ST. PAULS — North Carolina environmental regulators know a lot more today about the spread of GenX from Chemours Fayetteville Works through the air and water, but they don’t know how it is affecting the health of residents of Robeson, Cumberland and Bladen counties who live nearby.
The state Department of Environmental Quality sent a large contingent of staffers to the fifth public meeting since the contaminant GenX was revealed a year ago in drinking water from the Cape Fear River. The meeting, which attracted about 75 people Tuesday, was the second held in St. Pauls.
“There is more we don’t know about the health effects of this chemical than what we do know about it,” said Zack Moore, Department of Health and Human Services director. “There is no human data available, although we know more about some of the older, legacy chemicals of this family.”
In the question-and-answer period after DEQ’s presentation, frustrations boiled over.
“This is the tip of an environmental disaster,” said Tommy Budd, a Bladen County resident.
“If you didn’t know what you had, you shouldn’t have put it in the water 30 years ago,” said Jonathan Jacobs, who lives in Pembroke. “To my tribe, this is sacred land and water.”
“If there has been no testing, how do we know that 140 (parts per trillion) is safe?” said Karen Miller, who was referring to the limit DEQ has set for safe drinking water.
“I don’t trust the state of North Carolina,” said Don Weller, of St. Pauls. “After 30 years, don’t let DuPont or Chemours off the hook.”
Mike Waters, who lives off Chicken Foot Road in Cumberland County, had heard enough by the time he took the floor for the second time.
“How many people here believe that their health has been affected by GenX?” Waters asked, and about 12 people raised their hands. “There’s one survey.”
Human testing on related chemicals has shown an effect on the growth and behavior in children, hormone, cholesterol and immune issues. The chemicals also are known to increase the risk of several types of cancer. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is reviewing the level deemed safe for human consumption.
State officials gave a 45-minute update on testing.
Testing has expanded to 5.5 miles from the Chemours plant, said Michael Scott, director of the Division of Waste Management.
“We’re still trying to connect the dots on the nature and extent of how far out this contaminant has spread,” Scott said.
Out of 1,000 wells tested in Bladen and Cumberland counties. 225 were above the safe limit, and Chemours is providing those homes with bottled water. Five hundred and thirty-eight wells tested at lower levels. The highest recorded level of GenX was about 4,000 parts per trillion.
Two of the 40 wells tested in Robeson County were above the healthy limit, and GenX and other chemical compounds were detected in 35 of the wells. The Robeson County Health Department conducted the tests with financial support from the county.
“We appreciate Robeson County’s involvement and their data,” Scott said. “More data collection will be needed there.”
While testing ground water has gone on since last fall, testing of the air has just begun, said Mike Abraczinskas, director of DEQ’s Division of Air Quality. State regulators hit a wall in testing Chemours’ air emissions, which may hold the answer to its spread.
“There is no test method, and we are working with the federal Environmental Protection Agency and Chemours to get measurements from the plant,” Abraczinskas said.
Chemours managers first said the company was emitting 66 pounds of GenX per year, he said. Later, they revised the number to 594 pounds, and tests showed it was 2,758 pounds per year.
Without a way to test the air away from the chemical plant, DEQ tested GenX in rainwater as far away as 20 miles, and the results from weekly samples were surprising. The tests showed that samples from April showers registered as high as 810 ppt and as low as 18 ppt.
“The pattern we are finding is similar to the pattern of ground water contamination,” Abraczinskas said. “It may be coming, in part or wholly, from air emissions.”
The DEQ took legal action to modify Chemours air quality permits. Chemours committed to installing carbon absorbers that are expected to reduce pollution by 40 percent. They have committed to upgrade scrubbers to reduce pollution by 70 percent.
Finally, Chemours committed to install a thermal oxidizer by late 2018 or early 2019 that is expected to reduce GenX emissions by 99 percent.
“We’ve taken a positive step,” Abraczinskas said.
Chemours also is testing granulated activated carbon filters at individual homes.
“We’re testing its effectiveness in filtering out GenX and 30 other related compounds,” Michael Scott said. “We don’t have enough data, but the tests look positive.”
The final solution is to extend water lines to affected areas.
Further, Chemours is excavating soil from its site, removing contaminated ground water, cleaning equipment and sampling wells again.
Testing also is extending to wildlife. Bass and catfish from a nearby pond were captured and results are expected soon. Concerns about plant and insect life have yet to be addressed.
DEQ leaders said additional funding is needed for test equipment so that samples can be tested in its labs instead of EPA labs in Georgia. A recent bill filed in the North Carolina Senate will provide the sate’s environmental watchdog with neither additional equipment nor funding for additional personnel.
Staff writer Scott Bigelow can be reached at 910-644-4497 of [email protected]