Colin Campbell: GenX solutions require scarce commodity: cooperation

Published 8:55 pm Monday, January 15, 2018

RALEIGH — The state legislature’s one-day session on Jan. 10 turned out to be a failure and a waste of the roughly $42,000 it costs to send lawmakers to Raleigh for a special session.

When legislators set the date back in October, the plan was to redraw judicial districts or consider changing to a judicial appointment system. They blew their deadline on that issue, and it’s now unclear when or if there’ll be an agreement on that topic.

Rather than cancel the session, House leaders decided it would be a good opportunity to tackle the GenX water contamination issue that’s left communities from Fayetteville to Wilmington questioning if there’s poison in their water supply.

A House bill mandated several studies on the issue and provided $2.3 million to the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality for extra staff and equipment it’s seeking to research potentially dangerous chemicals. The key problem with GenX and related chemicals is how little scientists know about them — they might give you cancer, but we don’t yet know for sure.

The House proposal seemed to resolve an ongoing battle between GOP legislators and DEQ, which is controlled by Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat. Until now, legislators had been hesitant to give the agency more money. GenX became a political issue where Democrats wanted to beef up an environmental regulatory agency that had faced budget cuts, while Republicans argued that there were better ways to address the issue — partnering with university researchers and the affected public water utility.

But before bringing up the GenX bill, House leaders apparently forgot to check with their counterparts in the Senate to see if they agreed. Key senators played coy for most of the day during the special session, saying they’d review the House bill once it passed the House.

Apparently they were unaware they could read the four-page bill on the internet and didn’t need to wait for the courier to come across the hall with an official paper copy. Before the House voted, the Senate decided to call it quits and go home — approving three of 13 of Cooper’s pending appointments to state boards was about all the work senators could muster.

Later that evening, Senate leader Phil Berger surprised many with a scathing review of the bill that House Republicans and Democrats had passed unanimously. “It leaves North Carolina taxpayers holding the bag for expenditures that should be paid for by the company responsible for the pollution, fails to give DEQ authority to do anything they can’t already do, and authorizes the purchase of expensive equipment that the state can already access for free,” Berger’s statement read, noting that GenX legislation passed last fall is working.

Was Berger correct to suggest that the GenX bill was a feel-good measure that didn’t really address the problem? Or was he just looking for any excuse not to fund an agency that’s under Cooper’s control?

I’m not sure what the best course of action is. But it’s pretty clear there hasn’t been enough action, and everybody involved shares in the blame.

Berger is right to suggest that Chemours — the company responsible for dumping GenX into the Cape Fear River — should pay. It has refused to answer questions publicly and is easily the state’s worst corporate citizen. But where’s Berger’s plan to make Chemours’ pay? And why did it take Cooper’s administration until November, months after the problem was discovered, to revoke the company’s permit to dump in the Cape Fear? Why didn’t the House try to come up with a bill the Senate would support?

It’s enough to make the average North Carolinian confused and skeptical about what’s in the water. Heck, reading about the GenX mess persuaded me to start drinking filtered water, and I’m nowhere near Chemours.

It would be nice if the politicians could work together across branches of government and across party lines to solve the problem. But GenX looks to be a potent political issue this year, and some may prefer to score votes by playing the blame game instead.

Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service.