Awash in pollution: Restoring North Carolina’s sick rivers to health will require a major policy about-face

Awash in pollution: Restoring North Carolina’s sick rivers to health will require a major policy about-face

- in Environment, Top Story

The Progressive Pulse blog has additional coverage of yesterday’s meeting of the House Select Committee on River Quality.

Kemp Burdette, the Cape Fear Riverkeeper: “I’m raising my two daughters on the river. They drink the water every day. That fact worries me.” (Photo: Cape Fear River Watch)

Like most people who grow up on the water, Kemp Burdette is different from his landlocked friends. Undeterred by dampness, wary but not terrified of alligators, he is in tune with the calm and the fury of the Cape Fear River. He has paddled its entire 202-mile length. He knows every bend from its headwaters in Hayward, at the border of Lee and Chatham counties, to its mouth at the Atlantic Ocean.

He grew up in Wilmington and has spent nearly his entire life there, drinking the city’s water, which comes from the river, every day. The river literally is part of him. His family is raising their two young daughters in Wilmington. The river is also part of them.

His experience with the Cape Fear brought him to Raleigh yesterday, where he urged the House Select Committee on River Quality to more stringently regulate industry and the contaminants they routinely discharge in the state’s waterways. “The way we regulate contaminants is like Russian roulette,” Burdette said. “We should require industry to show their waste streams don’t endanger human health and the environment. The state may warrant stronger protections than at the federal level.”

It’s unfortunate that besides the committee chairs and co-chairs, only four of the nine members of the rank-and-file membership — Representatives Pricey Harrison, Jimmy Dixon, Bob Steinburg and Bill Brisson — were present for Burdette’s speech. Because the legislature, particularly in the past six years, has routinely passed laws that have weakened environmental protections.

The Environmental Management Commission and NC Department of Environmental Quality have also crafted rules extending leniency toward companies, especially those deemed to be “small polluters.”

As a result, North Carolina is awash in pollution. Every waterway east of I-95 has a fish consumption advisory because of mercury contamination, a byproduct of air pollution and emissions from coal-fired power plants. Likewise, Lake Crabtree and its tributaries are contaminated with PCBs, which cause cancer. Detlef Knappe, the NC State University professor who was among the scientists that detected GenX in the Cape Fear, also studied 1,4-dioxane in the Haw River. “Vast stretches of Haw, Deep and Cape Fear rivers” are contaminated with the compound, Knappe said, which likely causes cancer.

Even Representatives Dixon and Harrison, who usually are light-years apart on environmental issues, agreed that emerging compounds such as GenX and 1,4 dioxane should not be allowed in the state’s waterways.

“If we don’t know what they do, they shouldn’t be discharged into the water,” concurred Rep. Holly Grange, a Republican from New Hanover County.

However, even if we do know, scientifically, the risk of these contaminants — such as arsenic, pesticides, heavy metals and mercury — the state should pass stricter regulations on their discharge. Instead, lawmakers have hamstrung state and local governments’ ability to protect their communities.

“There’s a balance between the public health and the economics of industry,” Dixon said.

The balance though, has tilted toward industry, both on the federal and state levels. The EPA has not updated its priority list of contaminants since 1981. “There is great reluctance to regulate man-made chemicals,” said Detlef Knappe, the NC State University professor who was among the scientists that detected GenX in the Cape Fear. The contaminant was being discharged from Chemours, which is upstream, near Fayetteville. “We need new monitoring and permitting approaches to protect the drinking water quality downstream.”

Detlef Knappe, an NC State University professor, urged lawmakers to more stringently monitor and regulate contaminants. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

The reluctance to regulate is also endemic in the legislature. It routinely passes legislation that explicitly prohibits state environmental laws from being stricter and more protective than those established by the EPA. This year, in the midst of the GenX crisis, lawmakers passed and overrode the governor’s veto of Senate Bill 16. That bill allows for more stormwater runoff in coastal developments — runoff that carries pollutants like fertilizer, oil and antifreeze — into the surface water and the groundwater. Laws regarding the siting of landfills, whose leachate harbors perfluorinated compounds, were also relaxed in that legislation.

SB 16 makes it more difficult for communities to get information about the hazardous chemicals stored at a facility. Yes, people can request in writing a list from the company, as long as the chemical isn’t a “trade secret.” But the company can refuse, and then that request enters the black hole of the NC Department of Labor, which “may” conduct an investigation.

Buffers — trees, scrub, grass and other vegetation — can help filter contaminants from runoff before the water gets to a river, stream or wetland. But HB 56, which also survived despite the governor’s veto, allows for law enforcement to cut back the buffers, ostensibly in the name of crime-fighting.

Knappe told the committee that perfluorinated compounds —  GenX is in that family — can be found in biosolids (a polite word for feces) applied on farm fields and landfill leachate. Yet, Rep. Dixon sponsored and vigorously advocated for the so-called “garbage juice in a snowblower” bill. That legislation, vetoed by Gov. Roy Cooper, would have required NC DEQ to permit the aerosolization of landfill leachate. The microscopic particles of contamination would then be unleashed into the air to be carried downwind.

And the Environmental Management Commission, which is composed of political appointees, is reviewing rules that exempt industrialized livestock farms from air, surface water or groundwater monitoring requirements. Nor has DEQ enforced a regulatory “point system,” based on a farm’s violations. Point totals would then influence the farm’s environmental permit and could deter bad behavior.

Besides the short-term effects of pollution, many of these contaminants linger in the environment — and the human body — for years, even decades. Perfluorinated compounds stay in the body for more than five years. PCBs hang around for decades.

It will cost the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority tens of millions of dollars to remove GenX and other compounds from the drinking water supply. That expense will be passed on, not to Chemours, which is 100 miles upstream, but ratepayers. Knappe told the committee that state officials should convene a stakeholder group, including citizens and companies, to learn what emerging contaminants are being discharged and in what amounts. “Companies are not always cooperative,” Knappe acknowledged. “But we should control the input of pollutants rather than make downstream communities pay to remove the contamination.”

Burdette asked lawmakers to use the precautionary principle in regulating emerging and unknown contaminants. That principle states that if a policy or action could harm human health or the environment — but there’s no scientific consensus — the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on the polluter. “This is just the beginning of this issue,” Burdette said. “In some cases we know where the contamination is coming from, and others we don’t. But what’s clear is that this is a statewide issue.”