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In veto, Gov. Cooper calls HB 56 “cynical legislation that does nothing to protect drinking water”

 

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Gov. Roy Cooper toured Pender County’s water plant in late July. Pender County is among the areas affected by the GenX drinking water crisis in the Cape Fear River. (Photo: Gov. Cooper’s Medium page)

On the House floor in the final minutes of the August session, Democratic Rep. Darren Jackson had a crystal-ball moment. He called out his Republican colleagues [2] for their last-minute, controversial appropriation [3] to the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority so it could” urgently” address the GenX drinking water crisis — an urgency lost on the utility for more than a year.

“If you want this done quickly, wouldn’t you ask the governor if he could support it? Did you ask?” Jackson said, noting that if Gov. Cooper vetoed House Bill 56, an override vote was six weeks away — hardly the definition of urgent. “If not, it’s about covering your behind. You can go home and say you did something when you really didn’t.”

Today Gov. Cooper vetoed did just that, [4] calling HB 56 “cynical legislation that fails to address the concerns of families in the Cape Fear region and does nothing to protect drinking water statewide going forward.

“It gives the impression of action while allowing the long-term problem to fester,” the governor went on. “And it unnecessarily rolls back other environmental protections for landfills, river basins, and our beaches.”

Residents in the Cape Fear region had told lawmakers on the Environmental Review Commission [5] in late August that they had no faith in the utility and not to fund it, but rather NC DEQ. At that same meeting, and other public forums, NC DEQ Secretary Michael Regan had emphasized that his agency needed money — $2 million — to deal not only with the drinking water issues in the Cape Fear basin, but statewide.

The Haw, Catawba, Neuse, French Broad are among just a few of the waterways plagued by pollution and in some cases, newly discovered contaminants.

It gives the impression of action while allowing the long-term problem to fester [6]Click To Tweet [6]

“The urgent need to protect our state’s drinking water is not an issue that will soon go away,” Cooper wrote in his veto message. “There are no short cuts, and the presence of GenX in groundwater in Fayetteville makes clear the solution cannot be limited to Wilmington.”

Cooper’s reference to Fayetteville is in response to DEQ’s recent findings that groundwater wells [7]near the Chemours plant near the Bladen/Cumberland County line are contaminated with high levels of perfluorinated compounds like GenX and C8. Yesterday, the Fayetteville Observer reported [8] that residential drinking wells near the plant contained levels of GenX higher than the health goal of 70 parts per trillion.

House Bill 56 [9] was a a tortured piece of legislation even before a last-minute political maneuver. It included a repeal of a plastic ban along the Outer Banks, a potential weakening of riparian buffer protections, and the funneling of $435,000 to the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority and UNC Wilmington, ostensibly to address the GenX drinking water crisis.

But that appropriation, added by Republicans less than 24 hours before the August session ended, merely masqueraded as concern for the public health. Its intent was to punish the NC Department of Environmental Quality, which dared to ask for $2 million to protect drinking water not just in Wilmington, but statewide. As Policy Watch reported last week, a web of campaign contributors and political operatives [10]appears to have nudged some New Hanover County lawmakers, including Sen. Mike Lee, to concoct the plan to fund the utility and UNC-W.

Lee, who represents New Hanover County, had pushed for the appropriation, accused Cooper of placing “politics ahead of public safety, and prioritize bureaucracy over results.” Lee added that Cooper “is now on record for rejecting the only proposal that will actually help clean our drinking water in the lower Cape Fear region.”

That’s not entirely true. The utility’s proposal is still rudimentary, and DEQ has been monitoring and testing the water in the region, and has required Chemours to stop its discharge. There is currently legal action pending against the company, a spinoff of DuPont.

Michael Brown, chairman of the board of the Cape Fear Public Utility, could not be immediately reached for comment.

As expected, environmental advocates applauded Cooper’s veto. Dan Crawford of the NC League of Conservation Voters commended Cooper, noting “this is the fourth veto that Governor Cooper has issued against anti-conservation bills that put the health and well-being of our communities and natural resources in jeopardy.”

The Sierra Club also had criticized an oft-overlooked provision in the bill that would have taken authority from local governments to determine where to dispose of solid waste and given it to the waste disposal companies. “Unlike local governments, waste companies are not bound by law to provide environmentally safe waste disposal for citizens,” said Communications Coordinator Margaret Lillard, in supporting the veto. “This shift in control could be a travesty for the environment and a bonanza for these companies as they compete for revenue from in-state and out-of-state waste streams.”

Gradie McCallie, policy director for the NC Conservation Network called the funding for GenX “a sham.”

“If the legislature really wants to protect North Carolinians from contaminants in drinking water, it needs to properly fund the state agencies that evaluate threats and enforce our laws, not squander funds on studies that don’t address root causes of contamination.” McCallie also supports the plastic bag ban, which Cooper’s veto keeps intact. “The legislature needs to do better by North Carolinians in Wilmington and on the Outer Banks, and the Governor’s veto of H56 gives them a chance.”

Lawmakers are scheduled to reconvene Oct. 4.