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 By Catherine Clabby

Drive with Mike Watters though his serene neighborhood south of Fayetteville and very quickly he starts sharing numbers.

“This house right here. He’s over the 140. Has been at 264, 236. He’s had several tests. This house over here is over too. It’s odd that none of others ones here are. The wells are almost at the same depth,” Watters explains.

The “140” is 140 parts per trillion. Drinking water contaminated by the industrial chemical GenX above that concentration may, over a lifetime, pose health risks to some people, state health officials say.

Last summer North Carolina citizens learned that GenX had infiltrated public drinking water supplies drawn from the Cape Fear River, all the way down to Wilmington.

That contamination bloomed into a local problem for Watters and hundreds of others last fall who live near plants that DuPont built decades ago on some 2,000 acres bordering the Cape Fear.

Mike Watters describes his proposed gardening experiment to check for GenX at his home in Gray’s Creek, located southwest of Fayetteville and just one mile from a Chemours chemical plant compound. Photo credit: Catherine Clabby

In time, Watters learned more than a dozen industrial chemicals had breached well water on his property, located just a mile from the industrial site now operated by Chemours, a company spun off by DuPont.

Suddenly Watters, a U.S. Army veteran trained to gather intelligence abroad, found himself an environmental activist needing to push his own county and state governments to force a cleanup.

“This was my retirement dream and it’s shot. I’m not going to sell and move away,”  Watters said of his brick and yellow siding home on five acres. “If they pay me what the house is worth, I’ll never find a place like it,”

Unlikely organizer

Pollution from GenX has raised alarms because it is one of a group of perfluoroalkyl (PFAS) substances, tough synthetic compounds industry uses to make non-stick cookware, stain resistant fabric, solar cell components, firefighting foam and much more.

Two decades ago, DuPont failed to disclose internal company evidence showing that a related PFAS, known as C8, posed health risks. Significant amounts of C8 were    released from a West Virginia plant, resulting in a $10.25 million fine from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a $670.7 million court settlement with the plant’s neighbors.

As part of his fact-checking of North Carolina regulators’ probe of movements of airborne chemical contamination from Chemours, Mike Watters has said it may not be wise to use wind patterns at Fayetteville Airport. Winds at a very small airport in Gray’s Creek don’t match those at the bigger airport, he says. Image courtesy of Mike Watters

In 2009, DuPont assured EPA staff that GenX was safer than C8 but the agency nonetheless required that the company prevent GenX from escaping from manufacturing sites with “99 percent efficiency.” Despite that, in recent months the chemical has been found not only in drinking water but in soil, rainwater, food and — very recently — in river sediments in this state.

On his own, Watters dished out $800 for a fuller screening of his well water by a private lab. It found  GenX levels of 236 ppt and 14 more chemicals of concern, including C8.

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He, his wife and their adult son stopped drinking from their well. After reviewing published research on PFAS, Watters started wondering if drinking the water had any role in health problems his family and pets had in recent years.

So the ardent gun-rights supporter and Republican joined arms with environmentalists down river to fight back. Inspired by the Facebook group Stop GenX in Our River launched by Beth Kline-Markesino, Katie Gallagher and others, Watters created a similar group for people living near the Chemours Plant.

The introduction to the Grays Creek Residents United Against GENX in our Wells and Rivers Facebook page reads: “No political comments please … let’s keep it to the point … the contamination in the water.”

There Watters has shared scores of peer-reviewed research articles on risks from PFAS, news articles about similar pollution detected elsewhere in the United States and abroad, including the Netherlands, and notices of public meetings with government officials, scientists and lawyers.

Since they cannot use their well water, Mike Watters and his family consume water in big jugs that Chemours delivers regularly to their home. Photo courtesy: Mike Watters

When Kline-Markesino and Gallagher organized a public meeting in Fayetteville that brought scientists and lawyers together to answer citizen questions about PFAS, the Watters distributed some 600 flyers, driving down sandy dirt roads and onto farms they didn’t even know existed. Not everyone was happy to see them.

“I’ve had some guys chase me off the property,” Watters said.

At times, Watters played the gadfly at meetings, pointing out to state officials when Department of Environmental Quality slides had errors or were not up to date on well test results near Grays Creek.

“You’re saying 36 wells were above 140. There are 83. Your data is from two months ago. Data I’m giving is off your website,” he recalled accusing at one.

Some people he’s met at community meetings say they have come to depend on his knowledge and concern.

“He tells us it all, if anything new is coming and things we don’t know how to find out,” said Fran Minshew, a Chemours neighbor whose well has turned up GenX concentrations as high as 1,300 parts per trillion.

A changing POV

Mike Watters shows how absorbent soil is in his raised vegetable beds. Photo credit: Catherine Clabby

Probes into PFAS contamination have grown only more complicated in North Carolina. Just this week, University of North Carolina, Wilmington researchers reported evidence that sediments in the Cape Fear appear to be holding and maybe releasing GenX.

Additional research supports a DEQ staff conclusion that a separate compound emitted into the air from the Chemour site produces GenX when it touches water, which may contribute to multiple types of contamination.

Watters, along with others, is suing Chemours and DuPont for willful negligence, with help from the national law firm Baron & Budd. He encourages anyone else affected by the pollution to do the same with the attorney of their choice.

His primary goal is to help force Chemours, which has made few public comments on the pollution, to supply him and others with new water. He stresses that water should be drawn from the Cape Fear River above the Chemours plant.

“I want clean water,” he said.

He’s changed his tune with state officials, trying to be more of a helper than a critic. He’s volunteered his land as a rainwater sample collection site. Next week he will allow Chemours to install a granular activated carbon filtration system at his home to test its effectiveness as a temporary fix.

On March 19, he drove to Raleigh to attend a meeting of the Science Advisory Board, a body Gov. Roy Cooper beefed up not long ago to advise state regulators on how to best respond to emerging contaminants such as GenX.

Among the topics discussed was evidence of GenX contamination in home gardens near a Chemours plant in the Netherlands. After state DEQ officials said they are not yet certain if food near the North Carolina site will be tested, Watters stood up.

He’s ready to plant multiple vegetable gardens in raised, sealed beds filled with fresh soil, he said. On one set, he’d irrigate with his tainted well water and another he would use bottled water. He’d use bottled water on a third, but place it in a greenhouse to shield it from potentially contaminated rain.

Anyone who wants to test the cucumbers, tomatoes and other water-dense crops he wants to grow is welcome, he said. All he wants is a clearer picture of what he and others are exposed to.

“If I get shot with a .22, I’m going to bleed a little bit. If I get shot with a .45, I’m going to bleed faster. How often am I getting shot here?” he asked.

Jamie Bartram, the advisory board chairman and director of a University of North Carolina water institute, responded.

“Thank you for taking a scientific approach to a complex issue,” he said. “We need all the science that we can have.”

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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...