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Special Report: Three Years Of GenX, PFAS And Chemours

The Cape Fear River as it flows through Wilmington.
Nick Santillo for WHQR
The Cape Fear River as it flows through Wilmington.

It was three years ago this weekend that the story broke...there are chemical contaminants in the Cape Fear that are also in our drinking water.  WHQR’s Vince Winkel has been following the story from the beginning.  He looks back over what’s happened...and where we are today.

Three years.

Three years of learning about the water of the Cape Fear River.

1,095 days of forums, protests, meetings, debates, lectures, denials, consent orders, lawsuits... 

(2017 newscast montage)

And three years of learning some new vocabulary.

GenX. Perfluorinated compounds. PFAS. Chemours. 

And what we’ve learned hasn’t made anyone happy.

(“Shame Shame Shame”)

Larry Cahoon is a biology professor at UNCW. He’s been helping educate the public on the chemicals in the water since the story broke. 

“I'm not a hundred percent surprised, I knew this was going to be a long story. I didn't, I had no idea how it would play out. You know in the rush of headlines and revelations coming out to the public and the, you know, the fumbling response from various players. It was clear that there was a big story here and it was clear given the nature of the PFAS compounds, you know, they don't go away. So they're going to be with us a long time.”

As we sat on the Riverwalk, looking out over the river, I asked Cahoon if the river will ever again be clean.

“I shouldn't laugh. With regard to PFAS, it's going to take quite a while because those compounds don't break down in nature, not that we know of. And they were strewn all over the landscape, not just in the water but through the air and they're all over the ground from deposition and rainfall and so forth. And so the whole watershed and air shed, have been contaminated for decades. The question then becomes, are the levels going to go down to what we think would be safe? And that's still an open question. We're many years away from understanding that fully.”

(Teflon Commercial)

This story starts a long time ago. Teflon was an accident.

It's scientific name is polytetrafluoroethylene.

(Dupont newsreel)

In 1938, a young chemist named Roy Plunkett had been working at Dupont for two years. He was 27 years old.

Plunkett was trying to invent a new type of freon, a class of compounds that in those days were very useful as the principal gases in refrigerators and air conditioners. He ended up with Teflon.

Teflon would also become a virtually indispensable part of everything from space capsules to heart valves to frying pans. 

GenX has been used since 2009 in the production of Teflon. The chemical also is a byproduct of the production of other Chemours products.

Three years ago, we learned we were drinking GenX and a lot of other compounds, collectively referred to as PFAS. 

A lot has happened since then.

Vaughn Hagerty is the Public Information Office for Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, or CFPUA. Three years ago, he was the journalist that broke the story for the StarNews in Wilmington.

“I mean honestly I would say that, I thought it was a big story. That's why I spent so much time on that first story, researching it and why I spent so much time even after that following it. I have to say that the thing that I was most surprised at is how quickly and forcefully this community rallied around that issue and demanded that something be done to fix it. That's the thing that surprised me. And once I saw that, I think that's when I changed my viewpoint of how long I thought the story would last.”

Emily Donovan has tracked the story from the beginning. She co-founded Clean Cape Fear, and has testified in Washington on PFAS contamination.

“So I think for Clean Cape Fear, what we've seen over the last three years, you know, I've testified before Congress twice. I testified in the first-ever Congressional hearing on PFAS in the nation. So I think that those are big wins. I attended the premiere of, a Hollywood version of the Parkersburg, West Virginia story – Dark Waters - and participated in a Washington Post panel discussion with lawyer Rob Bilott and actor Mark Ruffalo and was able to elevate our community to that level. Those are big wins to get our community on a map because I remember three years ago, that's what we desperately needed.”

Donovan has two young children. She buys her water at the store.

“It's still no way to live. And I think that's where we see the frustration. That's where I personally feel the frustration as well as know this. We shouldn't have to live this way. We shouldn't have to buy home filters. We should be able to drink the water that we're already paying for. We shouldn't have to, you know,  families living near the Chemours facilities should not be afraid to grow vegetables and should not be afraid to swim in their swimming pools, do their laundry, or try and figure out how to manage their property value. And these are, these are things that are fundamentally unfair. Absolutely.”

