News: CJ Exclusives

House passes GenX bill, but Senate willing to wait before acting

Joint judicial reform committee meetings may be only other action taken during special session

Rep. Ted Davis, R-New Hanover, leads House floor debate Wednesday on House Bill 189. (CJ photo by Dan Way)
Rep. Ted Davis, R-New Hanover, leads House floor debate Wednesday on House Bill 189. (CJ photo by Dan Way)

House Republicans beat back several attempts Wednesday by Democrats to expand the regulatory scope of a bill dealing with the GenX contaminant dumped into the lower Cape Fear River region, as the measure passed 116-0.

But a more formidable challenge to House Bill 189, Short-Term Response to Emerging Contaminants, is in the Senate. And it’s coming from GOP counterparts, who are unlikely to consider the bill up during the current special session.

House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, hailed passage of H.B. 189 in a written statement. “The House’s water quality legislation modifies state policy and purchases important machinery to ensure the safety of citizens and the accountability of companies in North Carolina,” Moore said.

“This proposal is a result of a thorough oversight committee process and bipartisan collaboration. It is a significant step to protect our state’s drinking water,” Moore said.

Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, downplayed the impact of the legislation. “What the House passed today unfortunately does nothing to prevent GenX from going into the water supply,” Berger said in a news release.

“It leaves North Carolina taxpayers holding the bag for expenditures that should be paid for by the company responsible for the pollution, fails to give [the Department of Environmental Quality] authority to do anything they can’t already do, and authorizes the purchase of expensive equipment that the state can already access for free,” Berger said.

Berger wants to push the matter into the short session later this year. He said funding exists to remove and study health impacts from chemical manufacturer Chemours’ discharge of GenX into water supplies. The legislature should wait until receiving the first data in the spring before taking more significant action, Berger said.

Gov. Roy Cooper’s office, which was unable to push the General Assembly to boost education spending in the special session, also criticized the bill.

“Today legislative Republicans walked out on students, teachers, and families concerned about overcrowded classrooms and safe drinking water,” Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said. “These issues should have been addressed months ago, and North Carolina families are waiting for action.”

The GenX bill was the most substantial action taken Wednesday. Moore said not to expect any other votes for at least the next two weeks. The Senate convened briefly twice, then adjourned until Friday, when no votes are scheduled.

The GenX factor has roiled state politics for months after the compound was found in the Cape Fear River, groundwater wells, and soil around the Chemours plant. The manufacturer had state permits to discharge the compound, but was ordered to cease releasing it into the river.

“This House of Representatives understands how serious this problem is,” Rep. Ted Davis, R-New Hanover, said as he led floor debate on H.B. 189. He said the House Select Committee on North Carolina River Quality had extensive meetings with DEQ staff, and they molded a compromise differing in key aspects from the environmental agency’s initial approach.

DEQ Secretary Michael Regan testified in support of the measure during an Appropriations Committee meeting before the floor vote. He said the bill protects public health without harming the state’s economic competitiveness.

The bill also would fund the purchase of a $537,000 mass spectrometer machine which could find and identify chemicals, and pay for five employees to work with the equipment. The bill calls for collaboration among state agencies, data sharing with other states, establishing health goals, and studying civil liability of utilities that distribute contaminated drinking water.

Rep. Deb Butler, D-New Hanover, unsuccessfully tried to alter the bill. Her amendment would have repealed so-called Hardison amendments that prohibit state agencies and local governments from passing environmental regulations more stringent than federal rules.

“When is the last time you guys abdicated your authority to the federal government?” she asked the Republican majority. “We have to take the handcuffs off of our watchdogs … These contaminants are emerging at an extraordinary and rapid rate.”

Rep. Pat McElraft, R-Carteret, said there is no reason to repeal the Hardison amendment in this case because it has a clause allowing the state to take whatever action necessary for a serious or unforeseen environmental threat.

The only significant legislative action the rest of the week is a 1 p.m. Thursday meeting of the Joint Select Committee on Judicial Reform and Redistricting. The meeting could draw more than 100 protesters, surpassing a group that lined Jones Street outside the legislative complex Wednesday.

Berger said he has no idea how long the committee will meet. It is considering a House judicial redistricting bill and a Senate initiative to consider changes in how judges are selected.

Berger said he hopes the committee will agree on a recommendation — whether it is to seek reforms or retain the present system — before the special session concludes.

Until then, Berger said, the General Assembly probably will hold “skeletal” sessions without voting on other legislation.