Drinking water safety at stake in latest special session

Published October 6, 2017

By Chris Fitzsimon

by Chris Fitzsimon, NC Policy Watch and NC SPIN panelist, October 3, 2017.

Here we go again. Another special session of the General Assembly begins Wednesday at noon and no one other than a handful of legislative leaders is exactly sure what lawmakers will be discussing.

That’s the way the legislature operates these days, mostly in secret while the media and the voters and even rank-and-file lawmakers wait around to be told what will happen.

House Speaker Tim Moore did email Republican members of the House last week with a tentative list of legislation that may come up. Democrats and the public received no notice.

A copy of the email obtained by NC Policy Watch shows that among the issues the House is likely to take up are judicial redistricting, two controversial local bills and “fixes” for film tax credits, DWI statute of limitations and criminal appeals—whatever all that means.

Conference reports may also surface, which ones is anyone’s guess and what is actually in them won’t likely be known until they are released and presented for a final vote on the House and Senate floor.

The process is beyond absurd, concentrating power in a few hands and keeping everyone else in the dark.

One thing that is almost certain to be debated is the override of Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of House Bill 56, legislation passed during the last outrageous special session that includes a number of controversial anti-environmental provisions thrown together at the last minute to avoid open debate.

The bill repeals the common sense ban on plastic bags on the Outer Banks and bizarrely allows law enforcement to cut back vegetated areas near rivers and streams.

Most notably, it addresses the GenX contamination of the Cape Fear River that threatens drinking water supplies by giving a little money to the local utility and UNC-Wilmington and ignoring Gov. Roy Cooper’s request to restore budget cuts to the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality.

Cooper called the legislation cynical when he vetoed it and that’s an understatement. Legislative leaders have repeatedly slashed the budget of DEQ in recent years, including again in this summer’s session, and now the state is paying the price with inadequate funding in place to protect the safety of the state’s water supply and to react to new dangerous chemicals like GenX when they appear.

Cooper asked for more money for the state agency best equipped to address water pollution crises and the General Assembly, in a troubling display of putting partisan politics ahead of public safety, instead gave the money the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority and UNC-W.

Democrats in the General Assembly repeatedly pointed out that other rivers across the state are also struggling with pollution and that DEQ remains the best agency to address the problems.

But Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and Speaker Moore seem more desperate to blame Cooper for the GenX crisis that to actually fix it.

Both bizarrely blamed DEQ for failing to protect water quality when both championed deep budget cuts for the agency claiming its environmental rules were too stringent and hurting businesses.

Those cuts forced DEQ to eliminate 70 position in the water quality division in the last few years and cut staff that reviewed permits for companies that discharge chemicals into waterways.

One prominent Republican lawmaker whose office overlooked the building where DEQ is housed famously drew a circle with a bullseye on the window over the building.

Now that the cuts have been made and the agency is struggling to respond, it’s all DEQ’s fault and by extension, of course Cooper is to blame. Berger even claimed Cooper was more interested in “growing a bureaucracy” than addressing the GenX crisis, which is an absurd way to describe an effort to restore basic staffing levels to an agency charged with protecting clean water and air for 10 million people.

One right-wing think tank that has long criticized the federal government and questioned the legitimacy of the EPA, is now calling on the EPA to intervene in North Carolina.  The cynicism and hypocrisy are breathtaking to behold.

But that’s what happens when it is about politics and ideology first, from secretly planned special sessions to gross distortion of the facts to convenient and situational born-again environmentalism.

Anything to win, to punish political opponents and deceive the people they are supposed to represent to mask the devastating effects of their ideological crusade.

That’s the House and Senate these days and why it’s so worrisome that they are coming back to town.