It was a large ask, but arguably, a valid one.
The House earlier this month appropriated $1 million for the Department of Environmental Quality to buy a high-resolution mass spectrometer — sensitive equipment that can be used to detect and measure unknown emerging contaminants like GenX in waters throughout the state.
But Senator Phil Berger balked at the request, adjourning his chamber before it could hear the bill. Among the reasons: Taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for the equipment when DEQ “can access the equipment for free,” Berger wrote in a prepared statement shortly after the House unanimously. passed the bill
However, so far, Policy Watch has been unable to find any university, public or private, in North Carolina that would allow DEQ carte blanche access to a high-resolution mass spectrometer. The cost would depend on several variables — the type and extensiveness of the testing, for example — but at minimum, the starting price is more than $100 an hour, with those costs running upward of $250.
Several labs, such as those at NC State University, don’t allow untrained personnel to use the high-resolution mass spectrometer. (Also included in the total $2.3 million appropriation was staff to be trained on the equipment.)
The turnaround time to receive the results depends on the complexity of the sampling, said Taufika Williams, who runs the spectrometer facilities at NC State. University researchers get first priority.
These fees are necessary because the high-resolution mass spectrometers can cost upward of $50,000 annually to operate and maintain. And that cost is covered by fees. Research groups often secure grants to pay for access.
UNC Chapel Hill also offers training and access to the instruments, but for a fee: $130-$150 an hour. Sampling for outside groups is usually relegated to the weekends.
Even if the equipment were available for free, scheduling time on it is competitive. George Dubay, director of instrument operations in the chemistry department at Duke University, said he is unaware of any labs that allow outside entities, even state agencies, do use their high-resolution mass spectrometers for free.
Moreover, Dubay said, “high demand makes it difficult to accommodate large experiments from outside laboratories.”
Complicating matters further, the nature of analyzing emerging contaminants is “time-intensive,” Dubay said. University researchers receive priority on these spectrometers, meaning that DEQ can’t simply cut in line when it needs to analyze a batch of water samples.
If students or faculty are running the experiments or publishing the results, then it’s possible that the testing could be done without charge. But the urgency and public health consequences of quickly detecting emerging contaminants in the water could preclude such a collaboration between the state and researchers.
DEQ Secretary Michael Regan said earlier this month that the agency relies on EPA labs — both in Research Triangle Park and in Athens, Ga. — to conduct the analysis. But the EPA could end that arrangement at any time — a government shutdown, for example, could at least temporarily suspend testing. Regan said the agency would have to turn to private contractors at a cost of $615,000 a year, to further its research.
Sen. Berger did not respond to questions via email asking for the source of his information.