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THE POLITICS OF WATER: Erin Brockovich, Bob Bowcock and Jerry Ensminger discuss GenX at forum last week

“One thing about the media: They are truly the watchdogs of our democracy; they are the music that politicians dance to,” Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger told a crowd of 300 or more last week at UNCW’s Lumina Theater during a community forum on GenX (and all PFOCs) contaminating the Cape Fear drinking water. The forum welcomed water warrior Erin Brockovich (most widely known from the 1997 movie made about Hinkley, California’s water crisis, starring Academy Award-winner Julia Roberts) and her current business partner and water treatment expert Bob Bowcock.

WATER PANEL: WECT's Frances Weller moderated the panel on GenX with Erin Brockovich and Bob Bowcock. Photo by Shea Carver

WATER PANEL: WECT’s Frances Weller moderated the panel on GenX with Erin Brockovich and Bob Bowcock. Photo by Shea Carver

Ensminger was their guest of honor—one who is familiar with water toxins all too well, specifically VOCs (volatile organic compounds, like PCE, TCE, DCE, vinyl chloride and BTEX). He has been in a 20-year battle against the Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, which leaked toxic chemicals into the water supply from 1953-1985, all of which cause liver and kidney cancer and ALS. It contributed to the death of Ensminger’s daughter, Janey, who passed away in the ‘80s at age 9 from leukemia. It wasn’t until Ensminger heard about the water contamination in 1997—after his retirement and on a local news station from his Richlands, NC, farm—that he took the fight to DC and the Department of Defense. He is proof, through determination and holding politician’s feet to the fire, change can be made.

“At the end of day, I don’t like politics being involved in clean water,” Brockovich told the audience. “Clean water should not be a Democrat or Republican issue.”

“As much as Erin doesn’t like politics, you’ve gotta take the fight politically because it’s politicians that make the rules,” Ensminger responded. “You have to take it to the state legislator and tell them, ‘Hey, human health and environment are the most important things. Yeah, everybody likes jobs and wants industry to be successful, but, damn, what good is it if you’re killing everybody?’”

Not one of Wilmington’s local politicians attended the forum, hosted by the 10k-member-strong Facebook group, Wilmington’s Stop Gen-X in Our Water Supply. Member Beth Kline-Markesino told encore she reached out to Wilmington’s mayor, county commissioners and state senators, but only representatives for Woody White and Senator Lee responded and sent someone in their stead to attend a closed-door meeting at the government center the day after the Brockovich forum. (Dawn Grants, executive assistant to Mayor Saffo, told encore, “We received [an email invite] late on Friday [Aug. 11] afternoon, at which time the Mayor already had prior commitments on his schedule for Thursday [Aug. 17] morning and therefore, was unable to attend.”)

Brockovich’s utopian idea of keeping politics out of clean drinking water is proving to be just that: idealistic. The reality is, she and Bowcock have traveled and spoken to hundreds of communities nationwide. One clear-cut change came from inspiring a group of everyday angry mothers to be proactive within their own communities—politically.

“In Hannibal, Missouri, we were working on over 200 locations with lead levels higher than Flint,” Brockovich explained. “Also, have you been to DC lately and walked the halls of the Senate building? There are signs everywhere: ‘Don’t drink the water.’ Contaminated with lead.

“Today, right now.

“But we got called into Hannibal with lead levels higher than Flint. . . . We talked to women about holding people accountable, taking action into their own hands, so they ran for city council. They won!”

COMMUNITY CONCERN: Erin Brockovich answers questions from the community after the panel on GenX on Aug. 16 at UNCW. Photo by Shea Carver

COMMUNITY CONCERN: Erin Brockovich answers questions from the community after the panel on GenX on Aug. 16 at UNCW. Photo by Shea Carver

Brockovich and Bowcock travel to cities to educate, inform and arm listeners with information gathered from various water contamination cases nationwide (they had 25 meetings this year just on PFOA and PFOS leaks alone). They attend forums to show what has and hasn’t worked. The ladies from Hannibal not only won their council seats, they made it a law for ammonia to be removed from Hannibal’s drinking water.

Brockovich sticks to the school of common-sense in battling politicians and big industry, including scientists, who frequently point out her lack of education in the field. It doesn’t intimidate the brazen personality.

“I’m never uncomfortable telling you I don’t know,” she says. “We have some [130,000] chemicals in Congress [and are adding 2,000 a month]. We let them out first, they get in the water supply, so all of us are exposed to them, and then the science catches up with policy, 10 or 15 years in, and we have an ‘ol’ crap moment.’ We need to work together on this. Agencies often don’t respond until there is an uprising from you.”

