Last Wednesday night, as the sun tracked west over the waters of the Cape Fear River, the Coastline Convention Center filled with nearly 400 people. We were there to watch and hear a panel of six discuss the GenX water crisis currently enveloping Wilmington. We had come for answers, as private citizens and parents, as humans for whom clean drinking water is a necessity—not a privilege. We hoped for the dawn of truth at that day’s dusk; we were tired of living in confusion and dark fear. The six panelists had been assembled by the Cape Fear River Watch, as former mayor Harper Peterson moderated the discussion. “We are in the 18th day of this,” he began, “and there has not been a lot of dialogue between the citizens and the government.”
The panel intended to give citizens direct interaction with experts. Peterson also announced the launch of a new website to keep citizens informed: www.cleancapefear.com.
On the night before, I stood in the high-ceiling chambers of Wilmington’s City Hall, as red-clad people held signs in protest of being poisoned by Chemours/DuPont. I watched members of our community step up to the podium and pour their hearts and minds in appeal to Wilmington City Council to do something about the clean up of our water. Peterson may have been right, but that night was an exception: Council passed a unanimous resolution calling on Chemours to immediately stop discharge of GenX into the Cape Fear (read previous page for full story).
Funny enough, mere hours before the council meeting, Chemours announced they would cease discharge. A cause for joy, yes, but the announcement was ambiguously worded, suspiciously timed, and only raised more questions: If it were that easy, why not do it sooner? What about the other chemicals in the water? Did Chemours do this to reduce the chemical’s levels in the samples currently being taken around their discharge pipe by the NCDEQ?
Back to Wednesday…
The microphone sent attorney John Green’s voice reverberating throughout the packed room. Green, who has been practicing law in Wilmington for 21 years, said he had studied a similar case against DuPont in the Ohio River Valley, wherein they dumped C8 into the water; the full picture of what happened up there was only exposed through litigation ($671 million are to be paid out to over 3,000 affected citizens, as determined in February 2017). As an unregulated chemical, he said, GenX is subject to very little oversight by regulatory agencies.
“My suspicion is it’s very much in [the company’s] interest to keep it unregulated,” he said. “So the best answer that we can get when we ask, ‘What is this chemical doing to our body?’ is ‘We don’t know.’ To me, that is a tremendously unacceptable answer.”
Green, his wife, and their young son have been drinking tap water for years. They used it to mix baby formula, and given the chemical’s biopersistence, it is likely his son “has not [yet] lived long enough to [filter out] what was put into his body as a child.”
Suzanne Brander, associate professor of environmental endocrinology at UNCW, studies the effects of chemicals that interfere with hormone function. She found out about GenX contamination at the same time as everyone else. She talked on the panel about her concern both as a toxicologist and parent. There is little data on what concentration of GenX in drinking water is safe, she stresses; the limited research indicates it is “probably just as toxic and persistent as [its predecessor,] C8.” The figure posted by the NC Department of Health and Human Services put “safe level” of GenX at 70,909 nanograms per liter of water, which, she says, isn’t parallel to the EPA figure of 70 ng/L.
“Internationally,” Brander noted, “the level for exposure to all PF compounds (in Sweden, for example) is 90 ng/L. . . . The issue of contamination by these PF compounds has become a global concern.
She cited a recent paper by director of the National Institute of Health, toxicologist Linda Birnbaum. Because the chemicals are produced by companies like Chemours, and there’s not a lot of support for research by universities or government agencies, most of the testing of its toxicity is done by the companies in-house, which raises questions about objectivity.
Dr. Larry Cahoon, a biological oceanographer from UNCW—who gave an extensive interview to encore in last week’s edition—continued to stress the presence of six other unidentified PF compounds. Some were found at higher levels than GenX.
“There is a cocktail of perfluoronated compounds in the water getting through the treatment system,” Cahoon said. “And I have every expectation that they’re all coming from the same source. . . . When you are drinking the tap water, you are drinking a cocktail of PF compounds. Not just one—a cocktail.”
