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The Cape Fear region has seen decades of PFAS pollution, but still no meaningful regulations

Nearly five years ago, StarNews broke the GenX story wide open.

The forever chemicals known as PFAS have plagued the Cape Fear River for decades, and have been found in the blood of 99% of humans on earth. But regulatory efforts in North Carolina are still very limited.

Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances exist in concerning quantities in the Cape Fear River, which provides drinking water to roughly a quarter-million people. The chemicals are manufactured at the Chemours plant near Fayetteville but that's not the only source — although the exact industrial sources of contamination are still unknown.

The stuff is so ubiquitous, it comes out of landfills after leaching from a host of consumer products. And it’s correlated with significant negative health outcomes. Jamie Dewitt, a professor of Pharmacology & Toxicology at Eastern Carolina University, says scientists have linked PFAS exposure to human health outcomes.

“These include pregnancy-induced hypertension and preeclampsia, suppression of responses to vaccines, signs of liver disease, signs of increased cholesterol, decreases in birth weight, and then an increased risk of certain types of cancer," she said. "Some that have been identified are kidney and testicular [cancers]. But there are emerging data to suggest linkages to prostate, bladder and breast cancers.”

Those strong links to health outcomes are for older PFAS chemicals, called "legacy chemicals." The EPA has created health advisories for these: PFOA and PFOS. But while the legacy chemicals have been voluntarily phased out by industry, relatives of them, like GenX, are still in production, and have also been linked to cancer.

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality failed to act on PFAS contamination when it first found out about Chemours dumping the chemicals into the river — way back in 2004. Thomas McKinney worked for DEQ at the time, when it was still called DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources).

GenX "was going directly into the river untreated," he said. "And it was stunning to hear that. I mean, this is not XYZ fly by night Chemical Company. It's DuPont.”

He told his supervisor at the time, and even argued with a DuPont executive. But he found himself taken off the case.

“I was booted off of all communications related to DuPont. And I was in a lot of hot water. There were bosses angry at me,” McKinney said.

DEQ hasn’t responded to requests for comment on McKinney’s allegations. Other sources say DEQ has continued to move slowly on PFAS regulations, even when it’s within its power to act. Representative Pricey Harrison of Greensboro (D) said that's not necessarily because DEQ is kowtowing to industry — it’s because of fear.

“There's a lot of authority that they have right now that they aren't exercising.," she said. "So I don't I don't know if they're just somewhat timid because of all the backlash they've gotten over the years, as they've tried to regulate anything from [PFAS] to hog farms and other issues.”

Harrison said that's why DEQ waits for guidance from the legislature to act, rather than moving forward with regulations it’s permitted to use. So it’s really up to the state legislature to regulate or ban PFAS to protect residents of North Carolina — but Harrison says that’s a tough nut to crack in today’s climate.

She introduced a PFAS ban bill last year, which died in committee.

“There's real legit real reluctance to expand any sort of regulatory authority for DEQ right now,” she said.

There has been movement on a bill dealing withAFFF, which is a PFAS used in firefighting foam that causes cancer. The bill would prevent firefighters from using the chemical in practice situations.

"It seems like such an easy fix," Harrison said. "You can't justify using toxic chemicals for practice fires. You just can't.”

But Harrison said there’s limited interest in broader regulations at the state level, though she's been trying for decades, on PFAS and other contaminants. These days, she — and others — are looking to the federal government for regulations.

The EPA under President Joe Biden has begun the process of regulating PFAS more broadly, but drinking water standards for the chemicals are still at least a year away — and only the legacy chemicals are guaranteed to get those regulations.

Activists like Dana Sargent of Cape Fear River Watch say the EPA’s roadmap is still too slow. Many elements of the PFAS roadmap don’t come online until 2024, and a lot of the earlier steps are research-focused or simply prevent new PFAS from coming to market.

"Yes, we should continue studying this stuff, but we need to stop the pollution," Sargent said. "And we don't need any more data to do that, right? What we need is regulatory funding.”

Although broader bans and regulations on PFAS appear to be out of reach in the North Carolina legislature, Harrison saod smaller regulations on firefighting foams stand a good chance of passing in the next biennium.

Editor's note: Want to take a deeper dive into the history and latest developments on PFAS? Catch this week's episode of The Newsroom, guest-hosted by Kelly Kenoyer, Friday at noon — or wherever you find podcasts.

Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant new to the East Coast. She attended University of Oregon’s School of Journalism as an undergraduate, and later received a Master’s in Journalism from University of Missouri- Columbia. Contact her on Twitter @Kelly_Kenoyer or by email: KKenoyer@whqr.org.