MT Raleigh Report – Feb. 19: GenX Gridlock in the General Assembly

Over the last month, the North Carolina General Assembly has met twice in “special session” to consider legislation to address one of the most high-profile threats to our state’s water quality – and public health – in recent years. Of course, we’re referring to the discovery of GenX, an “emerging contaminant” in the Cape Fear River as well as other public drinking water supplies in North Carolina.

GenX is the commonly used term for a chemical compound produced to make Teflon, which is used to make nonstick coating surfaces for cookware.

GenX and its chemical cousins – other perfluorinated and polyfluorinated compounds – are poorly studied, generally do not break down in the environment, cannot be removed by most water treatment techniques, can behave strangely in the human body and have largely unknown health risks.

Unfortunately, despite statewide media attention and widespread public concern, the General Assembly has been unable to approve legislation to address this pressing problem. You may recall that MountainTrue first reported on the GenX issue in a Special Report in November 2017.

The General Assembly’s recent inaction reflects a growing split between the GOP-controlled House, which is increasingly more interested in responding to the GenX issue, and the GOP-controlled Senate, which continues to balk at the demands of Gov. Roy Cooper – and the House – for increased investment in the state agencies charged with responding to the GenX issue.

This split came into high profile in the legislature’s special session in early January, when House Republicans offered to provide the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) with $2.3 million for staff and equipment to address GenX.  When the Senate refused to consider the idea, House Republicans ran the bill anyway, got a unanimous, bipartisan vote in support of the proposal and sent it over to the Senate, which refused to even take the legislation up for debate.

Fast-forward almost a month later, to Feb. 7, when legislators arrived in Raleigh for another special session. This time it was the Senate’s turn to take up the GenX issue. Like the House a month before, the Senate offered DEQ more than $2 million in one-time funding. But, in an awkwardly worded bill, the Senate restricted the money’s use to a limited scope of work that did not include permanent funding for the new staff and equipment Cooper and Department officials say they need to respond to GenX.

The Senate approved the bill along partisan lines, but this time it was the House that refused to consider the bill. The result was another stalemate that no one in Raleigh expects will end any time soon.

What’s behind the Senate’s reluctance to invest in the state’s response to GenX? Many Senate GOP members are unwilling to spend taxpayer dollars on GenX as a result of their belief that the Cooper administration and DEQ were slow to respond to the issue and won’t put the funding to good use.

The House bill, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said in a statement, “does nothing to prevent GenX from going into the water supply. It leaves North Carolina taxpayers holding the bag for expenditures that should be paid for by the company responsible for the pollution, fails to give DEQ authority to do anything they can’t already do, and authorizes the purchase of expensive equipment that the state can already access for free.”

What Berger and his Senate colleagues fail to acknowledge however is the strain responding to the GenX issue is putting on the Department and its backlog of water quality permits awaiting processing because of staff shortages. It is a sad irony that just as DEQ was looking into the GenX issue last year, the legislature was cutting its budget.

Now we have a stalemate over a growing pollution problem that may affect hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians, is straining the already too-meager resources of state regulatory agencies and which the legislature either can’t or won’t address.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of people living near the Chemours plant are drinking bottled water after their wells have tested positive for GenX. There are also growing concerns – still being explored by DEQ – about food supplies in the region after GenX was discovered in honey harvested near the Chemours site. And state officials acknowledge that for those living near Chemours, airborne GenX may be a bigger threat than the waterborne version of the compound, so they have expanded their testing to include both.

Oh, and don’t forget that GenX has also been detected in treated water in Cary and Chatham County.

For MountainTrue, our priorities for this issue are the same ones we listed for you several months ago. We believe it is well past time for the legislature (and DEQ for that matter) to respond to the GenX situation, both in the Cape Fear region and statewide. This response should include:

  • A full audit of all industrial discharges into North Carolina rivers and streams so that we understand what chemicals are being discharged into our water;
  • Expanded state investment in water quality monitoring to detect emerging contaminants in all public drinking water supplies;
  • Full enforcement of the state’s authority under the Clean Water Act to detect emerging contaminants and to ensure they do not pose a risk to human health or the environment until proven otherwise;
  • Full public disclosure of the results of water monitoring and discharge audits so that everyone — including the public — understands what is in our water; and
  • A transparent, open decision-making process to determine the best way to eliminate, reduce and prevent emerging contaminants in public drinking water.

More GenX Reading

  • MountainTrue’s Special Report on GenX from November, 2017 can be found here.
  • All of the NC Department of Environmental Quality’s GenX information can be found here.
  • The North Carolina Health News’ reporting on GenX can be found here.
  • The Wilmington Star-News GenX coverage can be found here.

Western North Carolina is blessed with more than 1.5 million acres of public land, including Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway and several state-owned parks, forests and natural areas. These public lands support the headwaters of our rivers, beautiful mountain vistas, one of the most diverse temperate forests on the planet, and a thriving economy in tourism, crafts and recreation.
During its 30-year history, WNCA (now MountainTrue) has twice prevented logging in the Asheville Watershed, first in 1990 and again in 2004. Eventually the City of Asheville placed a conservation easement over 17,356 acres of the watershed.