Four GOP senators send puzzling letter to EPA asking for audit of DEQ

Sen. Trudy Wade, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on NC River Water Quality,
attended a GenX presentation at the Sweeney Water Treatment Plant
in Wilmington last summer. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

While its House counterpart was holding hearings and hammering out legislation, the Senate Select Committee on River Quality has met one time. It has proposed not a single bill. Since Oct. 3, the committee has essentially disappeared.

Senate River Quality members, along with the rest of their Senate colleagues, then bailed on a vote to study the problem of GenX and emerging contaminants and to fund DEQ to do the work.

Now, four of the Senate committee members  — Trudy Wade, Andy Wells, Bill Rabon and Michael Lee — have sent a letter to the EPA Region 4 administrator asking that the federal government audit DEQ.

The Star-News of Wilmington first reported the contents of the letter, sent on Jan. 23.

The senators requested that the EPA review environmental officials’ handling of the NPDES program — federal wastewater discharge permits whose authority are delegated to the states. Under the guise of “assistance to North Carolina” the subtext of the two-page letter is that DEQ has independently decided, through rules and procedures, not to protect human health and the environment.

The senators posed several questions, some asking for federal guidance about emerging contaminants — guidance DEQ says the EPA is already providing. (DEQ Assistant Secretary Sheila Holman has debriefed the House River Quality Committee and the Environmental Review Commission on these discussions with the EPA. Wade chairs the Environmental Review Commission; Wells is a member.)

Other questions could be answered through a simple Google search:

  • “Is there adequate public notice of the permitting process and access under federal law?”
    DEQ lays out the permitting process on its website, including the required 30-day public notice for new, renewed and major modifications. (Ironically, the 30-day notice is published in a local newspaper and online; Wade sponsored a bill last year to remove the local newspaper requirement for public notices.)
    Consult the EPA website or head over to the Cornell Law School, which lays out the notice requirements.
    Answer: DEQ complies.
  • “Are there improvements needed in DEQ’s internal review process of  permit applications that would lead to a more through and timely review of these applications?”
    Answer: Yes, but with context. DEQ has widely publicized its staff cuts — 70 positions in water quality lost over the past decade because of legislative budget slashing — that the agency says has led to a backlog of NPDES permits.
    EPA defines backlog as “permits administratively continued beyond their expiration date for 180 days or more” or facilities awaiting their “first NPDES permits for longer than 365 days after submitting an application.”  Chemours’s permit is among those that had expired and then been administratively continued.
    EPA has set a goal for all its regions and the states to be 90 percent current on their permits. For major permits, only nine states have hit that benchmark. North Carolina’s backlog is 66.8 percent, according to 2017 EPA figures. Eighteen states have a higher percentage of delinquent permit reviews; 31 are performing better than North Carolina.

The senators also asked for information from the EPA, CDC and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry “regarding the public health  threat posed  by PFASs and  any health standards that have been established for these compounds, or the status of the development of these standards.”

The ATSDR website has an extensive, if inconclusive, discussion of perfluorinated and polyfluorinated compounds. Among the conclusions: “New kinds of PFAS are being developed. Some of these may have properties similar to the existing PFAS, and some may be less persistent in the environment. There are very few scientific studies on new PFAS, so more research is necessary to discover whether they may be a health concern.”

It is believed, based on limited studies, that exposure to GenX and similar compounds can harm the liver, thyroid, increase the risk of cancer, affect the immune system and contribute to low birth weights.

The EPA’s site also notes there are no national primary drinking water regulations in place for PFOA, PFOS or other PFASs. (GenX is a cousin to these chemicals, but not in the immediate family.) EPA has established the health advisory levels at 70 parts per trillion of combined concentrations of PFOA, PFOS and PFAS.

The state Department of Health and Human Services has set health advisory goal of 140 ppt for GenX in drinking water. At Monday’s Science Advisory Board meeting, members agreed that the state had followed federal protocols in calculating the standard. Based on that federal approach, the science was sound. However, member Jaqueline MacDonald Gibson cautioned that the federal protocols are inadequate and “not based on science.”

Lawmakers could enact legislation to better protect the state’s drinking water supply. The Southern Environmental Law Center responded to the senators’ letter with its own legislative recommendations. These include passing House Bill 189, which provides $2.3 million for DEQ to tackle the problem of emerging contaminants and also calls for further study of the permitting process.

SELC also urged the senators to “stop pushing the House to pass HB 162.” Passed by the Senate, the legislation would prohibit state agencies from enacting any regulation to protect water quality if the cost to a polluter of implementing and executing those rules exceeds $100 million over five years. In environmental terms, that’s a small amount. Cleanups, especially those that are widespread or complex, can easily top $100 million.

This $100 million cutoff applies not just to one polluter. If several sources contributed to the contamination, and thus would share the financial burden, the amount stays the same.

Among the other recommendations, SELC is asking lawmakers to restore DEQ’s authority to regulate air emissions that pollute state waters. In 2012, the General Assembly passed Senate Bill 810, now law, which removes air emissions from the definition of “discharge.” GenX, though, is being released into the air from the Chemours plant. From there, it the chemical is settling in surface water and soil, where it’s entering the groundwater.

“You hold the power to begin to address the situation immediately, without wasting time on studies and audits,” read the SELC letter, signed by senior attorney Geoff Gisler and copied to the EPA administrator. “For the sake of the communities throughout North Carolina who cannot trust that the water they, and their children, drink is safe, please take action.”


NC Request for Assistance: Senators by Lisa Sorg on Scribd

SELC Letter by Lisa Sorg on Scribd

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