Commentary

GOP lawmaker derides NC Chamber statement as “garbage” as legislature overrides Cooper environmental bill veto

As expected, the General Assembly overrode Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of House Bill 56. As Lisa Sorg explained last month, the new law contains a hodgepodge of cynical and politically-motivated anti-environmental protection provisions masquerading as the opposite.

House Bill 56 is the junk drawer of environmental laws. Buried beneath the assorted mundane provisions are three that harm the environment and one that pretends to protect the public health.

• repealing the plastic bag ban on the Outer Banks;

• allowing law enforcement to cut back riparian buffers to supposedly root out crime;

• relaxing regulations on landfills;

• and, in a late and controversial addition, appropriating $185,000 to the Cape Fear River public utility and $250,000 to UNC Wilmington to address the GenX contamination in the river and drinking water supplies downstream. It also requires DEQ to issue a notice of violation to Chemours, the company responsible for discharging GenX and other contaminants into the river, by Sept. 8 or provide a report to lawmakers explaining why it hasn’t.”

As Chris Fitzsimon explained yesterday, this charade of a bill is made even worse by the underhanded way in which it was birthed and made law:

“But that’s what happens when it is about politics and ideology first, from secretly planned special sessions to gross distortion of the facts to convenient and situational born-again environmentalism.

Anything to win, to punish political opponents and deceive the people they are supposed to represent to mask the devastating effects of their ideological crusade.

That’s the House and Senate these days and why it’s so worrisome that they are coming back to town.”

Rep. Chuck McGrady

Not surprisingly, the override was approved on almost exclusively partisan lines with Republicans voting “yes” and Democrats “no.” One happy exception to this rule, however, involved GOP Rep. Chuck McGrady of Henderson County. McGrady spoke and voted against the override and, in a discussion of language loosening regulation of solid waste disposal, used an extremely apt word to describe a “fact sheet” produced by the North Carolina Chamber defending the deregulation. As he debunked the contents of the Chamber document, McGrady called it “garbage.”

Good for McGrady. Too bad he and others didn’t loudly apply that description to the entire bill as it would have been completely accurate.

 

Environment

In veto, Gov. Cooper calls HB 56 “cynical legislation that does nothing to protect drinking water”

 

Gov. Roy Cooper toured Pender County’s water plant in late July. Pender County is among the areas affected by the GenX drinking water crisis in the Cape Fear River. (Photo: Gov. Cooper’s Medium page)

On the House floor in the final minutes of the August session, Democratic Rep. Darren Jackson had a crystal-ball moment. He called out his Republican colleagues for their last-minute, controversial appropriation to the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority so it could” urgently” address the GenX drinking water crisis — an urgency lost on the utility for more than a year.

“If you want this done quickly, wouldn’t you ask the governor if he could support it? Did you ask?” Jackson said, noting that if Gov. Cooper vetoed House Bill 56, an override vote was six weeks away — hardly the definition of urgent. “If not, it’s about covering your behind. You can go home and say you did something when you really didn’t.”

Today Gov. Cooper vetoed did just that, calling HB 56 “cynical legislation that fails to address the concerns of families in the Cape Fear region and does nothing to protect drinking water statewide going forward.

“It gives the impression of action while allowing the long-term problem to fester,” the governor went on. “And it unnecessarily rolls back other environmental protections for landfills, river basins, and our beaches.”

Residents in the Cape Fear region had told lawmakers on the Environmental Review Commission in late August that they had no faith in the utility and not to fund it, but rather NC DEQ. At that same meeting, and other public forums, NC DEQ Secretary Michael Regan had emphasized that his agency needed money — $2 million — to deal not only with the drinking water issues in the Cape Fear basin, but statewide.

The Haw, Catawba, Neuse, French Broad are among just a few of the waterways plagued by pollution and in some cases, newly discovered contaminants.

It gives the impression of action while allowing the long-term problem to fester Click To Tweet

“The urgent need to protect our state’s drinking water is not an issue that will soon go away,” Cooper wrote in his veto message. “There are no short cuts, and the presence of GenX in groundwater in Fayetteville makes clear the solution cannot be limited to Wilmington.”

Cooper’s reference to Fayetteville is in response to DEQ’s recent findings that groundwater wells near the Chemours plant near the Bladen/Cumberland County line are contaminated with high levels of perfluorinated compounds like GenX and C8. Yesterday, the Fayetteville Observer reported that residential drinking wells near the plant contained levels of GenX higher than the health goal of 70 parts per trillion.

House Bill 56 was a a tortured piece of legislation even before a last-minute political maneuver. It included a repeal of a plastic ban along the Outer Banks, a potential weakening of riparian buffer protections, and the funneling of $435,000 to the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority and UNC Wilmington, ostensibly to address the GenX drinking water crisis.

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Commentary, Environment

The hypocrisy of House Bill 56, the junk drawer of environmental laws

Members of the Environmental Review Committee met last week about the GenX crisis. Since then, conservative Republicans amended House Bill 56 to fund the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, which residents opposed. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

The final day of the legislative session felt like the end of high season at the beach. The Senate had already adjourned for the next month, so by 9:30 a.m., the halls were largely empty, with even a light footstep creating an echo. The sergeants-at-arms, their faces placid, looked more bored than usual. Most of the lobbyists had gone home, perhaps exhausted by the spectacle or comfortable in the knowledge their work was done.

Thirteen House members had also checked out early. That left 107 to vote on a key piece of legislation that, if allowed to become law by Gov. Cooper, not only has far-reaching environmental implications, but also represents the most cynical of political maneuvers.

House Bill 56 is the junk drawer of environmental laws. Buried beneath the assorted mundane provisions are three that harm the environment and one that pretends to protect the public health.

•repealing the plastic bag ban on the Outer Banks;

•allowing law enforcement to cut back riparian buffers to supposedly root out crime;

•relaxing regulations on landfills;

•and, in a late and controversial addition, appropriating $185,000 to the Cape Fear River public utility and $250,000 to UNC Wilmington to address the GenX contamination in the river and drinking water supplies downstream. It also requires DEQ to issue a notice of violation to Chemours, the company responsible for discharging GenX and other contaminants into the river, by Sept. 8 or provide a report to lawmakers explaining why it hasn’t.

“This bill is a contradiction and suffers from an identity crisis,” said Rep. Deb Butler, a Democrat who represents part of New Hanover County.

The hypocrisy began the evening before, when Republican caucus members emerged from their bunker at 5:30 with the appropriation language in a conference report hashed out with their Senate counterparts. The bill appeared on the House calendar at 5:50, presumably for a vote.

But Democrats rebelled, saying that they had not been notified of the significant change and needed more time to analyze it. At least two Republicans lamented that they really, really wanted to go home, and couldn’t the House just vote on it and be done, and then everyone could return to their districts and fire up the grill for Labor Day.

Sanity prevailed and House Speaker Tim Moore scheduled the new HB 56 for the next morning.

“If this were a standalone bill, everyone would vote for it,” said Rep. Becky Carney, a Mecklenburg County Republican during the floor debate. “We all want to protect our water, but we also care about other parts of the bill. It has been politicized.”

Lest one become mesmerized by conservative pleas on behalf of the environment and public health — “We care about our citizens’ welfare,” said Rep. Ted Davis Jr. of New Hanover County during the floor debate — the real intentions behind the appropriation were clear: to continue to punish the NC Department of Environmental Quality for merely existing; lawmakers have yet to seriously consider its modest request for $2 million in recurring funds to tackle water quality issues statewide.

And the GOP wanted to checkmate Democratic lawmakers and Gov. Cooper. They likely would otherwise vote against or veto the bill because of the bag, buffer and landfill sections, but now had to weigh how their vote would be used against them. One can envision the misleading campaign ads a year from now. Cue ominous music, cut to glass of muddy water: “X representative voted against clean water for Wilmington. X doesn’t care about your children’s health.”

