By Catherine Clabby
Gov. Roy Cooper has vowed to stop the Chemours Company from releasing the unregulated chemical, GenX, into the Cape Fear River. And his administration will review whether previous releases merit a criminal investigation.
DEQ Interactive Map of Testing sites and results
DEQ GenX Timeline page
DHHS document: How to assess the risk from GenX
2016 EPA document on GenX in the Cape Fear River
Cape Fear Public Utility Authority GenX page
In recent years, university and federal scientists have led the charge in this state to find and raise alarms about such chemicals, including GenX and 1,4 dioxane. Each compound may be hazardous to people exposed to them at certain concentrations over long periods of time. And each has flowed from the Cape Fear into the plants of public water suppliers unable to remove them.
A 2009 EPA consent order forbids DuPont, and subsequently Chemours, from releasing all but 1 percent of GenX produced in any of its manufacturing activities. Company staff did not return calls or emails on Monday. But previously they have said that GenX in the Cape Fear originated from a source exempt from the EPA order.
Cooper unveiled the most detail to date Monday regarding his administration’s response to the release of GenX, one among a class of chemicals that have replaced perfluorinated chemicals known as PFOA and C8. These are compounds previously used to manufacture materials such as Teflon. PFOAs were phased out; their release into the environment had produced broad legal trouble for DuPont.
The governor said:
- The state Department of Environmental Quality will deny Chemours, a DuPont spinoff, a permit to discharge GenX in wastewater released from its Fayetteville Works production campus about 70 miles upstream from Wilmington.
- The State Bureau of Investigation will assess whether a criminal probe is needed to determine if Chemours violated North Carolina law forbidding intentional violations of the U.S. Clean Water Act or the EPA consent order. That order was produced after EPA settled charges accusing DuPont of hiding research showing PFOAs posed health risks.
- In any future waste release permits granted to Chemours, DEQ will also reserve the right to restrict the release of any other chemicals of emerging concern at the facility. The EPA, Cooper said, is looking into whether its consent order with Chemours needs to be updated or tightened. The N.C. Attorney General’s Office last week initiated a civil investigation into Chemours marketing practices regarding its representation about GenX’s safety.
- To address emerging contaminants of concern, DEQ will also alter its discharge permit application process more broadly and require all companies to disclose more about the unregulated pollutants they release. Cooper will expand the scope of his administration’s reconstituted Science Advisory Board to review the research and assist the state in identifying and prioritizing responses to unregulated industrial chemicals that may threaten water quality.
When the General Assembly returns to Raleigh in early August, Cooper said he will push for legislation to pay for expanded DEQ and Department of Health and Human Services staffing to implement the new programming. That would include hiring more inspectors, engineers, environmental specialists and chemists; resources for water sampling; and a reversal of a recent budget provision that required more than $1 million in budget cuts at DEQ.
Michael Regan, DEQ secretary, estimated at the conference Monday that would cost about $3 million. He said at present, DEQ is too understaffed to address the issue aggressively, a situation he blamed on years of budget cuts to the agency.
Multiple agencies involved
State officials will continue to press the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for an assessment of potential long-term health effects of GenX, which Chemours recently disclosed it has been releasing since 1980. Cooper said that new CDC director Brenda Fitzgerald has told him the CDC will pursue these studies.
The governor said he will continue to urge the EPA to swiftly complete a health assessment to help the state generate regulatory standards for GenX.
Cooper did not answer a query Monday regarding how long state officials have known that Chemours was releasing GenX into the Cape Fear, a question to which residents and local officials have wanted answers.
After one failed attempt, Chemours has said it stopped all GenX discharges into the Cape Fear this month. But the Cape Fear Public Water Utility, which provides drinking water to some Wilmington residents, is still detecting concentrations above 140 parts per trillion, a conservative, non-binding health recommendation that DHHS released this month.
DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen, also in attendance Monday, stressed that she believes it’s safe to drink water downstream of Chemours that is still laced with traces of GenX. That’s because the amounts now being detected are below or close to the recently lowered goal, which was calculated with limited information and assuming someone would drink water contaminated with GenX over a lifetime of 70 years.
Not everyone is ready, however. Tests of Cape Fear Public Water Utility water last week turned up levels exceeding the health goal at its Sweeney Water Plant, with measurements there as high as 286 parts per trillion.
The utility on Monday was still offering customers an option other than drinking from their home spouts: water pumped from the ground. “This water is supplied by aquifers that have not been affected by Chemours’ discharge of GenX,” the utility promised on its website.