Special Report: GenX - A Toxic Year
ON JUNE 8, LIFE CHANGED IN WILMINGTON.
THAT’S THE DAY PAGE ONE OF THE STARNEWS DECLARED “TOXIN TAINTS CFPUA DRINKING WATER.”
PAM SANDER IS EXECUTIVE EDITOR OF THE STARNEWS.
SHE LEARNED ABOUT GENX, IN A WILMINGTON RESTAURANT WITH VAUGHN HAGERTY.
“He was actually doing a story on water quality overall. He’s very interested in the environment, and I can actually remember, we met at Southern Thai restaurant. And they came up and asked me if I wanted water, and he said ‘you don’t want to drink the water, it’s not bottled here.’ And he said ‘Pam, you just wouldn’t believe what I’ve uncovered.’”
IN THE SIX MONTHS SINCE THEN, THERE HAVE BEEN DEMONSTRATIONS, PANEL DISCUSSIONS, DEBATES, A CELEBRITY, AND COUNTLESS REPORTS ON HOW WE GOT HERE, AND WHERE WE SHOULD GO.
CHEMOURS, PART OF A SPRAWLING 2,200 ACRE SITE CALLED FAYETTEVILLE WORKS, ALONG THE CAPE FEAR RIVER. IT SITS SOME 100 MILES UPSTREAM.
IN JUNE, GENX WAS DETECTED AT HIGH LEVELS IN THE CAPE FEAR RIVER AND DRINKING WATER DOWNSTREAM OF THAT PLANT, WHICH IS ALSO HOME TO DUPONT, AND KURARAY.
THOSE HIGH LEVELS WERE IN THE CAPE FEAR PUBLIC UTILITY AUTHORITY, AND BEING CONSUMED IN DRINKING WATER.
“The StarNews has broken a story about a potentially-cancer-causing chemical in southeastern North Carolina’s drinking water supply. According to a piece published by Vaughan Hagerty at starnewsonline.com, a chemical replacement for a key ingredient in Teflon linked to cancer and a host of other ailments has been found in the drinking water system of the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority….”
I ASKED VAUGHN HAGERTY OF THE STARNEWS … HOW HE FOUND THE STORY.
“People always ask me how I came across the GenX story, and I kind of wish it were a little more exciting involving secret undercover meetings and meeting in parking lots but it’s not. It is very serendipitous. I started Googling around to see if anything had been done on fluorochemicals in the Cape Fear River, and came across a number of things among them was the study that included a number of people including Detlef Knappe, at NC State, and even then honestly it read like a scientific study and I’m certainly not a scientist. But after talking to some folks about it became pretty clear that this was going to become a much bigger story than just those chemicals in the data.”
HAGERTY DID NOT EXPECT THIS STORY, TO BE PAGE ONE NEWS A HALF YEAR LATER.
“Not at all. Even for a journalist, I’m pretty cynical, and honestly, I knew it was a big story but my expectation was that maybe after a couple of weeks of uproar, it would die down and we would go back to talking about whatever, Trump’s tweets, whatever else was the big story of the day.
So I was really surprised and frankly, I would say I was pleasantly surprised with how people of all political stripes, came together to make something happen. I would be the last person to say ‘People Power’ is going to accomplish much of anything. But you know it did. DEQ wants to say, and they have done a good job, they want to say though is the reason Chemours did what it has done, and things have happened is because of things they (DEQ) did – and I disagree. The reason things happened is because people in this community came together and essentially said … No.”
“If we don’t do the watchdog reporting and keep spreading the message, and keep being as loud as we can about it, then I don’t think anything will change.”
GENX IS AN ALTERNATIVE FOR THE PERFLUOROOCTANOIC ACID – OR PFOA - USED TO SYNTHESIZE TEFLON. THIS CHEMICAL IS CONSIDERED ESSENTIAL FOR THE PRODUCTION OF A LOT OF HOUSEHOLD ITEMS. THINGS LIKE THE TEFLON USED FOR NON-STICK PANS. IT’S ALSO USED IN FIREFIGHTING FOAM.
DUPONT SAYS GENX HAS A MORE “FAVORABLE TOXICOLOGICAL PROFILE” THAN PFOA, WHICH WAS ALSO KNOWN AS C8. SO THEY WERE GIVEN A CONSENT ORDER FROM THE ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY, EPA, TO MAKE IT COMMERCIALLY AVAILABLE. THAT WAS IN 2009.
NO ONE IN WILMINGTON KNEW VERY MUCH, IF ANYTHING, ABOUT C8 AND CHEMOURS BEFORE JUNE. THAT CLEARLY CHANGED.
COMMUNITY GROUPS FORMED. INFORMATION FORUMS WERE HELD. SCIENTISTS WERE SOUGHT OUT. RESIDENTS GOT ANGRY.
