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By Greg Barnes

Marianne Ashworth fights to hold back tears. She has just learned that the well water at her Cumberland County home contains a high level of a forever chemical called PMPA.

Ashworth bought the little ranch-style house in the Bayfield subdivision seven years ago and has since paid it off. Her 17-year-old daughter grew up here, in this house near the outskirts of Fayetteville, which is now the cause of Ashworth’s tears. 

She wonders whether her daughter’s persistent skin rashes could have been caused by the PMPA, one of thousands of synthetic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances collectively known as PFAS.

Ashworth also wonders if she, her daughter, or her 3-year-old son could face more health problems down the road. PFAS are known to cause cancer in laboratory animals. They have also been associated with a host of illnesses in humans: Among them, liver, kidney and thyroid diseases, preeclampsia, low birth weight, colitis, and high cholesterol. They’re known as “forever chemicals” because it takes so long for them to break down, if they ever do. 

Ashworth wonders whether she should sell her house, or if she even could. Who’d buy a house with a contaminated well? she asks.

“I don’t know if I want to live here anymore,” she said. “It’s just all of these things going through my head.” 

Thousands of wells tainted

Ashworth’s fears have become a common refrain in the southern reaches of Cumberland County, as well as areas of Bladen and Robeson counties that are near the Chemours Fayetteville Works chemical plant. 

In mid-August, a map from the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality shows 5,318 homes qualified for filtration systems to remove high levels of PFAS from their drinking water. That number has grown by 1,443 in a year. 

Every time Chemours or the DEQ finds a well contaminated with PFAS, the company is required under a 2019 consent order to extend its testing boundaries by another quarter of a mile. Those boundaries just keep expanding.

Ashworth’s home is near the farthest reaches of known contamination sites, about 18 miles from Chemours. The DEQ says some wells even a little farther away from the plant have exceeded PFAS limits spelled out in the consent order.

Under the order, Chemours is required to install filtration systems whenever a well tests above 10 parts per trillion for a single PFAS or over 70 parts per trillion for a combination of them. The order also requires Chemours to provide public water or whole-house filtration systems to homes, schools and businesses that test above 140 parts per trillion for GenX, a ubiquitous PFAS compound found near the plant.

Ashworth provides a document that shows testing of her well water found PMPA at 16 parts per trillion. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says there is inadequate information to classify PMPA as a likely carcinogen but adds that more testing is needed.

Within about a half mile from Ashworth’s home, two other houses — both on Baywood Road — have tested positive for excessive levels of PFAS, according to the DEQ. Other residents in the area told NC Health News that they were about to get their wells tested, and Ashworth said she knows of at least one other home in the Bayfield subdivision with PFAS well contamination.

While it appears that the number of homes with contaminated wells being discovered has slowed — only 146 have been found since December — the distance of well contamination beyond Chemours’ borders continues to increase. Testing has also slowed since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020.

Airborne PFAS

The contamination is believed to have gotten into the wells through the air. In the past, Chemours had released hundreds of pounds of GenX and other PFAS through its vent stacks every year for decades. 

A notice from the DEQ to Chemours in 2018 said the company may have emitted more than 2,700 pounds of just one type of PFAS — GenX — in 2017. Chemours had reported that it released 66.6 pounds that year but later adjusted the amount to 594 pounds after the DEQ questioned its figures.

The compounds floated in the air and fell with the rain, eventually soaking deep into the groundwater. Blood samples have found high levels of PFAS in people and pets living near the plant. The compounds have also been detected in fish and alligators in the Cape Fear River and in vegetables grown near the plant.

Little progress to help residents

Most of the well water contamination can be found in the Gray’s Creek area of southern Cumberland County, within about eight miles of the Chemours plant. One school in the area — Gray’s Creek Elementary — has contaminated well water. 

It’s been nearly two years since the Cumberland County commissioners designated $10 million to hook the school, nearby Alderman Elementary and some of the homes with well contamination to public water lines. Little has been done in that time.

In emails to NC Health News, Assistant County Manager Sally Shutt replied only that “the $10 million is in the Capital Investment Fund allocated for this project.” Shutt said discussions continue with the city’s Public Works Commission “regarding the county being a bulk water customer to serve these schools.”

