In August 2017, DEQ, DHHS, and Governor Cooper asked the General Assembly for $2.6 million in emergency funding to take immediate action on GenX. In response, Senate leadership wrote a letter to Governor Cooper questioning whether “any additional appropriations would make a meaningful difference in water quality and public safety in the Cape Fear region.” The letter was a blatantly political response to a serious health and public safety issue.
Instead, lawmakers passed House Bill 56, “Amend Environmental Laws”—a bill which allocated $185,000 in funding to the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA) and $250,000 to UNC Wilmington. The General Assembly punished DEQ by neglecting its modest request of $2.6 million, and instead allocated limited funds towards CFPUA—an organization that knew about the GenX crisis, and had previously failed to inform DEQ. Neither organization that received funding is able to take regulatory action regarding this issue, thereby prolonging the amount of time it will take to clean the Cape Fear River Basin.
The bill also repealed the plastic bag ban in the Outer Banks, eased regulations on landfills, and allowed law enforcement to reduce riparian buffers.
Senators introduced another piece of pitiful legislation to address GenX, titled SB 724, “The Water Safety Act.” This bill once again demonstrated the legislature’s inability to work cohesively to address a pressing nonpartisan issue. SB 724 would have only made cleaning the Cape Fear more difficult by making DEQ’s actions entirely dependent on an administrative order from Governor Cooper. A Fayetteville Observer editorial blasted Senators Michael Lee, Wesley Meredith, and Bill Rabon for introducing SB 724 and putting “deregulation mania ahead of public safety.” The editorial continued, claiming “if they don’t know how badly their legislation can frustrate efforts to stop the pollution, determine its health effects and clean it up, shame on them. If they don’t understand what they’re doing, shame on them too.” Thankfully, SB 724 failed to advance past a first committee hearing.
In a budget proposal of his own, Governor Cooper proposed a $14.5 million increase in DEQ funding to address GenX and other emerging contaminants. If appropriated, this would have created nearly 50 new DEQ jobs conducting field work, testing and evaluating water samples, and administering health advice to those affected by water contamination.
However, the General Assembly’s adopted budget drastically underfunded DEQ and DHHS, despite over a year of urgent requests for additional funding to address GenX. As a result, both agencies will struggle to resolve the current crisis, identify human health risks, or identify new emerging contaminants and their sources. Along with the limited DEQ and DHHS funding, SB 99 included many GenX provisions similar to SB 724’s inadequate approach.
SB 99 also limited the scope of GenX research. The funds can only be used to investigate water contamination from known PFOAs; therefore, they cannot be used to identify any other unregulated contaminants in our water systems. Representative Deb Butler criticized her colleagues, arguing that legislators were knowingly taking the “ignorance is bliss” approach by neglecting to identify other potential contaminants.
At the end of both the 2017 long session and 2018 short session, legislators failed to pass any meaningful legislation to resolve GenX. Meanwhile, constituents continue to worry about the quality of their water and the potential health impacts for their families over the long term.