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Who’s cribbing from whom? Sen. Mike Lee and Civitas share talking points on GenX, DEQ funding

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Sen. Mike Lee, a Republican from New Hanover County (Photo: NCGA)

Sen. Mike Lee, [2]a Republican from New Hanover County, gave an impassioned presentation about GenX to his fellow lawmakers on the Environmental Review Commission yesterday, saying, “We don’t know who to trust. We seem to be getting contradictory information.”

He then proposed that lawmakers not approve the governor’s request for $2.58 million in recurring funds for the state environmental and health departments, but instead, funnel the money to the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority and UNC Wilmington to come up with an “action plan.”

The subtext was that Lee doesn’t trust the state agencies, but he does trust the utility. However, the utility has experienced lapses of its own. According to a letter from DEQ to Republican Senate caucus, the utility knew about GenX in the drinking water last May — 13 months before it became public via the Star-News.

Where did this funding idea come from? An Aug. 14 letter from Civitas [3]to the House and Senate leadership offers a few clues. Written by Civitas President Francis X. De Luca, the letter asks House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate Pro Tem Phil Berger to allocate those funds to public water systems in the lower Cape Fear. “Spending money for a solution is a much more effective and direct way to respond,” the letter reads.

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Rep. Holly Grange, a Republican from New Hanover County (Photo: NCGA)

However, the “action plan,” also supported by fellow Republican Reps. Holly Grange of New Hanover County and Chris Millis of Pender County,  is inchoate. Millis, who sits on the ERC, made a motion for the General Assembly staff to coordinate with the Lower Cape Fear utilities, plus UNC Wilmington, “to begin a dialogue on a proper plan of action to address the matter before us.”

Even though there is no evidence that this rudimentary plan would address the sense of urgency facing Wilmington residents, the ERC approved it, albeit without the funding component.

Civitas, notoriously anti-regulatory, recently cribbed a page from the Southern Environmental Law Center playbook. On July 28, Civitas sent Chemours, DEQ and the EPA a written notice of illegal conduct under the Clean Water Act. If the DEQ has not adequately addressed these claims within 60 days of notification, Civitas can sue. (The Cape Fear utility sent its own 60-day notice on Aug. 3.)

The SELC used the same protocol in 2013 over Duke Energy’s coal ash storage. In that case, DEQ, under Secretary John Skvarla, thwarted SELC’s suit by bringing an enforcement action — on the 59th day. (The court allowed the firm to have intervener status in the proceeding.) DEQ’s maneuver was widely viewed as a way to shield Duke from a lengthy citizens’ lawsuit.

So if the Cooper administration and/or DEQ does file an enforcement action against Chemours, then Civitas could try to argue the agency is trying to shield Chemours, as the previous administration allegedly attempted to do with Duke Energy. And if DEQ doesn’t file an enforcement action, the Civitas could claim the agency is being soft on polluters. Either way, Civitas has politicized the issue.

And none of this will immediately help the residents of the Lower Cape Fear River Basin.

“In light of these actions,” DeLuca wrote, “We are confident we may soon see some progress, even if slow.”