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For Cape Fear residents drinking well water and concerned about PFAS, it's a communication breakdown

Seth and Julia Jacobsen pose on the porch of their family home off Middlesound Loop Road. Their well tested positive for high levels of PFAS this year.
Seth and Julia Jacobsen pose on the porch of their family home off Middlesound Loop Road. Their well tested positive for high levels of PFAS this year.

Chemours is testing wells in the lower Cape Fear for PFAS water contamination, but communication has been severely lacking for residents whose water tests positive.

Chemours began sampling wells in the lower Cape Fear Region in the spring. The state requirement echoes the state’s consent order that demanded the company sample wells surrounding the Fayetteville Works plant, where PFAS is produced.

Since the spring, 679 well owners in the lower Cape Fear Region have had their water tested. Of those who’ve received their results, more than 20% have come back with high enough levels to be given drinking water by Chemours.

But there are thousands more residents who qualify for testing. These residents are still finding out about their right to testing by word of mouth and from news reports — not from the contaminating company itself.

Seth Jacobsen lives in an idyllic home off Middlesound Loop Road with his wife Julia and two children. He says they were content drinking well water and assumed it was safer than the contaminated water coming from the Cape Fear River.

“I first took action on that based off of hearing the story [WHQR] aired about somebody on Middle Sound Loop having tested positive," Jacobsen said. "So I said, 'Well, we certainly should do that.' And that's when we all sort of scheduled our tests at the same time.”

Jacobsen and his neighbors all applied for testing, and a contractor came out to sample the water. But communication did not improve after a contractor came to test his well. A month or so afterward, he woke up to a mysterious delivery.

"All the sudden, you just have 60 gallons of water sitting in your driveway,” he said. A note pasted to the delivered water said, "Your home qualifies for supplemental drinking water based on preliminary sampling results."

For Julia Jacobsen, who grew up in Germany, the problem and the solution are both shocking. "60 gallons of plastic," she said. "It infuriates me, it absolutely infuriates me, is just making a bad thing worse, that's really what it is. And out of sight out of mind."

As an environmentally conscious person, she doesn't like exposing her children to the idea of using so much plastic packaging.

The Jacobsens are not alone in learning about his rights under the consent order by word of mouth. Multiple neighbors corroborated their experience. And they're frustrated that they haven’t been given adequate information from a company that claims to be such good neighbors.

Under the state's consent order, Chemours is required to provide a water filtration system to the Jacobsen family. But Seth Jacobsen hasn’t heard that from Chemours or from DEQ. The water filter isn't mentioned anywhere in the documents the company sent to him.

DEQ confirmed with WHQR that all residents with higher than 10 parts per trillion of GenX now qualify for replacement water and installation of filters, and Chemours said something similar in a written statement to WHQR. But the company still hasn't notified the family of that right.

Seth Jacobsen says he got misleading information from Chemours' water sampling contractor.

"She said, 'we are not actively installing in the Wilmington area. All of that is happening in Fayetteville currently,'" he said.

DEQ has largely left communication about well testing to Chemours, and both the state agency and the company told WHQR that letters should be coming to well owners who qualify for filters in the coming weeks.

But Geoff Gisler, an attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, says those who haven’t tested yet deserve communication as well.

"Their initial plan was to just put a phone number out there and have people call them," Gisler said. "When in a situation like this, where you have a company that is responsible for the contamination, they should be going out of their way to make sure that people have access to the sampling and then to clean water.”

Residents also receive their test results without clear information about how to interpret it. Jacobsen said he wasn’t sure what his results meant, but he was able to talk to someone at DEQ to interpret the results properly.

"Having spoken to the representative from Chemours, and the guys over DEQ, I'm still not 100% clear on exactly which reading I need to be paying the most attention to," he said. "Wouldn't it be nice if they labeled it?”

There’s another key misconception about well testing: that accepting the testing or the water replacement may exclude a resident from a class-action lawsuit, for example.

But Gisler says that’s not true: "They wouldn't be waiving any damages or any future claims against Chemours. The only thing that that could happen was that if they were to join a lawsuit and get damages, the cost of the filters could be deducted from that.”

One of the Jacobsens' neighbors isn't waiting around for her test results.

Barbara Biehner had the contractor come to sample her well, but once water started arriving on her neighbors' porches, she hired a company to install a filter.

"It's been a month maybe now, and we're still waiting for the results," she said. Although she's lived in that home and drank that water for 17 years, "I don't want to wait, let's put it that way."

Anyone with a well in Brunswick, Pender, New Hanover, and Columbus Counties has a right to get their well tested for free. Those with levels of PFAS above the health advisory levels stated in the consent order will receive notification and water once the results are confirmed, typically a month or so later. From there, they have 12 months to accept an offer from Chemours to install a reverse osmosis or granular activated carbon filter. The company will pay for 20 years of maintenance for either system.

Those interested in well testing can call Chemours at (910) 678-1100.

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.