After an acrimonious committee meeting earlier this week, the Senate passed a drastically different version of House Bill 189 today, sharply reducing proposed funding to the Department of Environmental Quality.
HB 189 passed the Senate 27-13. The only Democrat to vote for the bill was Jeff Jackson of Mecklenburg County. No Republicans voted against it.
The House is expected to vote on the measure early next week.
The bill, rechristened by the Senate as the “Water Safety Act,” was introduced by Sen. Mike Lee, a Wilmington Republican, as a committee substitute on Wednesday. Although it shares a couple of non-controversial provisions with the House version — data-sharing with neighboring states, a review of DEQ’s pollutant permitting process — the bill eliminated direct funding to the agency to tackle the problem of GenX and emerging contaminants in water and air.
The House version contained $1.3 million for DEQ, plus another million for the agency to buy a high-resolution mass spectrometer to conduct complex water analysis. The Senate was much stingier, initially allocating no money to DEQ to do work directly related to GenX. The $2.4 million was to be used to analyze 43 years’ worth of discharge permits and other bureaucratic duties.
Today Lee amended the bill today, allowing DEQ to use $813,000 in one-time money for temporary employees within the Division of Water Resources. Those funds are for DEQ to sample and monitor water and to chip away at its backlog of wastewater discharge permits.
Sen. Wesley Meredith of Cumberland County, home to a source of the contamination Chemours, also successfully amended the bill to include air emissions testing and analysis.
The financial winner in the Senate deal is not DEQ but the NC Collaboratory, a think tank created by Republicans in a budget bill two years ago. Led by Brad Ives, a DEQ former assistant secretary under John Skvarla, and Jeffrey Warren, a former policy advisor to Sen. Phil Berger, the Collaboratory has proven adept at wrangling fiscal favors out of the legislature.
Under the Water Safety Act, the Collaboratory receives $2 million to connecting DEQ with faculty who have access to high-resolution mass spectrometers. And the Collaboratory will recruit UNC faculty who can advise DEQ and the state health department on emerging contaminants. (The $2 million was originally subject to matching funds; now it isn’t.)
However, that group already exists in the form of the Secretaries’ Science Advisory Board. Appointed by DEQ Secretary Michael Regan and DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen, the 16-member board has eight faculty from the UNC system. That includes Detlef Knappe of NC State University, who first brought the GenX contamination to DEQ’s attention. Of the remaining eight members, two are from Duke University with two more from the EPA; four have no connection to higher education but work in the environmental field.
“Rather than thinking government is answer to everything,” said Lee, lawmakers should look to UNC. “They’re on the cutting edge of this research.”
Sen. Angela Bryant said she was concerned about the bill because it showed the “same pattern of divisiveness and hostility to the governor and executive branch.” She said properly drafted legislation could “rally everyone in North Carolina around issue of clean air and clean water.”
The Water Safety Act also requires DEQ to cooperate with an EPA audit, which it already does. In fact, as Policy Watch reported this morning, the EPA sent a letter to four GOP senators stating that DEQ had successfully passed two audits conducted in 2015.