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CoastLine Candidate Interviews: Local Poli-Sci, Leland, and H2GO

L to R: UNCW's Professor Aaron King, H2GO Commission Candidate Bill Beer, Leland Town Council Candidate Bob Corriston

On this edition of the CoastLine Candidate Interviews, we meet one candidate for Leland’s Town Council and one for Board of Commissioners of Brunswick Regional Water and Sewer H2GO. 

But first, we take a closer look at municipal elections with a political scientist.   

Segment 1:  Aaron King, Assistant Professor in the Department of Public and International Affairs at the University of North Carolina Wilmington

Rachel Lewis Hilburn: Aaron King, welcome to CoastLine.

Aaron King: Thank you, it's pleasure to be here.

RLH: Some of your areas of expertise include American political institutions and political parties, we are smack in the middle of the 2017 municipal election season, and for many people, I think this doesn't even really feel like an election season. Even though most people, those within an incorporated municipality, have people to choose for their local town boards and city councils. Why so little engagement relative to other elections?

AK: Well, I think that there's always something political going on, and unfortunately people have lives that they live. And sometimes politics are not always on the front burner, and when you do have so much attention brought forth in presidential election years, it's difficult to think about mid-term elections. Even at the local level, sometimes people just fail to understand the importance of what happens on the local issue, and even if they do understand what happens, they're very busy and their concerns might be elsewhere.

RLH: We've seen research that seems to say local elections have a much more direct impact on the quality of your life than larger elections, say at the state or federal level. Is that really true? I mean, when you look at this, when you compare say, city council elections in Wilmington to the last presidential election in which, you know, we were looking down the barrel of selection of Supreme Court justices. Does that still hold true?

AK: Well, I think that this is something that I talk to my students quite frequently about. Many of us, in terms of the political class, we live and die by elections, particularly on the national level. And you see all the conflict that's going on now. And I really don't mean to diminish what happens at the national level, but I would like to say compared to sometimes how we treat what happens at the national level as a life and death issue. It is, I think worth saying, how different that is than at the local scale. We think that everything that we do at the national level has such a great impact. And this is not to say that it doesn't, but in comparison to what we think and what it actually is, is very different. At the local level, where people -- myself included -- may not pay that much attention to things. But we fail to realize how much actually matters on the local level, and the immediate impact that we can have by showing up to vote in municipal election.

RLH: Wait a minute, Aaron King, political scientist, from UNCW, did you just admit on the air, on an open mic, that you may not be completely in tune with what's happening at the local level?

AK: I did, and I have no problem admitting that. And the reason that I say that is, more to emphasize the point of, even someone that is trained in political science with a PhD -- granted my specialty is on the national level and national level issues -- but to someone that is predisposed to be interested in this stuff, that has lived in this community now for five years. Even someone like myself, is probably not informed as I should be. And I'll even talk about your listeners, the people listening to this show are not the average Wilmington resident, the folks here are are predisposed to know more about local issues as well. So at some point we need to get to a broader audience to talk about just how important local elections is. Again, both you and I drove to work today, and we drove on roads and we maybe dropped a kid off at school, and those are the sorts of things that matter in our day-to-day life. And again, I don't mean to diminish the important discussions and issues at the local level, but I also don't want to disregard the day-to-day things that affect our lives here in Wilmington.

RLH: You've mentioned roads. What are some of the other issues that do come before local politicians that directly impact...give us some specifics here, why should I, as a recalcitrant voter or someone whose eyes just glaze over when we start talking about Leland Town Council or the H2GO Board of Commissioners or oh my goodness, you know, Southport's Board of Aldermen. Help me.

AK: Well, one of the things that's confusing, is we do have a relatively complicated system of government. It's a federal system where the national level does some things, state level, local level, and even at the local level you have things that the municipal folks deal with, and then you have things at the county level focus on as well. But I think that local government is really the first and most immediate point of contact for voters, and whether it be issues like roads or planning, even in this cycle we're talking about things like the opioid epidemic and GenX, and the various statues that are going on around town and around the nation. These are things that are a concern at the local level, just like at the national level. And so it's really important for people to get engaged in local politics, one because it matters, but also because it's very accessible. There's nothing that stops you from running into a city council candidate on the street. I just ran into one the other night, didn't even realize it until we started talking. But it's so much more accessible than it is at the larger level, so I think that people if they really stop and think about it, there's really important issues that matter to your daily life, and there's things you can do about it.

