Environment, Legislature, public health

DEQ, DHHS reveal their $2.5 million emergency budget request to address GenX, contaminants in drinking water

 

DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen (Photo: DHHS)

Two top state officials have asked lawmakers to appropriate $2.5 million in emergency funds to help their respective agencies address unregulated, emerging contaminants, such as GenX, in drinking water.

Secretaries Mandy Cohen of the Department of Health and Human Services and Michael Regan of the Department of Environmental Quality sent a letter to Rep. Ted Davis Jr. outlining the request. Davis is a Republican representing New Hanover County.

Davis could not be reached immediately for comment.

GenX has been found in drinking water in New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties, a result of discharge of the compound from the Chemours plant in Fayetteville into the Lower Cape Fear River.

Chemicals from the same family, known as PFOS, have also been detected in Greensboro’s water system, according to a nationwide database compiled by the Environmental Working Group.

DHHS is asking for $530,839 to develop a Water Health and Safety unit within the Division of Public Health. This would include four positions, plus other resources for educating the public and analyzing health data.

These are the requested positions, according to the agency:

Medical risk assessor, a physician who has experience with poisoning and environmental toxicity;

PhD Toxicologist, to research and review available studies and develop strategies to lessen harmful health effects;

Informatics/ epidemiologist, to organize data and perform high-level analysis to determine the causes of harm to human health;

Health educator, to establish adequate public notifications and provide educational materials and briefings to the public.

DEQ Secretary Michael Regan (Photo: DEQ)

DEQ, which has been decimated by budget cuts and the elimination of 70 jobs since 2013, has requested $2,049,569, detailed here:

  • Funding for long-term water sampling for GenX at a cost of $14,000 per week for a full year. Currently the cost is being funded by Chemours, which is responsible for the contamination, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency and private labs, but only temporarily.
  • An additional 16 positions within the Division of Water Resources: Four engineers, three environmental specialists, two environmental senior specialists, two hydrogeologists, two program consultants, a business technology Analyst and two Chemist III positions.
    “These water quality scientists and experts would work with local governments to identify where contaminants occur and where they came from,” the letter says.

Money would also be used to move the permits from paper copies to an electronic database. This would integrate wastewater, drinking water and groundwater information and allow for easy searches.

The most recent DEQ budget cut 16 positions agency-wide; it also directed Secretary Regan to find $1.9 million in savings within the department. If lawmakers approve the funding when they reconvene in September, this appropriation, although not restoring positions outside of Water Resources, would still allow DEQ to tackle its backlog of wastewater discharge permits.

The review time for these permits can take as long as two years, the letter states. “Adding experts would give us more thorough and timely review … and would strengthen the Division of Water Resources so it can address unregulated compounds in the water discharge permitting program and allow more frequent sampling and faster evaluation.”

“The EPA is not up to speed,” Harrison said. “We don’t know what these chemicals do. We don’t have a handle on it. And we shouldn’t continue to expose our citizens to these chemicals.”

The proposed legislation would also direct the Environmental Review Commission, composed of a dozen lawmakers, to study whether there should be an exemption to the so-called “Hardison amendment.”  This amendment prevents the state from enacting stricter standards than the federal government.

Pricey Harrison,  a Guilford County Democrat, has long opposed the Hardison measure. “EPA regulations should be a floor, not the ceiling,” she said. “Every state and local area is different; we need local control.”

Conservative lawmakers have often hamstrung DEQ’s efforts to employ stricter standards than the EPA’s. Most recently, during the one-day legislative session last week, lawmakers introduced a new version of House Bill 162, which seemed to quash any hopes of DEQ to enact permanent rules regarding GenX.

“We need to rethink these restrictions,” Harrison said. “DEQ has been handcuffed by the legislature.”

Even in the case of “serious and unforeseen threats,” the bill reads, DEQ could not make permanent rules stricter than the federal government’s. Currently, there are no federal standards for GenX and other “emerging contaminants,” such as Chromium 6, a byproduct of coal ash and also a naturally occurring compound, and 1.4-dioxane, found in the Haw River.

The bill, under protest from Harrison, did not advance to a floor vote. Instead, Speaker Tim Moore sent the measure back to the House rules committee. It could be voted on in September.

 

 

Environment, Legislature

The quarterback sneak of House Bill 162: Measure would stymie DEQ’s ability to strengthen environmental rules

House Bill 162 began its life last February as a wonky aggregation of technical corrections. But by summer, the measure hasdmorphed into yet another attempt by lawmakers to curb the authority of the NC Department of Environmental Quality. (Because cutting 16-plus jobs and more than $2 million from the agency’s budget isn’t effective enough?)

The annotated version of the bill is below (see pages 6-8). In essence, DEQ could not make permanent rules that would be more stringent than the federal government’s, aka, the EPA’s —- even in the case of “serious and unforeseen threats.” While existing legislation already suffocates DEQ’s rule-making powers, this measure would up the ante.

If you need an example of such a threat, look no further than the GenX drinking water crisis. It’s serious. It’s unforeseen. And there are no federal rules governing maximum allowable amounts in drinking water. So ostensibly, DEQ could make a temporary rule setting maximum limits of GenX, but the agency would be prohibited from making those rules permanent. And given the recalcitrance of the EPA to strengthen any regulations, it could be years before the feds issue rules regarding emerging contaminants like GenX.

This legislation clearly favors industry over the workaday folks. In addition, no agency could enact a rule that has a financial impact of $100 million or more. Environmentally speaking, it’s easy to ring up $100 million in expenses because it’s costly to clean up polluted sites, even to bare minimum industrial standards. And the bill doesn’t account for financial benefits of a rule. So if the rule produced $200 million in benefits but $100 million in costs, then that $100 million net benefit would still be a dealbreaker.

