By Catherine Clabby
For 20 years, Bobby Joe Swilley paid little heed to a DuPont-built chemical plant close to his roomy home in rural Cumberland County.
Like some other Gray’s Creek township residents, Swilley recently learned that the industrial chemical GenX produced at that faculty has seeped into his well water.
Now he is trying to understand any short-term and long-term health risks to his family, how to get cleaner water to his tap, and how badly the value of his property may have been affected.
“I may have been exposed to this for 20 years,” said Swilley, a local business owner who lives about a mile from the Fayetteville Works industrial site. “I don’t want to panic, but we need answers, honest and truthful answers.”
For more than five months, public attention in a portion of eastern North Carolina has been riveted on the detection of GenX and related industrial per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) into the Cape Fear River and drinking water systems downstream.
But state regulators have expanded their probe on land. They particularly are interested in the fact that GenX has been detected farther from the industrial site than they would have expected. That is one piece of growing evidence that polluted air emissions may be in play here, as well as tainted groundwater.
“We are very concerned for the community regarding their potential exposures over the years,” said Michael Scott, director of the DEQ Division of Waste Management.
Revving up inland
Last summer DEQ testing detected GenX in groundwater in 13 out of 14 industrial wells tested on the Chemours property which stretches from Bladen into Cumberland County. On Sept. 6, Scott and a second DEQ director notified Chemours that the company had violated a state standard forbidding contamination of groundwater by human-made substances.
Sometimes it’s unclear whether a contaminant in a well has shown up because an offending chemical has been introduced or has occurred naturally. This has been an issue, for instance, with chromium and arsenic contamination near coal ash impounds.
At other times, Scott said, there’s no ambiguity.
“If it’s not naturally occurring, it’s a clear, bright line,” Scott said, regarding North Carolina regulations designed to protect groundwater.
Since September, the chemical has been found in 50 private wells off the industrial property at levels exceeding the state’s provisional health goal of 140 parts per trillion (ppt). The highest well reading received by the state, which is also testing wells, is 1,300 ppt so far.
Of the 128 wells tested and analyzed to date, 43 were contaminated by GenX at levels below the health goal and 35 showed no detections of GenX, said Laura Leonard, a spokeswoman for DEQ’s Divisions of Waste Management
To find the edge of whatever plume has spread the contamination, DEQ has had Chemours expand the number of private wells it is testing to close to 570, all the wells, in all directions, one mile beyond the Fayetteville Works’ property line.
Only traces of the potentially harmful compound, below the state health goals, were detected recently in Gray’s Creek Elementary School, tested at the request of residents. But its presence there could point to air emissions, not only groundwater contamination, as the reason GenX has been found away from the Chemours compound.
“That’s three-plus miles out,” Scott said. “We don’t expect that.”
The detection of GenX in wells at levels above 140 ppt on the opposite side of the Cape Fear River from the Chemour sites is further evidence. A sizable river usually would block groundwater contamination on the opposite bank.
“To have groundwater go under and then go up up-gradient, that is not likely,” Scott said.
DEQ’s Division of Air Quality has requested Chemours records on any releases of GenX and related contaminants at Fayetteville Works. The agency is also working on reliable methods to test stack emissions for GenX and related compounds at Fayetteville Works, DEQ’s Assistant Secretary of the Environment Sheila Holman told the House Select Committee on River Quality last week.
Replacing tainted water
Chemours is now required by DEQ officials to provide bottled water to well owners with GenX contamination above 140 ppt in their drinking water. The company is voluntarily offering water to other neighbors who want it as well.
The company and state and county officials are also discussing three methods to provide alternative drinking water to those with polluted wells. Those alternatives include whole-house carbon filters, digging deeper wells, if that would definitely shield people from any pollution, or linking property owners to municipal water lines, often an expensive enterprise.[sponsor]
When asked if Chemours would pay for new water supplies and who might qualify if they do, company communications manager Gary Cambre declined to get into specifics. “Chemours continues to work closely with local, state and federal officials to determine the appropriate next steps,” he said.
Chemours and DuPont repeatedly have said there is no evidence that chemicals released from Fayetteville Works, where multiple companies are located, pose health threats to anyone.
David Howard, Bladen County’s Health and Human Services director, said testing of any water treatment will be needed to determine what will shield people from GenX. It’s among a category of compounds that are well known for not breaking down easily, even in water treatment plants.
“The quickest short-term, perhaps long-term solution, is a whole-house filtration system. It’s being tested by Chemours in a residence in Cumberland County where the readings are pretty high,” Howard said.
Neighbors to Fayetteville Works, in the meantime, are not sitting back and waiting for answers. They share information online and have been meeting with state and county officials, scientists and lawyers to better understand their risks and their rights.
Swilley already has a whole-house carbon filter on his home to reduce mineral amounts in his drinking water. Tests by Chemours from his tap turned up GenX at levels lower than the 140 ppt. But he asked DEQ to test water in the well and is awaiting those results.
In the meantime, he has taken up Chemours on its offer to provide bottled water, which he collects by driving across Route 87 to Fayetteville Works.
A founder of the local marketing product company Carolina Specialties, Swilley says he thinks getting linked to municipal water is currently the only route he would find acceptable to protect his family, including a 3-year old granddaughter living nearby.
He thinks that Chemours should also be held liable for any drops in his and his neighbors’ property values, a hit that could persist for a long time.
“This is not a storm that is going to blow through and then you rebuild your house. This is going to take years,” Swilley said.
“I would not buy this house.”