RLH: The city council candidate, for instance, may not have, if that person winds up winning a seat, may not have any say over what happens with say Confederate statues, Confederate monuments in the state because there is a state law governing that. But should that city council person still have a position on that issue? Is that something that local folks can still talk to that city council person about? Should they bother?

AK: I do think that our local representatives are the first point of contact, and you know, no voter likes to hear, well that's not my job, I don't need to worry about that. Certainly, your local officials are supposed to be a representative of you, both locally but also your connection to the political world more broadly. And so technicalities of who's in charge of what law and who has jurisdiction in what area, matter quite a bit less. Particularly when we're thinking just about political engagement, and what the voters actually want to see. Voters want to feel like their voices are heard, regardless of what's in someone's actual job description.

RLH: When you look at an issue like offshore drilling or seismic testing, there were a number of municipalities up and down the coast that passed resolutions in opposition to the idea of opening up the mid-Atlantic region to that. What kind of impact do resolutions like that have on policymaking?

AK: I think sometimes even, resolutions that may not have substantive consequences, it definitely voices the opinions of the local municipalities that people higher up the food chain in politics are certainly wise to heed. I mean, these issues are things that people feel very passionate about at the local level. But it is a smaller group of people that feel passion at this level. There are different issues in local elections than they are at the federal elections.

RLH: Why should politicians farther up the food chain care about what say, Kure Beach thinks about offshore drilling?

AK: I think this goes back to the relationship of, you know, in terms of national tax policy, there's probably some effect that I'll see next April, but in terms of my day-to-day life I might not recognize it. But I know that everyone's thinking about drinking water in Wilmington. And so when it impacts someone's personal life on a daily basis, that's something that's going to get people really fired up to participate. If people are fired up about those issues, they're much more likely to be engaged at issues, as you say, further up further up the food chain.

RLH: Most of these municipal elections we're looking at are nonpartisan. Can you explain what that actually means from a political scientist's point of view?

AK: So people decry the political parties, the Republicans and the Democrats and different things that they stand for, and the possibility of corruption and all sorts of the money that comes into politics. But political parties provide a very valuable service to voters, particularly voters that are not necessarily engaged. When your listeners or people on the street hear the word, Republican or Democrat that means something to them. It may not be factual. It may not be the truth about what it actually means, but people have strong opinions that help guide them in this complicated world of politics. And so in some ways, it's great that at the local level here, we have nonpartisan elections, because it does force voters to think perhaps about the issues a little bit differently, to look at the candidates differently. But that's also asking a lot of the voters. The reason that you have 10 and a half percent voter turnout is because it's difficult for people to learn what the candidates stand for. If we knew that certain candidates were Democrats or Republicans, that's a shortcut that really helps voters. And so it is nice that we have these municipal elections that are not necessarily connected to different elections. But at the same time there are consequences to that.

RLH: And there are consequences too, to just voting based on a party. And the first local consequence that comes to mind was -- I think it was 2010, this is coming from memory, so forgive me if this isn't quite right. But in 2010, Brian Berger was elected to the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners -- and actually that is a partisan race -- but people chose him. It's largely assumed that he won because he was an R, and he wound up having lots of trouble in office, there may have been some mental health issues there, but it was a really rocky time for the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners. And, you know, that was a direct consequence of people not finding out who they were voting for, and voting for the party designation.

AK: Well, I think as much as we support the broad ideas about democracy, it's not a perfect system. Perhaps it would be perfect if everyone knew everything about every local candidate, all the way up the food chain. At the same time, you have to ask yourself, well, do we value broad participation, even if it may be ill informed or is it something that we only want a small segment of the population, which might not be representative of the broader population really participating in these elections? So again, there can be consequences both positive and negative.

RLH: So you threw out that number 10 and a half percent. You're talking about New Hanover County voter turnout, I believe from 2015. Is that right?

AK: Right. My recollection of recent municipal elections that the number that I always throw out is 10 and half, 11 percent, something around there.

