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Senators trade barbs over funding bill directing DEQ to spend $2.4 million on “busy work”

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The Senate bill requires the Department of Environmental Quality to review 43 years’
worth of wastewater discharge permits — starting before Secretary Michael Regan was born.
(Photo: NC DEQ)

At a public forum earlier this month, a man from Bladen County asked state environmental and health officials a direct and desperate question: “Are we guinea pigs?” he pleaded. “I don’t want to die from GenX.”

One could not blame him, his neighbors and the thousands of residents downstream in Brunswick and New Hanover counties for wondering if they are also subjects of a political experiment.

Many lawmakers have underscored the “urgency” of dealing with an aptly described “public health crisis.” However, in terms of concrete legislation, the intent behind — and effectiveness of —  the bills to address the crisis are more akin to extinguishing a five-alarm fire, one glass of water at a time.

The latest glass of water arrived in the form of a Senate bill, publicly unveiled at 10:45 Tuesday evening and discussed at yesterday’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee meeting. It is a proposed substitute for the House version, which appropriated $2.3 million to the NC Department of Environmental Quality in part, to buy a high-resolution mass spectrometer to specifically sample and analyze drinking and surface water for emerging contaminants. There were other bureaucratic requirements, too, but the guts of the House bill was the directive that DEQ use the money and the machine to figure out what’s in the water and how to remove it.

The Senate version, though, dilutes its House counterpart. It rehashes work that’s already in progress and requires state officials to perform bureaucratic tasks torn from the pages of a Franz Kafka novel.

Yes, DEQ would receive $2.4 million. But that money, as Sen. Angela Bryant, a Democrat representing six eastern counties, noted angrily at a committee meeting yesterday is for “busy work.”

If the bill becomes law, DEQ will indeed be busy: Reviewing the last 43 years of its federal wastewater permit program — known as NPDES — which is delegated to the states to administer. Forty-three years of the federal program covers eight presidential terms, 19 EPA administrators and varying rules depending on who was in charge and the state of science at the time.

Forty-three years ago, DEQ Secretary Michael Regan, 41, had not been born.

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Sen. Mike Lee, a Republican representing New Hanover County:
“I’m sorry if this schedule is too aggressive for you.”
(Photo: NCGA)

Sen. Mike Lee, a New Hanover Republican, bristled at the term “busywork.” “The contaminants have been going into the Cape Fear River for 38 years,” he said. “What are the requirements for permit disclosures? What are the processes for developing standards? Is the process thorough and timely? If those have changed over time we need to know.”

DEQ’s permit backlog — 40 percent of them are overdue for review — is well-documented. The filing and organizational systems are also outdated. And it’s true that these problems need fixed. But the bill essentially tells DEQ to pour its glass of water on a detached garage instead of the house.

“It’s a bait and switch,” Bryant remarked. “It looks like we’re funding DEQ when we’re doing nothing”

Unlike the House version, the Senate excludes the Secretaries’ Science Advisory Board — renowned scientists, including several from the UNC System, who have been working on the issue and meeting publicly since the fall. Instead, the bill redirects $2 million to the NC Policy Collaboratory, a UNC think tank created by the GOP, to essentially assemble a similar team in consultation with the state health department.

This $2 million provision, Lee said, “is a backstop plan” in the event EPA labs can no longer handle the work.

Under the original legislation creating the Collaboratory, the $2 million would have been appropriated only if the group raised matching funds. Now the money is available without that requirement. The Collaboratory’s research director is Jeffrey Warren, former policy advisor to Sen. Phil Berger.

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Sen. Angela Bryant: “This is a bait and switch. It looks like
we’re funding DEQ when we’re doing nothing.” (Photo: NCGA)

Sen. Berger claimed last month that DEQ has free access to of high-resolution mass spectrometers  — necessary to detecting known and unknown emerging contaminants. That’s not true. Now the Senate bill directs the Collaboratory to use its windfall on researching within the UNC system the availability of this expensive, highly sensitive equipment. and connecting those researchers with DEQ. But Brad Ives, the Collaboratory’s director, acknowledged that gaining access to the equipment in the middle of an academic year — when researchers and students are engrossed in their own work — could be challenging.

Sen. Mike Woodard, a Democrat representing Durham, Caswell and Person counties, stippled Lee with questions, leading to several sharp exchanges.

“My concern is you’re putting more delays in there and not achieving your goal,” of cleaning up the drinking water, Woodward said. “How does DEQ implement this bill? It’s not getting to the point of it.”

“I live in Wilmington, I drink the water,” Lee replied. “It’s not political. This is about getting the best people. But this can’t be resolved in one day in one session. I’m sorry if that schedule is too aggressive for you.”

Lee proposed a politically untenable challenge: “If you think $2.4 million is too much, then run an amendment and cut it.”

Funding — who gets it and for what — has dogged the legislature since last summer when Gov. Roy Cooper initially proposed $2.3 million for DEQ and DHHS to address the GenX issue. Since then the General Assembly passed an anemic bill to instead fund work by UNC Wilmington and the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, the results of which not addressed the urgency of the problem.

The House unanimously passed a $2.3 million funding bill last month, largely seen as indicating at least some progress toward legitimately addressing the contamination. The Senate refused to take up the bill and went home, only to re-emerge with its committee substitute.

“Are you hearing from your constituents there is some mistrust in the legislature?” Bryant asked Lee. “In this process, we’re crippling the role of DEQ. That’s the subtext of the agenda. That’s what I’m hearing.”

“This problem spans all of the administrations. This is the best plan we can have moving forward,” Lee replied, shortly before the committee voted to send it to appropriations with a favorable report. “Constituents mistrust everybody.”

Even the guinea pigs.