shows satellite photo with annotations of plant and processing area locations.
Built by DuPont, the Fayetteville Works complex along the Cape Fear River covers 2,150 acres in both Cumberland and Bladen Counties. Image courtesy: NC DEQ

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By Rose Hoban

About 30 people living near the chemical plant south of Fayetteville will have their blood and urine tested for persistent industrial chemicals, state officials said Tuesday. The plant has been found to have released contaminants into the air and water.

Image downloaded from the Facebook page of Grays Creek Residents united against GENX in our wells and Rivers. Map indicates the area around the plant where wells have been tested. Red indicates wells that are above the 140 ppt provision health goal set by NC DEQ.

But the people to be tested are not downstream residents whose drinking water is drawn from the Cape Fear River, where DuPont spinoff Chemours has been releasing GenX and other suspect per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances for decades.

Instead, these people have been exposed after those same chemicals were released from smokestacks at the three-plant Fayetteville Works complex. It’s suspected the wind carried the chemicals and they eventually were washed into wells used by residents.

Water from at least 225 wells have been found by the state Department of Environmental Quality and a Chemours contractor to be above the state’s provisional drinking water health goal of a total 140 parts per trillion for GenX and related compounds. Some wells were as far as 7 miles away.

According to state epidemiologist Zack Moore, the plan is to recruit up to two people per household — one adult and one child. Moore said the intricate analysis of up to 30 blood and urine samples will be done at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

He said the CDC is developing tests to detect the compounds, which research has found could be problematic in humans at levels of parts per trillion.

“These are new methods that are being developed,” Moore said Tuesday. “[CDC scientists] want to start off with a reasonable number of residents who were more highly exposed, to see if these compounds can be detected before switching to a larger volume of testing.”

Neighbors of the Chemours plant welcomed the news, which came on the same day  the chemical company announced its plan to provide filtration systems to affected homeowners. That announcement has the homeowners — and state regulators — pushing back.

Testing downriver

Some testing of North Carolinians downstream of Fayetteville Works is already underway.

Since the spring, North Carolina State University, East Carolina University and EPA scientists have been analyzing the blood and urine of 340 people living in the Wilmington area.

A Chemours technician arranges a mockup of a granular activated carbon system that can be installed to filter water from local wells which have tested positive for GenX. Photo credit: India Mackinson

That’s where news reports regarding GenX in public drinking water supplies last year revealed that DuPont and Chemours had contaminated — possibly for decades — Cape Fear River waters that provide the drinking water supply for the entire region.

This spring, residents over age 6 who had lived in New Hanover County from 2016 were invited to let researchers screen their blood and urine for as many as 20 chemicals related to GenX, including PFOA, known as C8. C8 used to be produced at the Fayetteville Works complex before Chemours changed production to favor GenX.

That was after DuPont in 2005 paid $10.5 million to the EPA, the agency’s largest-to-date civil fine, after Environmental Protection Agency officials accused the chemical company of failing to report evidence of human health risks from C8 in Ohio and West Virginia. Last year, DuPont also paid $670.7 million to settle a class-action lawsuit involving PFOA water contamination in the mid-Ohio Valley.

Scientists running the tests of people who live near Wilmington hope to notify study participants of results by September, said NC State environmental epidemiologist Jane Hoppin, the study leader. They also plan to hold public meetings to describe their findings, including one for Spanish speakers.

The plan to test 30 people living near the chemical plant DuPont “is a great start to getting some data for that community,” Hoppin said.

These North Carolina tests are among the first studies of GenX in humans; prior research has focused on C8, including studies in the Ohio Valley involving some 32,000 subjects.

Pilot short circuit

Chemours-neighbor-turned-activist Mike Watters welcomed the new testing regimen. Watters, who moved into his semi-rural Cumberland County house in 2012, has a well that’s tested positive for GenX levels of 236 parts per trillion and 14 more chemicals of concern, including C8.

Mike Watters is growing vegetables to test for GenX contamination 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

He said he’d push to have his wife tested.

“She … has consumed more water than me and my son in this house,” he said, noting that she’s had some health problems in recent years. “She’s the one who would show high quantities of chemical.”

Watters home is one of six that are part of a pilot project to test complex granular activated carbon filters supplied by Chemours. He said every two weeks the water flowing through the filters gets tested, with technicians from Chemours contractor Parsons alternating with workers from DEQ.

The testing, which started in May, is only starting to return results. That’s why Watters was surprised when he learned Tuesday that Chemours had concluded that providing the GAC filters to the 225 affected households was the way forward.

“We’ve listened to our impacted neighbors and want to address those concerns quickly and effectively,” Brian Long, the Chemours plant manager said in a statement. “We’re committed to making whole-house GAC filtration systems available now to impacted residents, at no cost to them, to ensure they can turn on any faucet and access drinking water throughout the entire house without concern.”

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The same release said that “pilot studies of the GAC filtration units requested by the NC Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) prove without a doubt that GAC removes GenX and all similar compounds from drinking water.”

Watters took issue with that assertion, pointing to several pages of testing results from his well that still show evidence of GenX and other chemicals.

Screenshot of an NC State University webpage used to recruit subjects for it’s GenX study in Wilmington. Now DEQ and DHHS are looking to test people who live close to the Fayetteville Works plant and whose wells show levels of per- and polyfluoralkyl substances above the provisional drinking water health goal.

He also described an intricate maintenance schedule where two technicians arrive at his house about every 10 days to add new activated charcoal to the filters in a process that takes several hours.

“When you look at the GAC filtration and the weekly maintenance that’s required, and maintenance for many years … that’s expensive,” said Watters. “Not just expensive, it’s impractical.”

He’s wants the company to pay to hook affected households up to municipal water.

Watters said the pilot, which was supposed to run for 3-4 months, is only about 60 days old.

He has an ally in Mike Scott, the director of the Division of Waste Management at DEQ, who is among the state officials who have been investigating Chemours’ chemical contamination. Scott sent an email to affected well owners in Bladen and Cumberland counties saying that Chemours had not consulted his agency before making a decision to provide everyone with filters and sending their letter Tuesday. He said his staff has not yet seen the company’s letter.

“The department did not approve or direct Chemours to offer granular activated carbon filtration systems to residents beyond those in the pilot filter study,” Scott wrote. “Our position is that deciding on potential solutions right now is premature without completing the pilot filter study.”

“It’s a 90-120 day pilot test and we aren’t there,” Watters agreed. “Chemours basically pulled the trigger too soon.”

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Rose Hoban

Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...