Chemours And DEQ At Odds Over Filters For Homes With Tainted Wells

Aug 10, 2018

Cumberland County resident Mike Watters showing an air quality monitor set up on his property by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.
Credit Rusty Jacobs / WUNC

A chemical manufacturer responsible for contaminating residential wells in Bladen, Cumberland and Robeson counties has offered to install filtration systems in some affected homes. But state regulators say it's too soon to take that step.

The Chemours Company produces GenX, a compound used in making non-stick surfaces. Chemours released GenX into the Cape Fear River for years tainting drinking water downstream in the Wilmington area. Closer to the plant, airborne GenX has settled in residential wells as far as six and a half miles away.

For almost a year, the company has been providing bottled water to the more than 200 homes where GenX levels have exceeded the state's advisory threshold of 140 parts per trillion.

Now, Chemours has offered to install and maintain granular activated carbon – or GAC – filtration systems in those homes based on four months' worth of results from a pilot project on six homes with excessive GenX levels. The company says it will pay for the installation and maintenance of the GAC systems, no strings attached.

"These units work and I want the community and those who are impacted to know they work, they're available," said Brian Long, plant manager at Chemours's Fayetteville Works site, where GenX is produced.

Shed containing a GAC filtration system, one of six set up by Chemours as part of a pilot project.
Credit Rusty Jacobs / WUNC

Long said the GAC systems effectively remove compounds like GenX and other per- and poly-fluoroalkyl chemicals in the emerging class known as PFAS.

Long also said Chemours sees the GAC filters as a long-term solution, especially for people who've been living on bottled water for so long.

"If folks want to get back to, you know, a more normal lifestyle and stop drinking bottled water and get back to their tap water we can install these units in a matter weeks, and believe they're very effective, and believe they're a permanent solution," he said.

But officials with the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality say the jury is still out on GAC.

"These whole-house systems are often an interim solution but the department does not consider them permanent, long-term solutions unless there's a cost-prohibitive component to running a water line or a water line is just not in close proximity to an area," said Michael Scott, director of DEQ's Division of Waste Management.

Scott said DEQ needs a more robust data set to see how often the GAC systems need maintenance and to determine how effective they are at removing not just GenX but other emerging PFAS compounds.

For Mike Watters, that's where the GAC systems fall short.

"GenX, it's filtering it out but not Nafion Byproduct 1 and 2 when it's coming through at a thousand a pop," said Watters, one of the Cumberland County residents whose wells had GenX levels above the state advisory goal.

Watters is not a chemist. He is a former Special Forces soldier who works at the Special Warfare Center and School on Fort Bragg. He is also participating in the GAC pilot project.

Initial testing of his wells, before the GAC pilot started, showed GenX levels around 236 parts per trillion, plus other emerging contaminants.

Watters, a self-appointed watchdog, has scoured the GAC filter test data not only from Chemours samples but also from DEQ and testing done by the law firm representing him and other residents with contaminated water.

Greenhouses set up by Cumberland County resident Mike Watters to grow produce that will be analyzed by a NC State University scientist for the presence of GenX and other PFAS chemicals.
Credit Rusty Jacobs, WUNC

Watters said the pilot data show the presence of many, many more chemicals besides GenX, before and after filtration.

"I used to be worried about 506 parts per trillion combined, I'm 19,432 before filtration, after filtration 10,000 parts per trillion," Watters said.

To be sure, while GenX has been linked to cancer in lab animals, the human health effects are not known and there is no enforceable drinking water standard for GenX and other PFAS chemicals. That's hardly reassuring to people like Watters.

"It's kind of like 'I shoot you with a .22, you're gonna bleed, I shoot you with a .45, you're gonna bleed more'," he said.

Watters and DEQ say the preferable long-term solution for many of these affected homes is to connect them to municipal water lines, though some homes are too far from county facilities to make that feasible.

Chemours, for its part, has sought to douse the enthusiasm for municipal water hook-ups with the release of a feasibility study showing it could take years and prove too costly to connect some homes.

For now, Mike Watters said he will stick with bottled water for drinking and dishwashing.

DEQ plans to present its data on the GAC systems at a public meeting sometime towards the end of this month.

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