In June, Shutt said in her emails, the county’s Board of Commissioners voted to hire a law firm to assist with securing funding to build and operate a public water system in Gray’s Creek. 

The public water system is estimated to cost $64 million, but Shutt avoided saying where that money might come from or when the system might be built. And she did not respond directly to a question about whether the law firm might recommend suing Chemours.

“The County has hired the outside legal firm to help address the contaminated water and to mitigate a serious public health issue,” Shutt wrote. “The county engaged a law firm with expertise in environmental contamination matters to evaluate the circumstances and advise the county on the course of action to take.”

When the Board of Commissioners agreed to hire the law firm, County Manager Amy Cannon said county officials had been negotiating with Chemours for 18 months and hadn’t resolved the issue to either party’s satisfaction, according to The Fayetteville Observer. Board Chairman Charles Evans said at the time that the county probably should have hired a law firm much earlier.

Still waiting for countywide water

At the beginning of the year, the commissioners said they would make extending public water throughout the county a top priority, but they have been saying that for decades. — long before anyone knew about the PFAS pollution.

Even if they are serious about taking action now, getting clean water to the affected homes would take years, starting with more analysis and studies.

“Once the board approves moving forward with a comprehensive analysis and feasibility study for providing countywide water, the procurement process could take several months, and I am not sure how long the study for the whole county would take,” Shutt said in her email.

In other words, Ashworth and hundreds of other Cumberland County residents may still be worrying about whether it’s safe to use their well water to bathe or brush their teeth for years to come. They will continue to worry about whether the PFAS has affected their health or the health of their loved ones and pets. They will continue to worry about whether it’s safe to eat vegetables from their gardens or to even mow their lawns, fearing that doing so would stir up the PFAS on the ground.

Almost every American has some level of PFAS in their body, but blood tests on residents in Wilmington and people living near the plant found levels of certain types of PFAS compounds well above the national average. The testing continues.

Chemours cited three times this year

For the third time this year, the DEQ has cited Chemours for violating terms of the consent order.

Last month, the DEQ’s Division of Air Quality began enforcement action against Chemours for exceeding the plant’s GenX annual air emissions limit. That limit is set at 23.027 pounds, which represents a 99 percent reduction in GenX emissions from 2017.

According to a DEQ news release, excess GenX emissions in March resulted in noncompliance with the consent order. In June, Chemours reported annual GenX emissions of 32.024 pounds — nearly 40 percent more than allowed under the order. The figures are based on rolling 12-month totals for March, April, May and June.

As it has done in the past, Chemours responded with a statement saying the issue was “quickly resolved” by replacing the carbon in an adsorption unit, which removes PFAS by binding them to the carbon.

In March, the DEQ fined Chemours nearly $200,000 for failing to properly construct and install water treatment measures designed to significantly limit PFAS escaping from the Fayetteville Works plant into the Cape Fear River.

In June, the DEQ again cited Chemours with a notice of violation for failing to ensure proper waste disposal. Chemours had dumped land-clearing debris at its plant into a nearby unlined landfill that wasn’t permitted to take PFAS materials.

Chemours touts its efforts

Despite those violations, Chemours continues to tout its accomplishments at reducing PFAS pollution.

In a company statement dated July 28, Chemours said it had reached milestones in achieving PFAS reductions into the river, including completion of four treatment systems designed to remove PFAS from groundwater seepage and a system designed to capture and treat at least 99 percent of PFAS from stormwater. 

According to the statement, Chemours is also working to construct a barrier wall at the river that would be more than 70 feet deep and a mile long. The wall is expected to keep PFAS in groundwater from reaching the river.

“We take seriously our obligation to manufacture our products responsibly, and fulfilling our commitments toward the reduction of PFAS allows us to continue delivering quality products that the U.S. and the rest of the world depend on,” the plant’s manager, Dawn Hughes, said in the statement.

The consent order requires Chemours, which spun off from DuPont in 2015, to reduce PFAS emissions by 99 percent from 2017 levels.

The company continues to say that the level of PFAS found in residents’ wells is not harmful to their health.

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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

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