“I’ve lived most of my adult life here in Wilmington. I’m very concerned. There needs to be transparency. They haven’t given us information… that is scary. We’re concerned citizens who drink this water every day and we pay a high price for it.”
“Shame, shame, shame shame shame….”
IN MID-JUNE, REPRESENTATIVES FROM CHEMOURS CAME TO WILMINGTON TO MEET WITH LOCAL LEADERS. THEY HAVEN’T BEEN BACK SINCE.
THAT JUNE 15 MEETING LASTED 96 MINUTES. IT WAS CLOSED TO THE PUBLIC AND THE MEDIA, EXCEPT FOR A LONE POOL REPORTER.
AFTERWARDS, WILMINGTON MAYOR BILL SAFFO AND NEW HANOVER COUNTY COMMISSIONER CHAIRMAN WOODY WHITE ADDRESSED THE MEDIA.
“Again I am going to reiterate what the chairman has said. We’re asking for a 100% elimination of GenX from the Cape Fear River. The company has indicated they are going to try everything in their power to do that. In the meantime I would ask the state, the DEQ, the EPA, to suspend that operation until we have some evidence from the company that says that… We want to make sure we have good, clean drinking water and that is the thing I am most concerned about. We want the DEQ and the EPA to tell us this water is safe to drink. Thank you.”
WOODY WHITE LOOKS BACK AT THE MEETING WITH CHEMOURS IN JUNE, WITH FRUSTRATION.
“They came here for 96 minutes and they left and they have done nothing but hide behind lawsuits and vague interpretations of state regulations. That’s their choice, but it’s not really given me a whole lot of comfort as a local leader here that they want to do right by our citizens.”
IT WAS DURING THAT MEETING, WHEN LOCAL LEADERS LEARNED THAT CHEMOURS HAD BEEN DISCHARGING FOR A LOT LONGER THAN HAD BEEN BELIEVED.
“We learned a number of shocking things. The two most important being A: They volunteered information that they had been releasing GenX-type contaminants since 1980, for 37 years. And the second thing we learned from that meeting was that they continued to do it, they had alternative means to stop it and they hadn’t stopped it and they really weren’t inclined to, and those were shocking revelations to us.”
BY JULY, THE NEWS HAD SPREAD ACROSS THE STATE. SOMETHING WAS AMISS WITH THE CAPE FEAR RIVER.
“...This is The State of Things from the American Tobacco Historic District, I’m Frank Stasio…… joining me is Vince Winkel from WHQR, and Dr. Larry Cahoon from UNCW….”
“I think the more we find out the more alarmed we’re going to get.”
LARRY CAHOON IS A BIOLOGY PROFESSOR AT UNCW, AND HAS BEEN A KEEN OBSERVER OF THE SITUATION HERE IN THE CAPE FEAR REGION. AS HE REFLECTS ON THE LAST SIX MONTHS, A LOT COMES TO MIND.
“I think when I saw the very first headline I thought ‘oh boy are we in for it now’ … I was in a very dark way kind of amused because I thought you know what has hit the fan. As a few days went by, it became clearer and clearer that this was going to be a long battle. When I started talking to my colleagues and friends who are interested in this stuff, it became very obvious that this was going to be a big headline for a long time. That it was going to have dimensionality to it, that is there are scientific questions, there are legal questions, and everything in between going on. Who knew what, when did they know it, how did this happen, what are the real problems here, how many compounds are we dealing with, how do we treat them, how do we get rid of them, etc, etc. So many questions and we’re still looking for answers for a lot of those.”
CAHOON SAYS THERE HAVE BEEN SURPRISES. HE WONDERS IF CHEMOURS HAS BEEN FORTHCOMING IN SHARING ALL ITS DISCHARGE INFORMATION.
“The degree to which Chemours has put up a fight. And I don’t mean that in a positive way, they have I think been playing games with us. They have certainly known for a long time that these compounds are in their discharges. I mean they run a chemical factory, right? You’re supposed to know what you are doing. And it’s unbelievable that they are like ‘Oh gee we didn’t know about that’ I don’t buy that. I think they knew.”
“I’ve also been surprised initially, by how weak the response from state government was. I was very unhappy with how poorly state government responded to this. I’m still not very happy with it, but it looks like they are making much more of an effort to deal with this responsibly.”
THIS SUMMER THE DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES SET A PROVISIONAL HEALTH GOAL OF 140 PARTS PER TRILLION IN THE DRINKING WATER FROM THE PIPES OF CFPUA. THAT MEANS IF LEVELS OF GENX ARE BELOW 140, THE WATER IS SUPPOSEDLY SAFE. OF COURSE, THERE ARE A LOT OF OTHER CHEMICALS IN THAT SAME WATER, INCLUDING NAFION BYPRODUCTS 1 AND 2, OF WHICH VERY LITTLE IS KNOWN.