The bill was headed for a full House vote when Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat, protested. She noted that this bill, which last anyone had heard was being hammered out in a conference committee in June, had appeared on the special session calendar at the 11th hour. At 8:15 last night, House Speaker Tim Moore pulled the bill from the floor and shipped it back to House rules. And there it will lie, until next time.

House Bill 162-1 by LisaSorg on Scribd

Courts & the Law, Legislature

Time to stop the foot-dragging and get serious about correcting NC’s legislative districts (video)

While the top news story of the day may be Sen. John McCain’s ‘No’ vote ending the GOP’s effort to repeal Obamacare, don’t miss our story over on the main Policy Watch site about Thursday’s court hearing on redrawing the state House and Senate districts, which  were unconstitutionally and racially gerrymandered.

Courts and law reporter Melissa Boughton details how the U.S. district judges hearing the case scolded legislative leaders for their lack of action in drawing new maps. Here’s a short excerpt from Boughton’s story:

[ U.S. District Judge Catherine] Eagles agreed: “You don’t seem serious, so what’s our assurance that you’re serious?”

Strach respectfully disagreed and said lawmakers had already appointed members to each redistricting committee, submitted a timeline to the court and met to discuss strategy and goals.

“Somebody who takes it seriously has a plan to do it right,” he said. “That’s what we’re doing.”

He argued that any shorter of a timeline wouldn’t allow for proper comment from lawmakers involved and the public.

Eagles wasn’t buying his argument.

“But you’ve created those problems by not doing this over the last year,” she said. “That’s the legislature’s fault.”

This weekend on News & Views with Chris Fitzsimon we sit down with state Rep. Grier Martin to discuss what should happen next with the legislative maps. Click below for a preview of our radio interview:

Look for much more discussion about correcting the gerrymandered maps when the General Assembly reconvenes next week in spacial session.

In the meantime, read Melissa Boughton’s full story here.

Environment, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

In signing wind moratorium and executive order promoting wind energy, Gov. Cooper tries to have cake, eat it too

(Illustration: Creative Commons)

House Bill 589, a promising renewable energy bill until it was saddled with a last-minute wind farm moratorium, is now law. Gov. Roy Cooper signed the bill today.

From the governor’s press release:

A strong renewable energy industry is good for our environment and our economy. This bill is critical for the future of significant increases in our already booming solar industry. I strongly oppose the ugly, last-minute, politically motivated wind moratorium. However, this fragile and hard fought solar deal will be lost if I veto this legislation and that veto is sustained.

However, the governor softened the blow of the 18-month wind farm moratorium by also enacting an Executive Order No. 11, which Cooper said in a press release, “directs DEQ to continue recruiting wind energy investments and to move forward with all of the behind the scenes work involved with bringing wind energy projects online, including reviewing permits and conducting pre-application review for prospective sites. I want wind energy facilities to come online quickly when this moratorium expires so our economy and our environment can continue to benefit.”

The order also directs the NC Department of Environmental Quality to work with the Department of Administration to conduct a feasibility study regarding renewable energy and energy efficiency projects on state-owned land and property.

The renewables bill was a product of year-long negotiations among utilities and the solar industry. Not until the final days of the session did Sen. Harry Brown, a longtime opponent of wind energy, tack a moratorium onto the end of the bill. He and other wind energy opponents claimed that the farms, with their turbines as tall as 600 feet, would conflict with military training exercises. However, no one currently serving with the military with the authority to negotiate those conflicts publicly spoke against the moratorium.

The moratorium would have lasted for four years, if not for pushback from Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, who represents several northeastern counties, where these farms would be built.

Environment, Legislature

After two months, DEQ still hasn’t produced public records on $1.3 million SePro deal for chemicals in Jordan Lake

After more than two months, the NC Department of Environmental Quality still has not provided contracts and proposals regarding an Indiana-based company’s $1.3 million plan to chemically treat Jordan Lake — a plan that is now law.

On May 19, NCPW filed a public records request with DEQ seeking any contracts and proposals, both draft and final, with SePro. Despite NCPW’s repeated requests for the information, over the past two months, DEQ spokespersons have said that the department’s attorneys were still reviewing the documents for any potential proprietary information that would have to be redacted.

Under North Carolina law, governments must provide public records within “a reasonable amount of time.” Any redactions must be explained. Nonetheless, the law is often flouted. The McCrory administration delayed filling some requests for six months to more than two years. Records were often redacted with no explanation.

After 2 months @NCDEQ still hasn’t produced public records on SePro deal Click To Tweet

As NCPW reported on May 25, SePro, through its powerful lobbyist and former House speaker Harold Brubaker, carved out $1.3 million in the state budget for a trial program to treat Jordan Lake with EPA-approved algaecides and herbicides. The budget passed both the House and Senate with that earmark. DEQ is expected to hire the company to study the effectiveness of using copper sulfate and phosphorus-lock chemicals in the reservoir, a drinking water source for more than 300,000 people.

However, independent scientists, as well as those within DEQ and the EPA, internal emails show, disapprove of these methods because of toxic risks to ecosystems and questions regarding the chemicals’ cost effectiveness in controlling algae.

According to the budget language, testing and sampling to allow DEQ to issue a permit for the SePro trial must begin by Sept. 1.

The US Army Corps of Engineers, which built Jordan Lake in the early 1980s, must approve of the trial. Considering the Corps’ dismay over the failed SolarBees project “another legislative fiat” their buy-in is questionable. Hank Heusinkveld, spokesman for the USACE’s office in Wilmington, said the Corps does not have a proposal from SePro. The project’s status is “in limbo,” Heusinkveld said.

The trial program would end in 2020, with annual reports due to the legislature each September. Any unused money would revert to the General Fund.