RLH: And I think that's about right for New Hanover County, specifically two years ago. Some of our neighboring counties like Brunswick and Pender had voter turnout rates around 23 and 22 percent, respectively. What might account for the difference there? Are New Hanover County residents just kind of fat and happy right now, or what's going on?

AK: I think that's a really interesting question. I'm not sure that I have a great answer for that. Part of me thinks that, in terms of the population that lives here, perhaps New Hanover County is a little bit more of a diverse population in terms of where people are from and how long they've been here. Neighboring populations, they're probably a bit more stable, in terms of who lives there and who participates in politics. I've always been self-conscious about the fact that I don't know as much about local politics as I would like, and I have been able to use that excuse in the past, but now I've lived here for five years, so it's probably about time. But as people move to a new area, as the population’s changing, people do have a lot of things that they're concerned about. And sometimes local politics rightly or wrongly, slips to the back burner.

RLH: So taking that idea of nonpartisan races and taking it past the election into the actual practice of governing and policy making, does that make a difference? Does that change the dynamic on boards and commissions to not have official R's or D's or I's associated with people?

AK: Well, I think that it does, and there's positive and negative consequences to that. In some ways, it perhaps is freeing to politicians, not to feel like they have to toe that party line. At the same time, I don't want to speak for any of the candidates, but I'm pretty sure that most of them would probably consider themselves to be a Republican or Democrat. So even in nonpartisan elections that doesn't mean that you have nonpartisan individuals that are there. At the same time, I do think it's important to point out that some of the issues at the local level are not as cleanly partisan as some of the things we see at the national level, so that is one of the benefits that perhaps by having a party label not attached to the name, that people aren't necessarily making some of the incorrect connections between partisanship and local issues.

RLH: Are you seeing any kind of move in this state away from party affiliation, or what kinds of voter trends are you seeing?

AK: Well, even at the national level -- and I think that the local and state level that are similar -- we definitely see an increase in political independence. Perhaps this is partly because of the infighting in both the Republican and the Democratic Party, but people are increasingly identifying as political independents. At the same time, we know from decades of survey research that just because you say that you're an independent, doesn't mean that you'll act like an independent. There are quite a few independents that if you push them in a survey question, well do you tend to lean towards the Republican or the Democratic Party, that they definitely lean in one way or the other. So if you just ask between Democrats, Republicans, and Independents, you're going to get about 35 to 40 percent of people saying they're independent. But once you include those independent leaners into the sample, the pure independents are about 10 percent of the population, and those are the people that are least likely to participate in the political process.

RLH: So we just have about 30 seconds left. Can you talk about the growth of the unaffiliated voter in the context of the increasing polarization in this country?

AK: Sure. I mean, I think that people...politics is not something that people enjoy talking about. Politics and religion at the dinner table can really divide people, even people that are on perhaps the same partisan team of the Republicans or Democrats. The infighting in the Republican Party, even Hillary Clinton versus Bernie Sanders caused all sorts of conflict, so people shy away from these conversations that perhaps we really need to have.

RLH: Aaron King of UNCW, thank you so much for being with us today. 

Segment 2:  Bob Corriston, Leland Town Council

Listen to Bob Corriston here.

The Town of Leland is enjoying a period of explosive growth – which means town leaders must meet the need for infrastructure improvement while planning for the future when the data lags behind the reality.  There are five candidates on the ballot for Leland’s Town Council – not including the two candidates for Mayor.  Of those five, one person, Shirley Lawler, says she is not actively pursuing her campaign.  Two of the remaining four are incumbents seeking re-election, and two are challengers.  We met the two challengers and one incumbent on the September 27, 2017 edition.  Today, we meet the other. 

Leland Town Council members serve staggered, four-year terms.

Bob Corriston had a career as a salesman of office supplies.  He’s also owned an office supply business.  He is a current Leland Council member seeking his second term, and he is the town’s liaison for Economic Development and the Leland Infrastructure Committee.  In the past, he’s served on the Town’s Planning Board and was a liaison for the Parks and Recreation Department.  Before that, he served as President of the Gardenwood Homeowners Association in Brunswick Forest.  He’s been a County Committeeman for the Town of Nutley and Hasbrouck Heights in New Jersey.   He is also a Member of the American Legion and Knights of Columbus.

Rachel Lewis Hilburn: Bob Corriston, welcome to Coastline.

