Tweaked GenX bill clears NC Senate

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Amended legislation now heads back to House

RALEIGH — Despite the continued objections of state Senate Democrats, a GenX bill spearheaded by a New Hanover County Republican cleared the chamber on Friday.

Sen. Michael Lee, R-New Hanover, crafted a substitute bill that allocated $2.4 million to the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), largely to be used to conduct a review of its administration of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permitting program since 1975.

Crucially, Lee amended his own bill so that $813,000 of $2.4 million appropriated to DEQ can be used for the collection of air and water quality samples and to address a much-discussed 40 percent backlog in NPDES permits.

“This will get us into the short session so we can evaluate that further, so we can see how this plays out,” Lee said.

Democrats, particularly Sen. Angela Bryant, D-Rocky Mount, expressed concerns about the funding. “It should, Bryant said, “be a permanent fix.”

“You know it is not going to be easy or helpful to get the best staff needed for this issue with a non-recurring (fund) of $800,000 that we could clearly make recurring,” Bryant said, adding she also had concerns about “outsourcing” any work to the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory, helmed by a former assistant secretary for natural resources at the then-N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

The collaboratory is a Legislature-founded program designed to use university assets to aid government decisions, largely relating to environmental matters. The project’s research director is a former science advisor to Sen. President Pro Tem Phil Berger.

Additionally, the Senate bill calls for DEQ to work with the collaboratory to coordinate the use of mass spectrometers to test for the presence of GenX and other contaminants should the EPA be unable to continue providing the service.

The House bill had called for funding for the purchase of and staff to equip a mass spectrometer at DEQ.

“It’s one thing to be able to utilize mass spectrometers of other institutions or entities, but it would be better if the state would allow for DEQ to acquire its own because with it’s own equipment, it would really be able to engage in the kind of quality analysis that’s needed,” said Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham.

Lee said he is confident that staff at UNC system schools will have the expertise to run the equipment while also providing a cost-effective approach.

“If we keep heading down the path of providing equipment to the relevant agencies when we already have it at all the system schools,” Lee said, “we’ll be spending millions and millions of dollars to purchase equipment.”

Another amendment, by Sen. Wesley Meredith, R-Cumberland, called for the N.C. Policy Corroboratory to use models to predict which wells could be contaminated by the GenX emanating from air stacks at Chemours’ Fayetteville Works facility.

“During the community meetings and neighborhood meetings, it was discussed in detail that residents were concerned not only about their well waters, their filtration systems, but also what is being discharged into the air,” Meredith said.

The bill will now return to the House.

Reporter Adam Wagner can be reached at 910-343-2389 or Adam.Wagner@GateHouseMedia.com.


Replacement GenX bill approved by Senate committee

Michael Lee Discussing GenX Bill

Measure formalizes equipment agreement, receives criticism for DEQ review requirements

RALEIGH — A Senate replacement bill addressing GenX and other emerging contaminants took its first steps late Wednesday after being approved at a sometimes-contentious committee hearing.

Sen. Michael Lee, R-New Hanover, appeared before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, the Environment and Natural Resources. Lee presented a substitute for House Bill 189, the short-term emerging contaminant measure sponsored by Rep. Ted Davis, R-New Hanover, that passed the House unanimously last month before the Senate publicly announced it would not vote on it.

Supporters, such as Lee, said the bill provides an immediate “backstop” in case federal support ceases while also gathering information that could be used in a broader piece of legislation in the upcoming short session. Many Senate Democrats questioned whether the bill was accomplishing what it claimed to and openly wondered Wednesday why it did not fund more staff at DEQ.

“This was a fix that was intended to be incremental and move forward if EPA were to stop testing. … When we come back into the short session, which, gosh, seems like next week, we do need to look at some kind of global solution on the permitting process,” Lee said.

If approved, the bill provides $2.4 million from the general fund to the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality in order for the agency to review its administration of the federal National Pollutant Discharge Elimination Systems program since 1975.

The bill would also direct the N.C. Policy Collaboratory at UNC Chapel Hill to coordinate use of mass spectrometers across the state if the EPA is unable to continue testing for GenX and other emerging contaminants, freeing up $2 million in previously allocated funds to do so and waiving requirements that required the collaboratory to identify matching funds.

Lee also said he would not support a proposed amendment from Sen. Erica Smith, D-Northampton, that would have funded additional staff to DEQ address a more-than 40 percent backlog in NPDES permit renewals.

Other Democrats who questioned or outright opposed the bill included Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham, and Sen. Angela Bryant, D-Rocky Mount, who said the bill calls for DEQ staff to conduct “busy work … to the tune of $2.4 million.”

“Your solution to help DEQ is to fund somebody else, not to address the budget cuts they’ve already experienced and the backlog they already have,” said Bryant, who added efforts to shift work to the UNC system weakened DEQ and the executive branch.

Andy Miller, DEQ’s director of legislative and governmental affairs, said after the meeting that the agency has concerns about the bill.

Compared to the $2.4 million allocated in the Senate version, largely tied to internal reviews and audits, Miller said, the $2.3 million allocated in the House version was crafted through months of deliberations between DEQ Secretary Michael Regan and House leadership, allowing for water monitoring, well sampling and air emissions tests.

“What we would ask for is flexibility in the $2.4 million, not only to address issues in the bill, but issues on the ground,” Miller said.

‘The best we can do’

After the meeting, Lee added that funding for a mass spectrometer provided under the previous bill would not have resulted in equipment for months, possibly resulting in a gap in testing if the federal government should be unable to provide support for any reason.

“This creates a pathway, a source of funding so we can do the tests with existing staff and existing equipment,” Lee said. Earlier in the meeting, Lee said he had crafted the legislation largely alone, calling on his work with the Senate Education Committee to inform the bill.

Lee also said a provision in the bill calling on the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services to collaborate with multiple agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control, does not prevent the experts assembled on the joint DHHS and DEQ Secretaries’ Science Advisory Board from weighing in on the matter.

“This is not to prevent DHHS from coordinating with the Science Advisory Board,” Lee said. “If they want to, they certainly can.”

Davis, who observed the meeting in its in entirety, answered questions afterward while walking out of the General Assembly building, directly across a lawn from the office building that houses DEQ.

“Right now, I’m not real thrilled with what the Senate has done with the bill we sent over to them,” said Davis, the chair of the House Committee on N.C. River Quality. He also said he would need to consider it further before deciding whether to support the Senate legislation.

Lee’s bill will next head to the Senate Appropriations Committee before being voted on by the full Senate, if approved. Both steps are expected to come Thursday or Friday.

“I get a lot of political flack over this from both sides of the aisle, but I think this is the best plan at this time that we can implement as we move forward. … People may not vote for me because of this,” Lee said, “but I think that’s okay because this is the best we can do.”

Reporter Adam Wagner can be reached at 910-343-2389 or Adam.Wagner@GateHouseMedia.com.


Senator Lee pays visit to Castle Hayne Elementary

Michael Lee Visits Castle Hayne School

CASTLE HAYNE, NC (WECT) –
Sen. Michael Lee paid a visit to some of his younger constituents Thursday morning.

Lee visited Castle Hayne Elementary School and got a chance to speak with students and their teachers.

He spoke with students in second through fifth grades and took part in a question-and-answer session.

“One of the most fun things I do as a North Carolina Senator is go to schools, in particular elementary schools,” Lee said. “You get some really great questions, and it’s usually a lot of fun. And since I have children as well it’s really a fun time for me.”

Lee also sat down with teachers to listen to their concerns and needs.

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