remove GenX from the public water supply, with another $85,000 for ongoing monitoring of water supplies withdrawn from the Cape Fear River. This does not preclude DEQ from conducting its own monitoring, but the agency had hoped to use some of its emergency appropriation to fund it.
UNCW would spend its appropriation “to identify and quantify GenX and measure the concentration of the chemicals in the sediments of the Cape Fear River, the extent to which the chemical biodegrades over time or bioaccumulates within local ecosystems, and what risk the contaminant poses to human health.”
Both the utility and the university must provide reports to the ERC by Dec. 1
The bill also requires DEQ to issue a Notice of Violation to Chemours by Sept. 8, or provide a detailed report to the ERC why the agency has not done so.
Rep. Darren Jackson, a Wake County Democrat, questioned why such a key provision was being tucked into legislation that had so many controversial provisions. “Why play games with it?” he asked. “Why not do a standalone bill?”
McElraft replied: “It’s the vehicle we chose. We can use our privilege for any vehicle we want.”
However, another House member said legislative rules would have prohibited lawmakers from introducing an entirely new bill.
Last week, the ERC held a public hearing in Wilmington about GenX contamination, the source of which is the Chemours plant upstream in Fayetteville. Chemours, formerly DuPont, has been discharging GenX into the Cape Fear River for 30 years; after the EPA and DEQ began sampling the Cape Fear River, the company stopped discharging by mid-July.
However, there are no federal regulations or standards for the contaminant. Because of a confluence of state and federal legislation, it’s not always been clear what authority DEQ has to regulate GenX. Last week, DEQ Secretary Michael Regan told the ERC that he now believes the state can legally set a standard for it.
At the public hearing, most Wilmington residents asked the ERC to grant the $2.58 million appropriation to DEQ and DHHS. Several told the committee that they did not want the public utility to receive funding from the legislature. There has been some question of what the CFPUA knew and when they knew it. A letter sent to Republican Senate Caucus from DEQ mentioned that the utility knew of GenX in the river as early as May 2016.
DEQ received an email from the NC State University professor who discovered the contaminant in November 2016. However, Tom Reeder, then the assistant DEQ secretary, did not pass the information along to the new leadership. Some members of the Division of Water Resources staff also knew, but Regan told the ERC he first heard of the contamination this past June, when the Star-News of Wilmington reported it.
Under the bill, the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory at UNC Chapel Hill also gets more work — as an unfunded mandate. It would be charted with developing a proposal to digitize records for an online database of federal discharge permits, water quality permits, permit applications and other “relevant supporting documents.”
Other waterways in the state also are contaminated with unregulated “emerging contaminants.” For example, the chemical 1-4, dioxane has been found in the Haw River and in Pittsboro’s drinking water. The sources of the chemical are industrial discharge upstream. But HB 56 addresses only the Cape Fear River.
The North Carolina Conservation Network quickly decried the bill. “H56 runs roughshod over local authority, environment protection, and transparency in government,” said NCCN Policy Director Grady McCallie. “The ‘GenX’ funding provisions — tacked on in conference to dress up the bill, but not what the Administration asked for — are spent in a way that does nothing to prevent a similar situation in the future from threatening drinking water anywhere else in the state. They are mere show, not substance.”
Similarly, the NC chapter of the Sierra Club criticized lawmakers’ choice of funding recipients. In a prepared statement, the environmental group warned the bill may leave DEQ without needed resources to monitor discharges from the Chemours plant and DHHS without adequate staffing to address the toxicology issues.
“This minimal amount of funding treats the symptoms, not the problem of the Cape Fear’s safety,” said Erin Carey, NC Sierra Club coastal programs coordinator. “The legislature seems committed to putting resources anywhere other than with the two state agencies charged with protecting public health and environment. It’s like asking everyone except a doctor to examine a sick patient.”