Before we get to the main event, House Bill 1005, aka the “Contamination Coverup Bill” as environmental advocates have christened it, state lawmakers have introduced several bills that could directly affect Durham.
First, House Bill 988 would repeal the light rail funding cap that limited spending to $500,000 per project. With additional state funding to buttress the federal and local dollars, the Durham-Orange Light Rail project could proceed with more financial confidence.
When passed last year, the cap, which even staunch Wake County uber-conservative Rep. Paul Stam, opposes (think about that for a moment), seemed to be a mean-spirited, vengeful strike toward urban areas. And Durham-Orange isn’t the only jurisdiction to be hurt by the cap; the den of iniquity, Charlotte, which already has a light rail system, would have to curtail its expansion plans.
SB 784 and its companion, HB 946, which would repeal HB2, are working their way through the legislature. Local sponsors are Sen. Mike Woodard, and in the House, Reps. Graig Meyer, Paul Luebke and Mickey Michaux. (Update at 2:19 p.m.: The News & Observer is reporting that the Senate version of the bill has been sent to the legislative graveyard, the Ways and Means Committee, which never meets. It's known as the place where Senate bills go to die.)
And since we live in the City of Medicine, it’s notable that HB 983 would legalize and tax medical marijuana. Pot for that uses would have to be recommended by a doctor for terminal or chronically ill people. Those in hospice care could also use medicinal marijuana without risking arrest.
Tax rates are tiered, depending on the strength of the marijuana. The bill limits the amount you can possess to three ounces; more than that and you’re considered a dealer.
Essentially the legislation would prevent any local or state agency from advising North Carolina residents — both on private wells and public water systems — of contaminants in their drinking water, if the levels are below state or federal clean water standards. This law would affect not only 3 million households on private wells, but everyone on a public system, as well.
There are several problems with this legislation, the first, obviously being the residents’ right to know about any contaminants in their drinking water — from the agencies charged with protecting their health. (Private well testing can be expensive.) And in yet another example of government overreach, the bill hamstrings local public health agencies from informing residents.
Secondly, some chemicals and compounds are still being studied, and their health effects and maximum contaminant levels are unknown or haven’t been established yet. To wit, PCBs were once legal. So was DDT. And lead. And so on.
As Clean Water for North Carolina, headquartered in Durham, points out, Chromium-6 was found in wells near coal ash basins. While long recognized as a health hazard, CWFNC said in a press statement, Chromium-6 standards are now being reevaluated by the EPA because of new science on the element’s health effects.
This piece of legislation was birthed last year by the Duke Energy coal ash scandal. People living around coal ash basins learned their drinking water from private wells was tainted with elevated, but not maximum, levels of cobalt, hexavalent chromium-6 and other contaminants. The state sent advisory letters to those residents. This bill would make that illegal.
For a local example, the private wells of roughly 40 households in Rougemont had long been contaminated by effluent from old leaking underground storage tanks at defunct gas stations. Those contaminants did exceed maximum levels and would still require an advisory under the proposed law.
However, according to a 2012 memo from Assistant Durham County Manager Drew Cummings to the Board of County Commissioners, "there are also less well documented issues of metals in the groundwater in this area of Durham, issues which probably need further exploration but which would further support a municipal water supply of some sort for Rougemont."
If the level of metals in the groundwater existed, but did not exceed the legal maximum, then under the current bill, the state and county could not inform Rougemont residents of what's in the water.
The good news is that the Durham County Commissioners, with the help of grants and local/state/federal funding, connected these households to a public water system.