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NEW NAME, SAME RIVER: Cape Fear Public Utility Authority announces re-brand to Cape Fear Water

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Cape Fear Water’s new slogan bills the utility as “a water provider that people trust.” But, really, it almost doesn’t matter whether we trust Cape Fear Water or not.

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The river we now call “Cape Fear” originally was known as the Sapona—a lyrical name given by our area’s natives. When the Spanish explorer Giovanni de Verrazzano sighted it 492 years ago, he called it “Rio Jordan.” In 1662 English explorer William Hilton Jr. referred to it as “Charles,” after England’s king at the time. Then it was called “Clarendon,” until around 1733, when it took its current moniker, named after the deadly shoals lurking just offshore of its mouth.

Long before we had words to reference the main vein of our port city, Cape Fear meandered and shifted—“changing its habitat bodily,” as Twain put it. It has closed-off old oxbows, like the one a mile up from Point Peter, and opened new ones. But it has never stopped being itself. Call it whatever, but it always has been the same river—a rose by any other name, per the Bard of Avalon.

Now, the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA), which brings the river into our homes, has decided it is time for a similar action. At the January executive committee meeting and subsequent board meeting of the CFPUA, Executive Director Jim Flechtner discussed the topic of rebranding the utility to “Cape Fear Water.” The change, according to CFPUA Chief Communications Officer Peg Hall-Williams, would consist of a new name and internal changes in the organizational culture. “Branding is much more than a new logo,” she noted. “It is an organizational philosophy that unfolds with time.”

With CFPUA celebrating its 10-year anniversary in 2018, it “makes sense” to rebrand now, according to the utility. “It is a window of time that allows us to look back on our history and look forward to the future,” Hall-Williams explained. “With minimal costs associated with the rebrand, you will find our biggest investment is going to be in time. We are investing the time to become true partners, to listen to customers and respond to their changing needs.”

CFPUA is still in the process of reviewing and calculating costs, but the utility expects to implement the new brand by July 1, 2018. The decision to rebrand comes in the midst of frenzied GenX panic, that, since last summer, subsided somewhat into a steady dull ache. The toxic story (and the toxins themselves) continue to develop and burrow ever deeper into our community like a sick and twisted taproot. With the Sweeney Plant still unable to remove all of the contaminants from the water (although the concentration of GenX in the past few months of water samples have all been below the state’s health goal of 140 part per trillion), some wonder if the money spent on rebranding might not be better spent elsewhere. encore asked the utility to release a dollar amount so we might have a better understanding of what “minimal costs” meant; the utility was kind enough to cooperate.

So far they have bought two web domains for $258, and will have to file “doing business as” papers with four counties at $26 per county—or $104 total. The new logo for Cape Fear Water will be designed in-house, and once they have it, they’re planning to spend $96.80 on five new vinyl signs and $1,563.10 on magnets for the fleet of 140 trucks, at $11.17 apiece. Hall-Williams says the numbers are estimates, but they have not committed to using any of them. Overall, costs should be under $2,500.

They also sent numbers on how much the entire GenX nightmare has cost. As of press, CFPUA has spent $1,163,615.30 on expenditures related to GenX since last June, of which $978,615.30 has been footed by its consumers, the ratepayers. To fulfill all of its contracts, the utility still owes $930,700.74, which brings the total cost of this mess (so far) up to $1,773,816.04. Nominal relief was found at the end of last August in the passage of State House Bill 56, which provided the utility $185,000 for “identification and deployment of water treatment technology to remove GenX from the public water supply” and “ongoing monitoring.”

The biggest expense for the utility, $530,200, has been in contracting Black & Veatch—the Kansas-based engineering firm which initially designed the Sweeney Water Plant—to provide “engineering support services for emerging contaminants treatment studies.” $100,000 of it came from our state government. Black & Veatch have been providing monthly progress updates, available on the CFPUA website, which show details and results of the ongoing tests, using granular activated carbon filters and ion exchange resins to remove PFASes from the water. The reports continue to show “gradual breakthrough of total organic carbon and perfluoroalkyl substances, led by shorter chain per- and polyfluorinated compounds.”

In layperson’s terms, the very expensive new filters aren’t effective, especially on short-chain molecules like GenX. In fact, of the 28 chemicals currently being tested, 13 (including GenX) exhibited a “greater than 100 percent breakthrough.” The filters are releasing more of the previously absorbed short-chain chemicals back into the effluent, as new chemicals continue to filter in the water. It’s worth remembering, however, CFPUA is one of the first utilities in the U.S. to attempt targeting and removing the compounds from the water, so there’s bound to be teething pains.

Other major expenses incurred by the utility include $320,091 to state utility contractors for “bypass pumping and related services for ASR water removal,” which refers to the drainage of the storage aquifer last year.

CFPUA has racked up $276,705 in legal fees to Brooks, Pierce, McLendon, Humphrey, & Leonard LLP in their case against Chemours and DuPont. Another $65,344.13 was spent hiring Eckel & Vaughan, a public-relations firm, to do damage control after the news broke in June.

(Interestingly, an NC Policy Watch article from September says Eckel & Vaughan have worked in the past as spin doctors for the American Chemistry Council, of which DuPont and Chemours are both members. Also, the brother of Albert Eckel, Brian, works at Cape Fear Commercial Real Estate with CFPUA Board Chairman Mike Brown. When asked by encore, Hall-Williams stated the PR firm was not involved in the decision to rebrand “in any way.”)
On laboratory testing of collected water samples, the utility has spent $250,760 split between Eurofins Eaton Analytical, Pace Analytical, and GE Laboratories—with most of it ($160,260) going to Eurofins. UNCW has received $64,607.88 from the utility for source water testing, all of which came from state funding.

Talk about boosting the local economy.

We learned at the end of last month another spike in concentration was discovered in the Department of Environmental Quality sample of the river, which was taken December 11. It clocked in at a whopping 2,300 ppt, or nearly three and a half times the amount, which caused the initial outcry.

Chemours, to my knowledge, has not spent a single red cent or a wooden nickel to clean up the mess they made—and more so has been nothing but shady in every regard. Threats by the DEQ to revoke their permit have fallen on deaf ears, and it almost seems nothing short of a mob, equipped with torches, pitchforks, and enough dental floss to string up Mark Vergnano by his toenails from the lamppost at Market and Front, will get them to change their behavior.
No matter how brightly the brand of utility glitters, the CFPUA still sucks water from the same tube in the same river. They’re trying their best to make it clean—we have to give them that—but they can only filter what comes to them through that tube.

Cape Fear Water’s new slogan bills the utility as “a water provider that people trust.” But, really, it almost doesn’t matter whether we trust Cape Fear Water or not. The real question is: Do we trust the waters of the Cape Fear, with Chemours still upstream?

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