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How did Gen X end up in the Roanoke River, far from Chemours' Fayetteville facility?

View of the south fork of the Roanoke River, in Elliston, Virginia.
Roxy Todd/ Radio IQ
View of the south fork of the Roanoke River, in Elliston, Virginia.

Chemours has discharged Gen X in the Cape Fear River for decades — but the chemical ended up in the Roanoke River too, after they hired another company, ProChem, to clean their equipment. WHQR’s Kelly Kenoyer interviewed Radio IQ reporter Roxy Todd about the contamination.

This story was a partnership with Radio IQ. You can hear Roxy Todd's interview with Kelly Kenoyer here.

Kelly Kenoyer: So my community here in Wilmington is contaminated by the Chemours plant that's upriver. There's no Chemours plant in Virginia, but you ended up with a lot of Gen X in your river, even though it's a proprietary chemical trademarked by Chemours. How did that happen?

Roxy Todd: Well, at first, it was a mystery when Gen X showed up in the water. The water company did testing for PFAS in 2020. And they were surprised when they found it. It was about 62 parts per trillion. The public actually didn't hear about this for two years. And that's because in 2022, the EPA released a health advisory for Gen X.

So then the water company issued notices to customers. And nobody really knew where this was coming from. So our state environmental regulators launched an investigation. And eventually, they traced the source to a company in Elliston, Virginia called ProChem. And ProChem had been doing business with Chemours since 2014. Now ProChem says it was contracted to only clean calcium and magnesium from the vessels. And they denied any knowledge that the equipment had Gen X on it. So in short, contamination to Roanoke's water supply, has likely been going on since 2014, but nobody knew about it.

KK: And are they still working with Chemours?

RT: So they stopped working with Chemours last year, they stopped that contract.

KK: Now, how much Gen X is in your river, exactly? And has it gotten any better?

RT: So the water company, the Western Virginia Water Authority, and our state environmental regulators have both been doing testing pretty regularly on the Roanoke River. And the levels of Gen X have gone down considerably since last year when ProChem stopped doing business with Chemours. And actually some recent samples even showed non-detect for Gen X. So that's good. But the reservoir where the compound was originally detected still has the compound in it at levels about five times what the EPA currently recommends in their proposed drinking water regulations.

So the water company is still filtering that water to get it to safe levels. And they've recently started pumping water back in from the Roanoke River, kind of hoping that eventually, that water will help dilute the Gen X that's in the reservoir. But all this work, all this filtering and testing, has already cost the water company about $3 million. And they're additionally trying to upgrade their filtration system which is going to cost another $12.5 million at least.

KK: So our utility has sued Chemours for the cost of a replacement water filtration system. Are there any rumblings of a similar action up there in Roanoke?

RT: The water company voted against pursuing any legal action. Right now. They're working with Chemours. They say the company has been really helpful at helping them filter Gen X out of the water. Now there is an investigation going on with state environmental regulators — whether that will lead to any kind of legal action, I don't know. I did ask ProChem, that company that was doing business with Chemours if they were pursuing any kind of legal action against the company, and basically what I asked them that they stopped replying to my emails. I mean, I'm not a legal expert, but I would imagine it doesn't look great for a company like this who's, you know, cleaning water, who's an environmental expert, it doesn't look good to be attached to a contamination like this.

KK: We'll have to keep an eye on any legal proceedings up there. Thank you so much for your time, Roxy, I appreciate it.

RT: Thank you, Kelly.

Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant on 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.
Roxy Todd is a reporter and co-producer for Inside Appalachia and has been a reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting since 2014. Her stories have aired on NPR’s Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Marketplace. She’s won several awards, including a regional AP Award for best feature radio story, and also two regional Edward R. Murrow awards for Best Use of Sound and Best Writing for her stories about Appalachian food and culture.