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Money OK’d to address fire foam chemicals in NC river

Officials said the river supplies drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people

By Gary D. Robertson

RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina legislators agreed Thursday to spend $435,000 to clean up and monitor a little-studied chemical that’s been dumped for years into a river near the coast, but Democrats said the amount and scope of the spending is far less than what’s needed now.

Republicans incorporated the funding provisions in a wide-ranging environmental regulation bill, and said they are responding to the worries of Wilmington-area residents who learned recently about GenX. A Bladen County plant owned by the Chemours Co. discharged the chemical into the Cape Fear River until several weeks ago. The river supplies drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people in and near Wilmington.

Legislative Democrats called the funds little more than window-dressing for political points at the coast. They sided with fellow Democrat Gov. Roy Cooper, whose Cabinet agencies wanted $2.6 million to beef up water quality monitoring and staffing statewide — not just to address GenX.

As GenX levels have declined in the river, state health officials say the public can drink the treated water coming from local treatment plants. But there are no federal health standards for evaluating GenX. It belongs to a category of “emerging contaminants” still being studied, although they have been in industrial production for years.

“People are scared. People need to know the legislature cares,” Rep. Ted Davis, a Wilmington Republican, said after the House voted 61-44 for the measure. The Senate approved it on party lines Wednesday night. “People need to know that the legislature is going to be proactive and address these problems — not down the road, but start immediately.”

GOP legislators earmarked the money to help Wilmington-area public utilities remove GenX from water they treat and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington to identify GenX and other chemicals in the river and its sediments.

The spending provisions put Democrats in a bind because they were inserted into a broader bill with other changes that Democrats and environmental groups opposed. One provision repeals a ban on Outer Banks stores providing plastic bags to customers and another makes changes to local government landfill rules that counties worry could pinch them financially.

Cooper now has 30 days to sign the bill, veto it or let it become law. In a statement, the governor said “a sprinkle of local funds hooked to bad environmental legislation doesn’t help.”

“Clean water that is threatened by chemicals we know little about requires a strong, united and well-funded statewide response,” he said.

House Republicans insisted Thursday’s legislation didn’t prevent future funding on statewide items, although GOP legislators have expressed skepticism about the request from the Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Health and Human Services. Cooper’s administration and Democrats have repeatedly pointed out legislators have eliminated at least 70 positions in water quality since 2013.

House and Senate leaders also announced Wednesday and Thursday the creation of separate committees to investigate the discharge and the response from Cooper’s agencies, as well as make recommendations for future legislation.

As House lawmakers debated the legislation, DEQ announced Thursday it has asked Chemours to stop discharging two newly identified chemicals in addition to GenX into the river.

DEQ said the two additional compounds were identified in the plant’s waste stream by a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency preliminary analysis shared with the state this week. They are in addition to three other perfluorinated compounds identified by EPA as likely coming from the same Chemours wastewater discharges as GenX, which the company has stopped emitting.

Wilmington, Delaware-based Chemours said it is investigating whether the chemicals are in fact coming from a process to make products for the energy storage, fuel cell and other industries and then will decide what to do next.

Little is known about the health effects on humans from GenX or any of the five other compounds, DEQ said. Perfluorinated chemicals are broadly used in cleaners, textiles and firefighting foams, but accumulate in the body and are toxic to laboratory animals and wildlife, the EPA said. News about the additional chemicals being discharged led Wilmington’s water utility to write state regulators asking that Chemours’ discharge permit in Bladen County be revoked or modified.

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