Bob Corriston: Thank you much, Rachel, appreciate that. And I didn't realize I did all those things. 

RLH: You've done a lot in your life, sir.

BC: Thank you, thank you, with God's blessing.

RLH: Bob Corriston, you have a daughter who is married with children, and you had a son, who passed away at just 15. And that awful tragedy became a motivator for you in a number of ways. Can you tell us about that?

BC: Yes it did. My son, Douglass, was a healthy 15-year-old, played football and basketball at high school. And one day he came home from school early, and he just didn't feel well. So my wife took care of him, but the next morning he still was feeling not good, and we took him to the doctor's office to check him out. He said well, it's probably a case of the flu or something like that. And then he said, he was tired a lot, so we were thinking mono or something like that. So the doctor didn't say anything. So after about two weeks, the same thing happened again to him, he fell into a...he was so tired and stuff like that, so we rushed him back to the doctor's, and the doctor said well, I can't see anything but what do you do, Douglass? And of course, Douglass was a teenager, and he spent a lot of time on the phone with his friends, and you know some things like that, at 9:00/10:00 o'clock at night when he should have been sleeping.

But one night, we were going out to dinner with friends and my in-laws were going to watch him, leave him alone even though he was 15, and with that he had gone to the bathroom, and I heard a noise, and he had fallen in the bathroom on the floor. I got up there and he was laughing. I just can't stand up, so I put him in bed, and we said we'll call the doctor and see what he could do. And he said, I'm feeling fine; I'm much better. So my wife went downstairs to take care of some things, and I was downstairs. And about 10 minutes later, I came in to check on him again, and he was breathing, but he was not waking up. We said something is wrong and called the emergency. And with that, the emergency came and they rushed him to the hospital, and 19 hours later he died. It was leukemia. Lymphocytic leukemia, which now, thank God is being cured, in young people. We started group for parents of lost children. And through that group, it helped us heal by helping others heal. And the same thing has helped the people who run it now, because it's still going on in New Jersey. But it's tremendous, how so many people think that there's no hope, no hope at all. In fact, that's what our group is called, H.O.P.E -- help other parents endure.

RLH: I'm so sorry for your loss.

BC: Thank you very much.

RLH: You parlayed that into a support group for parents. How does that play into your desire to serve on Leland's Town Council?

BC: The thing is, my desire in my life -- I dedicate my life to my son, too -- is to help people. For people to tell me what problems they may have. People get so frustrated when they make a phone call. It's like all you get is customer service, and they say well, hold on or whatever. And that's no good. People should get answers to their questions, and I feel the Town of Leland, least myself, and I'm sure the council people feel the same way too, that we're there for our customers.

RLH: The Town of Leland is only 28-years-old. That's pretty young for a municipality, and this means that this council and the next one will have a great deal of influence on the kind of town that Leland really grows into. What's the direction you'd like to go, and what are the risks, the potential pitfalls if the wrong people lead that charge?

BC: Well, actually right now, the people who are going to lead the charge are the people who will not go back to the past.

RLH: What does that mean, going back to go back to the past, specifically?

BC: Well, go back to the way they were. In fact, I was at a meeting with the other candidates. The question was asked by a gentleman in the audience, either give me a yes or no answer: Do you think Leland should slow down the growth because it's moving too fast? I said no, we've got to continue moving forward. And the other three, four candidates, three candidates they all said yes, that we should slowdown the growth. In fact, one was almost stumped and didn't know which way to go. I said you could answer yes or no, for moving forward or staying where we are.

RLH: Well, when you talk about letting that growth go, I think part of the argument against it is unchecked growth leads to inadequate infrastructure. And we're seeing that now in terms of, you know, the sewer problems that present themselves frequently in Magnolia Greens, and that's an infrastructure problem. You're on the Infrastructure Committee, what's the solution to that? The DEQ says that they delivered recommendations to the Town of Leland that really weren't followed. They don't sound very impressed with how the Town of Leland has handled that.

