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.

'Busy work'

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.