Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed an environmental laws bill Thursday, saying the measure fell short on necessary funding for regulators. The legislation, however, also included money for research into GenX in the Cape Fear River, prompting criticism of Cooper's decision by Republican lawmakers.
Legislators in August passed House Bill 56
, a larger bill on state environmental laws that included $435,000 in funding to University of North Carolina Wilmington and Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA). It also called for the development of an electronic filing system for industrial chemical discharge permits to improve the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) water-quality process.
The legislation came eight days after the state's Environmental Review Commission met in Wilmington
to discuss the discharge of GenX, a chemical linked to the Chemours Co. operations in Fayetteville, in the Cape Fear River.
“Clean water is critical for our health and our economy and this legislation fails to appropriate any needed funds to the departments in state government charged with setting standards and enforcing laws to prevent illegal chemical discharges into rivers used for drinking water,” Cooper said Thursday in a statement about his veto. “In addition, it weakens protections from river pollution and landfills and repeals a local plastic bag ban supported by local governments and businesses that passed to protect the environment.”
In early August, the governor announced his own proposal, which requested from the state legislature more than $2 million in emergency funding for DEQ and more than $530,000 for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).
That funding was proposed to pay for additional scientists, engineers and others, to address emerging contaminants in the state, a two-year backlog in wastewater discharge permits and long-term water testing and protection statewide. The funds, under Cooper's proposal, would also be used to create a water health and safety unit to help enhance the understanding of unregulated compounds and protect drinking water.
That proposal was questioned by some legislators from the Cape Fear region, including Sen. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover).
In a statement Thursday about the governor’s veto, Lee said, “I am troubled that the governor would place politics ahead of public safety, and prioritize bureaucracy over results. He is rejecting the only proposal that will actually help clean our drinking water in the lower Cape Fear region.”
Lee said he would work with other legislators about what to do next.
"I just found out about the veto today along with everyone else, so I am reviewing all options," he said. "Whether that takes the form of a veto override or some other measure, it is not clear just yet.”
New Hanover County Commissioner Chairman Woody White also said in an email Thursday, "I am stunned that the Governor would veto a bill that makes an immediate improvement, at the local level, of our water quality. He has chosen the politics over what is best for our community.
"I do support his call for more funding for water quality enforcement for DEQ in the long term, and I have been active in advocating for that with our local delegation. But today, he had a chance to do something good for us, and instead, he put his political future ahead of our community," White added.
As part of HB 56, about $100,000 was set to go to CFPUA to, in coordination with Brunswick County Public Utilities, Pender County Utilities and other entities that draw water from the Cape Fear River, to study the identification and deployment of water treatment technology to remove GenX from the public water supply.
GenX has been found in various concentrations both in the Cape Fear River and in the area’s treated drinking water supply. And according to DEQ officials, other chemical emergers, some in higher concentrations than GenX, have also been found in the Cape Fear River
HB 56 also allocated another $85,000 to the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority for ongoing monitoring of water supplies withdrawn from the Cape Fear River.
“It has long been CFPUA’s position that the State of North Carolina needs strong regulatory agencies to protect and maintain water quality in the Cape Fear River Basin and beyond. The Cape Fear River is the drinking water source for hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians, and every possible action must be taken to ensure citizens can feel confident in the safety of their drinking water,” said CFPUA Executive Director Jim Flechtner said in a statement following the veto.
“Whatever the fate of House Bill 56, CFPUA will continue to seek out the most advanced water treatment technology and build relationships with our local partners in public health and academia to ensure that we are doing everything we can as a public utility to provide the highest quality drinking water possible,” he added.
House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) released a statement Thursday calling for an override of Cooper’s veto and providing immediate funding for water treatment facilities serving the Cape Fear region. Legislators will convene in Raleigh on Oct. 4.
“It defies belief that Gov. Cooper is still making the false claim that GenX contamination is related to recent state budgets, and more shocking that he would reject emergency funds intended to protect the citizens of the Cape Fear region to continue this irrelevant assertion,” Moore said in the release. “The GenX crisis is decades in the making due to the failure of state agencies – spanning multiple, bipartisan administrations back to the 1980s – to properly regulate clean water resources for North Carolina.
“I urge my General Assembly colleagues to override the governor’s veto as soon as possible and provide additional resources directly to local utilities working to provide clean water for Southeastern North Carolina,” he added.
According to the office of Rep. Ted Davis (R-New Hanover), the first meeting of the Select Committee on North Carolina River Quality will take place as planned Sept. 28 in Raleigh, but there is no indication at this time that there will be any changes to committee’s agenda as a result of the Cooper’s veto.
The House Select Committee on North Carolina River Quality was formed on Aug. 31, creating a legislative panel to investigate the discharge of GenX into the Cape Fear River. Davis was selected as the senior chairman of the committee.
Two other local representatives – Frank Iler (R-Brunswick) and Holly Grange (R-New Hanover) – are serving as chairs.