By Greg Barnes
John Sweitzer lives in a comfortable home surrounded by towering pines and more than two acres of privacy in northeastern Cumberland County, a world away – he thought – from the contamination caused by the Chemours Fayetteville Works plant.
But in early January, a brother-in-law who lives next door decided to have his well tested. The results came back positive for a potentially carcinogenic per-and polyfluoroalkyl substance known in the chemical world as PMPA.
State environmental regulators believe there is only one place the so-called forever chemical could have come from – Chemours – which is about 25 miles from Sweitzer’s home between the towns of Wade and Falcon.
That’s a whopping seven miles farther from the chemical plant than the previously known border of the contamination, which had been off Baywood Road between Vander and Eastover.
Since mid-February, more than 6,200 private wells in Cumberland, Robeson and Sampson counties have been found to contain GenX, PMPA and other forever chemicals, collectively known as PFAS.
How the contamination got here
After his brother-in-law received his test results, Sweitzer decided to have his own well tested. He called a number that connected him with a third-party testing outfit contracted by Chemours.
Sweitzer said his test results came back last week showing his well contained PMPA at 300 parts per trillion – five times higher than what was found in his brother-in-law’s well. Several of Sweitzer’s neighbors have had their wells tested, and “a few” have come back positive, said Lisa Randall, a Chemours spokeswoman.
The Environmental Working Group, a national nonprofit organization based in Washington, says “PMPA and other perfluorinated chemicals can cause serious health effects, including cancer, endocrine disruption, accelerated puberty, liver and immune system damage, and thyroid changes.”
But Jamie DeWitt, a toxicologist at East Carolina University and a national leader in PFAS research, said it’s too early to say what effects PMPA has on humans. Research is continuing, she said.
Detlef Knappe, a researcher at N.C. State University whose team found GenX in the Cape Fear River in 2016, called PMPA a “byproduct that forms from air emissions associated with Chemours’ vinyl ether process.” That process is used to make the building blocks for fluoropolymers, Knappe said.
Fluoropolymers are a family of plastic resins. Their many uses include wire coatings because of their unmatched ability to resist temperatures. DuPont had been using its vinyl ether process at the Fayetteville Works plant since at least the early 1980s. Chemours spun off from DuPont in 2015.
Until recently, DuPont and later Chemours were releasing GenX, PMPA and many other PFAS through their vent stacks. The chemicals drifted with the wind and fell with the rain, eventually soaking into the soil and the groundwater miles from the plant.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate PFAS, though it is expected this spring to make a health advisory level for GenX, one of the more prevalent compounds in the Cape River River basin. The EPA’s advisory is expected to be set vastly lower than the 140 parts per trillion used in North Carolina. That could trigger Chemours to have to provide replacement water or filtration systems to scores of additional private well owners in the basin.
Sweitzer warns his neighbors
Because of Sweitzer and his brother-in-law, it is now known that the PFAS from Chemours drifted at least 25 miles from the plant. The air emissions have all but stopped now, after Chemours spent $100 million on a thermal oxidizer that began operating in early 2020. The company says the new equipment destroys 99.9 percent of the plant’s PFAS air emissions.
But that provides little comfort to Sweitzer and the thousands of others whose wells have been contaminated. Sweitzer is determined to get people to have their wells tested.
While learning that his well tested positive, Sweitzer said, a Chemours representative delivered bottled water to his home. Sweitzer said the representative also gave him printed information that he took to his neighbors.
“I got some of those door hangers from that cat today and took them straight across from me, across the field,” Sweitzer said. “There’s three houses back there and I went to talk to them. They had no idea.”
Those are just three of the hundreds of homes on well water in that seven-mile gap between Sweitzer’s home and the previously known border of the contamination.
A “good neighbor” would warn residents
Under a 2019 consent order filed against Chemours by the Department of Environmental Quality and Cape Fear River Watch, Chemours has to test out another quarter of a mile every time a well is found to be contaminated. Among many other requirements, the consent order also makes Chemours provide bottled water or filtration systems to homes with contaminated wells, or to be hooked up to public water.
But the consent order doesn’t specify what obligation Chemours is under to timely notify people living in the seven-mile gap that their wells could be contaminated. Spokeswomen for the DEQ and Chemours cited only the requirements specified in the consent order that requires the company to test out a quarter of a mile whenever a contaminated well is found.
Randall, the Chemours’ spokeswoman, said the company follows procedures specified in a drinking water plan to notify residents and provide them information on how to get their wells tested.
Geoff Gisler, a lawyer for the Southern Environmental Law Center, and Dana Sargent, head of Cape Fear River Watch, said Chemours should notify residents in the entire contamination zone.
