Environment, Legislature

River Quality Committee sends GenX bill to full House, but Senate cooperation is uncertain

Rep. Elmer Floyd, a Cumberland County Democrat, sits on the
House Select Committee on River Quality (Photo: NCGA)

Gov. Roy Cooper had declared a state of emergency for more than a dozen North Carolina counties. Government offices were closed or delayed opening. Many roads were riddled with wrecked cars. Nonetheless, the House Select Committee River Quality was determined to vote on key water quality legislation, even if public comment was abridged by the snowstorm.

After 90 minutes of discussion, which largely reviewed issues from previous meetings, and comments from eight members of the public, the committee unanimously voted to send the bill to the full House.

The measure, Republican committee chairman Rep. Ted Davis, Jr. of New Hanover County acknowledged, is only “a first step.” As Policy Watch reported over the holiday, is largely a study bill without additional funding for the NC Department of Environmental Quality to fulfill the requirements.

“Draft legislation is long overdue,” Harper Peterson, a former mayor of Wilmington, told the committee. “What’s missing is investment.”

However, Davis did allow that in the unlikely event that both chambers could agree on an appropriation next week, a vote on funding wasn’t out of the question.

In its draft form, the bill contains a half-dozen provisions, all which fulfill Davis’s requirement that they present “short-term, non-controversial solutions.”

  • It would direct the state health department to work with the Secretaries’ Science Advisory Board in establishing health goals for emerging contaminants, such as GenX;
  • The legislation would also require DEQ to study the reporting requirements for facilities that discharge wastewater into rivers, lakes and streams;
  • DEQ would also have to analyze the effectiveness of its approval process for NPDES wastewater discharge permits;
  • The agency would also share water quality data with neighboring states;
  • Meanwhile, the Department of Health and Human Services would work with the Secretaries’ Science Advisory Board to review and establish provisional health goals for these emerging contaminants in drinking water;
  • And UNC Chapel Hill and the School of Government would research the civil liability of public and private utilities that provide contaminated water to their customers — if the polluted discharge occurred in light of a lack of state or federal standards.

More complicated, even politically charged legislation will be delayed until the short session convenes in May.

“Politics is the art of the possible,” said Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Henderson County Republican. “It’s not as big a step as I like to take, but I’m not the king here.” However, should the House insert funding language, McGrady, as appropriations chairman, would have significant influence over the negotiations.

Davis said in addition to the Senate leadership, more than a dozen stakeholders had been briefed on the bill, including the League of Municipalities,  the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce, Duke Energy, DEQ, the Coastal Federation, Environmental Defense Fund, the Sierra Club and the Southern Environmental Law Center.

SELC Senior Attorney Mary Maclean Asbill, though, clarified the firm’s position on the legislation. “We do not support this bill,” she said. “It doesn’t do anything to address GenX in the air. It doesn’t allow DEQ to pass new rules now. No reports are due until the end of 2018. It doesn’t help people who are drinking the water.”

SELC submitted to the committee more rigorous language for the bill: Tougher penalties for illegal discharges and stricter regulations on chemicals that can be discharged, even if there are no state or federal standards.

“This bill kicks the can down the road,” added Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Matthew Starr, and asks state agencies to address the problem “without the resources to do.”

Chemours, “a mega polluter,” Starr said, “has not shown a bit of remorse” for dumping GenX into the Cape Fear.

The problem of emerging contaminants, he added, is not confined to the Cape Fear River. Some level of GenX or similar chemical compounds have been found in 11 counties, most recently in the Haw River, Jordan Lake and the Town of Cary’s drinking water supply.

“It is lamentable that it took a public health crisis to create this committee,” said Will Hendrick, an attorney with the Waterkeeper Alliance, who supported some components of the bill. “I congratulate the bill drafters’ deference to DEQ,” which has some autonomy, if not the money to exercise it, in the legislation.

But Hendrick also requested a dollar figure be attached to the bill, as well as a repeal  the Hardison Amendment. That statute prohibits DEQ and all state agencies from adopting regulations that are stricter than federal law. It was in effect from 1973 to 1995, when lawmakers repealed it. But in 2011, Republicans gained control over the legislature and reinstated the law.

In recent years, “state agencies have been shackled by this legislature,” Hendrick said. “Allow them to protect us by restoring the necessary resources necessary.”

Davis felt a time squeeze because the draft bill must be distributed to the full House in advance of a possible vote during the Jan. 10 special session. That session. expected to last no more than a day or two, was originally convened so lawmakers could take up the issue of constitutional amendments.  However, House Speaker Tim Moore is allowing a vote on the water quality bill.

