Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed a bill last week but was responding to years of neglect.

House Bill 56 was introduced in February. It was just two pages long and required dam owners to file an emergency action plan in case of breach.

Over the next several months, it gained a lot of baggage, turning into a barge-load of environmental deregulation provisions.

But it never passed. Or not until the legislature returned to Raleigh from an August break to address the GenX crisis.

GenX is a chemical compound that was released into the Cape Fear River near Fayetteville by Chemours, a DuPont spin-off that uses the substance in the manufacture of Teflon. GenX is unregulated but suspected of causing cancer. The discovery of GenX in the Cape Fear alarmed Wilmington-area residents, who drink water from the river.

The state Department of Environmental Quality won an agreement from the company this summer to stop dumping GenX into the river, but legislators wanted to take further action. On Aug. 31, they amended HB 56 with an appropriation of $435,000 — not to the DEQ but to area water utilities and UNC-Wilmington — to study the problem and to make recommendations for identifying and removing the chemical from the river.

Cooper had requested $2.6 million for DEQ and the Department of Health and Human Services “to put more experts on the ground — hiring engineers, monitors, permit writers and scientists.” But the Republican legislature wouldn’t give the Democratic governor a dime.

In his veto message, Cooper noted that the larger bill “weakens protections from river pollution and landfills and repeals a local plastic bag ban supported by local governments and businesses that was passed to protect the environment.”

He’s right, and the legislature should not have used the GenX issue as a vessel for floating through unrelated, controversial provisions. The legislature’s GenX response was so limited that it appeared those other measures were the primary reason it passed HB 56.

But Cooper didn’t stop there with his complaints. He noted that “state regulators have suffered repeated budget cuts,” losing 70 positions from DEQ since 2013.

“The urgent need to protect our state’s drinking water is not an issue that will soon go away,” Cooper said. “There are no short cuts, and the presence of GenX in groundwater in Fayetteville makes clear that the solution cannot be limited to Wilmington.”

House Speaker Tim Moore reacted harshly to the veto: “It defies belief that Gov. Cooper is still making the false claim that GenX contamination is related to recent state budgets, and more shocking that he would reject emergency funds intended to protect the citizens of the Cape Fear region to continue this irrelevant assertion,” he said.

Cooper didn’t claim that the GenX problem happened because of budget cuts. Rather, the state’s ability to respond is hampered because it’s been given less funding for regulatory work by an anti-regulatory legislature.

Ironically, it was Moore who blamed inadequate government action: “The GenX crisis is decades in the making due to the failure of state agencies — spanning multiple, bipartisan administrations back to the 1980s — to properly regulate clean water resources in North Carolina,” he said in a statement.

In that case, Moore should lead a legislative effort to replace HB 56 with a better bill that empowers appropriate state agencies to address the GenX problem and also begins to restore their ability to properly safeguard our state’s precious water resources.

Threats have been decades in the making. GenX won’t be the last. It’s time to strengthen the state’s ability to regulate them before people are harmed.

— from the News & Record of Greensboro.


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