“Any good neighbor would of course let their neighbors know if it was possible their drinking water was toxic,” Sargent said. “They should be informing everyone in the entire basin, regardless of what is required under the consent order, and actively reaching out to sample all public and private wells and providing clean drinking water while the samples are being analyzed; that’s the least any good neighbor would do.”
The order requires Chemours to provide replacement drinking water to people with affected wells within six months from the time the company becomes aware that a well has been contaminated. The company typically has provided free bottled water to people shortly after their test results come back positive.
Sweitzer said Chemours responded promptly when the PMPA was found in his well. He said the company quickly provided him with bottled water and a credit card with a $225 limit.
Sweitzer said he was also offered the opportunity to hook into a public water line that runs along his street. He said he will have to pay a $2,400 tap fee and pay to extend part of the line to his home because it sits well away from the public water main. He said he may have to replace his water heater because contamination could have gotten trapped inside of it. He will also have to pay a monthly water bill.
Sweitzer has lived in his home for 20 years. He said he and his wife have no known health effects from the water, which they did not use for drinking, but an outside dog died mysteriously.
“Luckily I’m not destitute,” Sweitzer said, adding that he wonders what poor people with the same problems are left to do.
Many of the people in Sweitzer’s predicament have joined class-action lawsuits against Chemours.
Another recently discovered contamination area
Previous to the discovery of contamination in Sweitzer’s well, the farthest known well contamination was believed to be in an area off Pleasant View Road, between Rock Hill Road and Baywood Road, and in the Bayfield subdivision off Baywood Road. The areas are basically side by side between Eastover and Vander.
Tal Baggett, head of the Eastover Sanitary District, said 338 homes in those areas could benefit from public water lines. The problem, he said, is money. He estimated that it would cost $3 million to run the district’s water lines to the areas.
Baggett said he has talked to members of the county’s Board of Commissioners and was told that the county did not have enough American Rescue Plan money to help offset the costs. The county has designated $10 million in ARP money – and $10 million of its own – to fund a bulk water system for the Gray’s Creek area.
Cumberland County tried to get Chemours to pay at least some of the bulk water system’s costs. When those efforts failed, the county retained an out-of-state law firm that specializes in contamination issues to fight Chemours. The water system is expected to cost at least $64 million.
The Eastover Sanitary District serves an area bordered by Murphy, Dunn and Maxwell roads. Baggett estimates that hundreds of homes in that area don’t have public water, either by choice or because of distance to main water lines. The district buys its water from Dunn in Harnett County.
The towns of Wade, Godwin and Falcon have their own water systems, Baggett said. Everyone else in the area gets water from the Eastover Sanitary District or has a private well.
“It’s just very expensive to get water lines in sparsely populated areas,” Baggett said. “You’ve got to run a mile of line just to pick up a few houses. Nobody can do that and make any money doing it, of course, even to pay back a loan. You’ve got to have some help.”
But, other than what is specified in the court order, help from Chemours has not been forthcoming.
“Chemours certainly has to step up to the plate and be responsible,” Baggett said.
Instead, many residents in rural areas of the county continue to be saddled with contaminated well water, including some who buy new houses not knowing that the problem even exists.
The Gray’s Creek area, where the heaviest well contamination lies, is exploding with new home construction.
Bulk water for Gray’s Creek
Last week, the Gray’s Creek Committee of the Board of Commissioners received an update on a proposed bulk water agreement with the Fayetteville Public Works Commission. The news was not good. An engineering firm said it would require 3 million gallons of water a day for the system. The PWC has said it would cap out at 1.2 million gallons a day. Negotiations are continuing.
Meanwhile, the state’s environmental regulators continue to lock horns with Chemours. On March 2, the DEQ directed Chemours to expand the scope and detail of its proposed interim sampling and drinking water plan for New Hanover, Brunswick, Columbus and Pender counties.
“The interim plan is insufficient and does not include the necessary steps to adequately determine the extent of Chemours’ contamination in the downstream communities,” DEQ Secretary Elizabeth S. Biser said in a statement. “Chemours must contact residents directly, sample more wells and proceed more quickly to address contaminated drinking water.”
Although much remains unknown about the health effects of PFAS, the compounds are ubiquitous in everyday life. Multiple household products contain PFAS, including microwave popcorn bags and other food packaging, stain- and rain-resistant clothing, cosmetics and dental floss. Some U.S. companies have begun to ban PFAS from products.
Studies have found a link between some types of PFAS and kidney, prostate and testicular cancers, low-birth weight and high cholesterol. PFAS are called forever chemicals because most of the more than 5,000 compounds in the family of chemicals don’t break down easily.
People can call 910-678-1101 to ask that their wells be tested.