Environment, News

With House Bill 189 on the agenda, today’s River Quality Committee meeting will be long — and yes, interesting

Bring snacks and a thermos of coffee, because today’s House Select Committee on River Quality meeting could be epic.

Starting at 9:30 a.m. and scheduled for four and half hours, the meeting will cover the latest developments — including enforcement actions against Chemours– on the various GenX spills and related spikes in the water near the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority treatment plant.

The committee will also hear from UNC Wilmington and the CFPUA on their work since the passage of House Bill 56 last August. UNC-W received a $250,000 appropriation in that legislation, and the CFPUA got another $185,000 to study the behavior of perfluorinated compounds in water and treatment methods to remove it.

The appropriation was controversial because a month earlier Gov. Roy Cooper, the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Health and Human Services had requested $2.3 million in funding to tackle the GenX crisis; GOP lawmakers rebuffed them.

The whereabouts of the state’s high-resolution mass spectrometers, difficult to say and even more difficult to use, should be more interesting than it sounds. The Senate version of House Bill 189 failed to appropriate any money to DEQ to purchase the very sensitive equipment, which is necessary to test for GenX and other emerging and unknown compounds. Instead Senators gave $2 million to the NC Collaboratory, a think tank at UNC Chapel Hill created by the legislature, to find these spectrometers and the personnel to operate them within the UNC System.

However, considering the human health issues at stake,  it’s unclear if the EPA would approve of say, a first-year grad student testing drinking water samples in a high-resolution spectrometer. There could be legal and liability issues if, for example, the tests were run incorrectly or failed to adhere to other quality controls.

And, it turns out, at least two state agencies have high-resolution spectrometers, although DEQ isn’t one of them. (The DEQ water sciences lab has been described as “looking like it’s from 1985.”) The Department of Agriculture has three, but they are being used to test for pesticides in human and animal food. If DEQ were to borrow or repurpose the equipment, then the Agriculture Department couldn’t do its work.

DHHS has seven such spectrometers: six are being used by toxicologists to test for the presence of pharmaceuticals in people who have died, presumably of causes related to the ingestion of legal drugs. The seventh high-resolution spectrometer is supposed to be used solely to test for chemical warfare agents in the water. DHHS received a grant from the EPA in 2011 for this spectrometer, with its uses very specific and defined.

DEQ would have to ask the EPA for permission to repurpose the spectrometer for GenX and emerging compounds. If the EPA decides the equipment is no longer necessary to test for bioterrorism threats — a Big If — then DEQ could access the machine. But the agency still needs roughly $480,000 in recurring funds to pay for the personnel to be certified on the equipment and to devote their time to testing for these compounds in the rivers and lakes, statewide.

The final agenda item is a discussion of House Bill 189. the first version unanimously passed the House, and then was upended by the Senate, which adjourned without voting on the measure. Then they rewrote much of the bill, passed it, only to — touché — be given the same treatment by the House, which didn’t vote on it.

By the time the short session convenes on May 16, it will be nearly a year since the Star-News broke the story of GenX in Wilmington’s drinking water. And in that 11 months, no substantive legislation has passed that could remove the chemical and other emerging contaminants from drinking water.

The meeting will be held in Room 643 of the Legislative Office Building, and the audio will be streamed online.

One Comment

  1. Glen M Thearling

    February 21, 2018 at 10:01 am

    Headline; NC Agencies don’t play well with others! This is not a game of who has the most toys. NC State agencies already have 10 high-resolution mass spectrometers not including the University system. DHHS has seven and Agriculture Department has three such spectrometers. Weren’t HHHS & DEQ both setting on the same stages in Wilmington saying how much they were going to do to get GenX under control! EPA also has multiple high-resolution mass spectrometers. Lets get real, How many samples are they processing a day that they can’t add a few more for an emergent flouro chemicals crisis. Someone needs to get to the bottom of this childish behavior now.

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