Senators: What did Cooper administration know, and when, on GenX
Posted August 9
Updated August 11
Raleigh, N.C. — Senate Republicans pondering Gov. Roy Cooper's GenX funding request want to hear first just what Cooper's administration knew, and when it knew it, on to chemical releases in the Cape Fear River.
In a letter released shortly before 5 p.m. Wednesday, seven senators asked a series of questions, including whether subpoenas have been served on the Governor's Office or other state agencies in addition to the one known federal subpoena investigators sent to the state Department of Environmental Quality last month.
A spokesman for the governor said he's not aware of subpoenas beyond that one.
Sens. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, Rick Gunn, R-Alamance, Michael Lee, R-New Hanover, Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, Norm Sanderson, R-Pamlico, Trudy Wade, R-Guilford, and Andy Wells, R-Catawba, also want to know the first time anyone in Cooper's administration discussed GenX in the Cape Fear with Chemours, the company that produced the chemical, and why the company hasn't been issued a wastewater violation under the Clean Water Act. They asked why the governor requested an investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation, since DEQ Secretary Michael Regan has said Chemours did not break the law.
"What exactly is the SBI investigating?" the letter states.
The governor's press office said top officials from DEQ and the Department of Health and Human Services planned to brief legislators in person, but legislators canceled. Cooper spokesman Ford Porter also pointed out that the GOP majority now seeking answers has also been cutting DEQ's budget for years. The agency has shrunk by 70 positions since 2013, and Republican legislators controlled purse strings the whole time.
"After years of cuts to these agencies, this issue requires immediate action so people can have confidence in their drinking water going forward," Porter said in an email. "Protecting drinking water should be above partisan politics, and bipartisan leaders in the Cape Fear region have pledged publicly to work towards a real solution."
Officials at DEQ didn't return requests for comment.
The letter opens a new front in a multi-pronged inquiry into Chemours' releases into the Cape Fear River, a drinking water source for Wilmington and surrounding communities. DEQ and DHHS launched an investigation in June, and about two weeks ago, Cooper also asked the SBI to determine whether a criminal inquiry is needed. A federal grand jury in Wilmington is reviewing the issue as well.
Elevated levels of the chemical, used to make Teflon, Gore-Tex and fast food wrappers, were found in the river in June. It's unregulated, and its long-term effect on health isn't known, but it's part of a family of chemicals considered carcinogens. It's one of a number of fluorochemicals found in the river, and some of the others appear in much higher levels, a North Carolina State University professor told WRAL News late last month.
DuPont and its spinoff, Chemours, had been dumping GenX in the river from a plant in Bladen County since 1980, officials have said, but the state said they recently stopped at Cooper's request.
Levels of GenX in the river have been dropping since discharges stopped, and the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority said Thursday that GenX in their system is now below 40 parts per trillion – well below the safety threshold state regulators set.
The senators, all members of relevant committees or representing coastal communities in or near Wilmington, also questioned why GenX continues to show in water testing if it's not longer being discharged. They said they're reviewing Cooper's request for $2.6 million to monitor the water and study health effects, but they complained of "multiple inconsistencies in your administration's handling of this crisis."
"Can the public have confidence in DEQ when it says this chemical is no longer being discharged?" they asked.
They also questioned the need for a new science advisory board to review the situation, given the "accomplished and well-respected toxicologists" already working for the state. And they asked for an explanation for the department's revision of safe GenX levels from 70,909 parts per trillion in June down to 140 parts per trillion a month later.
"Are there scientific studies or reports that support this change?" they asked. "Please identify those reports."
Lawmakers didn't pose similar questions about actions and conflicting stances former Gov. Pat McCrory's administration took with regard to contamination of drinking wells near coal ash ponds.
The senators said they wanted answers to their roughly 20 questions, along with documentation, by Monday at 5 p.m. The legislature heads back into session the following Friday and may consider Cooper's requested funding increase then. Some of the questions deal less with the administration's initial response and more with the funding request, which the senators said they hope will be used "to make a difference rather than simply improve public relations."
Among other things, the senators want to know how additional funding will help if Chemours has said it will voluntarily stop discharging GenX into the river.