Rep. Bob Muller, R-Pender, left, and State Environmental Secretary Michael Regan speak in April 2019 during a tour of the Department of Environmental Quality’s Central Laboratory on Reedy Creek Road in Raleigh. Kirk Ross / Wmforo

Co-published with Coastal Review Online

N.C. Senate and House budget proposals contrast sharply with the governor’s on how each deals with emerging contaminants.

In the years since the 2017 revelations about GenX in the Cape Fear River, legislators as a group are far more familiar with the challenges of understanding the health effects and, ultimately, regulating the growing class of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.

But in policies and on the bottom line, the House, Senate and governor have very different plans.

In Gov. Roy Cooper’s budget request this year, he asked for additional money for personnel and new equipment for emerging contaminant testing and monitoring programs.

Cooper said the Department of Environmental Quality needs the additional staff in order to conduct in-house and mobile analyses of emerging contaminants. The department had to shift dozens of experts from other duties to deal with the GenX and emerging contaminant research and monitoring, he said.

The governor’s total request was about $12.5 million over the next two years to cover equipment costs and 37 new staff positions.

The linchpin for both the emerging contaminants programs and DEQ’s budget request overall is a $30 million upgrade and renovation at the department’s main laboratory complex on Reedy Creek Road in Raleigh, where most of DEQ’s air- and water-quality testing are conducted.

House budget writers greatly dialed back the governor’s request for more staffing, but they included the governor’s full request funds for the Reedy Creek labs.

The Senate did not. Its plan includes no additional funding and focuses solely on a provision extending the studies of a PFAS-testing network set up through the N.C. Policy Collaboratory at UNC Chapel Hill.

Relying on the collaboratory

The collaboratory, set up via a Senate initiative in the 2016 budget, would get an additional $1 million under the Senate’s budget proposal this year to complete its work and file a report with the legislature’s Environmental Review Commission by Dec. 1, 2020.

The main effort of the testing network has been to expand PFAS and emerging contaminant testing statewide to include all 191 public drinking water intakes and 149 water systems that use groundwater wells. Researchers say the plan is partly to establish a baseline of the extent of the compounds in areas, but they also expect to find areas with elevated levels of certain compounds.

At the initial hearing on the Senate’s budget plan in the Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources Appropriations Committee on Tuesday, Chairman Andy Wells, R-Catawba, said committee members decided to withhold funding until the collaboratory presents its report.

“That is correct, there is no funding while we wait for this report from the collaboratory,” Wells told Sen. Harper Peterson, D-New Hanover, after Peterson said he was surprised to see no additional funds for DEQ and the Department of Health and Human Services on emerging contaminants.

Wells said the report comes first and would be used to assist legislators to determine what to fund after that.

“I’m pretty shocked by the lack of interest and concern by the Senate in this budget recommendation,” Peterson said afterward. “I don’t think anybody denies we have an emerging contaminant crisis, not just in my district, in the lower Cape Fear River basin, but throughout the state.”

He said in addition to the collaboratory studies, work needed to continue at the departments. “We have a health issue,” Peterson said. “That is paramount. Public health comes first. We want to know what’s in the water.”

Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, an early advocate of tighter regulations of PFAS compounds, said she was frustrated by the Senate’s decision, calling it “wrongheaded” and “a step backwards” in dealing with emerging contaminants.

“We learned last year that DEQ had pulled 31 people off of other roles to cover the PFAS issue, so we’ve got a funding gap right now,” she said.

“The reality is that we’ve got PFAS contamination all over the state, and I don’t know how we can ignore that and I don’t know how we cannot fund the regulatory agency protecting our water, how we can’t fund them adequately to do their job to enforce, monitor and let us know when we’ve got a contamination issue.”

Enforcement challenges

Harrison said she supports the collaboratory’s work, but the research can’t be used in enforcement actions.

DEQ officials have said that if the collaboratory finds PFAS hot spots or other indications of contamination, the department will still have to do its own analysis in order to craft an enforcement response.

DEQ spokesperson Sharon Martin said the lack of funding could have a big impact.

“The delay puts our ability to do this vital work on hold,” she said.

“DEQ’s priority is the health and safety of North Carolinians, and we need additional resources to protect the people of our state from the threats posed by unregulated emerging compounds,” Martin said in an email response Thursday.

The Senate’s move to lean on the work of the collaboratory is similar to a strategy it adopted in 2018, which allocated an initial $5 million to the collaboratory for the research project after rejecting a request by the department for more funding.

The Senate’s strategy, put together by then-Sen. Michael Lee, a New Hanover County Republican, was criticized at the time for hampering DEQ’s PFAS response. The department initially asked for $8 million but ultimately only received $1.5 million. Lee’s plan also included a limitation on the type of high-resolution mass spectrometer that the department could purchase to do the analysis.

Peterson, who unseated Lee in an election that highlighted the legislature’s response to emerging contaminants, said the message in the budget to his constituents is that the state Senate doesn’t care about their health.

He said in addition to PFAS, the Cape Fear River has high levels of 1,4 dioxane, bromide and other contaminants.

“This will come back to haunt the Senate,” he said. “They’ve got their priorities upside down.”

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Kirk Ross was the former capital bureau chief for Wmforo. To contact the Wmforo newsroom, email [email protected].

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