Can Lawmakers Bridge A Wide Divide On GenX?

Feb 22, 2018

Credit Rusty Jacobs / WUNC

State representatives are clearly frustrated with senate colleagues for failing to support house legislation aimed at better regulating emerging chemicals like GenX. But lawmakers will have to wait until the short session in May to take a stab at bridging the gap between the two chambers.

The House Select Committee on North Carolina River Quality met at the Legislature Wednesday to hear from officials with the Department of Environmental Quality as well as researchers looking at the impact and emergence of contaminants such as GenX, the unregulated compound produced by Chemours for use in non-stick surfaces.

GenX Found In Rainwater On UNCW Campus

Chemours produces GenX and other chemicals such as Nafion at its Fayetteville Works site in Bladen County. In June, news surfaced the company had been releasing these chemicals into the Cape Fear River for years, contaminating drinking water in the Wilmington area. Airborne GenX has tainted water in residential wells near the company's plant.

And that's not all: Robert Keiber, a chemistry professor with the University of North Carolina Wilmington, told committee members that GenX has been detected in rainwater samples collected on UNCW's campus, though the levels were well below the state's advisory health goal of 140 parts per trillion.

UNCW's campus in New Hanover County is close to 80 miles from the Chemours Fayetteville Works plant. Keiber said it is likely wind patterns are carrying GenX to other locations far afield.

"My guess is if you tested in Asheville you'd find it, my guess is if you tested in Virginia you'd find it," he said.

UNCW received around half of $435,000 appropriated in a bill passed last year to address GenX. Keiber and his research team are using the money to analyze sediment from the Cape Fear River to determine just how much GenX has settled there. Now that a method for the study has been devised, Keiber told lawmakers results from the sediment analysis will take around a year to obtain.

Human Health Effects Of GenX Not Known

The human health effects of GenX and other little-studied emerging contaminants are not known, though tests have linked GenX to cancer in lab animals. State health officials have assured members of the public that the health advisory goal was set as extremely low, conservative level based on exposure over a lifetime.

Still, some people argue, unless it can be definitively shown these unregulated chemicals pose no risk to humans, they should not be allowed into the water.

"From my perspective, this becomes a discharge question," said Jim Flechtner, executive director of the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority. Flechtner addressed Wednesday's committee meeting.

"If there's not scientific data to help us understand what this means from a drinking water standard, from my perspective as a utility, this should be then Chemours taking the action and not local utilities downstream," he said. "They're the ones that in my perspective should stop discharging unless there is information such as that."

Meanwhile, the utility has been testing a filtration system designed to extract GenX from the water. An upgrade to the utility's Sweeney water treatment plant, Flechtner told the committee, would cost an estimated $40 million.

"And with the annual operating cost between $2.9 and $3.6 million for this additional treatment," Flechtner added, "that's about $10 per bi-monthly bill for our customers and that's about a 16 percent water rate increase."

The utility is suing Chemours, in part to recover the funds needed to filter drinking water for GenX.

'The Senate Bill Does Not Give  DEQ The Funding It Needs'

The house river quality committee drafted a bill that received unanimous support from the full house last month. That bill, HB 189, included recurring funds for adding permanent DEQ positions as wells as around half a million dollars for DEQ to purchase its own mass spectrometer capable of detecting GenX in water samples. Mass spectrometers detect the presence of certain compounds by measuring molecular weight.

The senate refused to take up the house bill. Rather, Senator Mike Lee, a New Hanover County Republican, pushed through a substitute bill that contained some of the same provisions as HB 189 but gave DEQ no recurring funds and no money for a mass spectrometer. Instead, the senate bill instructed DEQ to use equipment housed at other agencies, like the federal Environmental Protection Agency, and institutions like the UNC system.

Rep. Ted Davis (R-New Hanover), Chairman of the House Select Committee on North Carolina River Quality
Credit Courtesy of NCLeg.net

"The senate [bill]," said Rep. Ted Davis, chairman of the House River Quality Committee, "does not begin to give DEQ the flexibility, the control, or the funding that it needs to successfully address safe drinking water for those who live in our state."

Davis, like Senator Mike Lee, is a New Hanover County Republican from Wilmington. Both men are surely feeling the heat to do something about GenX. Harper Peterson, a Democrat and former Wilmington mayor, has announced he'll run against Lee this fall. Davis faces a challenge from Democrat Marcia Morgan, a retired Army officer and former educator.

Davis is not alone in his frustration with the senate. Republican Bob Steinburg, who represents several northeastern counties, said the senate should have considered the house committee's bill and seen how hard the representatives worked on the legislation.

"These two chambers, we've got to begin to trust each other more and rely on each other more and work together more," he said.

Since the senate sent its substitute bill back to the house for concurrence, the house cannot make changes to the legislation. The house can only vote to concur or, as is likely, send the bill to conference for a negotiated settlement between the two chambers.