Larry handed the mike to our Cape Fear Riverkeeper, Kemp Burdette. Burdette hit home what every citizen had been thinking about the situation: about CFPUA and Chemours knowing about the leak and not informing the public until StarNews broke the story two weeks ago.
“There is no job, no return on investment, no profit margin worth poisoning our drinking water supply,” Burdette claimed. “Clean water is a right.”
He especially stressed how poor people or minority communities should not have to purchase bottled water as a result of toxic pollutants from industrial discharge. Chemours is exploiting a legal loophole to continue discharging the chemical—something they can do because they have an army of lawyers, according to Burdette.
“But don’t confuse legality with morality,” he cautioned. “DuPont and Chemours have proven morality and ethics do not guide their actions; rather, they are motivated by profits. Yet another story of polluters over people.”
Why didn’t regulators protect us? It’s a question, once again, everyone has asked and Burdette highlighted. “Government regulation is supposed to be a check on corporate overreach,” he said. In the last four years, the NC General Assembly has cut funding to DEQ by 40 percent. River Watch, he announced, will push for a binding agreement to stop Chemours from discharging GenX into the water supply, and to dig into transparency at CFPUA.
“If the river suffers, we suffer,” he expressed.
Penultimately, Adam Wagner of the Star News spoke about his presence at the closed meeting between Chemours and government officials on June 15 (the only pool reporter allowed in the room, with electronic recording not permitted). While he described the meeting as “civil and cordial,” the revelation that Chemours had been dumping GenX into the water since 1980 was as much news to the people inside the room as out.
“That’s when the tenor changed,” he said.
Dr. David Hill, a bow-tie-wearing pediatrician with Kidz Care Pediatrics, spoke lastly, especially to women of child-bearing age. Quite simply, he warned them against drinking the tap water. The stakes are higher for children than for adults, he said, because kids are growing and developing. The effects on them now have implications down the road.
“I get anxious when I hear the words ‘endocrine disruptor,’” he said. “Kids are products of their environments. They breathe more than us, they drink more. If there is damage to their DNA, that damage propagates.”
The floor opened for questions, which continued to outweigh answers. Thankfully, there were a few more cracks in the darkness. Residents can bathe in the water, Dr. Brander said, since the chemical is not lipophilic enough to absorb through skin. Though, currently, a test won’t detect either presence or absence or the level of GenX in an individual’s body. There is no commercially available drinking water filter to get GenX out, either. To be safe, reverse osmosis or distilled water for drinking and cooking should be purchased. More importantly, Burdette added, we need to stop looking for a magic filter and clean up the source.
Robert Bowcock, an associate of Erin Brockovich who Skyped in from California. He noted since it’s been in our system since 1980, the residuals of it should also be a concern. He warned that GenX can accumulate in Brita filters and hot water heaters, pipes and other filtration systems. He claimed CFPUA could switch to a different carbon filter to clean the chemical from the water. Drs. Cahoon and Brander shook their heads and referred to their notes upon his claim. Bowcock didn’t have the full story, apparently, as Dr. Brander pointed out and referred to something about an ethyl in the molecule chain which doesn’t break down. Bowcock spoke like he was selling something—most of what he said was too technical, had already been said before, or was disputed.
As the story unfolds, encore will continue to further interviews and comprehensive coverage. Even though Chemours claims to have stopped discharge, this is far from over. DEQ currently is conducting on-site sampling at the Fayetteville Works facility, so we’ll know more in coming weeks.
In the meantime, some good news: Review and issuance of a new wastewater discharge permit for Chemours’ Fayetteville Plant, which is required for the facility responsible for the GenX discharge, hasn’t been issued. More so, it won’t be until the state’s investigation is complete, according to our interview with a DEQ public information officer. DEQ also has a new webpage devoted to this topic at www.deq.nc.gov/news/hot-topics/genx-investigation.
How citizens handle this problem on our home turf sets a precedent for the state, nation and world. It’s important not to just tame this one instance of corporate pollution, but the entire infrastructure which allowed it to occur in the first place.