State Senate Republicans, in part responsible for enacting deep budget cuts for environmental programs, seem reluctant to grant Gov. Roy Cooper’s emergency funding request to deal with the chemical GenX in drinking water. Instead, in a letter sent yesterday to the governor, the Republican caucus questioned whether “any additional appropriations could make a meaningful difference in water quality and public safety in the lower Cape Fear region” and if Cooper was simply engaging in “public relations.”
The letter was signed by Sens. Bill Cook, Trudy Wade, Andy Wells, Rick Gunn, Michael Lee, Norm Sanderson and Bill Rabon. They asked for a response by Aug. 14; the legislative session reconvenes Aug. 18.
Earlier this week, Cooper, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen and Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan unveiled a proposal of how they would spend an estimated $2.5 million on not only GenX but other water quality and related public health issues.
In the letter, the caucus posed 13 questions about the administration’s handling of the GenX crisis. A few of the questions were legitimate, such as whether Chemours should be required to pay for long-term water sampling. But others appeared to be leading or had already been answered via press releases and media reports.
Among them is the decision of the Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen to drastically reduce the public health goal of GenX in drinking water. Earlier this month, Cohen announced at a press conference in Wilmington that her department adjusted the levels from 70,000 parts per trillion to 140 parts per trillion. The reason, Cohen said, is because the EPA had initially provided only one study on which to base the goal; later federal officials gave DEQ a second study that informed the decision to reduce the acceptable amount.
GOP caucus members also wanted to know why DEQ has not issued a notice of violation under the Clean Water Act to Chemours, responsible for the GenX discharge. NCPW has reported that a federal consent decree filed as part of a lawsuit in West Virginia states that GenX can be discharged into public waterways under the Clean Water Act as long as it’s a “byproduct” of the manufacturing process, not the manufacture of GenX itself.
Part of the $2.5 million appropriation would fund an additional 16 positions within DEQ’s water resources division. This year’s budget eliminated 16.75 positions department-wide, following a pattern of continued cuts that have handcuffed the agency. There is a two-year backlog for reviewing wastewater discharge permits.
Republican caucus members responded to the request by saying:
“We know the department currently employs many individuals that perform non-regulatory functions not involving the implementation of federal or state environmental quality programs. An example of this is the “Office of Innovation” that was just created by Secretary Regan. Rather than using taxpayer funds to create additional government employees, could some of these individuals performing non-regulatory duties be shifted to assist with the permitting backlog and other regulatory functions that have been neglected?”
According to the DEQ website, two people work as policy and innovation advisors: Mary Penny Kelley, whose position in an early version of the budget was eliminated; and Jennifer Mundt. Both advisors are tasked with developing innovative policies and solutions to environmental and energy issues. As for the reality of shifting employees from “non-regulatory” duties to regulatory ones, it’s possible that the workers would not have the skills and expertise to do those jobs, particularly if they require a science or engineering degree.
Earlier this year, the Star-News in Wilmington reported on a study conducted by two EPA scientists and an NC State University professor that GenX, an unregulated, emerging contaminant had been detected in drinking water in New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties. The source of the chemical was upstream, the Chemours plant in Fayetteville, which had been discharging GenX into the Lower Cape Fear. GenX is an unregulated, “emerging” contaminant. That means the EPA has not conducted sufficient safety studies to set a maximum contaminant level for the chemical in drinking water.
There are hundreds of such contaminants, including 1,4-dioxane, found in the Haw River and the Pittsboro drinking water supply, and Chromium 6, detected in private wells near coal ash plants. The decision whether to regulate a contaminant is highly politicized, and the EPA has been criticized by the Government Accountability Office for failing to expedite scientific review.