Worry in Wilmington – Not on Wall Street

People in Wilmington are wondering whether it’s safe to drink the water coming out of their taps. And it’s a good question.

The problem is a potentially hazardous chemical called GenX – which residents of Wilmington recently learned the DuPont-Chemours plant near Fayetteville has been dumping into the Cape Fear River for 37 years.

The NC Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), which has a budget of $228 million a year, has the mission of protecting our environment from just this type of problem. How did it miss the GenX threat?

That, too, is a good question. But politics, immediately, got in the way.

One Democratic group, pointing fingers at Republicans, said DEQ did nothing because Republicans had stripped away its authority to do anything. Now, in fact, that’s not quite so. Six years ago the Republican General Assembly gave DEQ the legal power to regulate or prohibit industrial dumping of hazardous chemicals that create “a serious and unforeseen threat to the public health, safety, or welfare.” (Modification of G.S. 150B-19.3 in Session Law 2011-398).

Why didn’t DEQ do that? We don’t know, yet.

Here’s another odd fact: The stock chart below shows the price of The Chemours Company’s stock after its spin-off from DuPont in 2015 and its value today. You’d think, after what’s happened in Wilmington, the stock value would be dropping.

But it’s not.


In fact, Chemours stock hit a record high in the hours after Governor Cooper’s press conference in Wilmington about Chemours’ discharge of GenX into the Cape Fear River.

Folks may be worried about GenX in southeastern North Carolina – but on Wall Street Chemours is doing just fine. How much sense does that make?

DEQ and the Governor are on the front line of the fight when it comes to solving the GenX threat. But it’s not just their problem. The General Assembly has a role to play as well and that’s why we’ve been asking DEQ questions like, What went wrong? What mistakes were made? How do we avoid those mistakes happening again?

Everyone should want the answers to those questions. And the sooner the better.


Fix the Mistakes or Just Spend More?

The other day I wrote about DEQ mishandling the spills of GenX into the Cape Fear River and added that, before the legislature gives DEQ another $3 million to spend, we need to know whether the problems have been fixed.

Lisa Sorg, of the liberal nonprofit NC Policy Watch, didn’t see eye to eye with me.

Ms. Sorg agreed DEQ had made mistakes – she wrote that when DEQ said, in June , that it “had stopped all GenX discharges” into the Cape Fear River it had been wrong. And she added that “DEQ seemed caught off-guard by the GenX revelation, and we still aren’t sure who knew what when…”

However, she then said the legislature should give DEQ more money to spend.

That logic is difficult to accept: DEQ made mistakes, so we should give DEQ $3 million more to spend.

Shouldn’t we, at least, fix the mistakes first?

The Parable of the Talents

In the Book of Matthew, Jesus tells the Parable of the Talents: About a wealthy man who, before going on a journey, gave three of his servants money (talents) to manage. Two of his servants, during his absence, handled the money well. And, when he returned, they were rewarded.

The third servant did not do so well. In fact, he did nothing. So the talents he’d been given were taken from him and given to one of the other servants.

What does that have to do with politics?

For the last couple of months, the people in Wilmington have been troubled by the news that their drinking water has contained a hazardous chemical called GenX.

How GenX ended up in the Cape Fear River is an unusual story.

A Dupont-Chemours plant near Fayetteville manufactured GenX to sell, but it was not allowed to dump any of that GenX into the river. Instead, it was required to haul it away to facilities in Arkansas or Ohio to be incinerated.

So far, so good.

However, another part of the same Dupont-Chemours plant was creating GenX not to sell but as a waste byproduct of another industrial process. Apparently, or at least the way Dupont-Chemours saw it, there was no prohibition on it dumping that GenX into the Cape Fear River. So it did. Until somebody at the Wilmington Water Authority asked, What is going on here?

So far, the discovery of GenX in Wilmington’s water has raised more questions than answers: Who knew? What did they know? When did they know it? Did they disclose it?

The NC Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is entrusted with a budget of $228 million a year to protect our environment – including our drinking water. And it has the legal power to regulate or prohibit industrial dumping of hazardous chemicals.

But, in this case, it didn’t. Why not?

