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House Committee Approves Modest Legislation To Safeguard NC Rivers

Lanier Falls Cape Fear River, Raven Rock NC
Flickr - Creative Commons
File photo of the Cape Fear River. A house committee has approved proposed legislation to protect North Carolina rivers from emerging contaminants like Gen-X. But some say the measure doesn't do enough.

Ted Davis knows any legislation needs to get through a sharply divided General Assembly.

The Wilmington Republican who chairs the Select Committee on North Carolina River Quality has said more controversial issues like funding for the Department of Environmental Quality can come later.

So the committee Thursday gave a favorable report toa billthat contains no appropriations but would require the health and human services department to work with a panel of state-appointed scientists on how thresholds are set for unregulated contaminants.

Davis represents New Hanover County, where the drinking water for more than 200,000 Wilmington-area residents has been contaminated by GenX.

Manufactured by Chemours at its Fayetteville Works plant in Bladen County, GenX is a perfluorinated chemical used in non-stick surfaces like Teflon. In June, news surfaced that Chemours had been dumping the compound into the Cape Fear River, which flowed downstream to Wilmington.

GenX has also turned up in residential wells near the Chemours plant, at levels that exceed the current advisory health goal set by the state Department of Health and Human Services. That goal is 140 parts per trillion.

Republican Representative Jimmy Dixon told his fellow committee members that they bear the responsibility of restoring public confidence, which had been shaken in part by seeing DHHS first set the goal for GenX at 70,000 parts per trillion before ending up at the current level.

"The 140 versus the 70,000 is such a wide swing that no one that has the intelligence above that of a railroad rock can have confidence that that is an accurate figure," Dixon said.

But Dixon applauded the committee's efforts and the draft legislation it produced.

"What we're faced with here today, Mr. Chairman, is the desire of the people, the people, to know what is in the rivers and what is in our water," he said.

Under the bill, the state Department of Environmental Quality would have to review its permitting program for pollution emitting businesses. DEQ would also coordinate with neighboring states on sharing water quality data.

All of that is well and good but it is not enough, according to environmental advocacy groups.

"It requires these agencies to do these studies but it doesn't give them any more resources or funding to do that. So, in other words, it just puts more burdens on an understaffed and underpaid agency," said Mary Maclean Asbill, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, who spoke at Thursday's meeting, on behalf of SELC as well as Cape Fear River Watch.

Asbill noted many people who wanted to address Thursday's committee meeting could not attend because of the previous night's winter storm.

A full legislative session starts next week.

Rusty Jacobs is WUNC's Voting and Election Integrity Reporter.
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