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Other voices: Berger, state Senate fall short on GenX response

StarNews of Wilmington

We know hindsight is 20-20, but we must have been blind when the StarNews first broke the GenX story last June.

What we now clearly see is how naive we were to assume that the General Assembly would do right by the thousands of people whose water comes from the lower Cape Fear River. No matter how passionately the Republican supermajorities in Raleigh oppose environmental regulations, GenX is a game-changer, we told ourselves.

We had just learned that nearly every person in our corner of the state was daily ingesting a mysterious and highly suspicious toxic substance. It was being discharged into our water supply by a spinoff (Chemours) of a giant corporation (DuPont) with a long, notorious history of chemical pollution.

Not only will legislators want to rush to protect the safety of a quarter million people, we assumed, they’ll score a few political points. (Never, ever think that doesn’t matter). GenX, after all, was the perfect opportunity for Republicans in Raleigh to demonstrate what we thought we knew: They were not signing up for the Sierra Club but would take environmental issues seriously when they really, really mattered — like when people are scared to drink the water flowing from their tap.

Boy, were we naive.

Yes, the House has finally stepped up — about half a year late. But Senate leader Phil Berger continues his wanton and dangerous disregard of the problem. He’s neglecting not only the people who know they are fouling their bodies daily with more GenX, but also the hundreds of thousands of folks beyond our region who are unsure what they are drinking — and breathing and eating — in this age of emerging chemicals.

Thanks to the federal Clean Water Act, the Chemours and DuPonts of the world need a permit to discharge effluents into surface water. The states are responsible for ensuring the federal standards are met. In North Carolina, that falls under the Department of Environmental Quality, which has seen its funding slashed by the anti-regulatory forces that control the legislature.

(It’s worth noting that DuPont sued the EPA over the Clean Water Act in the early 1970s — DuPont v. Train — and saw its arguments shot down by the U.S. Supreme Court in an 8-0 decision).

With voter outcry growing and crossing traditional partisan lines (a toxic chemical in your drinking water has a way of doing that), the House recently passed a bill that provides a much-needed boost to DEQ, enabling the overburdened and underfunded agency to respond more effectively to the GenX contamination, which has widened in both scope and geography.

But Berger — the state’s most powerful political leader — is having none of it. We don’t know what his motives are, but we suspect they are simply political, related to the larger effort to make our traditionally moderate state a testing ground for laissez-faire government and faith that the invisible hand of the market will balance any corporate excesses like, say, contaminating the drinking water of a good chunk of the state’s population with a toxic chemical that, by design, pretty much never decomposes.

The good news is, the House now seems committed to better funding for DEQ, at least for the GenX response. In the Senate, Berger rules with an iron fist. So we have no doubt that he could turn the switch in an instant and have the chamber take up the House bill, quickly get it approved, and give DEQ the resources it needs to do its job.

Meanwhile, we are thinking about the folks we see with shopping carts full of nothing but bottled water; the kids who come over to play with our children, instructed not to drink the water; those affected by the economic uncertainty GenX has caused, including possible lost job opportunities after new companies nixed Wilmington as a location or existing businesses opted not to expand here.

We are thinking, too, about those who now can’t help but look back at cancers and other illnesses — even deaths — with new questions; there’s no proof of any connection with little-studied GenX, we know; but we understand the questions and the fear.

What we don’t understand is Berger’s callous response to the very legitimate concerns of the good people of Southeastern North Carolina. Come down here and meet some of them, Sen. Berger. Maybe that would persuade you to act.

For now, we guess we’re supposed to believe Berger and Chemours have got our backs.

We have, however, spotted the “invisible hand” that’s supposed to help protect us. It’s flying high in Raleigh — symbolically, of course — directed toward Southeastern North Carolina, and with a certain finger extended upward.

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