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By Rose Hoban

Several hundred folks from around the southeastern part of North Carolina showed up in Fayetteville on Tuesday for an all day meeting on GenX and other fluorinated chemicals that have been dumped for decades into the Cape Fear River.

This sign was in the back of the ballroom, welcoming local residents to the EPA meeting. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

The meeting featured scientific presentations by local and state officials as well as officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, before about 40 members of the public weighed in with their thoughts and feelings about a contaminant in their drinking water and on their land.

During Tuesday’s public comment period, some residents got emotional, others were clearly furious, there was even the recitation of a poem written by Wilmington-based spoken-word artist Delthea Simmons which repeated the phrase, “They poisoned the water,” multiple times.

After more than nine hours, EPA officials, including long-time agency toxicologist Peter Grevatt, expressed their appreciation and thanks for the many people who came out and the dozens who spoke. And those who did come expressed gratitude for the opportunity to learn and express themselves, even as they asked for additional meetings closer to Wilmington.

But the meeting left many in attendance with as many questions as before.

Still don’t know what to do

North Carolina has not been alone in grappling with contamination from persistent industrial per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in the environment. The substances, manufactured by DuPont and subsequently by spinoff company Chemours, are valued for their repellent qualities and are exceedingly stable, even when heated.

But that makes them hard to break down once they get into the environment, as they have in multiple locations around the country.

Toxicologist, Peter Grevatte, Director of the Office of Ground Water, Drinking Water at the EPA speaks to reporters during a break at Tuesday’s meeting. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Tuesday’s meeting was the fourth held by the EPA, following similar events in other places which have experienced PFAS contamination: New Hampshire, western Pennsylvania and Colorado. Two more meetings are scheduled.

In the short run, officials from the EPA say slides from the presentations and comments from the public will all go onto a website created as a clearinghouse for information about the substances. The site will include meeting summaries, and eventually all the information will become part of a national strategy for managing PFAS contamination. That plan is supposed to be online by the end of the year.

Grevatt said the plan will be “for steps the EPA will take to support states and communities in addressing PFAS. Some of those steps could be regulatory in nature, some of those steps will be scientific in nature.”

He said right now the agency is working on developing standardized toxicity information on GenX and other PFAS. In the meantime, though, speaker after speaker complained to him that they’re still stuck drinking water they’re afraid will hurt them.

Mike Watters owns a well with one of the five experimental granular activated charcoal filters being used on contaminated groundwater. He’s been closely monitoring the levels of GenX and other PFAS found in his well water both before the water enters the filters and after it’s processed. He said some weeks the levels of GenX are significantly lower, but Watters is concerned about the other PFAS being detected and he wonders about the effects of those total chemicals.

“Do I trust [the filter] to protect me and my family?” he said. “These chemicals, maybe GenX at 140 [parts per trillion] may be safe. What happens when I mix it with five or six different chemicals?”

Scientific progress made slowly

There’s been plenty of research on PFAS, which dates back several decades, but currently, there’s no federal standard for human exposure. Currently, North Carolina has an interim health goal for GenX alone, but the EPA notes that people should consider the presence of multiple PFAS in their drinking water.

The literature notes that PFAS have effects on the liver, hormone system, and there are suggestions of effects to the reproductive system, including decreased fertility and decreased birth weight.

Grevatt said that EPA interim-administrator Andrew Wheeler is looking at what would need to happen to develop a legal standard maximum contaminant level (MCL) to replace the state’s “health goal,” that’s been contested by Chemours as being too low.

Establishing an MCL requires looking at existing scientific data and the state of technology for treating contaminated water, among a myriad of other factors. Coming to a conclusion can take time.

Money is a consideration too. According to the EPA website, “Where the benefits of a new MCL do not justify the costs, EPA may adjust the MCL for a particular class or group of systems to a level that maximizes health risk reduction benefits at a cost that is justified by the benefits.”

Another federal agency, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, has a draft document (receiving comments until Aug. 20) examining the toxicology of PFAS and how the chemicals might affect human health.

The document was released this summer after public records requests found that its release had been delayed by EPA and Trump administration officials worried about the “public relations nightmare” the documents could cause.

And despite weighing in at 852 pages, the ATSDR document has not proposed an MCL, but the drafters note that different states with PFAS problems have set levels on their own.

Chart of how other states have regulated PFAS and GenX from the ATSDR Toxicological Profile for Perfluoroalkyls.

So even as the EPA will create a national management plan, there will still be plenty of unanswered questions .

And there’s still no money for cleanup, although Grevatt said that if Wheeler chose to designate PFAS as a “hazardous substance” under the federal Superfund Act, “EPA has the authority to order cleanup actions and to recover costs that we may incur in addressing that.”

Any cleanup would be potentially massive.

During a presentation, state DEQ director of the Division of Waste Management Mike Scott gave a presentation on the testing done by his agency on wells, surface water, in schools and a private lake up to five and a half miles away. He also noted that the agency sought to test on Department of Defense sites, more wells and other facilities.

Deja vu all over again

A number of speakers expressed frustration that North Carolina again finds itself reacting to large-scale contamination and bemoaned that the standard in the U.S. is to allow for the discharge of chemicals into the air or water and then, once they’re detected, officials are sent scrambling to clean them up.

“We treat this so much more differently than the rest of the world does. The rest of the world applies that precautionary principle,” said Maddie Polera, a marine scientist who now works with the Cape Fear River Watch.

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“What is the pollutant of tomorrow, the carcinogen of tomorrow?” she asked. “Because as a nation, we are not approaching this proactively.”

Detlef Knappe, the N.C. State researcher who was instrumental in identifying and quantifying the GenX contamination, noted that PFAS are classified as “persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic” chemicals that will stick around.

“These are forever chemicals,” he said, noting that it concerns him that, “All of this is happening in a reactive mode.”

“I’m interested in hearing how we can prevent similar things in the future. I’m not sure I’ve heard very much useful on that front,” he said. “We’re hyper-focused right now on PFAS and GenX and Chemours, but there are many areas around the state we don’t know what all is emitted.”

Using equipment that can now detect chemicals at much smaller quantities than in the past, Knappe has been instrumental in identifying industrial chemicals in several river basins, including 1,4-dioxane, bromines and others, which have potential human health effects.

“I understand this meeting has to focus on GenX, it’s designed for that purpose, but what worries me is we let this one cat out of the bag… but there’s more.”

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...