This map of EPA data, as prepared by the Environmental Work Group, shows in red the North Carolina counties that have tested positive for GenX or similar chemicals in the drinking water. Gray counties show where the chemicals were not detected, and white counties were not tested. The Environmental Work Group
This map of EPA data, as prepared by the Environmental Work Group, shows in red the North Carolina counties that have tested positive for GenX or similar chemicals in the drinking water. Gray counties show where the chemicals were not detected, and white counties were not tested. The Environmental Work Group

State Politics

NC lawmakers might be changing their minds on spending more money to fight GenX pollution

January 09, 2018 07:26 PM

RALEIGH

As complaints from Democrats and environmental groups mount, North Carolina legislators might consider setting aside more money to address the GenX pollution issue after all.

Specifically, the state Department of Environmental Quality could get an additional $1.3 million for pollution-fighting efforts.

The General Assembly will be back in Raleigh Wednesday for a session that’s expected to last one or two days. A bill lawmakers are preparing to discuss would require the state’s environmental regulators to conduct several studies related to pollution in North Carolina’s waterways, and what more the state ought to be doing.

There’s bipartisan consensus that something needs to be done to address the pollution issues, which have revolved around a potentially hazardous chemical called GenX that officials believe a factory near Fayetteville was secretly dumping into the Cape Fear River for years. The river provides the drinking water for most of southeastern North Carolina, including Wilmington.

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Previously, Democratic legislators have said the state needs to give more money to DEQ, which has been hit by millions of dollars in budget cuts in the last decade.

But Republicans have frequently criticized DEQ (which was formerly called DENR) for having not caught the pollution before now. They have resisted giving the agency, which is under Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, any additional funds to deal with the GenX pollution since it became public this summer.

However, the House Environmental Committee is due to consider a version of the bill that would add $1.3 million to DEQ’s budget – something a different committee involved in the GenX debate explicitly decided against doing less than a week ago.

With that funding, the bill might face more opposition than it otherwise would in the GOP-controlled legislature.

Republican Sen. Andy Wells of Catawba County sent out a press release after the new proposal was unveiled. He slammed DEQ, saying it “turned a blind eye” to pollution in the Cape Fear for decades, even when its budget was much higher than it is now.

“What if the problem isn’t money?” Wells said. “What if it’s government bungling? Consider this: DEQ has a $228 million a year budget. Will giving the department which ignored the problem for decades millions more to spend lead to a solution? Or would it be throwing good money after bad?”

Wells continued: “There’s no doubt liberals sincerely believe more government is the solution to every problem. But, without accountability, it’s not.”

He suggested that if the state is going to spend more money on the problem, it should instead go to the local water treatment plant in Wilmington. The legislature took a similar tactic last fall, sending some money to the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority as well as UNC-Wilmington.

The fiscal changes to the bill came on the heels of a public hearing of the House Committee on North Carolina River Quality. Environmental activists chided the committee for giving more work to DEQ, but no extra funding to accomplish those new tasks.

“Our citizens’ drinking water is contaminated, and people are demanding more than just studies,” said Drew Ball of Environment NC.

The meeting took a shocking turn toward the end, when the former Wilmington mayor Harper Peterson said he tells people not to drink the water there anymore.

“People ask me constantly, ‘Is the water safe to drink?’” he said. “And I can’t answer that. I take a precautionary approach, and I think we all should. I think we shouldn’t be drinking the water.”

Current Wilmington officials, however, disagreed and said the drinking water is safe.

GenX has not been studied at length but is closely related to another chemical called C8 that has been linked to serious health issues, including cancer and birth defects, in West Virginia. The companies accused of being behind the spread of GenX in North Carolina are Chemours and DuPont. Chemours is a spin-off of DuPont. Earlier this year the two companies paid $670 million to settle lawsuits related to C8.

Even though Chemours and DuPont replaced C8 with GenX several years ago, C8 can still be found in Wilmington’s water. And Peterson said he believes it’s to blame for his wife’s three miscarriages.

Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran