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Lawmakers must take GenX pollution seriously

Chemical River No Comment

An aerial view shows a 2,150-acre manufacturing site where Chemours, DuPont and Kuraray America operate along the Cape Fear River, about 100 miles upstream from Wilmington.

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Tuesday, January 9, 2018

First the good news: A state legislative committee has given unanimous, bipartisan approval to legislation that directly addresses the presence of the chemical GenX and related compounds in the Cape Fear River and in hundreds of wells on property around the Chemours plant on the Cumberland-Bladen county line. The measure was approved by the House Select Committee on River Quality at a meeting Thursday. The full General Assembly is expected to consider the legislation when it meets in a special session Wednesday.

Now the bad news: The bill doesn’t do much. It requires the state Department of Health and Human Services to work with a scientific panel to develop health goals — where to draw the safe/unsafe line on contamination levels. It also directs the state Department of Environmental Quality to study the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit process and to share water quality data with neighboring states.

But what about specific action to protect residents in the Cape Fear River Basin from these chemicals, which researchers believe may be cancer-causing? What about measures to reduce the pollution levels in ground water? What about helping two counties get safe water supplies to residents who rightly fear the water that comes out of their faucets? What about epidemiological studies in the affected population to see if there are higher rates of illnesses that may be linked to GenX and other compounds in its chemical family? Nothing.

And the even-worse news: The legislation approved last week doesn’t seek a penny in appropriations to get its extraordinarily modest agenda completed. Even though state lawmakers have steadily and relentlessly cut budget and staff at DEQ and DHHS in the years following the recession, they offer no additional funding for any of this work, nor for any of the ongoing monitoring, permitting and enforcement actions that state agencies have undertaken since GenX pollution was revealed last summer.

There’s only one fair conclusion: They’re not serious.

State Rep. Elmer Floyd, a Fayetteville Democrat who serves on the select committee, says the bill has merit but he acknowledges that the lack of funding is a problem. “I think this is a good report, a step in the right direction,” he said last week. “I think some type of appropriation is in order, but I don’t want that to impede what we’re doing here today.” Rep. Ted Davis, the New Hanover Republican who chairs the committee, says House leadership is working on funding that could be considered at this week’s special session. “It is still a work in progress,” Davis said. We hope the work makes a lot of progress between now and Wednesday, when lawmakers open their special session. Dealing effectively with this health threat should be at the top of their legislative agenda.

Lawmakers should remember that this is hardly an isolated incident. Now that chemicals related to GenX have also been found in Jordan Lake, we’re talking about a health threat that may be affecting millions of North Carolina residents. And for perhaps the first time in state history, we’re going into an election year in which an environmental problem may be a leading issue. How our lawmakers handle pollution that may endanger the health and safety of millions of people will very much be on voters’ minds in November — here in the Cape Fear region and elsewhere as well.

Members of the General Assembly would be wise to have their researchers report on what happened in and around Parkersburg, W. Va., when a DuPont-Chemours plant was found dumping a chemical related to GenX into rivers, streams and landfills. Disaster and debacle are the adjectives that come to mind first.

North Carolina has long coddled industrial polluters, much as West Virginia has. Members of the public have been willing to go along with that risk if it meant good jobs in industrial and chemical plants. But as people have learned about the health effects of many of these chemicals, the opinion tide is turning. Our lawmakers need to take this threat seriously — and prove it by funding real action.

The Fayetteville Observer

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