AND THAT’S THE PROBLEM. ACROSS THE BOARD, VERY LITTLE IS KNOWN. THE ONLY RELATED HEALTH STUDY FOR GENX INVOLVED MICE.
EMILY DONOVAN LIVES IN BRUNSWICK COUNTY. SHE’S THE CO-FOUNDER OF THE CLEAN CAPE FEAR GROUP. SHE’S ALSO ANGRY.
“Absolutely. How can you not be? How can you not be when, I moved here and I was pregnant with twins. And I was told to drink a lot of water. And you just take for granted that your water is safe to drink. You have no reason not to think your water is safe to drink. You live in the greatest country, by some standards. We’re supposed to be the leader in setting an example of how we govern ourselves, and I am ingesting chemicals that are linked to serious health problems for a developing fetus for a newborn for a nursing mother and for a growing child. These are not pretty chemicals.”
THEY ARE NOT PRETTY CHEMICALS, BUT THEY ARE PERSISTENT.
“That’s what angers me the most, when I hear someone who does not understand fluorochemicals or highly fluorinated compounds, and they will tell me ‘well you know what, parts per trillion is such a small amount’ but they don’t understand how these chemicals work. They bio accumulate. They don’t biodegrade. They collect in our cells, when we get chronically exposed to them and we have been chronically exposed to them and we have been unaware of that.”
CHEMOURS HAS REMAINED LARGELY SILENT ON THIS ISSUE. COMPANY CEO MARK VERGNANO WAS ON CNBC RECENTLY, WHERE HE WAS ASKED ABOUT THE GENX SITUATION.
“From our standpoint, that’s a permitting issue we have in North Carolina. We’ll work with the authorities on that. I’m convinced we’ll come up with the right decisions with them in terms of how to do that. But when we look across the next three years for us, we are looking at the growth of these businesses are going to generate the cash it’s going to generate. How we best use that cash, which is going to be dividends and share buybacks for our shareholders. But also significant growth into the businesses we have.”
AGAIN, STARNEWS EDITOR PAM SANDER.
“The regulations, the laws really have to put the onus on a company like that, to do testing, to do monitoring, and to share that monitoring about what the makeup of a chemical is. Ok we know very limited testing on rats. Well, ok how about some more testing you’ve had 37 years, how about more testing so that you, as a person who works at the chemical company, who maybe runs a chemical company, so you can go to sleep every night knowing that what you are putting in peoples water isn’t killing them, isn’t slowly killing them, isn’t giving them thyroid cancer or whatever, or enlarged liver, whatever it is it might do. Teflon is not that important.”
SANDER SAYS PEOPLE KEEP PAYING ATTENTION, AND THAT’S A GOOD THING.
“What has surprised me the most is how quickly things have happened. I thought it would be something where we’d be reporting on for a long time and it’s going to be really hard to get people to listen because we’re so used to that in our business – that people just don’t pay attention to it, or they get bored with it. I’ve been really surprised that – and I know some of the other reporting that has been done nationwide, DuPont in West Virginia, and Ohio, and how slow that was a years long, so we kind of were thinking that they are going to drag their feet, and ignore, and do everything they can to stall, put things in the way of this story, and I’ve been quite surprised at how the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, and some local officials who – they don’t have the same clout as a governor but I have been surprised how loud Woody White has been, and how much Mayor Saffo has done his thing and really rallied and I’ve been surprised at how quickly the revoking of the discharge permit.
NEW HANOVER COUNTY COMMISSIONER WOODY WHITE.
“Well I have learned a number of things, probably the two most important being A – there is no substitute for hard charging action on the part of public officials. Mayor Saffo, our local delegation, and so many others who came to the forefront immediately and started to demand answers and demand action not only from our regulators but from this company. The second thing I have learned in a broader sense is the real loopholes in how we go about regulating our environment and balancing the economic interests that we have. And it’s not been a positive education in that regard because I have seen where the loopholes are and I have seen the consequences of those loopholes that have developed over decades of policies.”
IN A MOMENT – DUPONT, AND THE MOST SLIPPERY COMPOUND ON EARTH. THIS IS WHQR NEWS.
SEGMENT 2: GenX: A Toxic Year
“From the fountains in the mountains
Comes the water running cool and clear and blue
And it comes down from the hills
And it goes down to the towns and passes through
When it gets down to the cities
Then the water turns into a dirty gray
It's poisoned and polluted
By the people as it goes along its way… “
IT’S A NECESSITY FOR LIFE.
IT’S A NECESSITY FOR MANUFACTURING.
BEING CLOSE TO A RIVER HELPS, FOR BRINGING WATER IN, AND THEN PUMPING IT BACK OUT.
IT’S ESPECIALLY HELPFUL IN THE MAKING … OF NON-STICK COOKWARE.
