Republicans and democrats in the sharply divided General Assembly might finally be able to find some common ground: Punishing Chemours, the DuPont-spinoff company that has contaminated drinking water in the Wilmington area and in residential wells in the vicinity of its Fayetteville plant.
The House Select Committee on North Carolina River Quality met Thursday to get an update from Department of Environmental Quality officials on enforcement actions against Chemours. DEQ has suspended the company's wastewater discharge permit over its actions related to the chemical GenX, a perfluorinated compound used in producing non-stick surfaces, and has started the revocation process.
In June, it was discovered Chemours had been releasing GenX into the Cape Fear River for more than 30 years, tainting the drinking water of more than 200,000 people in and around Wilmington. Closer to the Chemours plant, testing thus far has shown 85 residential wells with levels of GenX well above the state advisory health goal. Testing of additional wells is underway.
While the human health effects of GenX are not known, the chemical has been linked to cancer in test animals.
Assistant Secretary for the Environment Sheila Holman told lawmakers Thursday that DEQ officials were on site at the Chemours plant to make sure the company ceased discharge of all manufacturing process wastewater.
Holman also told committee members that Chemours failed to notify DEQ about a GenX spill at its plant on Oct. 6. That spill dumped the chemical into the Cape Fear, causing a temporary spike in GenX levels exceeding the state's advisory health goal both at the Chemours facility's outfall point and downstream. Holman said DEQ officials did not become aware of the spill and its effects until Nov. 1. That is one reason the environmental agency has asked the State Bureau of Investigation to look into possible criminal conduct by the company.
Rep. Frank Iler, a Brunswick County republican, said he, too, wants to know if Chemours has broken any laws.
"We want to stop what's going on. And, if necessary, stop it permanently," Iler said. "And also see if there is any intent to dump chemicals."
Iler said he wants to know more about any criminal investigation by Jan. 4, the date chairman Ted Davis, Jr., a republican from New Hanover County, set for the select committee's next meeting.
Davis said he wants the committee to come up with a short-term solution to the Chemours problem the full legislature can consider when it convenes for a brief special session on Jan. 10.
"Obviously anything that we attempt to do needs to be something that is palatable," Davis said. "That we feel like democrats and republicans because this has got to be a joint effort, this is not a republican thing, it's not a democratic thing, this is a joint effort, bipartisan."
Davis offered no specifics on what a short-term solution might be, just that more thorny long-term issues like DEQ funding should be addressed when the legislature convenes for its short session in the spring.
It is clear Chemours's conduct has republicans like Davis and Iler thinking North Carolina's regulatory structure needs to be reviewed.
"It's fine if they want to do business here," Davis said about manufacturers like Chemours. "But they should do so in a way that's not going to put pollutants in the water."