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State takes first steps toward toxic GenX funding

Star-News - 8/31/2017

Aug. 31--RALEIGH -- The N.C. General Assembly took the first steps Wednesday to fund GenX efforts, tacking funding for local efforts to address Cape Fear River contamination onto an already controversial bill.

House Bill 56 now includes a $435,000 proposal championed by Sen. Michael Lee, R-New Hanover, to fund research and filtration testing at, respectively, the University of North Carolina Wilmington and Cape Fear Public Utility Authority. The bill previously received attention for its repeal of the Outer Banks' plastic bag ban.

In a joint statement, Lee and Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, said, "This plan is an important first step -- it gives local authorities who've been on the ground dealing with this issue since day one the immediate tools to begin addressing GenX contamination.

The N.C. Senate approved the bill's conference report Wednesday, and it is scheduled to be heard in the House on Thursday. HB56 now includes $250,000 for UNCW's research efforts, which would quantify the amount of GenX and other related chemicals in the river; $100,000 to local utilities, including CFPUA, to fund ongoing filtration testing; and $85,000 for water monitoring efforts.

House Democrats voted late Wednesday to not waive rules that would have let the bill be heard Wednesday evening, hours after it received Senate approval.

"This is not the statewide solution that we need," said Rep. Deb Butler, D-New Hanover. "It's a half-step in the wrong direction."

'The symptoms, not the problem'

The revised bill does not include any funding for Gov. Roy Cooper's proposal to fund nearly $2.6 million in water quality positions and testing at the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Health and Human Services, an omission that drew backlash Wednesday evening from environmentalists statewide.

"This minimal amount of funding treats the symptoms, not the problem of the Cape Fear's safety. The Legislature seems committed to putting resources anywhere other than the two state agencies charged with protecting public health and the environment," Erin Carey, the N.C. Sierra Club's coastal programs coordinator said in a statement. The N.C. Conservation Network issued a similar statement, labeling the funds "mere show" because they did not fund the Administration's proposal.

During his floor remarks, Lee said HB56 represented "the first component" of GenX requests and was designed to ease the Wilmington region's immediate concerns about GenX, with a legislative review meant to investigate the regulatory system.

"This spans four, five administrations," Lee said. "There is a structural deficiency without our state government that we've got to figure out."

'We have the right to know'

In addition to funding the efforts by CFPUA and UNCW, the legislation would also require the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality to either issue a notice of violation against Chemours by Sept. 8 or send a letter to the General Assembly'sEnvironmental Review Commission explaining why the notice hadn't been issued.

"We have the right to know why things aren't moving forward," Lee said. "And maybe there's a good reason, maybe they're still investigating. That's all they have to say, but I think we have a right to know."

The Senate also announced Wednesday the creation of a Select Committee on N.C. River Water Quality to continue investigating GenX, the administration's response and, according to a release from Sen. Phil Berger's office, strategies to improve water quality and public safety.

"This select committee will play a key role in obtaining answers to the outstanding questions about what happened with the GenX discharge and how the governor's administration responded, and it will look for solutions to improve water quality in our state's rivers," Berger said in a statement.

The Senate committee includes seven senators -- including Lee and Rabon -- and two Democrats, including Sen. Erica Smith Ingram, D-Northampton County.

Smith-Ingram said Wednesday she supports the mission of the Environmental Review Commission, but would continue to push for the governor's proposal.

"This has the potential to be another overreaching opportunity," she said, "by undercutting the Administration and their entities for addressing the issue."

Reporter Adam Wagner can be reached at 910-343-2389 or Adam.Wagner@GateHouseMedia.com.

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(c)2017 the Star-News (Wilmington, N.C.)

Visit the Star-News (Wilmington, N.C.) at www.starnewsonline.com

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