So far, DEQ’s explanations have been murky. And, at times, contradictory. For instance, in June the department announced it had stopped all GenX dumping. But then, two weeks later, it announced it had discovered a new GenX discharge into the river.

Finding out what happened may take a while, so I was not expecting all the answers when I watched the Governor, along with his top administrators, speak at their press conference in Wilmington. But there was a surprise: DEQ did not sound all that contrite. It didn’t say it had made mistakes. Instead, it said it needed more money. That its $228 million budget wasn’t enough.

I guess that’s possible. But it may also be that – as in the Parable of the Talents – the people who were given $228 million to spend to protect the environment haven’t done a very good job.

A Simple Fix

After WalletHub reported Hickory was one of the least educated cities in the country I expected the worst. And the major newspapers’ obsession with ‘clicks’ – in order to sell their ads on the internet – didn’t help. Bad news gets clicks.

It would have been helpful if someone had added one important fact to the story: Hickory is the largest MSA in the United States that doesn’t have a state funded university. WalletHub’s ranking metrics reflected, not bad institutions, but a low percentage of adults with college degrees. And, of course, when there’s no local state university it’s harder to earn a college degree.

Result: Hickory gets slammed.

Meanwhile, the University of North Carolina seems unable to resolve the long-running dispute about the UNC Law School’s ‘Center for Civil Rights’ which, to be candid, is a state funded political organization that supports liberal groups like the ACLU and Moral Monday.

Here’s a simple fix: The UNC Board of Governors should spin out the UNC Center for Civil Rights into a free-standing foundation. The Center will then be free to pursue its political agenda but the state will no longer be funding its activities.

Then UNC can use the money – that is now spent on the Center’s politics – to pay for real educational work.

For example, in Hickory we make things. And, with resources available, UNC could help Hickory with the consolidation and enhancement of Hickory’s existing educational structure for practical applied engineering. Those include Catawba Valley Community College, the Manufacturing Solutions Center and the Center for Engineering Technologies. If you want to throw in the money UNC is using to fight charges of academic fraud, so much the better.

With a little help, Hickory can get off WalletHub’s list – and everyone will be better off. 

That’s Politics

When I opened the Hickory Record Friday morning there was a letter to the editor from a former school superintendent – who argued Senate Bill 467 would deny retired teachers state health insurance. That sounded like hard-hearted Republicans were going to deny sixty-six-year-old retired teachers going on Social Security health insurance. But the former superintendent omitted a key part of the story.

Right now, a teacher can retire after working for the state for 20 years, and the state will continue to pay for his or her health insurance. A teacher could retire at fifty and every month for the next 15 years the state would pay for their health insurance – until they’re 65 and enroll in Medicare.

Just two months ago the State Treasurer reported the State Retiree Health Care Fund’s debt has skyrocketed $10 billion over the past year – which means taxpayers are now on the hook to pay $60 billion in debt owed by the entire state retirement system.

That is why I supported a simple change: As long as an employee works for the state he or she will receive state health insurance. And when they no longer work for the state they no longer receive state health insurance. Which is exactly how most businesses handle health insurance.

This change does not affect current employees or retirees.

The superintendent’s letter concluded, “Teachers just can’t get ahead.” But teacher pay has been steadily increasing. And it’s troubling to read a retired superintendent, who receives a $120,000 a year pension, arguing benefits for state employees are not adequate.

Just Another Week

So how well did politics work last week? Did the howl diminish? Did it work better? Or worse?

Last Thursday a young woman – a loyal Democrat – wrote a letter to the editor of the Hickory Record about two Senate bills.

The first (Senate Bill 434) was about buffers. I believe when government makes a man or woman build a buffer (along a river) on his property it should compensate them for the partial taking. For example, by not requiring them to pay property taxes on the land in the buffer.

That bill, the loyal Democrat wrote the newspaper, was “horrible.”

It was pretty strong criticism but, well, this is politics and folks get to disagree.

But then the lady went on to say the bill was also “self-serving” because it was well known “Senator Wells owns or represents property along the Catawba River.” That time she’d crossed the line. Because I don’t own property, and no one in my company lists property, on the Catawba.

