The Misinformation Machine
The House Select Committee on River Water Quality met in Raleigh January 4, despite the fact that weather, which yielded a state of emergency and countless school closures, made it dangerous and difficult for citizens living in the regions affected by GenX to attend the meeting. (Weeks ago, Clean Cape Fear asked Committee Chair Rep. Ted Davis to hold this meeting in Wilmington, but we were told it was too expensive; we would like to remind Rep. Davis of the cost to the citizens affected by this contamination: those who can afford it have been purchasing water for seven months, while paying water bills for the contaminated water provided by our utilities.)
The purpose of the meeting was to discuss legislation they have been preparing behind closed doors, and to allow for public comment on the legislation -- which, of course, they passed with no regard for the public comment they heard.
Clean Cape Fear has a couple concerns about the intent and integrity of this meeting and this legislation:
- Rep. Davis made a false claim during opening remarks that a number of organizations support this legislation, when in fact, they do not;
- Comments made by Davis during the meeting, along with the content of the legislation itself, indicate that the sole purpose of this meeting and this legislation is simply to placate the public by producing any legislation - meaningful or not - so that we may presume the House is doing their job.
Concern 1: Who Really Supports This Bill?
In his opening remarks Davis said, "An effort has been made to contact various stakeholders to be briefed on the proposed legislation . . . all of which I understand are in support of the legislation which will be before us today." He went on to list a number of nonprofit environmental organizations including the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and also included the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).
DEQ spokeswoman Jill Lucas stated the following, publicly, on January 1:
“We do not think this legislation is even a short-term solution without increased funding.”
In addition, SELC Senior Attorney Mary Maclean Asbill said during public comment:
"I want to make clear that my organization was afforded the opportunity to meet twice with speaker's staff and we really appreciate that dialogue and engagement, but let me be clear - we do not support this bill; I have let speaker staff and this committee know that [and we] have submitted detailed proposals to this committee about what actions we believe you can take right now . . . I hope that those will be included in the record."
When Davis responded he was unaware that her organization did not support the legislation, Asbill responded: "If I may, you should check with that long list of stakeholders you read, I’m not sure that all those entities have endorsed or supported this bill."
Why would the chairman of the committee state on public record that these groups supported the bill if he was unaware of their true positions?
Concern Two: What's It All About, Really?
First, what's up with this legislation?
- Part 1). Directs DHHS to work with the new Science Advisory Board when establishing health goals for emerging contaminants
- THIS IS ALREADY PART OF THE OBJECTIVE OF THE SAB SET FORTH BY GOV. COOPER WHEN ESTABLISHING THE BOARD LAST AUGUST. Here is the summary of the Board's duties, released by DEQ in August. (Is it possible the committee members might not know that DEQ has a website where they publish this kind of thing?)
- In other words, Part 1 of the bill does: NOTHING
- Part 2). Require DEQ to study the NPDES permitting process
- THE NPDES PROCESS IS A FEDERAL PROCESS. Asking DEQ to study it (which staff in permitting did in college) is not going to effect any change to the program; DEQ has, however, stated they have been reviewing internal processes, which could effect change).
- In other words, Part 2 of the bill does: NOTHING
- Part 3). Directs DEQ to communicate water issues with neighboring states
- THIS ONE IS ALMOST COMICAL. It doesn't come remotely close to meaningful action on our state's issue.
- In other words, Part 3 of the bill does: NOTHING
- Part 4). Require DEQ to study statutory requirements of wastewater discharge
- AGAIN, DEQ STAFF ARE NOT COLLEGE STUDENTS. THEY KNOW THE REQUIREMENTS FOR DISCHARGE.If the legislators want to learn them, they should do some homework.
- In other words, Part 4 of the bill does: NOTHING
- Part 5). Require UNC Chapel Hill to study whether or not public utilities can be held liable for contaminated water
- THIS HELPS US, HOW???
- In other words, Part 5 of the bill does: NOTHING
Let's be clear:
- This legislation does NOTHING to remove toxins from any of the thousands of miles of contaminated water in our state;
- it does NOTHING to enable our regulatory body to set standards, in absence of EPA standards, so they can legally include discharge requirements in the permit they are rewriting;
- it does NOTHING to require Chemours to cover the financial burden this crisis has caused families in our region;
- it does NOTHING to investigate the health of the citizens who have been drinking this water;
- it does NOTHING to require industry be responsible for knowing and sharing with regulatory agencies ALL chemicals in their discharge, including emerging and unknown chemicals - before the discharge enters our waterways;
- it does NOTHING to respond to the air contamination spewing from the facility;
- it does NOTHING to build back the DEQ so they can effectively regulate industry, but instead, adds more work -- correction pointless, busywork - to their plates.
And, what about this political theater?
- They held this meeting knowing most of the public could not attend.
- They repeated that they would not consider any 'controversial' changes to the legislation (i.e. funding the agencies that regulate the polluting industries that support their campaigns) because it was too time-consuming for the special session, which they determined will be 1-2 days ... arbitrarily - the special session can be as long as they want it to be.
- The funding question - hold on to your hats: Several committee members said they think this bill is a necessary first step because one cannot appropriate funding without first conducting studies to determine what might be needed.
Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a Republican from Duplin County, said those who criticize them for not including any funding in the bill have “got the cart behind the horse.” The legislature needs to see the results of those studies, he said, before it can decide how much money – if any – is needed to move forward.
This is confusing. It was never made clear whether conversations about appropriations were related to THIS bill or funding DEQ/DHHS in general, in response to their August 2017 request. But they obviously can't base appropriation discussions for THIS bill based on data they'll receive from the studies required in this bill (one of which is not due until December 2018). And Davis suggested that funding will likely not be appropriated during the Jan. 10 special session but might be considered in May's short session (one month after the first deadline of one of the studies). So, one should assume DEQ will not be receiving funding to conduct these additional studies.
Moreover, while DEQ may need additional funding just to do the unnecessary busywork that this legislation is requiring of them, to ACTUALLY get something done, they need the funding they requested in AUGUST LAST YEAR. Several committee members made points about DEQ having a large enough budget already (knowing they're working under a huge backlog on permits), and wondered what the additional funding they requested would be used for; case in point: Rep. Iler: "When people ask for more money, they need to be specific – I haven’t seen the specifics." THE SPECIFICS WERE PROVIDED BY DEQ AND DHHS IN AUGUST. DID THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY NOT GET THIS MEMO?
- Oh, and Rep. Frank Iler accused the 8 people who submitted public comment, respectfully and tactfully, of being "[inflammatory, sarcastic and outright insulting]." So that was weird.
In closing, we'll just share a little more political theater from Chairman Davis:
"If the House is not prepared to move forward with appropriations at the special session, we will do what we had planned to do along, which was not do anything at all until the short session . . . the reason we are here today is because I thought it was important to try to get something going so we can show the people of North Carolina that the House of Representatives is extremely serious about this problem with the pollution of our sources of drinking water sources."
If they're serious about the problem, it's time they get serious about the solutions.