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Republicans agree on how to address little-known chemicals

May 17, 2018

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina legislative Republicans have agreed on how to expand work and funding to clean up, contain and evaluate unregulated industrial chemicals like the one officials say a plant dumped into the Cape Fear River.

GOP lawmakers filed identical bills in the House and Senate on Thursday, representing a negotiated compromise after they failed to work out their differences last winter.

The provisions, which still must be voted on and sent to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, locate roughly $12 million in state funds, with $8 million to support the sampling and analysis of emerging contaminants like GenX.

There’s $1.8 million set aside for the Department of Environmental Quality, some of which will address water permitting backlogs and go toward purchasing a high-tech spectrometer to locate otherwise hidden contaminants in water samples.

GenX, unregulated by the federal government, is used in the production of Teflon and other non-stick surfaces. It became publicly known last summer that the chemical was in the public water supply for Wilmington, about 100 miles (161 kilometers) downstream from The Chemours Co. plant that discharged it. Little is known about its health effects.

The legislature approved some funds last fall to treat and remove GenX from the Cape Fear River.

The proposal also gives Cooper authority to shut down the Chemours plant as early as June if his administration determines that Chemours is continuing to pollute and can’t stop the plant from doing so, according to Republicans.

Cooper’s administration already has been using regulations and litigation to go after Chemours, alleging that the company and its predecessor DuPont lied about discharging GenX for decades, and continues to discharge excessive emissions into the air. Chemours told state regulators recently it’s taking steps to cut emissions drastically and to protect water sources. The chemical’s levels in the Cape Fear River have fallen.

Without identifying the company by name, the bill would require Chemours to create permanent replacement drinking water supplies for residents whose private wells have been contaminated because GenX is in the groundwater. At least 115 homes have been issued bottled water because GenX was detected at levels above the state health goal.

The households would be hooked up to either public water supplies or receive water filtration systems. Chemours also would have to reimburse the costs local governments incur in setting up public water supply connections.

A statement from the bills’ authors— legislators from the Wilmington area — said the rules would “help stop the pollution of our water supply, provide our families, neighbors and constituents access to clean, safe water and finally hold Chemours responsible for its pollution.”

Cooper has criticized the delays by legislators and offered his own $14.5 million response in his budget adjustment proposal. The money is earmarked to two of his regulatory agencies and would create more than 50 new positions for testing, analysis and modernized permitting. The GOP lawmakers’ compromise plan would have research done by a University of North Carolina agency and university experts instead.

House Democrats filed separate legislation Thursday that contains many of Cooper’s ideas.

With Republicans holding veto-proof majorities, the GOP proposal is the most likely to reach Cooper’s desk. A governor’s spokesman offered no specific response to the GOP plan but said Cooper’s plan was strong and the Department of Environmental Quality “is holding Chemours accountable.”

“It’s shameful that it took legislative Republicans this long just to agree among themselves and that they appear only to be spurred by election-year politics,” Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said.

Environmental groups said the Republican plan falls short, and the executive branch already has authority to halt Chemours’ pollution-related activities without the GOP language.

“Instead of giving the state better tools and adequate resources to address the problem, the bill may leave the state with weaker enforcement and a university-based research program that is disconnected from the needs of an underfunded state water quality program,” the North Carolina Sierra Club’s Erin Carey said in a release.

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This story has been corrected. Wilmington is downstream, not upstream, from the chemical plant.

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