Gov. Roy Cooper had declared a state of emergency for more than a dozen North Carolina counties. Government offices were closed or delayed opening. Many roads were riddled with wrecked cars. Nonetheless, the House Select Committee River Quality was determined to vote on key water quality legislation, even if public comment was abridged by the snowstorm.
After 90 minutes of discussion, which largely reviewed issues from previous meetings, and comments from eight members of the public, the committee unanimously voted to send the bill to the full House.
The measure, Republican committee chairman Rep. Ted Davis, Jr. of New Hanover County acknowledged, is only “a first step.” As Policy Watch reported over the holiday, is largely a study bill without additional funding for the NC Department of Environmental Quality to fulfill the requirements.
“Draft legislation is long overdue,” Harper Peterson, a former mayor of Wilmington, told the committee. “What’s missing is investment.”
However, Davis did allow that in the unlikely event that both chambers could agree on an appropriation next week, a vote on funding wasn’t out of the question.
In its draft form, the bill contains a half-dozen provisions, all which fulfill Davis’s requirement that they present “short-term, non-controversial solutions.”
- It would direct the state health department to work with the Secretaries’ Science Advisory Board in establishing health goals for emerging contaminants, such as GenX;
- The legislation would also require DEQ to study the reporting requirements for facilities that discharge wastewater into rivers, lakes and streams;
- DEQ would also have to analyze the effectiveness of its approval process for NPDES wastewater discharge permits;
- The agency would also share water quality data with neighboring states;
- Meanwhile, the Department of Health and Human Services would work with the Secretaries’ Science Advisory Board to review and establish provisional health goals for these emerging contaminants in drinking water;
- And UNC Chapel Hill and the School of Government would research the civil liability of public and private utilities that provide contaminated water to their customers — if the polluted discharge occurred in light of a lack of state or federal standards.
More complicated, even politically charged legislation will be delayed until the short session convenes in May.
“Politics is the art of the possible,” said Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Henderson County Republican. “It’s not as big a step as I like to take, but I’m not the king here.” However, should the House insert funding language, McGrady, as appropriations chairman, would have significant influence over the negotiations.
Davis said in addition to the Senate leadership, more than a dozen stakeholders had been briefed on the bill, including the League of Municipalities, the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce, Duke Energy, DEQ, the Coastal Federation, Environmental Defense Fund, the Sierra Club and the Southern Environmental Law Center.
SELC Senior Attorney Mary Maclean Asbill, though, clarified the firm’s position on the legislation. “We do not support this bill,” she said. “It doesn’t do anything to address GenX in the air. It doesn’t allow DEQ to pass new rules now. No reports are due until the end of 2018. It doesn’t help people who are drinking the water.”
SELC submitted to the committee more rigorous language for the bill: Tougher penalties for illegal discharges and stricter regulations on chemicals that can be discharged, even if there are no state or federal standards.
“This bill kicks the can down the road,” added Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Matthew Starr, and asks state agencies to address the problem “without the resources to do.”
Chemours, “a mega polluter,” Starr said, “has not shown a bit of remorse” for dumping GenX into the Cape Fear.
The problem of emerging contaminants, he added, is not confined to the Cape Fear River. Some level of GenX or similar chemical compounds have been found in 11 counties, most recently in the Haw River, Jordan Lake and the Town of Cary’s drinking water supply.
“It is lamentable that it took a public health crisis to create this committee,” said Will Hendrick, an attorney with the Waterkeeper Alliance, who supported some components of the bill. “I congratulate the bill drafters’ deference to DEQ,” which has some autonomy, if not the money to exercise it, in the legislation.
But Hendrick also requested a dollar figure be attached to the bill, as well as a repeal the Hardison Amendment. That statute prohibits DEQ and all state agencies from adopting regulations that are stricter than federal law. It was in effect from 1973 to 1995, when lawmakers repealed it. But in 2011, Republicans gained control over the legislature and reinstated the law.
In recent years, “state agencies have been shackled by this legislature,” Hendrick said. “Allow them to protect us by restoring the necessary resources necessary.”
Davis felt a time squeeze because the draft bill must be distributed to the full House in advance of a possible vote during the Jan. 10 special session. That session. expected to last no more than a day or two, was originally convened so lawmakers could take up the issue of constitutional amendments. However, House Speaker Tim Moore is allowing a vote on the water quality bill.
Asbill challenged the notion that lawmakers had only two days to conduct their business. “There’s nothing that says the body can’t take the time next week,” she said. “Why not work with the Senate on this bill?”
Those with knowledge of the briefings have told Policy Watch that the Senate has not tipped its hand on how it will vote — a point Davis publicly reiterated.
“I can’t say what the Senate will do,” Davis said.
Sen. Phil Berger’s office could not be immediately reached for comment.
Rep. Elmer Floyd, a Cumberland County Democrat, seemed skeptical of the Senate’s cooperation. “Sometimes when we send things across the hall (to the Senate), things can slow down.”
The House and Senate are scheduled to convene Wednesday, Jan. 10, at noon.