Robeson officials watch as GenX threat looms

By: By Scott Bigelow - Staff writer

ST. PAULS — While the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality tests wells around the Chemours chemical manufacturing plant, the threat to Robeson County from GenX may come from the air, according to the county’s top health official.

GenX may already be in the Lumber River basin because of its proximity to the chemical plant. Concern is growing almost daily as testing widens for GenX and other chemicals released from the plant.

This fall, testing began on private wells around the former DuPont plant, which is located along N.C. 87 on the banks of the Cape Fear River near the border of Cumberland and Bladen counties. The large facility, known as Fayetteville Works, is three miles as the crow flies from the Robeson County line.

GenX is used in the manufacture of Teflon and other products, and in early 2017, it was reported in alarming quantities in the Cape Fear River, where Wilmington and Brunswick County draw their drinking water.

Also this fall, state officials became aware of GenX-tainted honey in Bladen County. Because the beekeeper had a St. Pauls address, some alarm bells went off in Robeson.

Although the bees had gathered pollen in Bladen, the revelation was not lost on Bill Smith, director of the Robeson County Health Department.

“To me, that shows that GenX is airborne,” Smith said. “The airborne nature of this chemical is a game-changer to me.”

Smith has attended two public meetings, including one last week at Gray’s Creek High School in Cumberland County.

Chemours has been discharging GenX and other chemicals into the Cape Fear River for years. A former DuPont employee who is familiar with GenX’s companion chemical C-8 told The Robesonian that he was concerned that GenX had the same airborne characteristics as C-8.

Chemours releases wastewater into the Cape Fear River, the Lumber River basin is very close to the plant, according to geologist Lee Phillips of UNC Greensboro. Tributaries of the Big Swamp run close to the Cape Fear River.

“It is clear that the plant sits on the divide between these basins, Cape Fear and Pee Dee,” Phillips said. “Given where it sits, (the Cape Fear) would be the primary direction of flow, and it is surrounded by flow toward the Cape Fear River.

“However, it is less than one mile from drainage into the Pee Dee River basin, which the Lumber River feeds, and that is all I’m willing to say about that at this time,” Phillips said.

Testing of wells by the North Carolina Division of Environmental Quality has extended one mile from the chemical plant and is expected to go farther. The state set 114 parts per trillion as the limit for GenX in potable water. About a third of the wells tested so far have levels exceeding 114 PPT, and another third of the wells had GenX in them, but below state standards.

The limit DEQ set is arbitrary because the federal Environmental Protection Agency has recommended a lower limit. The chemical is classified as an “emerging contaminant,” meaning that its harm to humans is unclear.

The Robeson County Health Department and its director have been waiting and watching as testing rolls out.

“The Health Department is responsible for well water testing in Robeson County,” Smith said. “We cannot force testing of wells for GenX. That is the job of the state.”

In lab tests, GenX has been shown to cause several types of cancer in test animals.

In court tests, GenX has no record, but C-8 triggered a lawsuit and a court settlement against DuPont and Chemours of more than $600 million for dumping the chemical into the Ohio River and into the environment in West Virginia and Ohio from 1981 to 2004. As part of the settlement, the companies admitted no wrongdoing.

In North Carolina, nobody seemed concerned that C-8 and its chemical cousin GenX might present problems for Southeastern North Carolina — until N.C. State professor Deteif Knappe began an independent investigation and presented his evidence to the Wilmington community.

In an interview with The Robesonian, Knappe said GenX contamination is widespread, and that gives reason for concern in Robeson County. Knappe is an environmental engineer.

The communities that draw water from the Cape Fear became angry as The Wilmington Star and Fayetteville Observer newspapers and other media outlets began reporting on the issue.

The Division of Environment Quality has held community meetings. Early on, DEQ threatened Chemours wastewater permit and ordered the company to provide bottled water to neighbors whose wells tested over the limit for GenX.

In 2009, DuPont informed the state about GenX production at the Fayetteville Works site. From at least 1980, GenX was considered a by-product of manufacturing at Fayetteville Works, according to a timeline on WRAL’s website.

Legal battles over C-8 were well under way by 2009. Manufacturing giant 3M quit making C-8 altogether in 2002, but DuPont ramped up production.

In 2015, the state issued a wastewater permit to DuPont, just before it spun off some of its chemical manufacturing operations into the company now known as Chemours. Less than a year later, Knappe issued his report that noted that Cape Fear River water near Wilmington had tested at 631 parts per trillion of GenX, considerably higher than the EPA’s recommended limit of 70 PPT or the state’s limit of 114 PPT.

Because GenX cannot be removed from drinking water through any existing water treatment method, the issue brought GenX into the cross-hairs of state regulators, who were wavering between Republicans and Democrats’ version of what it means to be “business friendly.”

Very late in 2015 and very late in Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration, Chemours was issued an air quality permit from the state. In January 2016, Democrat Roy Cooper took office and the regulatory environment shifted.

Cooper asked the North Carolina General Assembly for $2.6 million for scientific study the GenX situation. The legislature balked, and offered a significantly lower amount. Cooper vetoed the bill, and his veto was overridden.

Cooper also directed the State Bureau of Investigation to see if Chemours violated any of its air or water permits. Cooper has gotten the EPA involved and persuaded Chemours to stop releasing GenX into the river.

Testing of wells began in September at Chemours after levels of GenX in the company’s test wells exceeded state recommended levels. Testing of private wells and distribution of bottled water by Chemours began after tests of private wells.

One resident found many other chemicals, including C-8, in his well.

In October, Chemours accidentally spilled a chemical which becomes GenX when combined with water. The company failed to report the spill, compounding its troubles.

In late October, DEQ agreed to allow Chemours its wastewater permit as long as it keeps GenX out of the waste stream.

The GenX story, which is still being written, will spill over into 2018, when more is likely to be known about its impact on the Lumber River and Robeson County.
Robeson officials keep watch, worry

By Scott Bigelow

Staff writer