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State Lawmakers Meet In Wilmington To Discuss GenX

By Christina Haley O'Neal, posted Aug 23, 2017
Sen. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover) speaks during an Environmental Review Commission meeting Wednesday in Wilmington. (Photo by Christina Haley O'Neal)
The Environmental Review Commission convened Wednesday in Wilmington to discuss the discharge of GenX in the Cape Fear River.

The legislative hearing took place at the New Hanover County Government Center, where dozens of area residents gathered and were invited by state legislators to take part in a public hearing to follow.

The hearing was described as a chance “to learn about the presence of the GenX compound in the Cape Fear River and its impacts on regional drinking water supplies, and associated regulatory issues,” according to an Aug. 18 letter from state lawmakers.

Chemours, a company located about 70 miles upstream from Wilmington along the Cape Fear River, has been linked to the presence of GenX in area drinking water.

GenX and six other emerging compounds were the subjects of a 2016 report by researchers with N.C. State University, and drew widespread public attention after StarNews reports in early June.

The water-quality issue has since triggered reactions from local and state officials, including Gov. Roy Cooper who visited Wilmington last month to announce plans to seek more than $2.5 million in emergency funding for the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

That funding has been questioned by state lawmakers. Legislators from the Cape Fear region, including Sen. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover), were among the first locals to speak at the meeting.
 
Lee was one of several state lawmakers to question the need for the emergency funding in a letter to the governor early this month. That letter called for answers about the administration’s handling of the water quality issue in the Cape Fear region as well as asked how any additional appropriations could make a difference in the region’s water quality and public safety.

While addressing the commission, Lee reiterated his concerns about the governor’s request for the emergency funding and whether that would have any immediate effect on the Wilmington community.
 
After delivering a presentation to the commission on the timeline of events in the Cape Fear, Lee requested that the commission consider directing staff to work with the University of North Carolina Wilmington and the CFPUA to form a “serious action plan” to get the chemicals out of local drinking water.
 
There was some opposition to Lee’s request from Rep. Deb Butler (D-New Hanover), who spoke following Lee in the hearing, and asked the commission to “honor the governor’s request for help.”

Other local representatives took the podium, including Reps. Holly Grange (R-New Hanover), Chris Millis (R-Onslow, Pender) and Frank Iler (R-Brunswick).
 
According to the Environmental Review Commission’s agenda for the meeting, local government officials were slated to follow, including New Hanover County Board of Commissioners Chairman Woody White, Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo and Brunswick County Board of Commissioners Chairman Frank Williams.

“I hope that you all will not get sucked into the developing mentality of playing politics with this. I see why both sides would be tempted to do that,” White said.

“This process has exposed systemic and unimaginable regulatory failure at the federal and state level and we have an incredible opportunity as a community and a state … to set aside whatever arguments we might have or other issues and agree what everyone else agrees to; we want safe drinking water, we don’t want people to pollute it and if you pollute it you are going to get punished," White said. "And we’ve got an enforcement mechanism that ensures the people that the water is safe. It’s that simple."

White asked the commission to take action now, on whatever option the commission sees necessary, to ensure safe drinking water.

Saffo reiterated White's comments about safe drinking water, adding “What I have personally found in this whole process is ...  federal agencies overseeing this, state agencies overseeing this -- sometimes they are not talking to each other,” Saffo said. “We have an opportunity here to get it right and make this a bipartisan issue because this is a public health issue.”

“I ask you: come together, work out a policy that really reviews these things top down,” Saffo said.

Addressing DEQ Secretary Michael Regan and DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen, who received many questions from the commission toward the end of the hearing, Saffo said, “Let’s find out where the problem is and let's fix it as quickly as possible. And anything you can do to bring relief to these folks down here in Southeastern North Carolina, we would welcome it.”

Following comments and questions to local and state officials, a scientific discussion about GenX was led Larry Cahoon, Biological Oceanographer & Professor at UNCW.

A representative of Chemours, Michael Johnson, an environmental manager for the company, had been set to receive questions at the hearing. But Sen. Trudy Wade, R-Guilford, said during the hearing Wednesday that although the Chemours representative had been invited, the panel was contacted by a lawyer with the company Tuesday who stated that neither Johnson nor any representative of the company would attend.

In late June, Chemours announced it would “capture, remove, and safely dispose of wastewater that contains the byproduct GenX generated from fluoromonomers production at its manufacturing plant in Fayetteville.”

It also disclosed it had been discharging GenX as a byproduct since the 1980s

While the DEQ is continuing to investigate and monitor the river water for GenX, officials with the state agency say levels of the emerging contaminant are trending down.

Officials from DEQ and DHHS have said the additional funding they are requesting would support additional scientists, engineers and health professionals to ensure long-term water testing and protection statewide.

Officials with DEQ have also said the money would help address a two-year backlog of wastewater discharge permits and to address the issue of emerging contaminants. In DHHS, funds would be used to create a water health and safety unit to help the agency understand unregulated compounds, as well as additional staff members, including a "second toxicologist" for the state, Cohen said during the hearing.

The next issue of the Greater Wilmington Business Journal, which will be published Friday, takes a look at the two-year backlog of permits and challenges facing state officials in dealing with emerging contaminants.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct name of the Environmental Review Commission.

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