Commentary

The best editorial of the weekend

There have been a lot of editorials lamenting the poor environmental protection enforcement that allowed the GenX chemical disaster to hit southeastern North Carolina, but this Sunday’s Fayetteville Observer really hit the nail on the head with its assessment of why and how lax North Carolina law is at fault. Simply put, the editorial blasts what is, in effect, North Carolina’s “innocent till proven guilty” approach to pollutants.

After acknowledging strong recent actions and the fact that accidents are always going to be a problem, the editorial (“The way we regulate water quality needs rethinking”) concludes this way:

“The problem is that this and most other states follow a backwards process in regulating what goes into our waterways — and thus into our municipal water systems. We allow businesses and industries to pour their wastes into rivers and streams and only limit those chemicals that are on a comparatively short list of proven poisons. But our rivers and streams — and the people who drink the water that comes from them — aren’t in a court of law where suspects are innocent until proven guilty. That principle shouldn’t apply to industrial chemicals. Rather, companies shouldn’t be allowed to discharge chemicals into waterways until they can prove that the chemicals are harmless, at least when they are sufficiently diluted.

We have substantial doubts about the safety of GenX, and yet Chemours and DuPont were allowed to discharge it because it wasn’t on a list of dangerous chemicals. Nor is the chemical that preceded GenX in the Teflon manufacturing process, C8. But C8 has been more extensively tested. Like GenX, it has been linked to cancers in animals and some researchers say it is likely that it can cause cancer in humans as well. But despite those findings, federal and state regulators have only begun to consider reasonable limits for those chemicals in our water supply.

After the GenX problem erupted into public view last summer, the state required Chemours to find alternative disposal methods for the chemical and banned its outfall into the river. That should be state policy with all chemicals whose effects are unknown, especially those from chemical families like those that produce C8 and GenX.

When the General Assembly returns to Raleigh in January, it’s urgent that its leaders create a commission that not only looks into the GenX problem, but also takes a deeper look at the way the state regulates — or more often fails to regulate — what industries are dumping into our water supply. This is a question that affects the health and safety of every North Carolina resident, and it can’t be allowed to become a political football.”

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