Photo taken from the banks of the Cape Fear River near the Memorial Bridge that crosses the river between New Hanover and Brunswick counties.
Photo taken from the banks of the Cape Fear River near the Memorial Bridge that crosses the river between New Hanover and Brunswick counties. Photo credit: Zach Rudisin, Wikimedia Creative Commons

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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.

Keep up: GenX Resources

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

At a press conference in Wilmington on Monday, Cooper also said he will seek funds from the legislature, possibly some $3 million, to create a new environmental program to identify and assess risks posed by other unregulated compounds that industries discharge into protected waters throughout North Carolina.

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.

Cracking down

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 chemical structure of perfluorooctanoic_acid (PFOA), one of the chemicals replaced by GenX.
  • 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.

Gov. Roy Cooper, flanked by DHHS Sec. Mandy Cohen, DEQ Sec. Michael Regan and local officials, announced a multi-agency plan to address the presence of GenX and other chemicals in the Cape Fear River. He’s also asking for more firepower to prevent future incidents. Photo courtesy: Gov Roy Cooper Facebook page

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.

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Catherine Clabby

Catherine Clabby (senior environmental reporter) is a writer and editor. A former senior editor at American Scientist magazine, Clabby won multiple awards reporting on science, medicine and higher education...

One reply on “Cooper Takes Aim at Chemours, GenX, Other Chemicals”

  1. Under the heading – Never let a crisis go to waste – Cooper wants more money. But to do what with that money? Let’s remember that Cooper wrote to EPA in a highly politicized letter saying that Cooper couldn’t do anything until EPA set some standards. If he really believed that, there is nothing he could do with more money – his hands were tied, he claimed.

    Sadly, his claim of impotence is either out of ignorance or his desire to shield Chemours. In either case, he is wrong. The Clean Water Act, implemented by DEQ has explicit rules telling the agency what it should do when toxic chemicals not previously regulated are discovered. Any staff member would have told him that if asked. (Not that Cooper listens to his scientists –
    another example is his move to regulate Chromium 6 at a level much higher than his toxicologists testified under oath it should be regulated at)

    But Cooper’s administration said something else, much more disturbing – they said that Chemours has disclosed their discharges over the years when, in fact, they had not. This is significant. By disclosing the discharges (if they had) Chemours would have been blameless for those discharges under the Clean Water Act. Cape Fear utility would not be able to go after Chemours to help pay for the upgrades they need to scrub GenX out of your water.

    So why did Cooper protect Chemours and then say there was nothing he could do until EPA acted? Some say the large donations Chemours, along with DuPont made to Cooper and the Democratic Govs Association that contributed heavily to Cooper’s campaign may be the reason – Certainly that is something someone should be investigating – oh, wait, the US attorneys office is – public corruption is what they do.

    Suffice it to say there are many questions that the US Attorney’s office will be asking – as well as Cape Fear Utility and Civitas in their lawsuit – Incidentally, where is the lauded Cape Fear riverkeeper or all the other riverkeepers? They used to file suits on water issues with their law firm the Southern Envtal Law Center all the time – where are they? My guess is that they are simply a political front group rather than an environmental group.

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