TEFLON WAS AN ACCIDENT.
IT'S SCIENTIFIC NAME IS POLYTETRAFLUOROETHYLENE.
SO IT WAS 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.
HIS IDEA WAS TO COMBINE TETRAFLUOROETHYLENE WITH HYDROCHLORIC ACID.
HE GOT THE GASES TOGETHER, BUT HE WASN'T READY TO START EXPERIMENTING. SO, HE COOLED AND PRESSURIZED THE GAS IN CANISTERS OVERNIGHT. HE WENT HOME AND WENT TO BED.
WHEN HE RETURNED TO THE LAB NEXT DAY, THE GAS WAS GONE. THE CANISTERS WEIGHED THE SAME AMOUNT AS WHEN THEY WERE FULL, BUT NOTHING CAME OUT. THERE WAS NO GAS.
PLUNKETT CUT THE CANISTERS IN HALF. THE GAS HAD SOLIDIFIED ON THE SIDES, CREATING A SLICK SURFACE.
TEFLON WAS BORN, AND DUPONT WOULD NEVER BE THE SAME.
"RATHER THAN DISCARD THE APPARENT MISTAKE, PLUNKETT AND HIS ASSISTANT TESTED THE NEW POLYMER AND FOUND THAT IT HAD SOME VERY UNUSUAL PROPERTIES: IT WAS EXTREMELY SLIPPERY AS WELL AS INERT TO VIRTUALLY ALL CHEMICALS, INCLUDING HIGHLY CORROSIVE ACIDS."
THOSE ARE THE WORDS WRITTEN BY DUPONT IN ITS CORPORATE HISTORY.
"THE PRODUCT, TRADEMARKED AS TEFLON IN 1945, WAS FIRST USED BY THE MILITARY IN ARTILLERY SHELL FUSES AND IN THE PRODUCTION OF NUCLEAR MATERIAL FOR THE MANHATTAN PROJECT…."… THE CORPORATE HISTORY CONTINUES.
FOR THOSE WHO DON’T REMEMBER, THE MANHATTAN PROJECT WAS A RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT UNDERTAKING DURING WORLD WAR II THAT PRODUCED THE FIRST NUCLEAR WEAPONS. THE BOMB.
TEFLON WOULD ALSO BECOME A VIRTUALLY INDISPENSABLE PART OF EVERYTHING FROM SPACE CAPSULES TO HEART VALVES TO FRYING PANS. IT DIDN’T HELP PLUNKETT, HOWEVER, IN TERMS OF IMPROVED REFRIGERATION IN THE 1930S.
GENX HAS BEEN USED SINCE 2009 IN THE PRODUCTION OF TEFLON. THE CHEMICAL ALSO IS A BYPRODUCT OF THE PRODUCTION OF OTHER CHEMOURS PRODUCTS.
WILMINGTON RESIDENT PETER HERMANN COULD CARE LESS ABOUT TEFLON. HE RECENTLY SPOKE ON THE STEPS OF CITY HALL, DURING A RALLY AGAINST GENX IN THE WATER.
“When Abby was diagnosed, another four year old in our area was also diagnosed with the same kidney cancer. The reason I am standing here today is to express our deep concern, about the presence of the toxin GenX and C8 in our water supply, and we are demanding changes.”
HERMANN AND MORE THAN FIFTY OTHER FAMILIES BELONG TO THE WILMINGTON CHILDHOOD CANCER SUPPORT GROUP. IT INCLUDES FAMILIES OF SEVERAL CHILDREN WITH LEUKEMIA AND THREE WITH A RARE FORM OF KIDNEY CANCER.
“My daughter is a survivor of Wilms tumor, bilateral Wilms tumor, which is a very rare childhood cancer. It affects the kidneys. Wilms Tumor is rare in itself, but bilateral is extremely rare. She’s even been genetically tested and she doesn’t even carry the gene for Wilms Tumor. To us that means it’s got to be environmental. There has got to be some sort of environmental cause for a cancer. The possible risks for cancers from GenX and C8, all those other chemicals, it points to those organs, like the kidneys, that deal with the filtering of the blood. There is always the possibility that those chemicals are causing the cancer.”
BUT CAUSATION ISN’T EASY TO PROVE. IN FACT, IT’S REALLY, REALLY DIFFICULT TO PROVE.
SUSANNE BRANDER IS A TOXICOLOGIST AT OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY. UNTIL A FEW MONTHS AGO SHE HELD THE SAME ROLE AT THE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA WILMINGTON WHERE SHE ALSO STILL DOES RESEARCH. FOR CAUSATION, SHE SAYS THERE ARE YEARS – YEARS - OF WORK TO DO.