The second bill (about the State Employees Healthcare Fund) she described as “appalling” because I was “attacking the retirement benefits” of state employees – which sounded like hard-hearted Republicans were going to deny sixty-six-year-old retirees going on Social Security health insurance. But there were a couple of facts missing.

Right now, a state employee can retire after working for the state for 20 years, and the state will continue to pay for his or her health insurance. A state employee can retire at fifty and every month for the next 15 years the state would pay their health insurance – until they enroll in Medicare- then they get a free supplement.

That’s one reason the State Pension Fund and the State Retiree Health Care Fund are $60 billion in debt and that’s why I supported a simple change: As long as an employee works for the state he or she receives state health insurance. And when they no longer work for the state they no longer receive state health insurance. Which is exactly how most businesses handle health insurance.

This change does not affect current employees or retirees. Except for making sure the money is there to keep past promises about their retirement.

So how did politics work last week? Well, let’s see: I got attacked for owning land I don’t own, called “self-serving,” “appalling,” and “horrible.”

It was just another week.

Political Correctness

Ted Shaw, the Chairman of the UNC-Center for Civil Rights, wrote an op-ed in the News and Observer Saturday and described the UNC-Center as working diligently “to dismantle… the legacy of hundreds of years of slavery.”

Sounds noble. But there’s a problem: The UNC-Center isn’t an academic Civil Rights Institute. It’s a political committee funded with state money.

For instance, it opposes charter schools.

Is that opposing the legacy of slavery?

Unfortunately, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has grown so politically correct it’s now out of step with the rest of North Carolina. The UNC-Center is one example. The University’s latest summer reading is another.

Did the Professors and Deans recommend that incoming freshmen read, say, David McCullouh’s biography of John Adams? No. Instead they recommended ‘How Does It Feel to be a Problem: Being Young and Arab in America’ by a professor at Brooklyn College.

For years, when confronted with this type of political correctness, the members of the UNC-Board of Governors have rolled over. But now, at last, several members of the Board have taken a stand: On the UNC-Center.

No leader at the university – whether they’re liberal or conservative – should be spending state money to advocate for a political agenda.

Let’s hope the Board stands up for that principle.

If not, perhaps Margaret Spelling, Carol Folt and the Members of the Board should be invited down to, say, Greenville to explain why they funded the UNC-Center’s political lawsuit against the Pitt County School Board. And cost taxpayer’s $500,000.

Politics in Raleigh

Here’s how politics worked in Raleigh last week.

The State Pension Fund and the State Retiree Health Care Fund are $60 billion in debt.

The problem has been around for years but no one dared tackle it until last week – when Republican Senators heard a bill in committee.

Then the politics started big time.

The next morning the first three words in the News and Observer’s article were: “Ending government pensions…”

Now, consider two facts:

Fact # 1: Under the Senate plan no current state employee’s pension will end or change one iota.

Fact #2: Every new state employee will receive a pension. The new pensions will be different from current pensions – but they’re generous. They’re comparable to the pensions offered by most major corporations.

But somehow in the News and Observer that got translated that into “ending government pensions.”

Worse, the newspaper also reported that state employees will no longer receive health care benefits when they retire. That sounded like hard-hearted Republicans meant to deny a sixty-six-year-old retiree going on Social Security health insurance. But, of course, that’s more political spin.

Right now, a state employee can retire after working for the state for 20 years, and the state will continue to pay for his health insurance. He could retire at fifty and get free health insurance for 15 years – until he applies for Medicare – then gets a free supplement.

The Senate plan is simple: While an employee works for the state he receives state health insurance. And when he no longer works for the state he no longer receives state health insurance. That’s exactly the way most businesses handle health insurance.

The News and Observer didn’t report any of that. And it wasn’t done: It also told its readers that “shutting down the [current] pension plan would cost $350 million.”

The facts?

The State Treasurer’s actuary recommended that the state, to be fiscally responsible, should make a $350 million payment on the Pension Plans $60 billion unfunded liability. That’s not a payment to fund the new plan. It’s a payment on the old plan’s debt.

The News and Observer got the facts wrong.

Equally important: If we don’t switch to a new plan the old plans debt is going to continue to grow every year. So the new plan won’t cost the state money – like the News and Observer reported – it will save money.

