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5 years into GenX probe, new NC gov't action plan unveiled

Cape Fear River, NC, at Raven Rock Park
Wikimedia Commons
Parts of the Cape Fear River near Fayetteville, N.C., are contaminated with a PFAS compound called GenX.

Five years after the state's initial investigation of GenX turning up in the Cape Fear River, Gov. Roy Cooper and his environmental chief unveiled a three-pronged strategy Tuesday to address further efforts to reduce and remedy a broad category of “forever chemicals” in water sources.

Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Elizabeth Biser, who also chronicled state government's efforts so far to address per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, said there remains more to do to protect human health and the environment.

“We’ve come a long way in the last few years in identifying these chemicals, stopping the polluters and charting a path forward,” Cooper said at a news conference in Wilmington near where the Cape Fear and Northeast Cape Fear rivers merge. “The challenge of PFAS is bigger than any one company or any one chemical.”

A state investigation that began in June 2017 found that The Chemours Co. had discharged a type of PFAS called GenX from its Fayetteville Works plant in Bladen County into the air, water and groundwater for years. GenX is used in the manufacturing of nonstick coatings and for other purposes.

Chemours said in 2017 that it would stop discharging the chemical into the Cape Fear River, the drinking water sources for several hundred thousand people in southeastern North Carolina, including Wilmington. But groundwater seepage means high PFAS levels are still showing up downstream and in private drinking wells. Public utility systems are upgrading their infrastructure to remove those high levels.

Studies have linked PFAS exposure to increased cancer risk, developmental delays in children and damage to organs such as the liver and thyroid, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“We want to ensure that in the future, no community experiences what you have already been through, Biser said. “We are all working toward a common goal -- protecting North Carolinians and their access to clean drinking water.”

The state’s investigation led to a consent agreement finalized with Chemours in early 2019 that included a $12 million penalty, the sampling and replacement of drinking water supplies for private well users, and measures to reduce drastically air emissions and other PFAS pollution from leaving the plant.

The Department of Environmental Quality's PFAS action plan focuses on identifying people across the state who may face a health risk from PFAS; proposals for setting groundwater, surface water and drinking water standards to avoid unnecessary human exposure; and setting remediation goals for contaminated sites that leads to “health-protective outcomes.”

Biser said the plan builds on past work and is designed to complement or supplement action that is expected on PFAS from the federal government, particularly thorough the Environmental Protection Agency. Last fall, EPA chief Michael Regan — Biser’s immediate predecessor at the Department of Environmental Quality — announced a road map to address PFAS nationwide, which also includes drinking water standards.

Biser and Cooper also both urged state lawmakers to pass proposed legislation debated last week that in part would require Chemours to pay for public water system improvements designed to remove the chemicals or reduce concentrations, not the ratepayers. Two Wilmington-area utilities have said they are spending roughly $150 million on aggregate improvements to address PFAS pollution.

Chemours said last week that the company has spent or committed to spend $400 million on improvements such as on-site emissions control technology at the plant and remediation. A 2020 lawsuit filed by Attorney General Josh Stein's office seeking monetary damages for the state from the GenX releases is pending.

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