“There are no easy answers and there are no immediate answers it takes a lot of time to design studies to really get at what these chemicals may be responsible for causing, if they are causing any health effects. It’s challenging to gather that information, it’s also challenging in today’s political climate as there may not be as much support from regulatory agencies as there may have been in the past. But I applaud the efforts of NC State and ECU and UNCW for starting to scratch the surface and get some solid information on exposure concentrations in many different sample types.”
BRANDER IS ALSO SOMEWHAT SURPRISED, THAT GENX AND THE DRINKING WATER OF THE CAPE FEAR REGION, REMAINS THE TOP STORY.
“I thought we would still be talking about it but not with regards to getting the company to stop discharging this chemical in their effluent. I thought that at this point that would be a closed case. I figured we would still be talking about it with regards to research, needed research, and that it would take a number of years to really discern what the potential health impacts could be if there are any, but I thought at this point I certainly was very surprised as I am sure everyone else was to see that there were continued discharges of this chemical GenX into the Cape Fear in October.”
“…This is WHQR News. The Environmental Review Commission of the North Carolina General Assembly now has a decision to make. They met in Wilmington this week, to hammer out plans for the GenX river contamination and its related investigations. The 20-member commission spent almost five hours questioning local officials, and listening to public comment...”
ON AUGUST 23, THE NORTH CAROLINA GENERAL ASSEMBLY’S ENVIRONMENTAL REVIEW COMMISSION HELD A SPECIAL HEARING ON GENX IN WILMINGTON, TO DISCUSS THE MAN-MADE CHEMICAL’S IMPACT ON THE AREA’S DRINKING WATER SUPPLIES.
IT WAS A CHANCE FOR CITIZENS TO SPEAK OUT TO THE STATE’S LEADERS.
“DuPont and Chemours cannot be trusted. This trust but verify business works when someone doesn’t break your trust.
Here’s what I need to feel safe. I need clean water now.
We need to sample water. We need to stop all discharge. We need to think about Parkersburg.
I will personally use my background to put health statistics together, and I may get it published. We need to be free of toxins.”
SHE MENTIONED WE NEED TO THINK ABOUT PARKERSBURG.
THAT’S A TOWN IN WEST VIRGINIA. DUPONT RECENTLY CUT THEM A CHECK FOR A LOT OF MONEY.
IT’S A FACTORY TOWN, LOCATED AT THE CONFLUENCE OF THE OHIO AND LITTLE KANAWHA RIVERS. NEXT TO A SOURCE OF WATER.
YOU SEE IN 1951 DUPONT BEGAN USING AMMONIUM PERFLUOROOCTANOATE, ALSO CALLED C8, TO MAKE TEFLON AND RELATED POLYMERS AT ITS WASHINGTON WORKS PLANT NEAR PARKERSBURG.
SINCE THEN, THE MULTI-BILLION DOLLAR COMPANY HAS FACED A FEW LAWSUITS, AND PAID OUT.
THE LARGEST CAME JUST THIS LAST FEBRUARY.
A CLASS ACTION SUIT OVER PFOA – REMEMBER THAT’S ALSO KNOWN AS C8, THE PRECURSOR TO GENX, THAT’S YIELDED A HISTORIC $671 MILLION SETTLEMENT. IT TOOK ABOUT 15 YEARS TO LITIGATE. FIFTEEN YEARS.
SOME 3,550 PLAINTIFFS FROM THE MID-OHIO VALLEY HAD FILED SUIT, CLAIMING CONTAMINATED DRINKING WATER LED TO DISEASES LINKED TO CHEMICAL EXPOSURE.
KEMP BURDETTE IS THE CAPE FEAR RIVER KEEPER.
“Pretty shocked, by the similarities to the Parkersburg case. That was a big deal in U.S. environmental history. It was a serious contamination case by a company that willingly covered up contamination and this case is very, very similar. And it’s kind of disturbing that so soon after something like that, you’d see another example of it. In another place. That’s pretty shocking.”
COULD WILMINGTON BE ANOTHER PARKERSBURG?
AGAIN, EMILY DONOVAN.
“You see on the news, you vaguely heard about C8 and Parkersburg, West Virginia, and never knew just how intimately connected we would be with that story until six months ago. Now it’s so surprising to me to see the similarities. And to see that we are almost 15 years behind what the citizens there were going through. With some of the exact same chemicals, same company, same players, same people, same company just new name.”
BUT A LOT OF PEOPLE ARE NOW WORKING ON THIS CHALLENGE.
SEVERAL UNIVERSITIES, GOVERNMENTAL AGENCIES LIKE THE DEQ, DHHS, EPA, CDC, THE CAPE FEAR PUBLIC UTILITY AUTHORITY, AND LOCAL GROUPS WHO PASS ALONG VALUABLE INFORMATION, SUCH AS CLEAN CAPE FEAR AND WILMINGTON’S STOP GENX IN OUR WATER.
