Updated Sept. 21, 1:46 p.m
Gov. Roy Cooper on Thursday vetoed legislation providing $435,000 to help treat a chemical pollutant in a North Carolina river because the bill omitted a much larger amount that his agencies sought to address drinking water protections statewide.
The wide-ranging environmental measure approved by the Republican-controlled General Assembly three weeks ago set aside the money for Wilmington-area utilities and a university to clean up and monitor the chemical known as GenX in the Cape Fear River.
But two Cabinet departments had requested $2.6 million in part so they could hire more water quality scientists, permit writers and others to keep tabs on river pollution statewide. In his veto message , the Democrat governor also criticized other provisions that he and allies say weaken environmental protections, including the repeal of a ban on Outer Banks stores providing plastic bags to customers.
"It gives the impression of action while allowing the long-term problem to fester," Cooper wrote in a separate statement. "And it unnecessarily rolls back other environmental protections for landfills, river basins and our beaches."
A plant operated by The Chemours Co. upstream from Wilmington discharged GenX into the Cape Fear until recently, which worries southeastern North Carolina residents who rely on the river for drinking water. State health officials have said the public can safely drink the treated river water coming from the local treatment plants.
GOP lawmakers, who hold large majorities in the House and Senate, must decide whether to try to override the veto — Cooper's 12th since taking office in January — when the General Assembly reconvenes in early October. Seven vetoes have been overridden so far. Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore urged colleagues to swiftly vote for another. The Aug. 31 vote in the House to approve the bill fell short of the veto threshold needed, but more than a dozen members were absent that day.
Cooper and Republican legislators insisted Thursday that their respective funding responses to GenX truly address the concerns of Wilmington-area residents and the other side is playing politics.
Funds in the vetoed bill would help local utilities remove GenX from water they treat and help the University of North Carolina at Wilmington to identify GenX and other chemicals in the river and its sediments.
"I am troubled that the governor would place politics ahead of public safety, and prioritize bureaucracy over results," GOP Sen. Michael Lee of Wilmington said in a release. "He is now on record for rejecting the only proposal that will actually help clean our drinking water in the lower Cape Fear region."
Cooper, in a statement, said "there is no room for political posturing or hollow solutions."
Environmental advocates say other troublesome provisions of the bill could bring fiscal instability to county-owned landfills and erode natural vegetative buffers that help keep pollution out of bodies of water.
"We applaud Gov. Cooper for standing up for local communities and the environment, while declining to go along with the legislature's political gamesmanship surrounding an important drinking water quality issue," state Sierra Club director Molly Diggins said in a release.
GenX's release has focused attention on other chemicals from manufacturing processes called "emerging contaminants" that are subject to no federal health standards. While the presence of GenX in the river has fallen, state regulators and Chemours also are now looking at groundwater sites and private wells near the plant.
State attorneys persuaded a judge this month to order Chemours to provide more internal data to environmental regulators about the discharge. The chemical has been used since 2009 to make Teflon and other non-stick products.
The funding fight is also entangled in finger-pointing over previous spending reductions at the Department of Environmental Quality. Cooper's administration said GOP legislators have eliminated at least 70 positions in water quality since 2013.
Moore said Thursday that Cooper was incorrectly linking the GenX challenges to recent budgets when the problem originated with agency failures in the 1980s. GOP legislators, however, haven't ruled out allocating additional money for statewide concerns. House and Senate Republicans have created special committees to address river quality.