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Public Forum On GenX Leaves Some Residents With More Questions Than Answers

Concerned residents gather during a public forum at the Bladen Community College to discuss GenX on February 1, 2018.
Rusty Jacobs

Bladen County residents like Kellie Hair were not happy when state officials said it would take more time to figure out the health and environmental impact of GenX and other fluorinated compounds released into the atmosphere by Chemours.

Hair was one of around 150 people who attended a public forum in Bladen County this week, seeking answers from state health and environmental quality officials about GenX, the unregulated chemical produced by Chemours that has contaminated drinking water.

We shouldn't have to get bottled water every day of our lives because this is getting crazy. - Kellie Hair

"We shouldn't have to get bottled water every day of our lives because this is getting crazy," Hair told the panel of officials with the state Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Environmental Quality.

Hair and her husband have lived in Bladen County for 17 years just across the road from the Chemours plant at the site known as Fayetteville Works. The Hairs have been living on bottled water for the past couple of months, ever since tests of their well showed levels of GenX above the state's health advisory goal of 140 parts per trillion.

State Epidemiologist Zack Moore told the audience assembled in the auditorium at Bladen Community College that the advisory threshold is a conservative level.

"The health goal is looking at a lifetime of exposure and saying 'What's the level over an entire lifetime of exposure where you wouldn't expect to see any health effects at all?' So that's what that 140 is," Moore explained.

Water testing by Chemours and DEQ in the vicinity of the plant thus far has turned up 150 wells with GenX levels above the state's provisional threshold, which Moore reminded attendees was not an enforceable regulatory level.

And it's not just wells near the plant that have been tainted: drinking water downstream in Wilmington and Brunswick County has been contaminated by GenX and other compounds released by Chemours into the Cape Fear River.

Wilmington resident Harper Peterson, a democrat, also attended Thursday's forum. Peterson's a former mayor and has announced he will challenge incumbent state senator Republican Mike Lee. The GOP-led senate has refused to consider bi-partisan legislation from the House that would appropriate more than $2 million for tightening regulation of emerging contaminants like GenX.

"This is a crisis," Peterson said. "Our public officials, the county commissioners, the representatives, the senators, their primary and first responsibility is the health and safety of every citizen."

DEQ official Michael Scott told the crowd that testing of wells near the plant will continue until  the edge of the contamination area is found.

Chemours has proposed installing carbon filters for well owners to get them off bottled water, a move DEQ has rejected for now, according to Scott.

Credit Rusty Jacobs / WUNC
Michael Scott, Director of NC DEQ's Division of Waste Management, addressing the audience at Thursday's public forum on GenX.

"We will not approve these granular activated carbon systems until we have adequate data showing they're effective," Scott said.

DEQ is also testing soil samples from the Chemours plant site. In December, GenX levels at a pipe from the plant that drains into the Cape Fear River spiked to 2,300 parts per trillion following a rainstorm, even though the company had stopped emitting wastewater from the facility. That suggests GenX in the soil at the site could be a source of groundwater contamination.

State Representative Billy Richardson, a Cumberland County Democrat and attorney, urged people to watch out for themselves.

Credit Rusty Jacobs / WUNC
State Rep. Billy Richardson (D-Cumberland) addressing the audience at Thursday's public forum on GenX.

"If you live near this plant and you have water that's affected by this or you have the potential of being affected by this you best avail yourselves of the God-given constitutional right of the court system to protect yourself," Richardson said.

The Secretaries' Science Advisory Board is studying recently obtained data to determine whether the state's advisory health goal for drinking water is adequate.

The data come from animal tests conducted by Chemours as well as research from Dutch scientists studying the environmental impact of GenX from a Chemours plant in the Netherlands. There, GenX has shown up in produce grown near the facility.

Rusty Jacobs is WUNC's Voting and Election Integrity Reporter.
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