COMING UP – HEALTH STUDIES, AND THE FUTURE OF THE CAPE FEAR RIVER.
“… Don't go near the water children, See the fish all dead upon the shore. Don't go near the water, 'Cause the water isn't water anymore.”
SEGMENT 3: GenX: A Toxic Year
“That night we went down to the river,
And into the river we'd dive,
Oh down to the river we did ride…”
THE CAPE FEAR RIVER IS THE HEART AND SOUL OF SOUTHEASTERN NORTH CAROLINA.
IT FEEDS INTO THE ATLANTIC OCEAN, AFTER TRAVELING MORE THAN 200 MILES THROUGH THE COUNTRYSIDE.
IN 1664, THE ENGLISH EXPLORER WILLIAM HILTON JR. WROTE…
… "WE HAVE SEEN FACING BOTH SIDES OF THE RIVER AND BRANCHES OF CAPE FEAR AFORESAID, AS GOOD LAND AND AS WELL TIMBERED AS ANY WE HAVE SEEN IN ANY OTHER PART OF THE WORLD, SUFFICIENT TO ACCOMMODATE THOUSANDS OF OUR ENGLISH NATION, AND LYING COMMODIOUSLY BY THE SAID RIVER'S SIDE."
SOME 350 YEARS LATER, THE RIVER STILL FLOWS... BUT IT’S MUCH DIFFERENT THAN IN THE 1600’s. HUNDREDS OF YEARS AGO, THE RIVER WAS CLEAR AND PRISTINE.
TODAY PEOPLE ARE TRYING TO KEEP IT SAFE.
JIM FLECHTNER IS THE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE CAPE FEAR PUBLIC UTILITY AUTHORITY.
“The bottom line is we shouldn’t have to be doing any of this. We should have a clear understanding through DEQ, what’s in the river, and what the health effects are for those compounds in the river. And if there is a health concern, we should have treatment technologies to get them out – before it gets to our customers. So unless we know what’s in the river, and unless we can treat for it, it shouldn’t be there at all. I feel good about where we are, but we shouldn’t be here to begin with.”
COMPOUNDS LIKE GENX… LIKE THE RIVER.
CAREL VANDERMEYDEN IS DIRECTOR OF ENGINEERING FOR CFPUA.
“One of the things we have seen with GenX is that particular compound likes to be in the water. What we have seen is when it is in the water that comes into our treatment plant, the same amount goes out of our treatment plant. So we don’t believe necessarily that it stays in our treatment plant, we have seen it go out of the treatment plant and into the distribution system.”
VANDERMEYDEN IS WORKING WITH UNCW AND OTHERS IN TESTING POSSIBLE FILTRATION SYSTEMS AT THE WATER PLANT. THEY STARTED BY LOOKING AT THREE.
“The three technologies that we started to look at on paper, were granular activated carbon, ion exchange, and we considered reverse osmosis. From that paper study we narrowed it down to granular activated carbon and ion exchange for a full-scale pilot test.”
“So the granular activated carbon, how that works, is it’s a granular media made out of carbon products, coconut shells, coal, things like that and that material is processed and what they call activated, in order to remove certain organic compounds.”
“What makes ion exchange a little different than the GAC is that ion exchange can be designed to target a particular compound or a series of compounds. While GAC is more of a broad spectrum removal.”
THE CFPUA TOOK SOME HEAT EARLY ON IN THIS STORY. BECAUSE THEY ALREADY KNEW ABOUT IT. JIM FLECHTNER.
“You’re right. The report was published in November of 2016. And one of the final conclusions of the report from Dr. Knappe and also the researchers from EPA was that there should be discharge controls and more study. In fact in conversations with Dr. Knappe he was telling our staff there was no reason people shouldn’t drink the water. So we had no dashboard warning light telling us there was a problem. We continued our dialogue with Dr. Knappe to understand whether we could modify our treatment processes, what does all this mean, and ultimately we did forward it on when we had enough information to do that. But the people who had the authority to do something about this, EPA and DEQ, had it the same time we did and they had the same information.
“We moved it as quickly as we could, in understanding it, and bringing it forward, but really it wasn’t until it got the attention that it received in the public that we fully understood how many other compounds are out there and what are next step needs to be and whether we need to do that, or DEQ, or some other agency needs to do that.”
IN A LAB AT THE SPRAWLING ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY FACILITY IN RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, MARK STRYNAR IS HUDDLED OVER SOME VERY HIGH END EQUIPMENT.
“So this instrument that we are standing in front of is called time of flight mass spectrometer. So what that is, is it’s a high resolution mass spec. This is an instrument that allows us to detect the molecular weight of a chemical, it’s made up of elements, and when you put those together and measure the molecular weight of a chemical to a high degree of accuracy we can predict its formula. It’s the instrument we used for non-targeted screening water samples such as down on the Cape Fear River, for GenX and related analytes.”