Asbill challenged the notion that lawmakers had only two days to conduct their business. “There’s nothing that says the body can’t take the time next week,” she said. “Why not work with the Senate on this bill?”

Those with knowledge of the briefings have told Policy Watch that the Senate has not tipped its hand on how it will vote — a point Davis publicly reiterated.

“I can’t say what the Senate will do,” Davis said.

Sen. Phil Berger’s office could not be immediately reached for comment.

Rep. Elmer Floyd, a Cumberland County Democrat, seemed skeptical of the Senate’s cooperation. “Sometimes when we send things across the hall (to the Senate), things can slow down.”

The House and Senate are scheduled to convene Wednesday, Jan. 10, at noon.

 

Legislature, News

Rep. Chris Millis received $1,000 from developer of controversial aquarium site shortly after larger project was announced

A complaint filed by the New Hanover Democratic Party targets Rep. Chris Millis over questions about his advocacy for funding a new aquarium that could benefit a campaign donor.

The financial connection became clearer today between a wealthy political donor and former Rep. Chris Millis, who secured state funding for a questionable aquarium project that could benefit that donor.

But a timeline of events raises further legal and ethical questions about what at best is an unusual deal.

On Oct. 1, $300,000 was added to the budget bill — passed and ratified earlier this summer  — for the planning and permitting of a satellite aquarium at the Blake Farm in Scotts Hill. The 1,300-acre planned mixed-use development of retail, residential, hotels and offices, is only about 30 miles from the long-standing state aquarium at Fort Fisher.

In addition to the aquarium being built with state funds the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources did not request the facility. Nonetheless, the department would be required to run it. The aquarium would focus on shellfish, such as oysters, crabs, clams and shrimp.

Millis had earlier advocated for the appropriation, but resigned on Sept. 15, two weeks before the bill passed, ostensibly to spend more time with his family.

Now, back up three years: Millis, a civil engineer by trade, is connected to Blake’s Farm, LLC and the aquarium project through its registered agent and land developer Raiford Trask III. On Oct. 31, 2014, seven months after Trask announced plans for the project, albeit without mentioning an aquarium, he contributed $1,000 to Millis’ House campaign.

Meanwhile, also in 2014, the civil engineering firm Paramounte, which is Millis’s employer, worked on the 980-acre Lane’s Ferry Project, in Pender County. Lane’s Ferry was developed by a company managed by Heide Trask, Jr, a cousin of Raiford Trask III.

Millis told WRAL earlier this month that he didn’t personally work on the Lane’s Ferry Project. However, it’s arguable that if Paramounte’s finances or reputation benefits from a successful project, the employees would benefit, as well.

Trask told the TV station that he didn’t know Millis’s firm was involved in Lane’s Ferry. While possible, that’s also unlikely, since Paramounte submitted site plans to the Pender County government for the project and was named in media reports.

The Trask family frequently contributes to political candidates of both parties, although most of the money goes to Republicans.

The New Hanover County Democrats filed a 10-page complaint today with the NC Secretary of State’s Lobbying Compliance Division. The complaint names Trask, Millis and Blakes of Scott Hill, LLC.  A Democratic Party representative Richard Poole is asking the secretary of state’s office to investigate whether Trask improperly lobbied Millis and his fellow Republican lawmakers Rep. Holly Grange of New Hanover County and Sen. Bill Rabon, who represents four counties, including Pender and New Hanover.

Trask is not listed in the state’s directory of lobbyists.

The complaint also asks if Trask, Rabon, Millis and Grange circumvented state law by directing a sole-source procurement with no public bidding for a state facility. Michele Walker, spokeswoman for DCNR, told Policy Watch last week that bidding on the project will be required to go through a standard Request for Proposals process.

“I’m concerned that developing a new aquarium in Pender County will undermine the patronage and funding of the existing aquarium,” Poole of the New Hanover Democratic Party wrote. “I believe that funds expended on a Pender shellfish aquarium could be better spent elsewhere.”

 

Complaint vs Aquarium by Anonymous B0mRtPKjko on Scribd

Environment, Legislature

A third of 110 private drinking water wells near Chemours tested high for GenX

Rep. Bill Brisson: “It’s not like the mice fell over dead when they were injected with GenX.” (Photo: NC General Assembly)

NC Policy Watch has more coverage of yesterday’s meeting of the House Select Committee on River Quality.

An assisting living home on Tranquility Road. Nine residences in one subdivision and three in another.

