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By Greg Barnes

Fran Minshew developed a rash after stepping out of her shower, even after the installation of an expensive filtration system.

The granular activated carbon filtration unit was installed at Minshew’s well, at a point before the water enters her Cumberland County home, which is less than a mile from the Chemours Fayetteville Works plant.

Minshew’s well was among those that tested highest for the possible carcinogen GenX when state regulators took samples earlier this year from Chemours’ neighbors.

Calling Chemours “the devil we do know,” activist Beth Markesino urges DEQ to not sign a consent order with the company on what it should pay to clean up GenX contamination until more is known. Photo credit: Greg Barnes

Now, state officials say they may know why GenX is still showing up in Minshew’s tap water.

“It’s in the plumbing,” said Michael Scott, director of the Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Waste Management.

Alerted to Minshew’s complaint, the state tested the water from her kitchen sink and found GenX as high as 134 parts per trillion, a level slightly under the provisional health goal of 140 parts per trillion set in 2017 by the  Department of Health and Human Services after the fluorchemical was detected in the Cape Fear River. Subsequently, the state has learned that Chemours was releasing the chemical into the river for decades.

GenX was not detected in the tap water from four other homes tested by DEQ that recently got the filtration systems.

Scott said DEQ believes the GenX is trapped in Minshew’s soft-water system, and possibly her hot water heater. More tests will be done to find the source of the contamination before the state decides whether to sample other homes where the GAC filtration systems are being used to filter out GenX and a stew of related chemicals that state officials say came from the industrial facility in Bladen County.

Scott and other DEQ officials spoke at a forum Tuesday at Bladen Community College. During a question-and-answer period at the end of the meeting, residents made it clear they don’t want  DEQ to give final approval to a consent order with Chemours anytime soon.

Residents say consent order is a bad deal

The consent order, signed Nov. 21 by DEQ, Chemours and Cape Fear River Watch, requires the company to pay a $12 million penalty and $1 million in investigative costs to the state. The consent order must undergo a public comment period before it can be given final approval by DEQ and a Bladen County Superior Court judge. The comment period ends Dec. 21.

Although the health effects on humans are not well known, GenX has been found to cause kidney, liver, pancreas and testicular cancer in animals. It is just one of dozens of so-called emerging contaminants detected in private wells surrounding and downstream of the Chemours plant near the Cumberland-Bladen County line. The contamination became public in June 2017, when the Wilmington Star-News reported that GenX had been found in the Cape Fear River and Wilmington’s drinking water supply.

The community forum on Tuesday was the seventh held by DEQ since the contamination became known. During it, Beth Markesino, who believes her young son’s health issues are caused by the contamination, urged state officials to hold off on final approval of the consent order.

“Chemours and DuPont have been poisoning us for 37 years,” Markesino said, adding that the state doesn’t yet know the full extent of the contamination or the number of people who may be affected.

“Chemours is the devil that we do know,” said Markesino, who lives in Wilmington and is a member of a community activist organization. “We can’t sign this right now. What else is Chemours hiding from us?”

Bruce Skinner said the consent order “must have been written by Chemours.”

“How much more could it have been written in their favor?” he told the DEQ panel. “You need to set an example of what happens if you pollute beautiful North Carolina.”

Activist Mike Watters, who lives about a mile from the plant, wrote a 47-page analysis of the consent order, which he said he plans to present to the judge who will decide whether to approve the order.

Watters argues that the state needs to follow its groundwater rules, known as the practical quantitation limit, which sets the standard at 10 parts per trillion — not the state’s health goal of 140 parts per trillion. Doing so could qualify hundreds more people with well contamination below 140 parts per trillion for bottled water and filtration systems.

“You are allowing Chemours to pay off $12 million to absolve them of all their infractions,” Watters said. “That is absolutely insane.”

Community survey coming

State officials told the gathering of about 60 people that their comments have helped the state identify potential problems, including Minshew’s tap water contamination, low water pressure caused by the GAC filtration systems, and a tanker truck spill during Hurricane Florence that is expected to lead to a notice of violation against Chemours.

Zack Moore, the state epidemiologist, said officials will conduct a community survey in January for residents living within 10 miles of Chemours. The goal, Moore said, is to better understand and respond to community concerns.

Scott said DEQ would be retesting wells that fell below the 140 parts per trillion threshold for GenX. Currently, 172 wells have been detected with contamination above the threshold. Retests will be done on wells with contamination of between 101 and 139 parts per trillion, he said.

Scott emphasized that the focus is not solely on GenX.

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The consent order requires Chemours to make or pay for many improvements, including extending public water lines where economically practical and feasible from an engineering standpoint. Scott said low population density in some areas with well contamination might make it impracticable to extend water lines. In those cases, homeowners could select either GAC or reverse osmosis filtration systems at Chemours expense, he said.

The order also requires Chemours to eliminate at least 99 percent of GenX air emissions, partly by installing a thermal oxidizer by Dec. 31, 2019. The improvements, which are underway, are expected to cost the company an estimated $100 million.

Earlier this month, Chemours Plant Manager Brian Long said the company hopes to one day get a permit to resume discharging wastewater from the plant. Chemours has been trucking the wastewater to an injection site in Texas since the contamination was discovered in the Cape Fear River and state officials began investigating last year.

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Greg Barnes

Greg Barnes retired in 2018 from The Fayetteville Observer, where he worked as senior reporter, editor, columnist and reporter for more than 30 years. Contact him at: gregbarnes401 at gmail.com