By Greg Barnes
Representatives of the Chemours chemical company are expected to show up at Laura Adams’ Cumberland County home next week to walk her through the policies, procedures and potential cost of connecting to public water under a new pilot program.
Adams found out in June that the well water at her home on Anniston Street – in the Black Bridge subdivision between Hope Mills and Parkton in Cumberland County – is polluted with per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances known as PFAS, or forever chemicals.
Since then, the Chemours Fayetteville Works plant has been supplying Adams and thousands of other people in Cumberland, Robeson and Bladen counties with either bottled water, under-the-sink reverse osmosis filtration systems or whole-house granular activated carbon systems to keep them from drinking their potentially cancer-causing well water.
Now, as part of the pilot program, Chemours has been reaching out to some homeowners to determine whether they qualify to have their homes connected to public water lines owned by the Fayetteville Public Works Commission. So far, six homes have been connected, Chemours spokeswoman Lisa Randall said.
Latest sampling results
It’s been almost five years since it became public that researchers had discovered alarming concentrations of a PFAS substance known as GenX in the Cape Fear River downstream of the Chemours plant in Bladen County. Researchers later discovered that GenX and many other types of PFAS from the plant were also blowing in the wind and falling with the rain, contaminating private drinking water wells as far as 17 miles away.
The latest sampling data – from the week of Dec. 27 – shows that 5,984 homes in Cumberland, Bladen and Robeson counties qualify for filtration systems that Chemours must provide under a 2019 consent order that the company entered into with the state Department of Environmental Quality and the environmental group Cape Fear River Watch.
The consent order also requires those homes to be connected to a public water source as long as the cost of doing so doesn’t exceed $75,000 per home. Homeowners have the option of whether to connect.
Adams concerned about cost
Adams said she won’t know whether she will get public water until after the Chemours’ representative conducts a walk through next week and advises her of the available options and potential costs.
“I don’t think we are close enough,” to qualify for public water with no connection fee, Adams said. “The neighborhood across the street is on city water but our neighborhood is not. I think we will be slightly short of the connection and will be expected to pay for the connection at a lower cost.
“If that is the case then we will not pursue that option. I will just go with the RO (reverse osmosis) system until I can figure out something else. I don’t think it is fair that we would have to pay for any system due to their negligence.”
Under the consent order, Chemours is required to provide an entire-house granular activated charcoal system to anyone whose well water tests above 140 parts per trillion for GenX, a product produced by Chemours that is used to make a host of everyday consumer goods, including nonstick pans, pizza boxes, microwave popcorn and other food packages, rain-resistant clothing, firefighting foam and even dental floss.
Adams’ well was found to contain a high level of another type of PFAS, called PMPA. Under the consent order, anyone whose well tests above 10 parts per trillion for a single PFAS, or 70 parts per trillion for a combination of them, is entitled to a reverse osmosis filtration system.
Research shows that PFAS chemicals are associated with several types of cancer, ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol, high blood pressure during pregnancy, low birth weight and thyroid disorders. They are called forever chemicals because they are slow to degrade in the environment, if ever.
If Adams does connect to public water, she will be responsible for paying her monthly water bills and any nonstandard costs associated with the connection.
Letter from Chemours plant manager
The pilot program is spelled out in a September letter from Chemours’ newest plant manager, Dawn Hughes, to the DEQ. In it, Hughes said the company has identified 110 private wells in Cumberland County that could potentially be connected to public water. Homes in Robeson and Bladen counties could also be connected to public utilities, she said.
While the pilot program could soon bring relief to some homeowners, thousands of others will continue to rely on the filtration systems provided by Chemours.
Some of those homeowners have subjected themselves to blood sampling conducted through a study by N.C. State University. The ongoing study has found that the residents living around Chemours had much higher levels of some types of PFAS in their systems than the nation as a whole. GenX was not detected in the samples, but researchers say that doesn’t mean exposure hasn’t happened in the past.
In October, the EPA released a final human health toxicity assessment for GenX that could lead to a significant lowering in North Carolina’s health goal of 140 parts per million in drinking water. The EPA is developing a national drinking water health advisory for GenX that is expected to be announced this spring. According to projections, that could lead to the state setting a new health goal for GenX at under 5 parts per trillion.
The EPA toxicity assessment is significant for residents living near Chemours because it could result in many more people becoming eligible for whole-house filtration and public water, said state Sen. Kirk deViere, a Fayetteville Democrat. DeViere said the DEQ has now required Chemours to review existing well sampling in communities surrounding the plant.
In November, Chemours was also ordered to begin sampling wells downstream of the chemical plant in New Hanover and possibly Pender, Columbus and Brunswick counties. The DEQ gave Chemours 90 days from Nov. 3 to submit plans on how it will assess the downstream groundwater contamination and determine which private wells will qualify for replacement drinking water.
Action at the county level
While Chemours continues its pilot program, the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners and the state legislature continue efforts to get public water to the affected homeowners and the Gray’s Creek and Alderman Road elementary schools.
DeViere and PWC spokeswoman Carolyn Justice-Hinson said the county and the PWC are negotiating a bulk water agreement that in time should get public water to most of the affected homes in the Gray’s Creek area. The county had been negotiating with Chemours to help with the costs, but those negotiations broke down and the county is now considering a legal remedy, deViere said.
Sally Shutt, an assistant county manager, said that under a bulk water agreement, the county would buy water from the PWC from a water system to serve the affected community, which includes much of Gray’s Creek.
Shutt said engineering work has been completed to get public water to the two elementary schools. She described that work, which is estimated to cost $3 million, as phase 1. The bulk water agreement has to be signed before actual construction can begin, she said. The next phase would be to hook up affected homes in the area to public water lines.
DeViere said the county has allocated $20 million to the projects – including $10 million from the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan – but much more will be needed. Shutt said the cost of a water system for Gray’s Creek was estimated at $64 million in 2020.
DeViere frustrated by state inaction
“At the state level,” deViere said in an email, “I remain frustrated and believe we can do more especially for the immediate need of clean water for contaminated houses.”
State Rep. John Szoka, a Republican from Cumberland County, expressed frustration, too. Szoka said the key is to extend public water to the affected homes, but Chemours has been unwilling to pay for those costs.
“We still have people out there who live in uncertainty of the quality of their health, basically, and the speed at which things are getting fixed,” Szoka said. “I’m not satisfied at all.”
But Szoka said it’s a local issue.
“Providing water lines to communities is not specifically a state responsibility, because if it was we’d be funding water systems all across the state,” he said.
DeViere said progress is being made in other areas, noting that the last state budget allocated $30 million toward PFAS issues, as well as “increased staff levels at DEQ for an “Emerging Compounds Unit,” devoted to mapping and determining the sources of PFAS and 1,4-Dioxane in waterways.’ ”
The EPA has classified 1,4 dioxane as a probable carcinogen. The chemical has been detected sporadically in Fayetteville’s drinking water. The sources for the contamination include industries that discharge their waste into municipal wastewater treatment systems that cannot filter it out. Greensboro is under a DEQ special order by consent to significantly lower the levels of 1,4 dioxane that leaves its treatment plant.
The PWC announced in December that it and other parties had negotiated a settlement agreement that will impose even lower limits on the levels of Greensboro’s 1,4 dioxane leaving its plant, sharper penalties for noncompliance and increased sampling and pollution-control requirements.
High concentrations of 1,4-dioxane leaving the Greensboro plant were detected on June 30 and Nov. 3. The contamination flows into the Haw River, where Pittsboro gets its drinking water, and then into the Cape Fear River, where Fayetteville and other cities get their water.