DEQ slow to define funding needs for GenX contamination

Posted August 2

— State lawmakers are back in Raleigh Thursday for a special one-day session to consider possible veto overrides, pending legislation and other issues. But extra funding for the state's investigation into GenX contamination in the Cape Fear River will not be one of those issues.

The unregulated chemical compound was found in June in the river, which is a drinking water source for Wilmington and surrounding communities. A Bladen County plant that produces the chemical has stopped discharging it into the river, and Gov. Roy Cooper said recently that his administration will block any new permit allowing such discharges to resume.

Cooper has called on state lawmakers to help the Department of Environmental Quality investigate GenX contamination, saying money from the state reserve fund could be used to pay for more scientists to study GenX.

"I've asked the General Assembly for more resources to help fund scientists, inspectors, engineers – people who are out there keeping our water quality safe," Cooper said Tuesday. "They've got a rainy day fund that could provide help for this, and we hope that they'll do that."

Yet, six weeks after the crisis started, his administration hasn't provided details as to how much extra money is needed or how it would be spent.

So, although lawmakers say they're willing to consider more funding for DEQ, it's premature for them to move any money around in the state budget.

"I’m not opposed to further funding for DEQ. I do think it’s necessary in this situation because people have a right to know what’s in the water they drink," said Rep. Holly Grange, R-New Hanover. "I think that we just want to wait and see what it’s going to be used for, and we need to see specifics. There needs to be an action plan that DEQ has in how they intend to utilize any funding that we provide. This could potentially be a statewide issue, not just Wilmington, not just the Cape Fear."

Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said a plan is in progress.

"Leaders from DEQ and DHHS [the state Department of Health and Human Services] are meeting with legislators to discuss water safety budget needs, and an official request will be submitted soon," Porter said in a statement.

Grange said she had hoped it could have happened sooner, noting lawmakers won't be in session again for another month.

DEQ has undergone steep budget cuts nearly every year since 2009. Most of the cuts have been part of a push by the Republican-controlled legislature for less environmental regulation.

In the 2017-18 budget passed in June, for example, lawmakers cut one-fifth of the funding for the agency's regional offices that handle permitting and compliance issues, areas where a problem might first be found – even though the state has a budget surplus.

"We've redirected resources to deal with the discovery of GenX but need more sustainable, long-term support to address this problem of emerging compounds in our water while fulfilling our overall mission to protect public health and the environment," Secretary of Environmental Quality Michael Regan.


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