By Catherine Clabby
Six weeks after his customers learned an industrial chemical called GenX had contaminated the Wilmington drinking water supply he manages, Jim Flechtner was still briefing his bosses on new questions related to the pollution.
The uncertainties range widely, such as: What will be the best way to extract and safely release 49 million gallons of water the utility stored underground potentially tainted with GenX? Does affordable technology exist to scrub out the treatment-resistant chemical? What else of concern lurks in the river water they depend on?
“We need to document and understand out what is in the river,” the visibly weary Flechtner stressed to Cape Fear Public Utility Authority board members in a morning meeting in Wilmington last week.
Other weighty questions persist about GenX pollution in the Cape Fear beyond the tough ones that Flechtner’s utility and two others are grappling with. Among them:
- How much GenX originated from wastewater released by the Fayetteville Works production facility that DuPont Co. ran for decades?
- How frequently did its concentrations exceed newly announced state concentration goals for drinking water?
- Who knew when that a suspect chemical was flowing from an industrial site toward public drinking supplies, possibly since the 1980s?
“There is not a lot of clarity yet about who knew what when,” said Derb S. Carter, Jr., director of the Southern Environmental Law Center for North Carolina.
One thing is certain, however. This GenX problem arrived on the tail of some sobering history.
A complex backstory
Neither the EPA nor North Carolina regulates GenX or related chemicals that EPA scientists first detected in the Cape Fear in 2012. However, in 2009 the EPA did require DuPont Co., and later its spin off Chemours Co., to prevent GenX from escaping from any manufacturing processes with “99 percent efficiency.”
EPA obtained that consent order after concluding that GenX and similar compounds, introduced to replace similar chemicals, could be toxic to people and the environment.
GenX and similar chemicals replaced a group of voluntarily phased-out compounds called perfluorinated chemicals known as PFOA and C8. Maybe best known as an ingredient for making Teflon, they were used to make many more products valued for their toughness, a quality that also allowed them to accumulate in the environment.
The consent order followed EPA’s 2005 settlement with DuPont of allegations that the company had failed to disclose evidence multiple times over more than 20 years that the older compounds posed risks to people and the environment.
DuPont agreed to pay $10.25 million, EPA’s largest civil administrative penalty at that time, in the settlement. In addition, the company paid $6.25 million, partly for projects to investigate the potential of nine of DuPont’s fluorotelomer-based products to breakdown to form PFOAs.
The controversy ticked on. In February of this year, DuPont settled a class-action lawsuit involving PFOA water contamination in the mid-Ohio Valley for $670.7 million.
A Chemours spokeswoman did not respond to a request by phone or email to comment on the origin of GenX in the Cape Fear. But in writing, Chemours, which manages wastewater emissions for three companies at Fayetteville Works, has stressed that GenX emissions there are low and the chemical is unlikely to pose a risk.[sponsor]
“Our polymerization processing aid, sometimes referred to as GenX, has been well characterized and undergone extensive safety evaluations,” Chemours has written. “In addition, regulatory agencies required substantial data to be developed on the alternative chemistries that have been introduced. This data shows that the polymerization processing aid offers a favorable toxicological profile and very rapid bioelimination.”
That said, an EPA agency spokeswoman confirmed last week that the EPA is investigating whether Chemours has complied with the 2009 Toxic Substances Control Act consent order. Failure to do so, in general, can result in civil and criminal penalties, the EPA has said.
Chemours staff members told state and local officials last month in a meeting that the company is in compliance because any amounts of GenX that floated down the river were small and were an unintentional byproduct from a process not covered by the EPA order.
The EPA consent order does exempt GenX produced as byproducts from the order.
“We had an unregulated chemical,” said Kathy O’Keefe, Chemours product sustainability director, as quoted in notes DEQ posted from the June 22 meeting, which was closed to the public and to all but one news reporter. “There’s no requirement to capture emissions of that chemical but we put abatement technology in place and we did that in November of 2013.”
Even if that is the case, observers such as the SELC’s Carter wonder how the company or DEQ, if the state agency was aware that GenX was being discharged, could have allowed any of the suspect compound to reach the river.
“Someone has to explain this, either the state or Chemours, of both,” Carter said.
In addition to questions, new developments regarding GenX contamination in the Cape Fear keep cropping up.
Just Friday the state Department of Health and Human Services lowered by 99.8 percent a provisional “health goal” limit for GenX amounts in drinking water, reducing it from 70,000 parts per trillion (ppt) to 140 ppt. Created with help from the EPA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this is not a regulation. It’s a provisional estimate built with limited data of the contamination level below which exposure is unlikely to do harm to people, including developing fetuses and bottle-fed babies over a lifetime of exposure.
The uproar over GenX started early last month after the Wilmington Star News reported research by N.C. State University water chemist Detlef Knappe and collaborators. Their study detected mean levels of GenX at 631 parts per trillion in 37 samples of untreated water drawn in 2013 from the Cape Fear Public Utility – that’s four times higher than the new “health goal” level.
The researchers also found related chemicals, some at significantly higher levels, in the untreated water.
Also on Friday, results from testing for GenX in drinking water samples, which Chemours is paying for, brought good news. GenX levels in the samples collected from June 29 to July 6 in three counties show levels of GenX declining, with all but one of the most recent samples below the new DHHS “health goal” of 140 ppt level.
Knappe and his collaborators also reported that efforts to remove the compounds using standard water treatment, such as coagulation, ozonation, biofiltration, and disinfection, had “negligible” success.
Also on Friday, DEQ announced that Chemours had alerted the state agency that GenX discharges had not stopped during the third week in June – as the company had believed it had – but they are now fully stopped.
That news didn’t sit well with Mike Brown, chairman of the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority who works in commercial real estate.
“In June CFPUA requested that DEQ monitor Chemours discharges daily and to monitor the internal waste streams into the Chemours wastewater treatment facility,” Brown posted on a GenX update he composes for the utility, sometimes multiple times per day. “We are very discouraged that this additional GenX discharge was not identified sooner.”
While trying to sort out how the GenX contamination developed, the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority is also working to reduce the risk of Fayetteville Works site releasing GenX or sister chemicals in the future. DuPont and a Japanese company also have facilities on the site.
The utility has asked DEQ for information on any GenX chemicals released from the Chemours site. A letter to DEQ Michael Regan from the Greensboro law firm of Brooks Pierce on behalf of the authority also pushed for explicit requirements in Chemours’ state wastewater discharge permit.
The company’s previous permit is expired but state rules allow a company to continue with discharges as long as it submits a written renewal request, which Chemours has done. The company also included a request that it no longer be required to test for PFOAs, the now-phased out chemicals that GenX and others replaced.
Knappe has observed some of those chemicals in the Cape Fear.
The water authority wants GenX discharges limited to “only such amounts as shall not render the waters injurious to public health,” the letter states.
The water utility is also evaluating whether any company or organization carries financial liability for the trouble the release of GenX has caused the utility and its customers.
“All the facts are not available to us yet” chairman Brown said. “We are collecting information to see where it might lead us.”
Correction: This story has been updated, noting corrected GenX levels in samples taken from the Cape Fear River.