Top North Carolina public health officials said Thursday it’s still tough to tell exactly what levels of chemicals like the one called GenX should be considered safe in the state’s drinking water, and that they don’t have the equipment to identify potential emerging pollution threats.
Environmental activists added another complaint: The agencies in charge of finding, regulating and stopping pollution have suffered millions of dollars in budget cuts in the past decade, with no budgetary relief in sight.
But Republican legislators leading the meeting where these complaints came up said more money to address those issues might be on the way this spring. And in the meantime, they approved a bill that would order experts in state government to conduct several studies related to GenX and wider pollution issues that are cropping up around North Carolina.
Officials from the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Health and Human Services said neither agency has a high-resolution mass spectrometer, which is what’s needed to identify what they called emerging contaminants. And according to Betsey Tilson, the state health director, that’s concerning since chemicals like GenX still need a lot of research.
“We are in a relatively new world with the emerging contaminants. … we are in a world of unregulated compounds,” Tillson said.
Rep. Frank Iler said that while the agencies might not have the tools, some of the state’s public universities should.
The bill endorsed Thursday by a committee on river quality is expected to go to the full legislature when it returns to Raleigh on Jan. 10 for a session that Rep. Ted Davis said he expects will last only one or two days. That’s why there was no funding included in the bill, Davis said, adding that extra element would make the bill more controversial and would require the attention of more committees, possibly dooming it to fail due to a lack of time.
“I am aware an appropriation is a very important issue,” said Davis, a Republican from Wilmington. “… However, it is still a work in progress, and we are not ready to address it at today’s meeting.”
And Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a Republican from Duplin County, said those who criticized them for not including any funding in the bill ordering studies have “got the cart behind the horse.”
The legislature needs to see the results of those studies, he said, before it can decide how much money – if any – is needed to move forward.
Most of the studies would be due by April, which would give lawmakers some time to mull them over before they return to Raleigh yet again in May.
But some of the activists who attended the meeting Thursday said the bill was missing the point by giving more work to agencies within the Department of Environmental Quality without recognizing that those offices have had their staffs and budgets cut substantially in recent years.
“All this legislation does is kick the can down the road for the foreseeable future while asking already crippled agencies to fix the problem without restoring the funding necessary to do so,” said Matthew Starr, who as the Upper Neuse Riverkeeper advocates for water quality issues in much of Eastern North Carolina.
Mary Maclean Asbill from the Southern Environmental Law Center said she was also speaking on behalf of environmental groups from the Wilmington area – home to some of the biggest GenX concerns – because they were unable to make the meeting due to all the snow between them and Raleigh.
She said her group was asked to weigh in on a draft of the bill before it became public and that while she appreciates the opportunity, she does not support the final product.
“It’s putting off any meaningful action until at least 2019,” she said.
Correction: A previous version of the story incorrectly attributed a quote by Betsey Tilson to Walker Wilson, chief policy advisor at DHHS.