STRYNAR HAS BEEN WORKING ON THE CAPE FEAR RIVER SYSTEM SINCE 2006.
“It’s been an ongoing effort for the better part of a decade for perfluorinated chemicals. With respect to the new things we have discovered since 2015 was our first publication, on that effort, and later on in 2016 the paper that got all the press down in Wilmington that’s the measurement of these new compounds we discovered in the drinking water in the surface water. And that sets the stage for toxicology to begin, until you know what you are looking at the toxicologists don’t know what to begin using for their studies and dosing.”
THAT PAPER WAS CO-WRITTEN BY DETLEFF KNAPPE, THE N.C. STATE SCIENTIST WHO HAS BEEN MAKING REGULAR TRIPS TO WILMINGTON THESE LAST FEW MONTHS. HE WAS INSTRUMENTAL IN BRINGING THE TOPIC TO THE PUBLIC’S ATTENTION.
“There are lots of research questions obviously, especially surrounding toxicity and health effects. More immediately what’s next is just how is the Chemours facility and the whole Fayetteville Works facility going to be managed in the short-term and also in the long-term. And also how are other industrial dischargers across the state going to be managed? What kind of monitoring programs do we have to put into place, to prevent these kinds of situations in the future? So there are lots of policy questions – what will DEQ do, what can they do, to control discharges into drinking water sources for example.”
AS FOR HEALTH QUESTIONS, WE LOOK TO JANE HOPPIN. SHE’S THE DEPUTY DIRECTOR OF THE CENTER FOR HUMAN HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT, JUST DOWN THE ROAD FROM DR. KNAPPE AT N.C. STATE. HER TEAM IS NOW REVIEWING RESULTS FROM A STUDY OF ALMOST 400 WILMINGTON RESIDENTS.
“The project is designed to look at and measure levels of GenX and other perfluorinated compounds in up to 400 people in the Wilmington area. So we collected blood and urine and drinking water samples from people in Wilmington.”
HER TEAM WILL LOOK AT OTHER FACTORS AS WELL.
“We’re also measuring three common clinical assays. Lipid levels, thyroid function, and a comprehensive metabolic panel that looks at liver function. And the reason we decided to do this is that some of these tests have been associated with C8, in the C8 study the larger C8 study. And so while we won’t be as definitive as the C8 study which is 45,000 people it may give us some clues to whether we’re seeing similar kinds of associations. Our study is cross-sectional meaning that we are measuring everything at the same point in time, and so we won’t be able to assess causation. And we’re measuring GenX in people in November, so we won’t necessarily know what people had in their bodies in June or July before the GenX was removed from the river but we will be able to tell you about today.”
HOPPIN SAYS THAT THESE TEST RESULTS, WON’T ANSWER ALL THE QUESTONS.
“Because we don’t know much about this chemical, it’s never been measured in people before, so what we find will be the first so it’s not like a blood lead level, where we know a lot about what that means. And so we want to give people results back even though we know that we don’t know everything that it means.”
OKAY, LET’S TRY THAT ONE MORE TIME….
“And so we want to give people results back even though we know that we don’t know everything that it means.”
DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES STATE HEALTH DIRECTOR ELIZABETH TILSON AGREES THAT THERE IS NO DETAILED HEALTH INFORMATION ON THESE CHEMICALS.
“We are so far away from that, that the most important things is ‘get it out of the water’ … and then we’ll work on whatever health information we can. So first thing – get it out of the water.”
LEVELS OF GENX ARE FAR LOWER TODAY … THAN THEY WERE SIX MONTHS AGO.. CHEMOURS HAS FOLLOWED DEQ ORDERS TO STOP DISCHARGES INTO THE RIVER. THERE HAVE BEEN A FEW LEAKS, AND THERE HAVE BEEN AIR EMISSIONS, BUT THE COMPANY APPEARS TO BE TRYING TO TOE THE LINE.
ADAM WAGNER OF THE STARNEWS HAS BEEN COVERING THIS STORY SINCE JUNE.
“I think the other thing is this sheer lack of knowledge people have – people you would expect to know this stuff. People at the EPA, people at DEQ and it’s not their fault. This stuff is, the structure that we have set up, is almost geared so that … this is too complicated for easy answers. I think that has become increasingly evident over the last six months where questions like ‘Is my water safe?’ cannot get a very concrete answer for whatever reason. And DEQ/DHHS can say ‘the levels were higher than they should have been, but your water is safe.’ And squaring those two thoughts is really difficult.”
WAGNER SAYS IT’S BEEN A LEARNING EXPERIENCE FOR EVERYONE.
