The final day of the legislative session felt like the end of high season at the beach. The Senate had already adjourned for the next month, so by 9:30 a.m., the halls were largely empty, with even a light footstep creating an echo. The sergeants-at-arms, their faces placid, looked more bored than usual. Most of the lobbyists had gone home, perhaps exhausted by the spectacle or comfortable in the knowledge their work was done.
Thirteen House members had also checked out early. That left 107 to vote on a key piece of legislation that, if allowed to become law by Gov. Cooper, not only has far-reaching environmental implications, but also represents the most cynical of political maneuvers.
House Bill 56 is the junk drawer of environmental laws. Buried beneath the assorted mundane provisions are three that harm the environment and one that pretends to protect the public health.
•repealing the plastic bag ban on the Outer Banks;
•allowing law enforcement to cut back riparian buffers to supposedly root out crime;
•relaxing regulations on landfills;
•and, in a late and controversial addition, appropriating $185,000 to the Cape Fear River public utility and $250,000 to UNC Wilmington to address the GenX contamination in the river and drinking water supplies downstream. It also requires DEQ to issue a notice of violation to Chemours, the company responsible for discharging GenX and other contaminants into the river, by Sept. 8 or provide a report to lawmakers explaining why it hasn’t.
“This bill is a contradiction and suffers from an identity crisis,” said Rep. Deb Butler, a Democrat who represents part of New Hanover County.
The hypocrisy began the evening before, when Republican caucus members emerged from their bunker at 5:30 with the appropriation language in a conference report hashed out with their Senate counterparts. The bill appeared on the House calendar at 5:50, presumably for a vote.
But Democrats rebelled, saying that they had not been notified of the significant change and needed more time to analyze it. At least two Republicans lamented that they really, really wanted to go home, and couldn’t the House just vote on it and be done, and then everyone could return to their districts and fire up the grill for Labor Day.
Sanity prevailed and House Speaker Tim Moore scheduled the new HB 56 for the next morning.
“If this were a standalone bill, everyone would vote for it,” said Rep. Becky Carney, a Mecklenburg County Republican during the floor debate. “We all want to protect our water, but we also care about other parts of the bill. It has been politicized.”
Lest one become mesmerized by conservative pleas on behalf of the environment and public health — “We care about our citizens’ welfare,” said Rep. Ted Davis Jr. of New Hanover County during the floor debate — the real intentions behind the appropriation were clear: to continue to punish the NC Department of Environmental Quality for merely existing; lawmakers have yet to seriously consider its modest request for $2 million in recurring funds to tackle water quality issues statewide.
And the GOP wanted to checkmate Democratic lawmakers and Gov. Cooper. They likely would otherwise vote against or veto the bill because of the bag, buffer and landfill sections, but now had to weigh how their vote would be used against them. One can envision the misleading campaign ads a year from now. Cue ominous music, cut to glass of muddy water: “X representative voted against clean water for Wilmington. X doesn’t care about your children’s health.”
But as many lawmakers pointed out, the Cape Fear is not the only contaminated river in the state. The Haw is polluted with 1-4, dioxane, another emerging contaminant. It’s being discharged from industry upstream in Alamance and Guilford counties. Parts of the Catawba River are polluted with PCBs, also from industry. Runoff from industrialized hog farms contaminate segments of the Neuse River and the parts of the Pamlico Sound are routinely closed to shellfish harvesting because of fecal bacteria.
Conservatives have lionized the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority. They were apparently dazzled by a recent tour of the Sweeney water treatment plant, where its employees are experimenting with granulated activated charcoal to try to remove the remaining GenX from the drinking water. “They’re working hard,” said Rep. Pat McElraft of Carteret County, a member of the Environmental Review Committee.
But while conservative lawmakers have assailed DEQ for being slow to punish Chemours — and frankly, the slow pace has been frustrating — they have been silent on the utility’s guilt.
In fact, McElraft has said she doesn’t know what the utility knew when. That fact is easy enough to find out. According to a timeline provided by the utility to NCPW — it’s also public — Detlef Knappe, the NC State scientist who conducted the sampling and the study, had been collaborating with the utility since 2013 for his research on these compounds. The utility knew at least as early as May 2016 that GenX had been detected at the Sweeney plant. That’s at least six months before DEQ, under the previous administration, knew of the problem. Yet the utility did nothing.
And for that, the utility receives $185,000.
“[The utility] has destroyed the public confidence,” said Rep. Butler during the House floor debate. She opposed the bill. “The public has no faith in the utility.”
McElraft also complained that she didn’t learn of the GenX crisis until July, but not from DEQ. Yet there was an ample opportunity for her to educate herself: DEQ issued five press releases in June about the GenX discovery, and there were multiple public forums in New Hanover County, plus wall-to-wall news coverage in newspapers, online and on TV.
Lawmakers on the Environmental Review Committee have maintained that the appropriation was necessary to keep their promise to New Hanover, Brunswick, Pender county residents that they would tackle the problem. “The utility has a plan,” said Rep. Holly Grange, a New Hanover County Republican. “That’s what my constituents want.”
Many of those constituents also want DEQ to receive its $2 million funding requesty. Grange was in the audience at the ERC meeting last week in Wilmington when more than a dozen of residents pleaded with lawmakers to fund DEQ and not the utility.
Instead, the ERC, which until last week, hadn’t convened in a year, said it would discuss DEQ funding at its next meeting in September. But no such meeting has been scheduled.
Rep. Darren Jackson, a Wake County Democrat, noted that the sense of urgency was misplaced. “If you want this done quickly, wouldn’t you ask the governor if he could support it? Did you ask?” he said. “If not, it’s about covering your behind. You can go home and say you did something when you really didn’t.”
The House voted 61-44 for the bill. All Democrats except for William Brisson voted against the measure. All Republicans but three voted for it: Chuck McGrady, Nelson Dollar and Josh Dobson.
Since the Senate had already passed it, the bill now goes to the governor.