GenX: Two Years Burning Down The Road, Part 1

Jun 7, 2019

GenX, PFAS and Chemours are part of the lexicon in the Cape Fear region. It’s been that way for two years, since the general public first heard about chemicals in the area’s drinking water supply. In part one of our series, WHQR takes a look at how it started, and where we are today. 

On June 7, 2017, it was 70 degrees in Wilmington. That’s relatively cool for a late spring day in the Cape Fear Region.

That day the StarNews had a page one story, on something called GenX. Things would heat up. It would dominate the news cycle for months.

(voxpop of local newscasts)

GenX, a compound long used in the production of Teflon and many other products. It got into the water from the Chemours plant in Fayetteville.

It’s a man-made, unregulated chemical in a family of chemicals called PFAS.

Manufacturing companies use these chemicals to make products that are resistant to water, stains and grease. These include nonstick cookware, water repellent, food wrappers, cleaning products, fire-fighting foam and many others. As area residents learned more about these chemicals, they became vocal.

(voxpop – chanting)

“Shame Shame Shame. Hey Hey, GenX has got to Go. GenX has got to go Hey Hey … ”

GenX is a byproduct of the process of manufacturing the products.

This and other PFAS can get into water and air around the factories that use or dispose of these chemicals and sometimes persist through wastewater treatment systems.

It was in the Cape Fear River, and in the treated water from The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority. The water people cook with, drink, bathe in, and use to water their gardens.

“It's been a heck of a two years, Huh? This whole GenX story was, in a perverse way the gift that keeps on giving.”

Larry Cahoon is a professor of biology and marine biology at UNCW. He says there are a lot of chemicals and chemical byproducts to be concerned about.

“And so the challenge of identifying all the byproducts is quite significant. Some of these are chemicals that we may never have seen before. In other words, they're unknown to science. We're not sure yet, but that's the nature of byproducts. You get all these different reactions generating all different compounds while they're trying to make a compound of interest. And the byproducts of course, are not required to be tested for toxicity, only the commercial products because those are the things you ship. We know very little about the byproducts and there's reason to believe that quite a few of them are likely to be problematic for human health and ecosystem health.”

The impact on human health. That’s been the big question these last two years. Is the water safe? It’s an important question because Chemours upriver had been dumping its wastewater into the river for not just years – but decades.

It’s that concern that got Emily Donovan involved. The local mother of two co-founded the Clean Cape Fear group. She is alarmed and concerned.

“It's more than just GenX. It's more than just understanding that it's one or two bad chemicals. It's a class of highly toxic chemicals that the industry is trying to prove is not toxic. Without showing any information or basis of foundations of that they're using lack of information as their justification and that is irrational on so many levels.”

Local officials got involved. The city council, county commissioners. They pushed North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, and Chemours. Everyone wanted answers. Chemours didn’t say much. Emily Donovan went to Washington.

I've been to DC three times now since August of last year. The first visit was to give a testimony and it was the first ever congressional PFAS hearing.”

She says despite interest on the part of Congress, there has not been any legislation passed that would prevent companies like Chemours from pouring wastewater laced with chemicals into waterways. And it’s not just a local problem. It’s an international one.

On the state level there is some progress. Thanks in part to pressure placed on Chemours, and a consent order signed by Chemours, the DEQ, and Cape Fear River Watch, contaminant levels in the river are not what they once were.

Linda Culpepper is the Director of Water Resources at DEQ.

“Well, from the water side, the levels we’re seeing in the drinking water facilities, they're all from our results from the EPA Athens lab are below the method reporting level. And that's been very consistent. Which is great. It's been a wonderful achievement in protecting the water.”

In an email to WHQR, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it is making progress as well.

EPA recently released what it calls its PFAS Action Plan, to address a challenge like PFAS. EPA says it will propose a regulatory determination for PFAS by the end of this year and will work through the rulemaking process as quickly as possible.

EPA says to regulate a contaminant under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the agency must determine the contaminant has adverse health effects, occurs or is substantially likely to occur frequently at levels of health concern and there is a meaningful opportunity for health risk reduction.

Kemp Burdette is the Cape Fear River Keeper, and has been leading the charge for cleaner drinking water.

“There's a lot that we're learning still. You know, we're learning about additional sources of PFAS compounds upstream. In areas where they've been for years, where they've been for probably decades, but we're understanding more about kind of how those are entering our water supplies and we're, that we need to do more, to limit that.”

Recent research shows these chemicals are also in groundwater wells and in larger concentrations in the air. Vince Winkel, WHQR News.

TOMORROW IN PART 2,  WE EXPLORE THE RESEARCH UNDERWAY THAT LOOKS HOW THESE COMPOUNDS ARE AFFECTING HUMAN HEALTH.