Sampling from September show the extent — so far — of GenX contamination in private drinking water wells near the Chemours plant. And the results have prompted state environmental regulators to extend the testing boundaries in hopes of capturing a fuller picture of the problem.

In total, the NC Department of Environmental Quality and Chemours have tested 110 wells. Of those, 40 had concentrations of GenX above the state’s provisional health goal of 140 parts per trillion. The Marshwood Lake subdivision, located northeast of the Chemours plant near the Bladen-Cumberland County line, recorded the highest number of exceedances — nine wells. And the highest concentration — 1,300 ppt — was also found in a well there.

Chemours is providing bottled water to all homes whose wells are above health goal.

Assistant Secretary of the Environment Sheila Holman told the House Select Committee on River Quality yesterday that additional wells would be sampled in a one-mile radius from the Chemours property line. The most recent tests were conducted one and a half miles from the center of the Chemours site. Since the site is so large, more than 2,300 acres, using the property line as a starting point would allow more wells to be sampled.

Because most of the affected wells are uphill from the plant, state environmental regulators theorize that the groundwater has become contaminated with GenX through air emissions — atmospheric deposition — from  Chemours. There is speculation — and the science is largely absent on this point — that certain compounds leaving the Chemours stack chemically transform into GenX when they come into contact with water. There isn’t an “obvious method” of measuring the ambient air quality near the plant for GenX, Holman said, but there are test methods being developed that can better measure the compound leaving the plant from the stack. “Does the contaminant act as a gas or a particle?” Holman said. “We don’t know.”

DEQ will also conduct soil and aquifer testing, plus additional sampling of Willis Creek, which runs north of the plant and feeds into the Cape Fear River.

We're scaring the puddin' out of the public Click To Tweet

At the committee meeting, lawmakers split their concerns between stopping unknown contaminants from entering the drinking water supply and dampening any public alarm over the safety of that water.

Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a Duplin County Republican, said people who have politicized the issue, including Gov. Roy Cooper, “need a spanking.” That politicization, Dixon claimed, has provided grist for the rumor mill. “How do we do this” — advising the public on the risks — “without scaring the puddin’ out of Mr. and Mrs. Public?”

“Are we scaring people?” reiterated Rep. Bob Steinburg, a Republican representing several counties in northeastern North Carolina. “Is there an uptick in cancer in these regions? We don’t want to incite panic.”

Overall, there has not been a significant increase in cancer compared with the state average, Department of Health and Human Services epidemiologist Zachary Moore said. But cancer is not the only illness that can be caused by exposure to GenX and perfluorinated compounds; the immune system and hormonal regulators can also be affected.

“It’s not my intent to create panic,” answered NC State University scientist Detlef Knappe. He has not signed on to the state’s announcement that the water is safe to drink, he said because “we need to look at the fuller range of compounds.”

In the industrialized world, the risk of chemical exposure is inherent in the normal course of living. “But this is an unnecessary risk,” Knappe said.

It's not like the mice fell over dead when they were injected with GenX Click To Tweet

There have been examples of predatory behavior on the part of some private well testers. Residents in Wilmington received mailers and phone calls offering testing services — for $850. (The state will conduct the tests for free in affected regions.) Although DEQ has not advised anyone not to bathe or wash dishes in the affected water, nonetheless, said Rep. Bill Brisson of Bladen County, “folks are scared to death. The testing has been blown out of proportion.”

Unfortunately, in his remarks Brisson did not seem to fully understand the scientific method, risk assessment or the caution that should accompany uncertainty. “It’s not like the mice fell over dead when they were injected with GenX,” Brisson said. “People die every day. There have been no tests showing it harms humans. There are no abnormal levels of cancer, but people are blaming GenX for their cancers for the past 30 years.”

 

Results from September show that 22 of 70 private drinking water wells sampled — 31 percent — contained concentrations of GenX above the state’s provisional health goal of 140 parts per trillion. Those wells are indicated by the red icons. Click on the icon for the address and concentration levels. An additional 23 wells tested positive for GenX but below the health goal. Twenty-five wells did not contain the compound.
Of all wells that had some level of GenX in them, the minimum concentration was 11 ppt and the maximum was 1,300 ppt. None of the wells exceeded EPA drinking water standards for other perfluorinated compounds. Subsequent testing of 40 more wells has shown that an additional 18 exceeded the health goals. Source: NC DEQ

Environment, Legislature

New legislation would resurrect fracking proponent Jim Womack’s career on the oil and gas commission

Jim Womack

Jim Womack, a fracking proponent and dethroned oil and gas commissioner, appears likely to get his wish to return to that board.