BC: We've had the rain, the rain like we've never had before, and that's one of the problems too, that will continue, and it will continue. But we've got to take care of that problem, and we are working on it. We've got a great, Jim Strickland is the superintendent for that department, and he's working on the case. Well, it'll be taken care of because nothing's going to be withheld, you know. The thing is people say we'll do it. It's going to be done and that's one month. Well, if you look at my business card, call Bob Corriston, it's done in one, and even when I ran for election the first time it was: give no promises, just give action and people know that. Many people see me on the street, and unfortunately I don't know their name, they know me from the town, for the work I am doing, they thank me for doing that. So it's great, you know, to get that feeling from people who are strangers and say Bob you're doing a great job.

RLH: In the Leland 2020 Master plan, one of the key principles is, local character builds regional economies, and you're also a liaison for the economic growth committee. So with Chick-Fil-A, Panera Bread, national chains going up, how do you characterize local character? What does that mean to you?

BC: I don't understand what you mean by local character?

RLH: Well, it's in the Leland 2020 plan, and it says: local character builds regional economies. So that's my question for you. What is local character? What does that mean for you?

BC: Well, I really, to be honest with you, I can't answer that question; I don't know that.

RLH: O.K. When you drive into the entrance to Leland, the first thing that really is part of that visual, you know, aboveground power lines and a whole bunch of fast food restaurants. And some kind of aging, other buildings peppered around there, it's not very pretty.

BC: Well, I don't want to get in trouble again. Before I was on the planning board, before I was a councilman, I've got friends of mine where they come down from the North to visit me in Leland, and I said don't get off for the first exit, because you see the gas stations and restaurants, continue down another couple of miles to Brunswick Forest, that's where I live. The next day, I was chastised by some of the locals. So the next council meetting, I said I humbly apologize. I was not to offend anybody here. The people here are wonderful people, but it's not attractive. You just see stops off for a hotdog or a hamburger. I don't want to see that downtown.

RLH: There's a lot more to Leland than that. And Leland residents know that, people who explore Leland know that, but you wouldn't know that just by driving into that first entrance.

BC: Exactly. In fact, I spoke to a gentleman, we just came back last week from a conference, which had all the mayors and councilmen throughout the state of North Carolina. I spoke to Duke Energy, and I says please, can you help us? We will be glad to be a model. In other words, take those high tension wires down, overhead wires, put them under the ground so we can dress the town up. We want when you come into Leland, you see flower baskets or hanging baskets on the poles and stuff like that, you see a crosswalk and brick instead of a macadam or the asphalt. So we want to dress that whole downtown up, that attracts people to come to Leland. There's so many things that -- like I said -- that I want to get to see get done in town.  I'm so excited about my position, to be involved in the town, and that's why four more years would be wonderful to get some of these other things done, and a lot of things did get done.

I was part of the new town hall. We have a brand new town hall where other people come to visit to use our town hall. We've got a senior center now that was just built. The most important thing -- as you probably read in the paper -- is we just won the award for the cultural center, and that's exciting. The Leland Cultural Center, the Town of Leland won the top award. And I don't know if you've been there or not, but we have shows and many things like that. I've been involved with bringing in acts and different singers into the place, stuff like that. But it's exciting. If you don't mind me saying a couple of things, I envision we would have maybe like a little baseball stadium, 5,000 seat stadium.

RLH: You want to build a little baseball stadium? Would that be on the town's dime?

BC: No, it will not be the town's dime. It would be on the Atlanta Braves or Philadelphia Phillies or whatever baseball team wants a minor league team.

RLH: They tried to do that in Wilmington, and they wanted it to be on Wilmington's dime.

BC: It won't happen on Leland's dime. No.

RLH: So why would they come to you, if you wouldn't build them a stadium?

BC: Well, they may come to us if they want to showcase their ballplayers and stuff like that, in the southeast North Carolina. People don't realize how this area is growing. Like I said, you mentioned in the beginning, Rachel, we were a town some 15 years ago. Before, you wouldn't go to Leland, it is not a nice place to go, that's what the word was. But now we're almost 20,000 people, the fastest growing community in southeast North Carolina. Besides that, one of the fastest growing communities in the state of North Carolina. So we're very proud of what we've done. And I'm a Lelander, and I said before, I came from the north, I was a New Jersey guy. And I do have friends of mine that say well, we didn't do this way up north, and we didn't do it that way. I said you're in North Carolina now, and if you don't like it, unfortunately, 95 can bring you back.