Though Brockovich, Bowcock and Ensminger sympathized with the community’s desire to want answers and, more so, immediate solutions, little of both were given. According to Bowcock, it’s as much about water treatment as it is waste management. Certain “solutions” like reverse osmosis aren’t good enough for the former water utility director. Though the water is 90-something percent clean to drink after going through reverse osmosis, it isn’t disposing of chemicals properly. They find their way back into the environment, since sediment streamed from the water as sludge or waste resin must be dumped somewhere. “Where’s that being applied? Farms upstream? That go right back into our water?” he asked. According to Bowcock, the home systems clog easy, are hard to manage, and aren’t effective at home water pressures around 60, 70 or 80 pounds.

Likewise, he isn’t for reverse osmosis at a water treatment facility either. “I was told it’s going to cost $100 million to retrofit the Sweeny Plant,” he explained. “‘Oh my god,’ I said, ‘just put in carbon; it costs 2 percent of the cost of reverse osmosis.’ Also waste management is still there; PFOCs need to be removed from the environment and destroyed permanently. Reverse osmosis transfers it. The reason we don’t give blanket referrals for home water treatment systems is, if one is on a septic tank, and they’re using it and getting water contaminated by a substance, they concentrate that substance and put it in the septic tank in their front yard.”

He and Brockovich were upset by the home water-treament market 20 years ago after measuring radium and uranium levels in Florida. The found it in drinking water wells at homes that had installed simple salt-ionic exchange water-softening systems. “When they kick into backwash, they were taking in 20 to 25 picocuries per liter low levels of uranium and radium and concentrating it into the 50,000 picocuries per liter and putting it in the septic tank,” Bowcock said. “Where’s the greenest spot in your yard? Leech lines—where the concentrated chemicals are going. Where do you put the swing set? On top of the green grass, where the septic tank is. We lost our lunch. We don’t compare home water drinking systems to community water drinking systems in the same processes.”

Bowcock called the CFPUA one of the most robust water treatment supply plants in the nation. He agrees with the engineering firms CFPUA has contacted about doing granulated activated carbon filtration that goes biologically for total organic carbon reduction for clean drinking water. “Change those out to activated carbon—one of 600 types of manufactured—that is known to take out this particular chain of chemicals successfully and then evaluate it in six months,” he noted. 

Bowcock said it’s a fraction of the cost and more effective. Yet, the real issue remains in the long fight rather than an immediate fix. And that stands against the deregulation of environmental organizations like the DEQ, plus working against “dirty scientists” and companies that control lobbyists in DC.

“Having permits for polluters is like putting up a ‘Do Not Trespass’ sign—they just go over here or over there,” he pointed. “So they want you to test outfall once a week. At 3 p.m. on Tuesday, polluters say, ‘Hey, Joe, make sure you don’t dump at 3 p.m. on Tuesday because I have to take a sample.’ You show me an NPDES permit and I’ll show you a number of polluters in the country who are cheaters. I mean, that’s number one: DuPont has lied to you for the last 50 years, folks. What’s changed?”

Companies like Honeywell International Inc. have had deathly chemicals reduced to “naturally occurring elements,” too, as seen with chromium 6. Honeywell spent tens of millions of dollars to convince politicians it’s naturally occurring and then another 100 million to attack the science. Bowcock asks why? “Because it’s not naturally occurring. Chromium 6 is used in every cooling tower. Driving on this campus today, I think I saw 30.”

The chemical is used in road salt to combat snow and to defoliate cotton fields, as well as in leather tanning, with its waste spread on soybean fields. In essence, we must know the side our politicians lean on, and the lobbyists companies hire, including their scientists.

“A lot of crooked scientists take the other road and go to work for the polluter,” Ensminger told. “The National Academy of Sciences put together a committee for a literature review on Camp Lejeune. When they wrote their report, they had it peer-reviewed, done by a peer-review coordinator. The coordinator for the study of the largest pollutant, TCE, was none other than Dr. George Rush, who had worked for Honeywell for more than 30 years. The company is in second place with the Department of Defense of having the most sites in America containing TCE. Watch who your officials assign this stuff to, and check out their background closely.”

For Ensminger, the fight led to a bitter-sweet win. In 2012 President Barack Obama signed H.R.1742, known as the Janey Ensminger Act, which provides healthcare to family members of veterans who resided on the base in Jacksonville, NC, while the water was toxic.

Currently, Governor Cooper is attempting to get $2.5 million in emergency funds to review the cocktail of compounds found in the Cape Fear. He is being met with resistance from Senators Lee and Rabon, who want to have hearings on why the governor wants to launch a criminal investigation into Chemours (the offshoot company of DuPont, dumping GenX) and how the funding would be used.

“I know Erin and Bob don’t want to put pressure on local politicians,” Ensminger said. “So I will: You need to have the guts to face your constituents with a problem you should be working with them to resolve.” 

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