New Hanover County Commission Chairman Woody White found out about GenX the same way many others in and around Wilmington did. It was June 8th, and he slept in a little since he was on vacation.
“I got up probably 8:30, 9, opened up the newspaper, Wilmington, on my iPad, and read the headline—and my immediate reaction was, ‘Wait a minute, what’s going on'?” White recalled.
The company Chemours, an off-shoot of DuPont, manufactures GenX, a so-called surfactant, for uses in products such as Teflon and camping gear. The Chemours plant lies more than one hundred miles upstream of Wilmington, straddling the Bladen and Cumberland County lines, near Fayetteville.
“When you read that toxic materials are being dumped in your water source and hundreds of thousands of people are consuming it, I think it’s fair to say that anybody’s going to freak out and have an emotional reaction to that,” said White.
Chemours has been commercially manufacturing GenX since 2009, under an agreement with the federal Environmental Protection Agency that it would prevent discharge of the chemical compound into the river. But the company had been dumping GenX into the river for more than 30 years, when it was being created as a by-product of a vinyl-making process.
County Commission Chairman White recounted the startling moment when a Chemours spokesman revealed that fact to him and other state and local officials at a meeting in June. So White asked the Chemours representative whether the company thought it was okay to keep discharging GenX into the river even though the 2009 agreement with the EPA showed regulators were concerned about the compound.
“And he said, 'Yes, Mr. White, it’s unregulated,'” White remembered.
Since that disclosure, Chemours has not said much—the company declined WUNC's interview request.
The company’s failure to disclose the discharge of unregulated chemicals lies at the heart of the state's lawsuit against the company, filed in September.
“Chemours should have alerted the agency that GenX was being produced as a byproduct,” said Michael Regan, Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Protection.
Not only was Chemours discharging GenX, an EPA report in August revealed the company had been dumping Nafion by-products, other so-called flourochemicals like GenX, into the river.
The Scope Of The Problem Is Much Wider Than GenX And The Cape Fear
"In North Carolina, we regulate over 200 major industries, over 38,000 miles of waterways. We’re doing a really good job of protecting our water from the known pollution. We’re now beginning to turn and look at these emerging chemical compounds,” said DEQ Secretary Regan.
Water treatment plants filter out the chemicals state and federal regulators tell them to—but regulators only set standards for chemicals with known health impacts.
The state Department of Health and Human Services has settled on an advisory health goal of 140 parts per trillion for an acceptable concentration of GenX in drinking water.
State Epidemiologist Zack Moore told the House Select Committee on River Quality last month that there’s quite a bit of data from lab studies of the health effects of GenX on animals—studies conducted mostly by the chemical industry.
In high enough doses, he told committee members, GenX has been associated with cancers of the liver, pancreas and testes.
“But the effects on human health are not known,” Moore added.
DHHS Deputy Secretary Mark Benton told committee members there are thousands of chemicals in the class of compounds known as PFAS, which includes GenX and Nafion – and little is known about their health effects.
“Until the right research is available and we have the ability to analyze it, there’s going to be a lot we don’t know about the potential health effects of many of these compounds under this broad family,” Benton said.
GenX's History And the Legacy Compound It Replaced
Chemours created GenX to replace the more toxic legacy compound called C-8—not because GenX is vastly different in structure but because animal studies show it has a shorter half-life, according to Detlef Knappe, a professor of environmental engineering at N.C. State University. If not for Knappe and his team of researchers, Chemours might still be dumping GenX into the Cape Fear.
That's because in 2013, Knappe was measuring bromide levels in the water, but since he had funding for a separate study of PFAS compounds, he decided to see if any existed in the Cape Fear and the Haw River.
Knappe’s team found GenX downstream of the Chemours plant and then decided to see whether it was being filtered out by the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority’s Sweeney water treatment plant in Wilmington.
“That was the first time that we noticed that GenX actually passes untouched through the treatment plant,” Knappe said. The utility's filtration system was not designed to capture it, because there was no federal or state standard that required them to do so – and they didn’t know to look for it.
The levels of GenX in the drinking water back then were around four times higher than the current health level goal set by DHHS.
The Sweeney plant treats between 17- and 20-million gallons of Cape Fear River water per day, serving more than 200,000 people in Wilmington and unincorporated parts of New Hanover County.
As the public furor over GenX intensified, the utility authority devised a three-pronged plan to deal with the crisis. That included a pilot project currently underway to test a new filtration system that could remove GenX from drinking water—even though the utility authority is not required to do so.
“We should not have to be conducting tests like this," said Jim Flechtner, Executive Director of the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority. "There should be a good understanding of what dischargers are putting in the river, what that means for downstream users such as drinking water providers and whether those plants can filter those chemicals properly. The fact that we’re doing this tells me the system hasn’t worked the way it should.”
Nonetheless, the public utility authority has tapped its own contingency funds to the tune of around $200,000 to launch the pilot filtration project and to partner with researchers at UNC Wilmington to find out what other compounds are in the river and how much.
But Flechtner emphasized it’s up to state and federal regulators to determine what’s in the river and to set standards for public utilities to meet.
“I’m upset professionally that this organization was put in this position. Our role is to provide the highest quality water we can to our customers and I’m upset personally that people here have been drinking a compound that the EPA, DEQ, and DHHS, can’t tell us much about,” he said.
NCSU Professor Knappe says keeping these little known emerging compounds out of the drinking water until more is known about them is a matter of public health policy.
“How can we really permit such a discharge to occur when this same water into which this wastewater is discharged is the drinking water source of a quarter of a million people?” Knappe asked.
DEQ Secretary Regan says companies seeking to obtain or renew wastewater permits will have to disclose all chemicals they plan on discharging. But does DEQ have the personnel to make sure companies are in compliance?
“North Carolina has nine permit writers with a 40 percent backlog and we regulate about 220 major facilities,” Regan said, citing EPA statistics.
South Carolina has 17 permit writers, a 29 percent backlog with 159 major facilities, Regan added. And Virginia has 36 permit writers with less than a one percent backlog and they only regulate 150 major facilities.
Regan and Democratic Governor Roy Cooper have asked lawmakers for $2.6 million to hire more inspectors and permit writers. The Republican-led legislature left that funding out of a recent environmental bill that contained $435,000 for an immediate GenX response. Republicans then used their super-majority to override the governor’s veto.