Cape Fear River Keeper Kemp Burdette reminds the public, these compounds are going nowhere.

“They're forever chemicals, they're always going to be in our environment. They have really clear health impacts – they’re in virtually every human being on the planet. In blood from the North pole to, you know, the Sahara Desert. We know these things are all around us, everywhere and yet we're doing absolutely nothing to regulate them in any real sense at the  federal level which is where it would actually have impact. At the state level we're not doing a much better job of regulating them. We've seen some bills introduced recently, which is encouraging to regulate PFAS compounds. But even now, after what we've seen in the Cape Fear, we still don't have any actual regulations on these compounds. We have recommendations both at the federal level and the state level, but we don't have any real regulatory limits on these compounds that, that have any real teeth.”

Wilmington’s Rep. Deb Butler is working on that. Last month she co-sponsored two bills in Raleigh.

One is an outright ban on PFAS in this state for the manufacturer to discharge in any shape. The other bill seeks to make those who have discharge permits be more forthcoming with what's in those discharge waters. She says she’s trying to make sure that permittees in this state do no harm by disclosing everything in their effluent.

She says it’s hard in this political environment.

“You know, I've learned that in this political environment, everything seems to be political. I never thought environmental contamination would be a political football, but it is never thought that public health crises would be political footballs at, you know. So I think we have a lot of learning to do as a community about how we approach these issues together and it's going to take, I think it's going to take different leadership to do that. I think that our federal leadership has attacked people, not problems. And that's regrettable for sure.”

Meanwhile, because of COVID-19, the Environmental Protection Agency has suspended enforcement of environmental laws, telling companies they won’t have to meet environmental standards during the pandemic.

Last month we learned that Chemours will avoid criminal charges in a Clean Water Act case involving its Fayetteville plant. 

A spokesman for the US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina says the charges were dropped after a grand jury investigation. 

Historically, corporations rarely face criminal charges for  environmental violations. Cape Fear River Keeper Kemp Burdette.

“I honestly wasn't really that surprised that it seems like they've made every effort in every possible area of environmental enforcement to, to cater to industry rather than hold industry accountable. So it didn't surprise me. It was very disappointing, but, not really surprising.”

I reached out to the EPA, Chemours and the state’s Department of Environmental Quality for this story. All chose not to comment. 

For now, the source water in the river does show lower levels of contaminants, and the CFPUA is spending millions of dollars on a new granular activated carbon treatment plant. Construction is underway. It should be complete in 2022. CFPUA Executive Director Jim Flechtner.

“That's about a $43 million project. It's expensive, but given what we didn't know about PFAS and the impacts on our community, we think it makes a lot of sense to add that extra barrier of protection in our drinking water.”

Exposure testing of residents of the Cape Fear Region, and near the plant in Fayetteville, is continuing through North Carolina State University. But exposure tests tell us nothing about the long term health risks. But they help.

Dr. Jane Hoppin is leading to exposure testing effort from her post at North Carolina State University. It started in 2017.

“So, we launched the GenX exposure study almost three years ago. So the GenX exposure study was really designed to answer questions about what was this chemical in our bodies, and just start to start to get that first set of data.”

In March, NC State was awarded a Superfund Research Center grant, which will build on and expand the GenX Exposure Study.

“So this is a five year grant. And so over the five years we would plan to collect, blood samples twice, in year one and year three. And we would analyze those for PFAS. And we'll also focus on the health outcomes related to thyroid disease. Thyroid is an important organ. And it regulates everything from cholesterol to weight. And so we will be looking at how these chemicals may be associated with alterations in thyroid.”

Cape Fear River Keeper Kemp Burdette says the battle continues – through the courts, regulatory agencies, and public opinion.  

“I think we do have a lot of momentum right now, and I think, you know, we are changing this situation. But what we need to do is continue the momentum to make changes on a statewide and nationwide scale.”

For WHQR News, I’m Vince Winkel.

Original music composed and performed by Jeremy Webster

Copyright 2021 WHQR. To see more, visit WHQR.

Vince Winkel joined the WHQR news team in March, 2017. He had previously been covering business and economics for the Greater Wilmington Business Journal.
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