This morning, the House Rules Committee proposed a substitute for Senate Bill 416 that would change the requirements for the oil and gas commission to allow anyone who simply joins a conservation group — including environmental imposters — to serve on it.

The new language would allow two commission seats to be reserved for “members” of a nongovernmental conservation interest. This is a small but significant change from the current language, which requires those seats to be held by “representatives” of those interests.

Representatives of these groups are usually staff or board members, whose conservation bonafides are well-known. But becoming a member of a conservation group is as easy as paying annual dues; a fracking advocate such as Womack, for example, could cut a check to any of those groups and then qualify for an appointment.

In fact, the only open commission seat that could be appointed by the Senate — Womack’s former post — is reserved for a conservation group representative. By all indications, however, lawmakers intend to pass the law change described above and then appoint Womack as the Senate’s choice. Senate Bill 694, which was introduced earlier today, includes the following language:

“SECTION 3.17. Consistent with G.S. 143B-293.2(a1)(5), the previous appointment of James Womack of Lee County to the North Carolina Oil and Gas Commission is extended from June 30, 2018 to December 31, 2018.”

Last month, Womack tried to hold an illegal meeting of the oil and gas commission for the first time in 18 months. But John Nicholson, chief deputy of the NC Department of Environment, advised Womack that he was no longer on the commission, and thus had no authority to call a meeting. At the time, several commission members had not filled out their statements of economic interests, which the state board of ethics and elections must review before the members can serve.

Environment, Legislature

Pleading fear and ignorance, House lawmakers get schooled on GenX

Rep. Frank Iler, a Republican from Brunswick County: “We’ve been operating on fear and sheer ignorance.” (Photo: NC General Assembly)

(The Senate Select Committee on North Carolina River Quality meets today at 2 p.m. in Room 1027/1128 of the Legislative Building.)

The neighborhood immediately north of the Chemours plant, which straddles the Cumberland-Bladen county line, is a mix of mobile homes, concrete-block houses painted white or gray, and upscale brick manses, some still under construction.

But what all of these households have in common is a small wellhouse in the yard. Too far from Fayetteville to connect to that city’s utility, the homes are on private drinking water wells. And here on the brim of the Chemours plant, 19 wells — their exact locations kept confidential for privacy reasons — are tainted with GenX, an unregulated contaminant produced by the facility’s vinyl ether manufacturing line.

From southern Cumberland County and areas downstream, including Brunswick County and Wilmington, GenX has been detected in the Cape Fear River and in private and public drinking water supplies. And for the last four months, lawmakers and state environmental and health officials have been trying to calm the public while attempting to get a handle on a contaminant that they know little about, and can neither taste, smell, nor see.

We’ve been operating on fear and sheer ignorance Click To Tweet

Last Thursday, at the first meeting of the House Select Committee on North Carolina River Quality, Rep. Frank Iler, a Brunswick County Republican provided overdue guidance to his colleagues: “We’ve been operating on fear and sheer ignorance. We need true information.”

Iler’s candor notwithstanding, lawmakers have spent the summer accusing state environmental and health officials of carelessness — and the media of recklessness — in their handling of the GenX crisis.

The legislature rebuffed Gov. Cooper’s request for $2.6 million to help those agencies address drinking water contaminants statewide. Then, signaling their discontent, lawamkers passed legislation that at the last-minute, appropriated $435,000 to the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority and UNC Wilmington to study the contaminant.

(Read a related post from the Port City Daily about how the utility’s PR firm tweaked a press release to insinuate the governor had a lackadaisical attitude toward the crisis.)

Gov. Cooper vetoed that measure, House Bill 56, but it’s expected to come up for an override vote on Wednesday.

For six hours, the committee heard from state environmental and health officials, Duke University scientists, UNC Wilmington’s legislative liaison and the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority. There were several points of near-consensus:

  • It will require a lot of money — tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars — for sampling, monitoring and cleanup.
  • Federal and state regulations are too weak to rein in companies like Chemours, which have found legal loopholes allowing them to pollute. They also can keep much of the information about GenX secret, under federal rules governing Confidential Business Information.
  • State government and universities should work cooperatively, using their technical abilities and expertise, to attack the problem.

The problem of emerging contaminants — unregulated, secret and hard to detect with standard laboratory equipment — is plaguing environmental regulators nationwide.

“This is like industrial whack-a-mole,” Tracy Skrabal, coastal scientist and manager of the Southeast Regional Office of the NC Coastal Federation, told the select committee. “If it were that easy, we wouldn’t have a national problem.”

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