By Greg Barnes
Jerry Edge sat with family members on his front porch on Tobermory Road when a tanker truck that had just left the Chemours Fayetteville Works plant approached a stop sign and braked quickly.
Edge said he watched as liquid spilled out of the top of the tanker. The driver climbed out, appeared to close a valve on top of the tanker and drove off.
The date was Sept. 18. By then, Hurricane Florence was heading out of the area, but the fear of river flooding had begun in earnest.
Edge said his daughter and a neighbor, Janice Thompson, took pictures of the spill and used plastic jugs to collect samples of the liquid. Meanwhile, someone called the Tobermory Volunteer Fire Department. Edge said the liquid seeped into a ditch and covered about 200 feet of roadway.
Chemours is a spin-off company of DuPont, which had operated the Fayetteville Works plant since the 1970s. A corporate official acknowledged that Genx had been released into the Cape Fear River as a byproduct of its vinyl ether process since the early 1980s.
GenX is now used in the manufacture of Teflon and other non-stick, stain-proof and water-resistant products, including rain gear, food packaging and carpets.
DEQ began investigating Chemours in 2017, after the Wilmington Star-News revealed that high concentrations of GenX had been found in drinking water for New Hanover County residents. Shortly afterward, the state ordered no further discharges of the chemical into the river. It also has taken steps that will lead Chemours to reduce air emissions of GenX by about 99 percent, as specified in the consent order.
Plant operations had been shut down in anticipation of the storm, which dumped as much as 30 inches of rain in the region, and the dikes were being emptied in preparation for the plant to resume operations, Compton wrote.
But last week, DEQ released the test results of the samples collected by neighbors and the analysis found the suspected carcinogen GenX at more than 17,000 times the amount the state considers safe for drinking water, along with high concentrations of 10 other chemicals.
Residents who live near the plant are furious. They say the spill is yet another sign that Chemours cannot be trusted.
Residents are urging DEQ not to approve a proposed consent order that would fine Chemours $12 million for contaminating the Cape Fear River and private wells near the plant with GenX and other chemicals for more than a decade. The order would set aside a lawsuit the state has filed against the company that is pending in Bladen County Superior Court.
“Not rocket science”
Monday was the last day for public comment concerning the consent order. The state has not made those comments public, saying they are still being compiled and reviewed and may be delayed because of litigation.
But after the state released findings of the tanker spill, residents near Chemours and elsewhere sent a flurry of emails to DEQ officials and the media, urging the state not to enter the consent order, which, among many other things, would also make Chemours provide safe and permanent drinking water to the people whose wells were found to contain GenX at levels above the state’s 140 parts-per-trillion health goal.
Levels of GenX found in the Cape Fear River are now well below that health goal.
The health effects of GenX in humans is unclear. The chemical has been found in animal tests to cause liver, pancreas and testicular cancer, as well as have negative effects on the liver and to blood.
“If Chemours lies on an accidental spill, what makes anyone of you want to enter into a nonenforceable Consent Order?” wrote Kathleen Gallagher, a leader of one of several locally formed activist groups fighting Chemours. “These are bad actors poisoning our citizens. They do not follow the laws. If it hadn’t been for citizens taking pictures and samples, they would have got away with the lies.”
Gene and Linda Swinson live on Point East Drive, near the plant in the Grays Creek area of Cumberland County. The county plans to extend a public water line to the neighborhood.[sponsor]
“Solving this problem is not rocket science,” the couple wrote. “Chemours/Dupont caused the problem and Chemours/Dupont should be held responsible for all costs incurred to fix the problem. We DID NOT ask for this! Our county and state officials need to be 100% on our side in this fight and not on the side with the deepest pockets! They need to make Chemours/Dupont accountable for their actions and not let them buy their way out of this!”
Another Point East resident, Randa Dunn, wrote that she has already filed comments with DEQ, but her anger and frustration continues to mount.
“We are being treated like canaries in a coal mine,” Dunn wrote. “If you have read any of the scientific studies put forth you know there is contamination. DEQ, Chemours and those of you who are not exercising your authority and protection of the public are waiting to see if we get sick and die.
“Like the canaries, there is no sign held up saying we were sickened and died because of these chemicals. But, the science is indisputable. Like the canary, we are being thrown in the dirt while all of you, not living in this nightmare, will go on with your life.”
Edge, the man who witnessed the tanker spill, said he and his family no longer go to the Cape Fear River to swim or fish because of the contamination. Edge, an avid outdoorsman, said he doesn’t tend a garden or hunt in the area for fear that the vegetables and the deer are contaminated.
“I think they are a damn liar, excuse my language,” Edge said about Chemours and its response to the tanker spill. “Ain’t no telling how many people they have made sick or killed that they don’t know about.”
The DEQ’s investigation of the spill revealed that the tanker was carrying rainwater mixed with GenX and other chemicals. The rainwater came from a sump pump in Chemours’ processing area. Bridget Munger, a spokeswoman for DEQ, said sump pumps are common at the lowest point of industrial work sites to collect leaks, spills and rainwater that may wash contaminants off pipes and equipment.
Munger said DEQ’s Division of Waste Management staff have contacted homeowners near the spill and are sampling two private wells. Edge said his well is expected to be sampled Wednesday.
The concentration of GenX from the samples taken on the surface of Tobermory Road measured 2.85 million parts per trillion, according to DEQ figures. The level in the ditch measured 2.39 million parts per trillion. State officials caution against making a comparison between the state’s health goal of GenX of 140 parts per trillion because that is solely a standard for drinking water.
“DEQ is still investigating the incident to determine appropriate enforcement action,” Munger said in an email.