RLH: In the past, Leland's police department has had some pretty intense struggles with turnover. The Star News, at one point I think it was published in 2014, did a kind of a recap of all the offenses, and we've got, you know, people getting fired after falsifying radar training records, resigning after reacting strongly to a Navassa officer stopping, just inside Leland's town line. There was an incident when a female officer sued the Town of Leland because her fellow officers shot her repeatedly in the groin during a training exercise. I mean, the list goes on. I could spend the rest of the segment just reading this list. How is the PD doing now?

BC: We're doing excellent. We're doing excellent. Yes, I've heard that, before I arrived myself, Leland had problems with our police department, and it was terrible. Now, what we tried to do, we try to meet with all the new recruits. Then they come on board, and we have another council meeting. But this is a tremendous, great turnaround. And like I said before, the way Leland was but that was the old one. This is the new Leland.

RLH: Why is the police department different? What's changed?

BC: Well, we've had a lot of new people come onboard and a lot of people let go. In fact, even the chief was let go. So we did the right thing, the town manager, the council did the right thing. What we did before, basically that was happening before I was on council. But it's a new Leland. 

RLH: So let's talk about economic growth for a second. Leland has a population that has a higher than average educational level across all age groups, not just the influx of affluent retirees. So that should mean that Leland has a leg up when it comes to attracting businesses that offer higher paying jobs. But we're kind of seeing an explosion in the growth of the hospitality industry, tourism, that sort of thing, which aren't the higher paying jobs, right?

BC: Well, that's one thing. That's why I would like to get some call center, like a Verizon call center over in Wilmington employs some 350 to 400 people. I would love that in Leland, maybe an Amazon.

RLH: How would you track that?

BC: Well, we've got our economic developer, Gary Vidmar. It just matters picking the phone up and find out who's the president of the company and go right to the top.

RLH: Would you call...?

BC: I would call anyone, I'll call any president, call anyone. And I do that whenever I travel, I go to places where some people work for big companies, I give my card. Tell them give us a shout. I remember, like I say the beaches are here. It's a great community to be at. And yes, I would like to say that I do want to help us grow in something other than restaurants and stuff like that. We need a big thing like that, a call or medical center.

RLH: Bob Corriston, thank you so much for being with us today.

BC: Thank you so much, Rachel. And a shout out to my Lelanders. 

Segment 3:  Bill Beer - H2GO Board of Commissioners

Listen to Bill Beer here.

Brunswick Regional Water and Sewer H2GO, popularly known as H2GO, is a water and sewer utility in Brunswick County that serves the northeast portion of the County including Leland, Belville, parts of Navassa, and some customers outside of these municipal boundaries.  In total, that equates to slightly more than 10,000 water customers and nearly 6,000 sewer customers.

Utility officials say they expect their customer base to double within the next 25 years.  H2GO currently buys finished water from Brunswick County Public Utilities.  And since 2011, H2GO has worked towards building its own Reverse Osmosis plant.  Constructing a $30 million plant is controversial – with opponents concerned the project is not necessary and would saddle consumers with higher utility rates.  Supporters say – especially in light of the recent discovery of decades-long contamination in the local drinking water supply, having an independent source of clean water is critical. 

H2GO is governed by a five-member board of commissioners who serve staggered, four-year terms.  There are three open seats this year.  Two incumbents are seeking re-election. 

Bill Beer has been a resident of Leland for five years.  Before moving to Brunswick County, he spent nearly 39 years with Betz Labs and GE Water in water treatment.  During that time, he says he managed global technology development.   Bill Beer served as Chairman for the Water Treatment Committee International Water Conference and also the Cooling Technology Institute.  He says he holds a number of water treatment patents and has published technical papers in professional journals.

Rachel Lewis Hilburn: Bill Beer, welcome to CoastLine. 

Bill Beer: Well, thank you for having me. I appreciate it very much.

RLH: Bill Beer, tell us about your professional background and what all that means. You say you've published technical papers, what has been the focus and in which journals?

BB: Well, I've published in iron and steel journals, cooling water journal; I've coauthored sections of the Betts Handbook for Industrial Water Conditioning, and that is the preeminent source of water treatment technology out of the industry right now. Most of that work has been done, my papers that have been published have related to cooling water in industrial applications and commercial applications.

