The North Carolina legislature returned to work Wednesday, passing a few simple bills but finishing with Republicans unable to agree on more immediate action for water quality challenges intensified since disclosure of the discharge of a little-studied chemical into a river.
The House and Senate gaveled in at midday for a work session for the first time in nearly three months, with Republicans completing a slim agenda of confirming Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s appointments to the state Utilities Commission and Board of Agriculture. A handful of appointments by House Speaker Tim Moore also gained approval.
The House also voted unanimously late in the day for a bill directing two of Cooper’s departments to further study unregulated contaminants such as GenX, which is used in making Teflon at a Bladen County plant and has been found in the Cape Fear River. The river is Wilmington’s primary water supply.
The measure, supported by House Democrats and Cooper’s administration, also included $2.3 million to test for GenX and additional contaminants in other rivers, cut an environmental permitting backlog and pay for high-tech equipment to locate chemicals.
“The people want to know what is in the water,” Rep. Jimmy Dixon of Duplin County said about the new equipment funding in the measure subsequently approved by the House. “This is an excellent first step.”
But the Senate adjourned for the day before a House committee even voted for the environmental bill, and won’t return for formal action until at least next week.
Senate leader Phil Berger said late Wednesday his chamber likely will wait to address GenX issues further until the next scheduled session in May, while legislators await more data about the amount of GenX in the Cape Fear. The General Assembly already approved laws related to GenX in August and October.
Berger said the House bill “unfortunately does nothing to prevent GenX from going into the water supply” and forces North Carolina taxpayers to pay for expenses rather than the Chemours Co., which operates the plant.
“Senate Republicans have already shown we are serious about finding real solutions that will actually improve water quality in the Cape Fear River and hold violators accountable for dumping GenX into the region’s water supply,” Berger said in a release.
Cooper and his allies criticized senators for failing to act on the bill, saying people want more protections for drinking water now.
“North Carolinians expect our elected officials to put the safety and well-being of citizens ahead of political gamesmanship,” state Sierra Club director Molly Diggins said in a release.
GOP leaders plan to keep the session open while other issues percolate, holding perfunctory, no-vote floor meeting until at least next week. They say they want to remain in a strong position to redraw General Assembly districts while federal judges consider whether to accept a special master’s proposal to retool some boundaries.
A House and Senate committee also scheduled its first meeting for Thursday to begin deliberating whether to redraw election districts for trial court judges and prosecutors and to consider replacing the state’s head-to-head elections with a new selection system. Moore has said he believes judicial maps could be finalized by the end of the month.
Several hundred people rallied across from the Legislative Building to oppose any judicial changes, saying Republicans want to tilt judgeships and the courts in their favor through the plans. They later entered the building and filled the House and Senate galleries as legislators met.
Former state Supreme Court Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson, a rally speaker, told the crowd organized by several liberal-leaning organizations she was worried proposed changes would threaten the integrity of the judiciary.
“Any changes made should be those to create a stronger more independent and neutral judiciary, not a weakened system burdened with political baggage,” said Timmons-Goodson, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
Parents and educators also walked the halls, urging more funds or flexibility to address lower class-size mandates taking effect next fall in early grades. While pointing out they have spent more money in recent years to pay for class-size requirements, Republicans say they’re working on a solution.