House panel backs more legislation on unregulated chemicals

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RALEIGH (AP) — A House committee looking at river quality unanimously approved a bill on Thursday to address unregulated chemicals in North Carolina's drinking water supplies by seeking better calculations of the pollution levels that would do no harm.

Committee leaders want the entire General Assembly to approve this bill, which responds to "emerging contaminants," during a special session convening next Wednesday.

The committee is taking action following the recent public disclosure that for decades, The Chemours Co. or its predecessor company had been releasing GenX, a chemical used to make Teflon and other coatings, from its Bladen County plant into Wilmington's main water supply.

The proposal doesn't contain additional funds for state health and environmental regulators to pay for more chemical testing, high-tech equipment and discharge permitting, which Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's administration has said are needed. House Republican leaders say separate spending legislation is still being worked on.

Still, committee co-chairman Rep. Ted Davis of Wilmington said the measure's unanimous, bipartisan approval is a good start, showing the House is trying "to get positive things done as soon as possible to move forward to addressing the pollution of our drinking water sources."

Funding for more water quality testing and equipment could be addressed in the session that Speaker Tim Moore says will be active initially for up to two days but could linger through the end of January. Any bills would need Senate support, too. The next regular work session begins in May.

Overriding Cooper's veto, the legislature passed a law in October that gave $435,000 to help Wilmington-area utilities and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington treat and remove GenX from the Cape Fear River. Cooper said that bill failed to address underlying issues with emerging contaminants, whose health effects not well understood. GenX is just one of tens of thousands of unregulated chemicals that are routinely being discharged into drinking water supplies nationwide under a federal discharge permit program.

Several environmental and river-quality monitors told the committee Thursday they oppose the new legislation, in part because it doesn't restore funds they say the Department of Environmental Quality lost in excessive belt-tightening by the Republican-led legislature.

"We need more than reactive studies. We need proactive investment in the health of our environment," said Matthew Starr, the Upper Neuse Riverkeeper. "This bill would heap even more responsibilities on agencies already hard-pressed to perform their missions after years of budget cuts and legislative interference."

Republicans disagree with the assessment. One key GOP committee member said they are stepping up after past gubernatorial administrations and state regulators failed to address these contaminants. "It should have been done a decade ago but it fell on deaf ears," Rep. Jimmy Dixon of Duplin County said.

The Department of Environmental Quality said in a release later Thursday it has "no issue with the study legislation, but a short-term solution requires funding as the state works to address emerging contaminants."

Thursday's bill in part would:

- direct the Department of Health and Human Services to work with science advisers to the health and environment department secretaries on how to set better "health goals" for contaminant levels.

- order DEQ to study and recommend improvements to the state's administration of the federal discharge permit program, which allows industrial operations like Chemours to release chemicals into bodies of water.

- share water quality data with surrounding states that report contaminants also found in North Carolina groundwater or surface waters.

Separately, DEQ announced last month it would soon monitor major water supplies for about two dozen unregulated industrial chemicals similar to GenX, to help the science advisers better determine what levels are considered at-risk.