Friday, February 3, 2023

Michael Lee proposal would give state money to CFPUA, not DEQ

WILMINGTON — In the months since the presence of GenX in drinking water was made widely known, it has remained unclear who is responsible for managing the chemical. Recently, the issue has intensified, and become political, especially when it comes to the topic of funding.

A legislative committee meeting on GenX today at the New Hanover County Government Center will help determine where millions of dollars in emergency funding dollars will go. (Port City Daily photo / BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)
A legislative committee meeting on GenX today at the New Hanover County Government Center will help determine where millions of dollars in emergency funding dollars will go. (Port City Daily photo / BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)

In June, the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority claimed state agencies had given it no guidance; state agencies – like the Departments of Environmental Quality and Health and Human services – in turn said they were waiting for the EPA to update regulatory guidelines.

More recently, a battle between state senators and Governor Cooper has focused on whether additional funding should go to state agencies. Cooper asked for a $2.5 million emergency funding package to monitor and study GenX, but Republican state senators have vocally opposed the plan.

The General Assembly’s Environmental Review Committee (ERC), organized and largely staffed by Republicans, meets today to discuss the issue. Other local representatives not on the ERC are also invited to speak, including State Senator Michael Lee and State Representative Deb Butler, who will have very different views on the subject.

State Senator Michael Lee. (Port City Daily photo / FILE PHOTO)
State Senator Michael Lee. (Port City Daily photo / FILE PHOTO)

Lee has requested time to speak to put forward his own plan. In short, Lee opposes additional funding for state agencies. Instead, he supports giving funding to CFPUA to pursue new filtration methods.

“I’m going to ask the committee to send that funding to the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority and also to UNCW. I’m going to ask them to fund the people on the front line,” Lee said.

According to Lee, Cooper’s plan does not provide immediate action in the Cape Fear area. Lee plans to ask the committee to review the CFPUA’s action plan as an alternative to state-led efforts.

“Over the next four to five business days, they would take a look at CFPUA’s plan, and if it looks good, I think they would fund it,” Lee said.

Read more: CFPUA knew about GenX for over a year

When asked about CFPUA’s track record of revealing the presence of potential toxins in the water, Lee said testing by UNCW would provide transparent accountability.

“UNCW would be involved on the testing side, and they would report directly to the DEQ. The folks at CFPUA would be responsible for pursuing the filtration methods they have been considering, so that would be the dual roles there,” Lee said.

Representative Deb Butler (D), of Wilmington.
Representative Deb Butler (D), of Wilmington.

Butler, the region’s only Democrat representative, said her request to be a member of the ERC was turned down. Butler said she strongly opposing diverting funding away from Cooper’s emergency plan.

“Governor Cooper has put forth a comprehensive plan to immediately address the water quality in our area, a request that has thus far been stonewalled by republican Senators Michael Lee, Bill Rabon and others in their recent letters to the Governor,” Butler said.

Butler said considering contaminants beyond GenX was a crucial part of Cooper’s plan.

“Comprehensive testing by the DEQ of all the chemicals in the river. Given the number of hog and poultry farms upriver from our area, it would be prudent to conduct more thorough testing than what is currently being done. We must know everything that is in our water,” Butler said.

Cooper’s plan also calls for a CDC study of what Butler called “the actual health risks, if any, from GenX exposure.”

Butler also addressed the issue of the transparency of in-house testing done at regional water utilities, including the CFPUA; Butler cited the CFPUA as the main reason for supporting independent oversight by the DEQ.

“The CFPUA has demonstrated that they cannot be trusted to conduct their own testing and to be forthcoming to the public, as is evident by the failure to notify the public of the presence of GenX in late 2016,” Butler said.

Butler called any plan that didn’t include these features an “affront to the interests” of the voting public.

During Wednesday’s meeting, representative Ted Davis agreed with Lee’s plan. By the meetings end, no definitive action was taken on supporting – or denying – Cooper’s request. Instead, the committee will begin vetting the CFPUA’s action plan.


Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at ben@localvoicemedia.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.

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