Republicans agree on how to address chemicals in water; Democrats say they have a better way

Republicans agree on how to address chemicals in water; Democrats say they have a better way
(Source: Pixabay)

RALEIGH, NC (WECT/AP) - North Carolina legislative Republicans say they've worked out an agreement to expand work and funding to clean up, contain and evaluate unregulated industrial chemicals like the one a plant dumped for decades into the Cape Fear River.

But Representative Deb Butler, a Democrat representing New Hanover County, says the Republicans have had months to file a bill.

"What's interesting to me is there is a super majority in the North Carolina General Assembly and they've had the wherewithal to get something passed since before GenX was in the water," Butler said. "They control both chambers. So my bill was filed (Thursday) and oddly enough, there was consensus on their side. That seems to me an odd curiosity but nonetheless, my bill is comprehensive. My and my colleagues' bill was discussed with scientists and environmentalists and environmental lawyers and people within the community who are stakeholders."

House and Senate GOP lawmakers filed identical bills in their chambers Thursday that represent a negotiated compromise after failing to reach agreement on competing versions last winter. The provisions still must be voted on and sent to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

New Hanover County Commissioner Woody White, a Republican, said from a local perspective, the bill is finally right after months of work.

"It's really the product of months and months of work primarily by (New Hanover Republican) Senator (Michael) Lee and our local delegation and bringing together the best scientists at our awesome universities, regulators and environmental groups across the state," said White.

Representative Holly Grange (R-New Hanover County) said the bill would allow the state Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Health and Human Services to better do their jobs as it pertains to water safety.

"The Bill will give resources to DEQ so that they may eliminate their permitting backlog as well as providing them with an additional spectrometer and personnel to conduct water testing to ensure permit compliance," Grange said in a text message to WECT's Jon Evans. "It provides personnel to Department of Health and Human Services so that they may establish a water health and safety unit.

"It also allows us to use the talent in our research institutions of higher learning to develop baseline water content studies across the state. It also includes measures that will ensure communities will have clean water for their citizens regardless of the source of their drinking water."

The agreement locates roughly $12 million, with $8 million for University of North Carolina researchers to sample and evaluate emerging contaminants like GenX.

The legislation also gives Cooper authority to shut down the Chemours Company's Bladen County plant that discharged GenX if his administration can't halt further unauthorized discharges by June.

"I am very glad that members of the House and the Senate were able to negotiate an agreement in order to address a serious problem," Rep. Ted Davis (R-New Hanover County) said in a text to Evans. "Since this was a negotiated agreement, I am encouraged that this legislation will subsequently be approved by both chambers. I look forward to working on future legislation that will continue to address this issue."

Butler says the Republicans have stripped Cooper of authority for a year.

"When you give Governor Cooper authority, and you've done nothing but strip him of authority over the last year, you've done everything in your power to take his authority away," she said. "Look behind the curtain and see exactly what's behind there. If Governor Cooper, who is not a scientist by the way, exercised his authority to shut Chemours down, and who knows if that will happen but DEQ is the one that has that authority and if he did that, they'd call him a job killer."

Butler says the Republicans bill has shortcomings that her bill would address.

"My bill does a lot of things. It funds those regulatory agencies," she said. "It gives them the ability to punish polluters and make them pay for the cleanup. It mandates that they filter water where necessary. ... It's substantive in nature and it gives DEQ more authority to stop these bad actors."

The Republicans are putting a greater focus on funding research from state universities instead of state researchers, according to White.

"We have the best scientists in the world at Chapel Hill, NC State, Duke University, right here in North Carolina," said White. "No offense to the state scientists. They're good too but these faculty members, they know what they're looking for. They know how to pinpoint it. They know how to keep track of the data and that's how it needs to be.

"Remember, Dr. (Detlef) Knappe is the one that discovered this. It wasn't a state regulator even though he'd been out there 37 years. It was a researcher. So putting this money in research facilities is absolutely the best thing to do and then let government enforce and prosecute people if you find a violation."

Butler says she has the backing of environmental leaders and all state riverkeepers and when put side by side, her bill is best.

"You'll see which one has the endorsement of the environmental community and the riverkeepers and the environmental lawyers and the watchdog folks," Butler said. "When you do that, you'll see that Republicans who typically favor big corporations, it doesn't stack up."

Copyright 2018 WECT. All rights reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.