Lawmakers meet for four hours to discuss GenX

Published: Aug. 23, 2017 at 11:09 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 24, 2017 at 9:37 AM EDT
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WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - For four hours on Wednesday, local and state officials met at the New Hanover County Government Center for a hearing on GenX contamination in the Cape Fear River.

About 20 members of the state Environmental Review Committee heard from elected officials, UNCW professor Larry Cahoon and area residents about the unregulated compound that was discharged into the river by the Chemours Company at its Fayetteville Works site.

Chemours representatives were invited, but did not attend the meeting.

While agreeing that having clean drinking water is in everybody's best interest, some speakers disagreed about the best way to proceed in the investigation.

After Sen. Michael Lee (R-District 9) and other Republican delegates proposed steering funds and manpower to the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority and UNCW in an effort to remove contaminants from the water, Rep. Deb Butler (D-District 18) said, "My fears have been confirmed entirely by (Lee), that we will face another plan entirely and some delay."

Butler stressed the importance of funding the Department of Environmental Quality, rather than specific local entities. Her comments about the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority determining the quality of drinking water were even more pointed.

"These proposals, when you think about them -- particularly the one about putting CFPUA in charge of their own testing -- border on the ridiculous," Butler said. "Truthfully, most of you are lawyers. If you have been to law school for one day, you know that is an inherent conflict of interest. In the countryside, we call that the fox guarding the hen house, which is what will happen if you put CFPUA in charge of water quality."

Members of the committee fielded questions from NC Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan, and NC Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen.

Some other highlights from the hearing were:

  • Lee and NHC Board of Commissioners Chairman Woody White shared personal stories about their GenX fears -- Lee about his son, Sawyer, who is physically disabled, and White said when GenX news broke, he thought about his wife's two miscarriages. Both said their initial fears were not grounded in data or research, but
  • UNCW's Larry Cahoon broke down the parts per trillion calculation, saying it means "1.8 trillion molecules of compound in one liter of water." Health authorities recommend drinking 1.9 liters of water per day.
  • Regan shed light on why no legal action has been taken against Chemours. "We are going through a very thoughtful process," he said. "We hope this investigation doesn't drag on. But it's important we take our time, because we have to get this issue right." White added: "We have an opportunity here to set aside whatever arguments we have on other issues and agree on what everyone else agrees to: We want safe drinking water. You can't pollute it. If you're going to pollute it, you're going to be punished, and we have to have an enforcement mechanism. It's that simple."

After hearing dozens of public comments, the committee passed a motion for state agencies, local water companies, and General Assembly central staff to coordinate their response to the investigation. Rep. Chris Millis (R-District 16) said it was not an appropriation issue, and a coordinated effort would be the best way to address the contaminant.

Gov. Roy Cooper released a statement addressing the meeting Wednesday night.

"Today's hearing emphasized the steps DEQ and DHHS have taken to stop the discharge of GenX into the Cape Fear River and the need for additional resources at DEQ and DHHS – after years of cuts - to monitor and protect drinking water and address emerging compounds across the state," the statement read. "This is not a problem we created, but it is one that we've taken swift action to fix. Protecting families' drinking water should be a top priority, and it's disappointing that the committee didn't take up the legislative request to strengthen water quality given the strong public support that was displayed for it."

Wednesday's meeting was the first of several expected to be held by the Environmental Review Committee.

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