Wilmington water experts to meet with lawmakers after governor’s veto

Madeline Gray—North State Journal
An American flag and the North Carolina state flag wave in the breeze outside of the General Assembly building on Friday

RALEIGH — On Thursday, officials from the Cape Fear Public Utilities Authority will speak to the House Select Committee on North Carolina River Quality about the GenX issue. The per-fluorinated compound was found in the Cape Fear, which is a drinking water source for Wilmington and surrounding towns. Residents are concerned for their safety as the full health impact of GenX is still being studied. The Chemours Fayetteville Works plant has been releasing GenX into the Cape Fear for more than three decades as a byproduct of producing nonstick coatings.

Mike Brown, CFPUA’s chairman of the board, and Frank Styers, its chief operations officer, are slated to talk to lawmakers about the utility’s pilot tests to rid the Cape Fear of GenX and their collaboration with the University of North Carolina Wilmington on water quality there.

CFPUA is running pilot tests a type of Granular Activated Carbon to measure its ability to adsorb per-fluorinated compounds. When the carbon becomes full and loses its ability to attract these compounds, GenX will “breakthrough” and be present in test samples.

However, the meeting comes amid some funding uncertainty for the utility after Cov. Roy Cooper last week vetoed a bill that would have provided $200,000 to CFPUA and $250,000 to UNCW for the projects. Lawmakers called H.B. 56 a critical first step toward funding the cleanup, monitoring and study of GenX pollution, while long-term effects and responsibility were being hashed out.

“I am troubled that the governor would place politics ahead of public safety and prioritize bureaucracy over results,” said Sen. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover) “He is now on record for rejecting the only proposal that will actually help clean our drinking water in the lower Cape Fear region.”

In an open letter, Cooper called the funding measure “cynical,” saying he opposed it because it sent the money directly to the CFPUA and UNCW researchers, rather than to the state’s Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Environmental Quality. He said it wasn’t enough for a statewide, long-term solution and opposed other add-ons, including a repeal of the plastic bag ban on the Outer Banks.

“The legislation passed by the General Assembly, House Bill 56, provides no resources to the state agencies charged with protecting drinking water and preventing illegal chemicals from being discharged into our rivers,” Cooper said. “It gives the impression of action while allowing the long-term problem to fester. And it unnecessarily rolls back other environmental protections for landfills, river basins and our beaches.”

Legislators say that if the governor wants to dedicate more money in the meantime he should tap his available emergency fund, intended for such events.

“Right now the governor has sitting in what’s called the [Contingency and Emergency Fund] $1.8 million that he can use right now for any of these programs,” Speaker Tim Moore (R-Kings Mountain) said at a press conference last week. “It doesn’t need to be transferred there, it’s literally just sitting there.”

The legislature is scheduled to reconvene Oct. 4, and Republican leadership says they plan to override the veto.

“Shame on Gov. Cooper for vetoing a local solution, developed by this region’s local representatives, to immediately improve water quality for their constituents, neighbors and own families — simply because it did not achieve his preferred objective of growing a bureaucracy that has thus far failed to resolve this crisis,” said Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham).

The House Select Committee on North Carolina River Quality is hoping to get some answers before the full legislature returns to Raleigh. The legislature established the committee earlier in the month to dig into the GenX issue. It’s chaired by Rep. Ted Davis, a Republican from Wilmington’s New Hanover County, and membership includes representatives from other coastal districts and the Environmental Review Commission.