By Kirk Ross
Legislators are sorting through a list of potential environmental provisions ahead of the General Assembly’s return next week, moving up the timetable for further state response to GenX and other emerging contaminants.
Legislative leaders have been planning a brief session starting Jan. 10, 2018, to focus on a set of proposed constitutional amendments to put before the voters in 2018. But during a recent meeting of a House select committee set up to study river water quality, Rep. Ted Davis (R-Wilmington) announced that he plans to use the January session to address immediate needs related to GenX and other emerging contaminants.
Davis, along with New Hanover County Republican Rep. Holly Grange and Rep. Frank Iler, (R-Oak Island), lead the House Select Committee on North Carolina River Quality, which was formed in late August to review the response to GenX and other emerging contaminants and their effect on water quality.
At the committee’s Nov. 30 meeting, Davis said that although the committee’s main charge is to ready legislation for this spring’s regular 2018 session, there’s a need to move ahead sooner.
“In my opinion, based in what we’ve heard so far, I don’t think we can wait until the 2018 session to actually start to do something,” Davis told committee members. “This is an opportunity for us to look at possible short-term solutions and get the ball rolling.”
Davis said he plans to circulate proposed legislation to committee members later this month and hold a committee meeting to review proposals and hear public comment on Jan. 4. Davis said he has been in touch with his Senate counterparts to avoid any surprises during the Jan. 10 session. “I think it’s very important we work together on this.”
Davis told Coastal Review Online last month that he would toward the end of December have a better idea of what might be proposed. At last month’s meeting he said proposals would also be made available to the public in advance of the meeting.
An outline of ideas generated after a series of stakeholder meetings this fall includes a handful of statutory fixes, along with a call for a study of liability issues for local water providers and startup funding for a state “observatory” to study and monitor emerging contaminants.
Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Greenboro) said she doesn’t expect to see sweeping changes in this month. While she understands why Davis is pushing ahead with some items, Harrison is still counting on a broader effort going forward.
“The emerging contaminant issue is so much bigger than GenX and much bigger than the Cape Fear River Basin,” she said. “It’s a problem all over the state.”
Harrison said she wants to see some of the rollbacks of water quality protections over the last several years reversed and DEQ given the tools and resources it needs. She said the GenX situation is “a wakeup call.”
“I’d like us to be more proactive and thoughtful about finding out what’s in the river, whether it’s harmful and how do you get it out.”
Harrison, one of two Democrats on the 14-member committee, said she had been encouraged that many members are willing to consider a ban on discharging certain groups of compounds such as GenX and other related perfluorinated compounds. “That would go a long way,” she said.
During the meeting last month, both Grange and Rep. Jimmy Dixon (R-Warsaw) said the state should consider whether some compounds whose health effects are unknown should be permitted to be discharged.
Rep. Deb Butler (D-Wilmington) who has been critical of the legislature’s GenX response, said she’s concerned that the needs of the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Health and Human Services don’t appear to be in the mix of new ideas floated so far. She worried that the agencies are continuing to be sidelined by the legislature.
Butler said some of the ideas the committee has proposed may make sense, but they appear to continue to circumvent DEQ’s role as a regulatory agency.
“The truth is that all these efforts might have merit, but without regulatory authority to put the teeth behind them, they’re worthless,” Butler said.
Butler, a Democrat who first raised GenX concerns during the House budget debate in June, said she had been shut out of the process since. The only House member in the southeast coastal region not serving on the river quality committee, Butler said the legislature has steadily ignored the budget and enforcement needs of the two agencies.
She said that she has concerns about the idea of limiting liability for public water authorities. Butler said the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, which supplies drinking water to much of the Wilmington region, could be granted immunity even though the authority withheld information on the GenX discovery from its customers.
The authority said in June that its staff learned of the presence of GenX in water treated by its Sweeney Water Treatment Plant from the initial findings of a North Carolina State University study on May 3, 2016.
DEQ officials say they have not put in any requests for specific legislation for January, but have started a stakeholder process to consider ideas going forward.
Anderson Miller, the department’s director of legislative affairs, said this week that the department would keep a close eye on what’s proposed for the session and provide feedback, but did not a have a list of immediate items outside of those announced by Gov. Roy Cooper in August. Miller said the department has been reaching out to environmental groups, industry representatives and other stakeholders to consider potential changes to statutes.
Cooper asked for $2.58 million in supplemental funding for DEQ and DHHS to cover the cost of additional testing and monitoring.
During its brief September session, legislators instead passed $435,000 in funding for initiatives proposed by the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority and the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
Cooper vetoed the bill and the legislature returned a month later to override it.
The fight over funding doesn’t appear to be going away. In a review this week by a joint House and Senate oversight committee of DEQ funding reductions in this year’s budget, Assistant Secretary Shelia Holman said the department is still tabulating the costs of dealing with the GenX and emerging contaminant response. In all, 31 staff members in the divisions of Air Quality, Water Resources and Waste Management are engaged in the issue.
Holman told members of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee for Agriculture and Natural and Economic Resources that the effort has pulled individuals away from inspections, permit writing and other duties.
Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Hendersonville) a senior budget writer for the House, said the legislature should expect to address the funding issue again in the upcoming regular session.
Dixon, who chairs the oversight committee, promised an intensive look at the needs, but said he doesn’t want to see the issue come down to another political fight over funding.
“There’s a sentiment out there that is going to make the funding issue one of the premier elements of the campaign for 2018,” Dixon said. “Our job is to try to separate the politics of those kinds of things from the reality of what the people of North Carolina need.”
Harrison said she also doesn’t want to see the funding to turn into a political fight. She said it’s important for DEQ to lay out the costs of the current efforts and costs going forward.
One set of legislative proposals not likely to be taken up next month, but that could be in the mix of future discussions, is a series of adjustments to state statues proposed in late November by a coalition of environmental groups.[sponsor]
A statement signed by Cape Fear River Watch, Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, Haw River Assembly, Mountain True, Sierra Club, Sound Rivers, the Southern Environmental Law Center, American Rivers and the Yadkin Riverkeeper calls for tighter disclosure and transparency requirements, additional funding for DEQ for permitting and enforcement, a ban on the discharge of chemicals without a state or federal health or effluent standards, filtration assistance by industry for downstream municipal treatment systems and a rollback of the so-called Hardison Amendment, which prohibits state agencies from adopting regulation that exceed federal requirements.
In an email response to Coastal Review Online, Geoff Gisler, a senior attorney with SELC, said North Carolina communities deserve to know their water is safe and that agency enforcing the rules is effective.
“The legislature must do two things to begin repairing the damage caused by GenX and similar new pollutants statewide. First, it must make clear that polluters are required to tell the state and the public what’s in their waste —and be shut down if they dump unapproved chemicals,” Gisler said. “Second, the legislature must give the Department of Environmental Quality adequate funding to hire the experts needed to effectively enforce our existing clean water protections and hold companies accountable when they put our families in danger.”