RLH: And does that relate to nuclear technology?

BB: Oh, absolutely. I came down here originally on business in this area, about close to 40 years now and worked with Progress Energy at the Southport nuclear plant, and principally in their cooling water areas. It's a critical cooling in the reactors, and what have you, and those systems all require sophisticated type of treatment approaches.

RLH: So that is water treatment, but that's very different from treatment of a drinking water supply. Is it not?

BB: No doubt about it. My product line also included potable water treatment, and that involved corrosion inhibitors, disinfectants, things like coagulant aids, all the different specialty chemicals that treatment plants use. GE water was a world's leader in reverse osmosis technology as well. So some of those chemicals that were in the product line were used as service chemicals for reverse osmosis systems, and I participated in the design of several systems, several large systems in the United States, one of which was the world's largest system in Saudi Arabia.

RLH: And where do you stand on H2GO's construction of their reverse osmosis plant?

BB: Where do I stand as far as their plant? Well, first before I answer that question, let me get this out on the table right off the bat. I do not oppose H2GO.

RLH: The existence of H2GO?

BB: H2GO as an organization, their staff is wonderful. They do a tremendous job maintaining distribution systems, doing what little wastewater treatment that they do. The service that I receive personally from them has been terrific. I think their staff and the people there are just wonderful. So I don't have, I want to get it straight. I don't oppose H2GO, which some people have said, I opposed the project, and a principal reason...

RLH: You oppose the construction of the RO plant.

BB: Exactly. And the reason for that, is it's simply not needed. We have a utility in Brunswick County Public Utilities. We already have one. We don't need.

RLH: We don't have an RO plant.

BB: We don't. We don't need an RO plant.

RLH: O.K. So the next, the big looming question, the thing we haven't mentioned is GenX, this unregulated chemical compound that we understand is only a tiny component of this chemical compound cocktail that flows through the drinking water supply. So what do we do about that?

BB: OK, let me preface my answer with this: I don't have a problem with RO. Heck, I used to help market those things. And if through study, it's determined that reverse osmosis is really the way to go, then that should be the county that builds it, not H2GO. H2GO doesn't have the experience. They've never made a drop of drinking water for anybody. The county has the critical mass, the economies of scale to economically build a plant like that. They're the ones that should do it. If it's determined that's the way to go.

RLH: So then Jane asks well, if that's the answer. So you're talking about this idea of regionalism, this you said leveraging economies of scale.

BB: Sure, absolutely, but getting back to your GenX question. Let's take a look at where it's at right now. Since Chemours has stopped discharging it, the levels have dropped below that which is used as a control in Europe. So it's around 16 to 20 parts per trillion.

RLH: That's GenX, and that's a tiny component of what the potential toxins that are in the water.

BB: Absolutely. But you asked about GenX.

RLH: Yes.

BB: So when you talk about the other.

RLH: That's a principle though, because it demonstrates the fact that this can happen.

BB: Well, it's gotten all the press hasn't it?

RLH: Yes, yes.

BB: Yes. It's one of many contaminants that you find in drinking water, the authorities that control drinking water standards, basically say the water coming out of the treatment plant that the counties produce -- whether you're talking about Cape Fear Public Utilities or talking about Brunswick Public Utilities -- is safe, and it's all about the low levels that are in there, we're still, regardless of whether you're talking about GenX or any other perfluorocarbon compounds in the water. The determination has been made by federal government, state government that this is safe to drink.

RLH: It has?

BB: Yes, it has. The governor was on TV not long ago with the state epidemiologist making the statement: The water is safe to drink. Now look, you realize that some people are concerned about that, regardless what they have been caught up with the news and what have you, and it's created some concern in people's minds, and they've made a private choice, some sort of a personal choice to not drink that water, to use bottled water and that's fine.

RLH: Do you think it's hysteria? Do you personally think that the news treatment of the story about GenX and those other chemical compounds that are unregulated…So there isn't really an established health goal for a lot of these compounds yet. There are no standards. So saying the water is safe to drink, is different from saying we can't say that it's not safe to drink.

BB: Well, in the world of science you can't prove a negative.

RLH: OK, sure.

BB: So you can't, so you say prove to me that it's not safe.

RLH: My point is that they're unregulated, because we don't have the science yet on a lot of these, so there is there hysteria here?