“I think that it is forcing people to take stances – take bolder stances – than they otherwise would have especially on environmental things. I think we saw it in the last month with Sen. Burr and Sen. Tillis coming out against the Michael Dourson nomination as the EPA’s head of chemical issues basically. And I think we’ve seen it on the other side too, with the Democrats having to really reinforce that they are pro-environment bonafides. And then Republicans trying to consequently come up with some kind of an answer. And I think that as Vaughn said, it galvanizes a certain set of the population to start paying attention to these issues that really can sort of slip in the cracks because they are complicated they are tricky and they are also really, really important.”
LISA SORG OF NC POLICY WATCH IS AN ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER BASED IN RALEIGH.
“Well I think there is going to be legislation that will come out on January 4th. It will be interesting to see if later there is an appropriation because I think that is one piece of this… is that DEQ is severely underfunded. They are understaffed we see that in the PowerPoint slides every meeting. That is just something you can’t get around. There are only so many hours in a day, so I’m hopeful that there is some appropriation that comes out of it in the long term, and I hope there is some legislation that really has some teeth that comes out in January. One of the interesting aspects is there have been a lot of rollbacks of regulations over the last six or seven years out of the legislature and – I’m not saying this is a direct correlation – but these are the sorts of things that happen when regulations are weak. Either on the federal level, or the state level.”
THE HOUSE SELECT COMMITTEE ON NORTH CAROLINA RIVER QUALITY IS WORKING ON LEGISLATION.
REP. TED DAVIS JR. IS CHAIR OF THAT HOUSE SELECT COMMITTEE
“The session in January is only going to be a one-day session. Maybe two days. So you can’t sit here and put things in that are going to be controversial or require a lot of discussion, it’ll need to be things that I feel is palatable that the House will pass on the floor, and the Senate will pass on the floor all in what may be one day, with all the other business that is going on.”
DAVIS SAYS AFTER THAT, HIS COMMITTEE WILL FOCUS ON THE LONG TERM SOLUTIONS. WHATEVER THEY MAY BE.
“I would say two of the things that I have learned that scare me the most -- Number One is we don’t have any clue about what all is out there in our water when it comes to compounds. But also, separate and apart from that, there has been a lot of talk about monitoring. Monitoring the water. Well you can’t monitor what you don’t know. So we could spend millions of dollars on people to do water monitoring, and have them go out. Yes they can monitor for things that we might be aware of, targeted compounds, but all those other things there is no way we can do it. So I don’t see that as a very efficient way to try to address what we don’t know about. And that’s scary.”
AS FOR A NEW DISCHARGE PERMIT FOR CHEMOURS, THAT’S A FIGHT FOR ANOTHER DAY. SHEILA HOLMAN IS ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF THE DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL QUALITY.
“There is not a deadline. We obviously on November 16th issued a 60-day notice of intent to partially revoke the permit, so before taking any action relative to their manufacturing process wastewater discharge in a permanent way, in a permit, we need to let that 60 days expire and so we continue to look at various options. What’s the best path forward?”
THE CHEMOURS DISCHARGE WASTEWATER NOW SITS IN TANKER CARS AT THE FACILITY. THEY WILL SOON BE SHIPPED TO TEXAS BY RAIL, AND DEALT WITH THROUGH “DEEP WELL INJECTION.” AN INJECTION WELL IS A DEVICE THAT PLACES FLUID DEEP UNDERGROUND INTO POROUS ROCK FORMATIONS, SUCH AS SANDSTONE OR LIMESTONE. IT WILL REMAIN THAT WAY UNTIL CHEMOURS, OR SOMEONE, FINDS A SOLUTION TO HANDLING THESE WASTE PRODUCTS IN THE FUTURE.
RIVER KEEPER KEMP BURDETTE.
“There are a lot of folks in our community who can’t go out and buy a water treatment system, can’t go out and buy bottled water. They can’t afford the kind of treatment that people talk about and so we really got this totally backwards, if we take one step down this path of ‘what are we going to do to treat contaminated water coming out of our tap’ instead of saying - this company has almost untold resources, this is a multi-billion dollar company. One of the leading chemical companies on the planet. They can treat their waste. They should treat their waste. And it shouldn’t be up to people to be the dumping grounds for corporations like Chemours.”
FOR SIX MONTHS, CHEMOURS HAS DECLINED REPEATED REQUESTS FOR INTERVIEWS BY WHQR.
FOR WHQR NEWS, I’M VINCE WINKEL.
“That sends me down to the river
Though I know the river is dry
That sends me down to the river tonight
Down to the river
My baby and I
Oh down to the river we ride…”
GENX: A TOXIC YEAR, IS A PRODUCTION OF WHQR NEWS, WILMINGTON. SPECIAL THANKS TO STEVE VERNON FOR HIS PROTRAYEL OF EXPLORER WILLIAM HILTON JR, AND THANKS TO THE STAFF OF THE STARNEWS.