SELC op-ed: N.C. water woes require action, not just research

Sunset illuminates Lake Mattamuskeet National Wildlife refuge in eastern North Carolina.  (© Bill Lea)

As North Carolina wrestles with how to handle new contaminants like GenX being found in the state’s drinking water sources, the General Assembly has pushed for more study, rather than action. In response, Derb Carter, Director of SELC’s North Carolina offices, and Cape Fear Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette, wrote in to Wilmington’s Star News about the latest developments. An excerpt of their piece is below and can be read in its entirety here.

On Oct. 20, the StarNews published an opinion piece by Duke professor Lee Ferguson touting the North Carolina legislature as “visionary” for funding research on GenX and other PFAS—toxic chemicals found in the state’s drinking water. But the people of the Lower Cape Fear region, from Fayetteville to Wilmington, need action.

After more than a year of uncertainty, fear and anger over the safety of their drinking water, they want action now to make their water safe for themselves and their families. The General Assembly’s “vision” thwarts necessary action.

The complete story of the legislature’s actions and inactions show that it helped create the pollution crisis we now face.

While investigations of unknown toxic contaminants in the state’s waters are important, it is more urgent to address the known contamination. There, the legislature has not only completely failed to deliver, but has impeded the state’s ability to respond to GenX and other pollution.

The Department of Environmental Quality—not university researchers—has the authority and ability to require companies like Chemours to address their toxic pollution. While the agency has attempted to solve the GenX problem in the Cape Fear River, it remains shorthanded because the legislature failed to fund Gov. Roy Cooper’s specific request (supported by like-minded legislators) for an additional $14.5 million for necessary staff and equipment. Instead, the legislature appropriated only $1.8 million to the Department of Environmental Quality to address GenX and diverted $5 million to universities to study, not to solve, our state’s water pollution crisis.

Other actions the legislature should have taken to address GenX pollution would have improved the safety of North Carolinians’ drinking water. The legislature should have restored the DEQ’s budget so that the agency can do its job to protect our state’s water. It should have repealed the law it enacted in 2011 that banned state agencies from adopting any environmental standard more protective than minimum federal standards, restoring authority to the agency to take action to safeguard North Carolina communities. Swayed by corporate lobbyists, the legislature did none of these things.

The vision many of us have for North Carolina is a state where our drinking water is protected by necessary safeguards and adequately funded, expert agencies that can stop pollution. Over the past several years, the legislature has acted to protect irresponsible companies by stripping funding and legal authority from the DEQ, putting our families and communities at risk. It has obstructed the state’s response to GenX and limited the agency’s ability to respond to other toxic contamination in our rivers and streams.

Funding research on pollution can only be a step forward if the state is empowered to act on that research to hold polluters accountable. The legislation that funded Professor Ferguson’s work expressly prohibits that essential action and cannot compensate for the legislature’s years of dismantling water protections.

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