By Will Atwater
Six years after the discovery of PFAS chemicals in the Cape Fear River, area residents are still trying to figure out what that means for them and their families.
“The further I look into the products that these PFAS are going into … it’s not stuff that we had even 50 years ago—or needed,” Ty Jacobus said. “I’m trying to figure out now why the application is so necessary that we can’t cease producing the products.”
Jacobus, a landowner with a private well, was one of about 40 people who recently gathered on an unseasonably warm day in an open field near downtown Wilmington. They were seeking answers to questions about PFAS, among other things, at the second annual Ecology Event organized by the Sokoto House, a community advocacy group.
The group included community organizations, residents, researchers, activists and legal experts who came to discuss and answer questions about PFAS contamination in the public water supply and private drinking wells and to explore options, including political ones, available to address the contamination in their water and their bodies.
The goals of the organizations and activists were to, in part, increase residents’ participation in the GenX Exposure Study and provide voters with information for the upcoming elections. They also sought to answer questions about how to qualify for an in-home water filtration system or a municipal water hookup paid for by Chemours chemical company under a 2019 consent order.
The order required Chemours to, among other things, develop and execute a PFAS remediation plan for contaminated air, soil and water for the affected lower Cape Fear River Basin communities. PFAS are often known as “forever chemicals” because of their persistence in the environment.
“Our collective commitment is to enhance the well-being and quality of life for the individuals we serve,” said Vance Williams, operations director for Sokoto House.
PFAS: a short history
There are roughly 15,000 to 20,000 unique per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS) in the environment, according to experts. PFAS are present in multiple products on the market, including some cosmetics and apparel, microwave popcorn wrappers, tooth floss, firefighting turnout gear and some firefighting foams, among other items.
The two most extensively produced and studied families of compounds, PFOA and PFOS, have had new manufacturing and use phased out in the U.S., but because they don’t break down easily, they can continue accumulating in the environment and in the human body. GenX is a type of PFAS used in Teflon production and was manufactured by Chemours at its Fayetteville Works facility.
There is evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse human health effects, such as weaker antibody responses against infections in adults and children, elevated cholesterol levels, decreased fetal and infant growth and kidney cancer in adults, among other problems.
Cape Fear River Watch, an environmental advocacy group, sued Chemours in 2018 for discharging the chemical GenX into the Cape Fear River. The action led to the consent order between Cape Fear River Watch, Chemours and the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.
PFAS contamination in the Cape Fear – a timeline
2017: Wilmington’s StarNews reported that the local municipal water supply was contaminated by GenX, a class of PFAS manufactured by Chemours at the company’s Fayetteville Works facility. A year later, Cape Fear River Watch, a nonprofit environmental organization based in Wilmington, sued N.C. Department of Environmental Quality and Chemours to force the chemical company to stop discharging contaminated water into the Cape Fear River.
2017/2018: N.C. State University researchers launched a PFAS exposure study. Researchers collected and analyzed 344 blood samples from Wilmington residents.
2019: Chemours, N.C. DEQ and Cape Fear River Watch signed a consent order, which required Chemours to, among other things, develop and execute a PFAS remediation plan for contaminated air, soil and water for the lower Cape Fear River Basin communities that were affected. This area includes New Hanover, Brunswick, Columbus and Pender counties.
2020: PFAS Exposure study was extended to include Pittsboro and Fayetteville residents, who also receive drinking water from the Cape Fear River.
2022: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set a drinking water health advisory for GenX compounds at 10 parts per trillion.
2023: A U.S. district judge certified two class-action suits that include water utility customers and private well water owners who live near the Chemours Fayetteville Works facility.
The EPA grants Chemours permission to import up to 4 million pounds of PFAS waste from the Netherlands to its Fayetteville Works facility.
Researchers discover 11 previously unknown PFAS compounds in the Cape Fear River.
‘Here’s the problem’
The consent order provides relief options for those who live within the affected region — New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties, such as joining the GenX Exposure Study, which was developed in 2017 to measure PFAS levels in humans and their effects over a 20-year period.
“The goal of the project has been to understand exposure — what’s in the water and what’s in people’s bodies,” said Katy May, N.C. State University communications director for the Center for Human Health and the Environment.
May also said that when it comes to participating in the study, more is better.
“[We want to] get enough people enrolled that [we] can make competent scientific statements about how exposure to certain PFAS might lead to certain health outcomes.”
This goal was also emphasized by Veronica Carter, an African American community advocate, who joined the study and is encouraging other minorities to join.
“Our people don’t do studies well,” she said. “I understand why, because history has not been kind to us, right? We always immediately [think] back to Tuskegee, right? This is not Tuskegee. [Researchers are] trying to figure out what’s in our system, and is it causing a problem.”
