Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Rep. Ted Davis pushes PFAS liability bill through committee despite NC Chamber opposition

Local officials succeeded in moving a PFAS manufacturer liability bill through the North Carolina House of Representatives environmental committee, but its leading sponsor foresees a challenging road ahead for the proposed legislation. (Courtesy Port City Daily)

NORTH CAROLINA — Local officials succeeded in moving a PFAS manufacturer liability bill through the North Carolina House of Representatives environmental committee, but its leading sponsor foresees a challenging road ahead for the proposed legislation.

READ MORE: NC Chamber of Commerce pushes against DEQ’s proposed PFAS water standards

ALSO: Environmental Management Commission stalls PFAS standards, members own stock in companies lobbying against regulation

Rep. Ted Davis Jr. (R-New Hanover) and Rep. Frank Iler (R-Brunswick) are the primary sponsors of the PFAS Polluter and Liability Act, which passed unanimously in the House environmental committee Tuesday.

The bill would give the Department of Environmental Quality authority to order PFAS manufacturers who contaminate public water systems to pay for clean-up costs. It would use the Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum contaminant levels to determine excessive contamination; EPA announced legally enforceable levels for six PFAS compounds in March.

It would also reimburse utility ratepayers, including Davis, for public funds used to implement PFAS filtration technology. The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority raised rates 8% in 2022 to cover its $43 million granular-activated carbon system. 

“The name of the bill really ought to be: ‘The ratepayers don’t have to pay what the polluters caused,’” Davis quipped Wednesday. “That’s what it’s all about and that’s why I’m going to continue to fight for it.”

CFPUA Environmental and Safety Management Director Beth Eckert — who spoke in support of the bill at Tuesday’s hearing — told PCD the reimbursement could be carried out in a number of ways, such as avoiding or reducing rate increases in the future. PCD asked CFPUA if the reimbursement could impact current rates but did not receive a response by press.

Brunswick County Public Utilities Director John Nichols also spoke in favor of the bill at the hearing, stating PFAS filtration technology has cost $170 million and increased costs for ratepayers.

Davis said he’d been working on the bill for four years but was unable to get the original bill on the floor in time in 2020.

He pushed a version of the same bill in 2022, opposed by influential lobbying groups including the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce and North Carolina Manufacturers Alliance; both groups include PFAS producing companies Chemours and DuPont as members. The North Carolina Chamber took credit for the bill being “sidelined” in 2022 and 2023.

“They care more about making money with businesses than they do about the welfare of the people — which includes people who are members of the chamber of commerce,” Davis said.

He made revisions to the new bill to address the pushback, which passed the environmental committee Tuesday. The bill now includes language regarding responsible parties to place liability solely on companies that manufacture PFAS, rather than companies that use PFAS materials. He emphasized companies would not be held liable unless a company “makes PFAS from scratch” and their discharges flow into a public utility.

He also changed the criteria for determining contamination levels to the EPA’s new standards. Davis said many people he’d spoken to were concerned the previous bill could give DEQ too much regulatory authority.

At Tuesday’s House environmental committee hearing, Chemours lobbyist Jeff Fritz argued the bill unfairly targeted the company. He said Chemours voluntarily offered to clean up PFAS contamination after it was discovered in 2017, to which Davis offered a rebuke.

“They knew very well what they were doing and they didn’t do any of these remediation efforts until they got caught in 2017,” he said.

Chemours’ PFAS clean-up efforts was a response to address litigation from Cape Fear River Watch and notices of violation from DEQ; the company entered a consent order with the groups in 2019.

A North Carolina Chamber spokesperson sent a recent document to PCD on its PFAS stance. It claims the EPA’s PFAS standards are “aggressively low” in comparison to other agencies that have determined different thresholds for PFAS toxicity. The NC Chamber expressed concern that politics have influenced toxicity assessments, leading to excessive PFAS regulations.

UNCW biological oceanographer Larry Cahoon disputed the argument. He told PCD there is much to learn about the toxicity of thousands of PFAS variants, but available scientific evidence has clearly demonstrated the six compounds listed in the EPA’s standards are dangerous to human health at very low levels. 

For instance, PFOA and PFOS — allowed at 4 parts per trillion under the new regulations — have also been added to the EPA’s hazardous list. The compounds are used in everyday products, from cookware to cosmetics, and have been linked to various cancers, as well as fertility issues. 

“If we dissect their claims, their arguments are at best disingenuous and in some cases dishonest,” Cahoon said.

In a statement last month, the state chamber argued the importance of balancing economic growth with environmental protections as well. It also wrote to PCD last month that it had a “transparent and open process to engage government” per advocacy for the business community when it comes to regulations.

The North Carolina Chamber does not disclose funding contributions in its publicly available 990 tax filings. PCD asked the organization how much member companies including Chemours and DuPont contributed — noting its stated commitment to transparency — but did not receive a response.

A Chemours spokesperson said the company was disappointed in the advancement of House Bill 864 but recognized it had a ways to go before becoming law. The company remained “hopeful” legislators would vote it down, the spokesperson said, “and see this legislation for what it really is — a redundant bill that would give unprecedented authority to the Secretary of North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.”

NC Chamber political director Kirk O’Steen also spoke at the hearing, noting member companies within the organization were concerned, in spite of the bill’s recent amendments, about its impact on the state’s legal and regulatory climate. Chamber’s members include companies that produce, discharge, or rely on PFAS, such as Charlotte-based Honeywell International and International Paper.

According to Davis, NC Chamber has been supportive of his pro-business policies in the past. He was clear he would not have supported the bill if he thought it was anti-business.

“Do you really think a business wants to come to New Hanover County if they know the people that work for them and their families don’t have safe water to drink?” he asked.

The bill includes a nonrecurring $300,000 appropriation from the state’s general fund to DEQ’s PFAS Public Water Protection Fund. It will be heard in the House appropriations committee next.

“It’s definitely going to be controversial to some degree,” Iler told PCD. “But I think it’s got bipartisan support.”

Davis believes its toughest challenge may be in the Senate, particularly garnering support from his fellow Republicans.

Sen. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover) told PCD he hasn’t had a chance to review the bill but will follow it closely as it moves through the House.

Southern Environmental Law Center senior attorney Jean Zhuang viewed it as a positive development, but argued it should expand beyond manufacturers to include PFAS dischargers. 

She criticized the state chamber’s opposition as well. 

“Industrial polluters like Chemours and DuPont lost the trust of the public when they secretly and intentionally exposed families and communities to toxic chemicals in their drinking water for decades,” Zhuang said. “When caught, industry fought efforts to stop its toxic PFAS pollution so it’s no surprise that its representatives continue to devalue the life and health of North Carolina’s families and communities and push for more toxic pollution in our drinking water. The NC Chamber of Commerce seems to want North Carolina to become known as a toxic state instead of a state where people can enjoy living and visiting in good health.”


Tips or comments? Email journalist Peter Castagno at peter@localdailymedia.com.

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