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Commentary

Fact sheet skewers NC legislature’s two-faced posturing on clean water

[Lisa Sorg will have more details on this developing story in this space shortly.] The General Assembly passed legislation today that purports to be about protecting North Carolinians from chemicals in the Cape Fear River. As multiple experts have noted, however, the issue is vastly more complex and potentially serious (and requires a much more concerted response) than is contemplated or provided for in House Bill 56 — a measure that, ironically, contains other provisions to lessen environmental rules at the behest of polluters. As Governor Roy Cooper aptly noted after the passage of the bill:

“Clean water that is threatened by chemicals we know little about requires a strong, united and well funded statewide response. A sprinkle of local funds hooked to bad environmental legislation doesn’t help. I ask Republican legislators to work with us to protect the water all over our state.”

Of course, the other bitter irony in today’s action is the fact that it comes on top of years of neglect and/or affirmative attacks on clean water by the conservative majority at the General Assembly. For confirmation of this ad truth, check out the fact sheet released today by the North Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club that outlines more than a dozen examples of recent legislation that has impaired the state’s ability to protect water quality. This is from the fact sheet:

Passed in 2017 and recent years:

  • 2017 – HB 56 Amend Environmental Laws: Contains a variety of proposals that would negatively impact water quality including two unnecessary exemptions to riparian buffer rules and repeal of the Outer Banks plastic bag ban that protects sea turtles and prevents litter.
  • 2017 – SB 16 – Business Regulatory Reform Act of 2017 (vetoed): Sec. 14“Stormwater/redevelopment” would forbid the Environmental Management Commission from requiring any control of stormwater during redevelopment beyond that required for the incremental increase in built-upon area. This is a problem because the way to improve waters impaired by stormwater pollution is to retrofit development. The most efficient way to retrofit is to do so when buildings are rebuilt. Local governments cannot escape the federal obligation to take measures improve the water quality of impaired streams; this provision makes the task more difficult.
  • 2017 – HB 576 – Allow Aerosolization of Leachate (vetoed): Requires DEQ to allow the spraying of landfill wastewater over landfills, which presents risks to workers and neighbors.
  • 2017 – SB 257 – Appropriations Act of 2017 (vetoed; veto overridden): Pushes DEQ to experimentally test chemical algaecides in major drinking water reservoirs, Jordan and Falls lakes.
  • 2017 – SB 131 – Regulatory Reform Act of 2016 – 2017: Reduced stream protections and stormwater controls. Read more
Environment

Late addition to HB 56 gives $435K to UNC Wilmington, Cape Fear Public Utility Authority — $0 to DEQ, DHHS

Rep. Pat McElraft: “There will be more funding down the road. This is just a start.” (Photo: NCGA)

House Bill 56, already laden with the plastic bag ban and modified-but-still-controversial riparian buffer language, took on more freight Wednesday night with a $435,000 appropriation to combat GenX in the Cape Fear River.

But that money would not go to the state environmental and health departments, for which Gov. Roy Cooper had requested a $2.58 million emergency appropriation. Instead, $185,000 would be appropriated for the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority with another $250,000 for UNC Wilmington. “This addresses the immediate concern of how to take GenX out of the water system,” said Rep. Pat McElraft, who is also a member of the Environmental Review Commission. “There will be more funding down the road. This is just a start.”

The House Rules Committee debated the bill, which details how the money would be spent.

CFPUA is to use $100,000 to “study the identification and deployment of water treatment technology to remove GenX from the public water supply, with another $85,000 for ongoing monitoring of water supplies withdrawn from the Cape Fear River. This does not preclude DEQ from conducting its own monitoring, but the agency had hoped to use some of its emergency appropriation to fund it.

UNCW would spend its appropriation “to identify and quantify GenX and measure the concentration of the chemicals in the sediments of the Cape Fear River, the extent to which the chemical biodegrades over time or bioaccumulates within local ecosystems, and what risk the contaminant poses to human health.”

Both the utility and the university must provide reports to the ERC by Dec. 1

The bill also requires DEQ to issue a Notice of Violation to Chemours by Sept. 8, or provide a detailed report to the ERC why the agency has not done so.

Rep. Darren Jackson, a Wake County Democrat, questioned why such a key provision was being tucked into legislation that had so many controversial provisions. “Why play games with it?” he asked. “Why not do a standalone bill?”

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