For years the State Employees Union and the Teachers Union have lobbied – successfully – for lavish pensions and health care benefits. And the result is plain: A $60 billion debt. That bill will have to be paid. But by passing the Senate’s legislation we can stop piling up more debt.

That doesn’t suit the State Employees Union or the Teachers Union or the News and Observer. But they don’t pay the bills.

So where does that leave us?

When a legislator tells the unions “No” he’s got a fight on his hands. The day after the hearing the Teacher’s Union launched an email and my phones lit up. I listened to one angry teacher’s tirade then, when she stopped, I asked, You do know this bill won’t affect your pension?

She didn’t have a clue.

Which is one more example of how politics works in Raleigh.

Everybody Wins

For years the environmentalists have told everyone who’d listen that buffers are the cure-all to silt in our rivers and lakes. It’s been a mantra.

So, last week, when I pointed out the cure isn’t working – that it’s an example of veneer environmentalism – I didn’t make any friends. In fact one newspaper editor (Taylor Batten) and one politician (Jeff Tarte) promptly called my idea ‘stupid.’

Well, I’d like to invite the editors and politicians to come look at Lake Hickory. Lake Hickory is surrounded by buffers. And it’s full of silt.

This is Horse Ford Creek. Where it meets Lake Hickory it’s so filled with silt you can almost walk across.

Riparian buffers do no harm. They do some good. But a cure? No. At least not in Lake Hickory.

So what went wrong?

No one’s done the real work needed to find the solutions to these problems.

Instead, they simply came up with a political solution: Making “wealthy waterfront landowners” provide buffers. It sounded good. It felt good. But like a lot of political solutions it didn’t work. In Lake Hickory, it was veneer environmentalism.

Here’s a second problem: The politicians targeted one small group of homeowners and said, We’ve got a problem and you’re going to fix it for us. By providing buffers.

Now when the government takes part of someone’s property it usually compensates them. That’s called Property Rights. But that didn’t happen with buffers. The environmentalists (and newspaper editors) will, no doubt, say that’s okay. Because it’s for the public good. But here’s a fact: I know of no other instance where government can take a property owners land without compensating them.

So here’s a suggestion: When government tells someone he or she has to create a buffer, give him a credit on his property taxes on that part of land. And don’t require him to pay property taxes on that land in the future. That compensates the property owner. And, if you like buffers, you’re likely to get you more of them. Everybody wins.

Of course, government won’t like that. It would rather take the owner’s property and not pay them. But, in my book, Property Rights are right up there with Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Religion – they’re principles we need to protect. Even if it does mean being called stupid by a newspaper editor.

Veneer Environmentalism Strikes Again

After I introduced Senate Bill 434 in part – so Hickory could build a riverfront park with a riverwalk – it didn’t take long for the environmental lobby to light up the phones.

Right now – under state law – if a family buys a home on the river or lake, they have to maintain a 50-foot riparian buffer along the river. And, if they want to cut down a tree in the buffer so they can see the lake, well, forget about it.

In addition, when the state tells a family how to use the 50 feet of their property by the river or lake, that’s a ‘taking.’ The state just took part of the family’s property. And it’s a taking without compensation. If the DOT wants to build a road across private property it pays the land owner for a right-of-way. But the Department of Environment pays a homeowner nothing when it takes part of his property for a riparian buffer.

Even worse, the county is still going to send the family a property tax bill on that land. They can’t use it like they want. But they still have to pay property taxes on it.

After I introduced my bill, the first call I got was from a couple in northwest Hickory. They don’t live on a lake. They don’t have a riparian buffer. They believe people who live on lakes should.

But consider this: The couple does have a yard. And when there’s a storm, water runs off their yard, over the curb, into the gutter and down the street into a storm drain that runs into a pipe that empties into a nearby creek.

The water that runs off their yard ends up in the lake, unfiltered.

And that’s one more example of how veneer environmentalism creates false solutions. Saying riparian buffers cure water quality problems sounds good. It feels good. No one has a sacrifice except families who live on rivers or lakes. But it’s a solution based on politics not science.

It’s time to stop playing politics and start identifying the real sources of, say, nutrients in Lake Hickory. And using science to fix the problems. Veneer environmentalism and political solutions won’t do that.