“Right now, the lead scientist, Dr. Jane Hopin, is trying to figure out if there’s a difference between people of color and people not of color— are the numbers different?”
Carter is alluding to the 1932 U.S. Public Health Service Untreated Syphilis Study at Tuskegee University. The study subjects consisted of 600 Black men — more than half of the men were infected, and researchers lied to the participants about what they were being exposed to. Years later, penicillin became the primary treatment for the disease. However, the men in the study did not receive penicillin, and many suffered unnecessarily.
Unpacking the consent order
The Lower Cape Fear region continues to welcome new residents. New Hanover County’s population, for instance, has grown by 12.7 percent since 2010, outpacing state and national growth rate averages during the same period.
Aside from learning about the medical study, many people who live in the counties under the consent order have questions about whether they qualify for in-home water filtration systems, free well-water testing, a free hookup to municipal water and having their water bill paid by Chemours for the next 20 years.
Barabara and Rufus Fuller, who recently moved from Virginia and purchased a new home in Hope Mill, North Carolina, roughly 13 miles south of the Chemours Fayetteville Works facility, didn’t find out about PFAS contamination and the consent order until they were signing papers during the closing process, Barbara Fuller said.
“[The sellers] really didn’t go over [the details] too much. It was like, ‘Hey, if you want your water tested, you can get it tested and [Chemours] will pay for it.’”
Under the consent order, Chemours is required to carry out specific tasks, such as drinking water well testing, for people who live near the site.
That includes extending testing to one-quarter mile beyond the closest well that has PFAS levels above 10 parts per trillion and annually retesting any wells that were sampled. Additionally, Chemours is responsible for providing clean drinking water options to those who have wells contaminated with GenX compounds above 10 ppt.
At that threshold, homeowners can connect to the municipal water supply, if feasible, and receive filtration systems installed at bathroom and kitchen sinks. Chemours is required to either pay the water bill or maintain the filtration system for a minimum of 20 years, or until PFAS levels fall below a safety threshold.
In addition to understanding the consent order details, Mike Watters, founder of Grays Creek Residents United Against PFAS in Our Wells and Rivers, said it’s equally important to know the details laid out in a compliance plan reached for Chemours and four counties in the lower Cape Fear basin.
This is an important decision for well water users who qualify — whether to accept the filtration systems or to join the municipal water supply. Failure to follow steps laid out in the consent order could disqualify homeowners from having Chemours pick up the tab for either the in-home filtration system or the municipal water hookup and monthly fees, Watters said.
“There are multiple people falling through the cracks of this consent order program,” said Dana Sargent, executive director of Cape Fear River Watch, the organization whose lawsuit against Chemours established the order.
“It was written in 2019, and it’s failing too many people. Our request is to force N.C. DEQ to force Chemours to put everybody on well water on a whole house filtration or municipal hookup,” Sargent said. “Nobody should be dealing with under-sink systems that don’t cover their gardens, that don’t cover their bath, that don’t cover their dishwashers.”
For those living in the Wilmington area who are interested in joining the GenX Exposure Study, there will be an event at Warner AME Zion Church, 620 Nixon St. in Wilmington on Friday, Nov. 17, from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday, Nov. 18, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. The Navassa Community Center will also host the study on Sunday, Nov. 19, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, call 855-854-2641 or access information online at https://genxstudy.ncsu.edu/.
Also, on Nov. 18, there will be a protest rally at the Chemours Fayetteville Works facility in Fayetteville to protest the import of GenX waste from the Netherlands. The event is scheduled from noon to 3 p.m. and sponsored by North Carolina Stop GenX in Our Water, an environmental advocacy group.
Brett Land, an attorney representing the law firm Baron and Budd, told the Ecology Event audience that when considering a lawsuit, they need to understand the difference between what remedies are available under a class-action suit and under an individual lawsuit.
“I think the primary message that people in the area need to have is if they own a private well, and they want to recover for loss of property value, then they do need to file a lawsuit” instead of joining a class action.
Last month, a federal judge granted a class-action lawsuit against E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co. and Chemours to proceed. That suit seeks damages for private well owners and municipal water utility customers living near the Chemours Fayetteville Works facility, who claim the company knowingly polluted the Cape Fear River with PFAS for decades.
In addition to encouraging people to vote for political candidates who will address their environmental concerns, Emily Donovan, director of Clean Cape Fear, a grassroots community action group, put a fine point on why it was important for people to attend the Ecology Event instead of exploring more leisurely activities on a summer-like autumn day.
“We are within walking distance of the largest river system in the state, and we are miles from the ocean. There is natural beauty all around us. We, ourselves, are beautiful. This place is beautiful. We are worth protecting, and so is this region.”