BB: There are 70,000 compounds, seventy thousand compounds. You can't test for them all. OK. Based upon the information in the regulating authorities, the water as it currently is, is safe to drink. Now as new chemicals are identified and come out, they should be handled as they come up. So, you know, you can say look no water is perfectly clear or clean. There's always a contaminant in water. You know, if you're willing to measure it to the parts per trillion, you're going to find something. I don't know if many people understand what a part per trillion really means. Rachel, I don't know if you know what it means, but I try to put it in terms of a whiskey shot, a shot of whiskey or a shot of vodka. You put that shot of vodka in a million tanker cars, a train tanker car, that's a part per trillion, a million tanker cars, a shot of vodka that doesn't make a martini.

RLH: So it sounds, is it a fair characterization then of what you're saying, to say that all of the news coverage about these unregulated and emerging chemical compounds has generated hysteria. You don't. It sounds like you don't think that the level of public discussion that we're having about it, and the public concern over the water supply is really warranted, given the reality. Is that fair? 

BB: I don't think that's completely fair. I think it's more to have discussion. And look, nobody wants these chemicals in there, I don't want them in there, and the people who are discharging them should stop. Having said that, I'm also very aware of what the law says. So there are elements in the Clean Water Act and the discharge permits that allow them to discharge certain things, as these new chemicals emerge and are identified, then we should handle those things as they come one-by-one. But until such time that it's determined that your water is not safe to drink, I'm drinking it, my wife drinks it, when my kids come to visit, they drink it. You know, that's where I'm at right now on this thing.

RLH: And do you have any filtration systems in your house?

BB: No.

RLH: So you drink it as it comes out of the tap?

BB: Absolutely. Except for maybe the refrigerator has a filter in it that came with it. I don't know. Probably not too diligent in changing that out.

RLH: James writes, the EPA, the NIH, and the CDC have all issued health advisories for synthetic compounds like GenX, plus the dioxin in the water is carcinogenic. These compounds are particularly detrimental to children and women of childbearing age. Wouldn't it be a judicious, writes James, to use a readily available pristine water source, that does not contain any of these contaminants? What's your answer to him?

BB: Oh, I didn't realize that was a question, so excuse me. Well, first of all no water source is pristine, the water source that is going to go through the reverse osmosis, the proposed plant is saltwater, and it's pretty crummy water. The only way to clean it up is with a reverse osmosis plant.

RLH: Are you talking about water coming out of the river or water coming from the aquifer?

BB: It's the aquifer that's briny. That's the well-water that they're going down 600 feet to get that water.

RLH: So despite what we've heard from other candidates, you can't just dip a cup into that water and drink it.

BB: Oh, no. It would hurt you if you did that. But interesting point about this reverse osmosis plant, and a lot of people don't talk about it, is the wastewater. For every four gallons you make, you discharge a gallon and two tenths or 1.2 gallons of wastewater. And, oh by the way, that wastewater has radioactive elements in it. And one of the reasons why their discharge permit is under litigation right now, is because of that. So, you know, there's a price to pay. You know, when you do anything, when you're treating water, I'm not saying that you don't have waste from traditional water treatment methods, but it's much lower as a percentage of the water you're making.

RLH: One candidate who supports this RO plant said that the wastewater would just go right back into the river, and it would be the same concentration of salinity. And it's like pouring pasta water back into pasta water.

BB: Well, that's if you mix it. And what they're doing is, they're counting on the fact they're going to use the river to dilute down that salt water, to a lower level so I guess for calling that the solution to pollution is dilution. And the law, the same law that allows them to make that claim, allows Chemours to discharge their chemicals in the water as well.

RLH: OK, we just have a minute left. Tell us, let's say you're elected. We're getting to the end of your four-year term, what has happened, what has changed because of your presence on the board?

BB: Well, one thing that's changed is we're going to take a close look at affordability. Affordability is a key factor, you know, the area that we're on, that we live in is 15 percent below the poverty level. So what we're going to have is we're going to have an affordability index with our water and protect the people who can't afford to buy the water.

RLH: And that's this edition of CoastLine. Bill Beer, thank you so much for being with us today.

BB: Thanks for having me, Rachel. It was a pleasure being here.

Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.