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Legislature betrays meager progress on GenX

N.C. Legislative Building

The North Carolina General Assembly building in Raleigh.

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Monday, June 11, 2018

In a week when many of us observed the one-year anniversary of the arrival of “GenX” in our vocabulary, the General Assembly chose the most cynical possible response. Instead of passing legislation that will protect Cape Fear River Basin residents from the chemical threat, lawmakers gutted some already anemic responses — at the request of the chemical industry.

The action was a dramatic betrayal of the health and safety of lawmakers’ constituents and it sends a clear message to the voters: If you expect better than this, you’ve got to elect better than this. That opportunity will arrive in five months.

For those of us who live around the source of GenX and dozens of related chemicals, and for those who live farther downstream and have been drinking tainted municipal water for decades, this will be one of the top political issues of 2018. The General Assembly’s blatantly irresponsible decisions just insured that.

The North Carolina Manufacturers Alliance — a lobbying group that includes GenX producer Chemours — sought several changes in legislation that addresses the chemical contamination. Lawmakers did exactly as they were asked.

Perhaps worst among the changes was an agreement that North Carolina wouldn’t test drinking water for pharmaceuticals and a broad group of chemicals known as emerging contaminants. Instead, the state will concentrate only on GenX and directly related compounds. The lawmakers also agreed to further handicap the state Department of Environmental Quality by not funding the kind of chemical-testing instrumentation it requested. State regulators wanted a mass spectrometer that can identify a wide array of compounds, but lawmakers instead voted to fund one that only can identify the chemicals it’s programmed to look for.

Ironically, the broader search is how GenX was identified in the Cape Fear in the first place. The N.C. State researchers who found it were originally seeking the reasons for high bromine levels in the river.

According to a WRAL report, the president of the manufacturers alliance, Preston Howard, wrote lawmakers last week, warning them not to “open a Pandora’s Box” with GenX legislation. The broader tests, he said, “will almost assuredly reveal that there are many, many chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and other consumer products in this water supplies.” He said he believes that “Most will be detected at very low levels, But just as was the case with GenX, there will be very little information about the toxicity of those substances, resulting in the same or similar controversy over whether the concentrations pose any significant risk to public health or the environment.”

So that’s what a year of concern about river and well contamination has yielded: The General Assembly has decided that keeping North Carolinians in the dark about their public water supply is in everyone’s best interest. Even though the head of a manufacturing group assures lawmakers that testing will indeed show a witch’s brew of chemicals in our water, we won’t test for them and we certainly won’t actually regulate what factories are putting into our water. After all, there may not be much of it, and it may not hurt us. “Most” will be at low levels. Reassuring, isn’t it?

Our legislators have again chosen to abandon their most fundamental obligation to protect the health and safety of their constituents, and instead have chosen to embrace the lobbyists and big business interests that support them and their re-election campaigns. They have voted to keep environmental and health regulators’ hands tied, continuing to hobble their efforts — valiant efforts, as we’ve seen in the past year — and make it difficult or impossible for state residents to know what’s in the water that comes out of their kitchen faucets.

Sadly, that’s not surprising, given the way politics is played in Raleigh. But it’s especially ironic that it happens almost precisely one year after our sister paper, the StarNews of Wilmington, first disclosed the GenX problem. It’s quite an anniversary gift.

The Fayetteville Observer

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