WADING THROUGH THE WATER: Local rally for clean water and official meeting and press conference with Chemours provides few answers on clean drinking water across the Cape Fear

Originally published in encore magazine, July 15, 2017

Earlier today, June 15, encore’s John Wolfe was settled in at the New Hanover County Government Center during the closed meeting between Chemours, Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, NHC county and NC state officials, folks from the Department of Environmental Quality, and others. Meanwhile Shannon Rae Gentry was at the Rally For Clean Water at Riverfront Park in downtown Wilmington, wherein Dr. Kyle Horton (running for District 7 seat in Congress), a toxicologist from UNCW, and other professionals made themselves available to answer questions about StarNews’ report last week on our Cape Fear Rivers’ contamination with GenX. Citizens from across the tri-county area potentially impacted by the man-made chemical, which ultimately ends up in their drinking water, were looking for answers and action … and not getting much of either.

Lot’s of the same questions were posed at the press conference and the rally:

When did CFPUA learn about GenX?

Why wasn’t the public told sooner?

Why was Chemours given permits to discharge GenX in the first place?

Can we drink our water?

Only one pool reporter (StarNews’ Adam Wagner) was allowed in the closed meeting held at 11:30 a.m. today, and he was not allowed a recording device, which has only fueled the fire of public outrage, fear and distrust. Lack of trust and transparency was what led people like Emily Donovan to Riverfront Park rather than to the government center today.

“I had a choice of where to go,” she observed. “What I wanted was to get answers and I didn’t want to be spoon-fed something. I just had a feeling that was what I was going to get. It was important for me to hear from a medical internist, which is what Dr. Horton is, so she understands what this means from a medical standpoint.”

Dr. Horton and Susanne M. Brander, assistant professor of aquatic toxicology and environmental endocrinology, echoed much of what the public knows: More research needs to be done on GenX to make solid claims about it; yet, they took questions from the crowd. One person wanted to know why there wasn’t a way to test for the compound at her home tap.

“It takes years to develop those tests,” Brander answered. “Now that we know it’s in the water, I’m sure there’s going to be a drive to develop a quick-testing method so people can know what’s in their water. But . . . if it’s in the river, you can be pretty sure it’s in your tap water.”

Back at the NHC Government Center, roughly 37 people left the conference room when the closed meeting ended, including Rob Zapple and other county commissioners—who were not originally invited to attend.

According to a statement released by NHC on June 16, Chairman Woody White was the only one in attendance, while the four other commissioners were in their nearby offices. “These four Commissioners did not attend the meeting, they had no interaction with any Chemours representatives at any point, and there was no time during this time that three or more Commissioners were in any place together discussing the meeting.”

As they ran the gauntlet of protesters—Women Organizing for Wilmington, young mothers with their children and at least one young lady with a bun still in the oven—officials filed into the air-conditioned conference room solemnly. No one from Chemours stayed for the press conference. According to the StarNews, CFPUA executive director Jim Flechtner stood in a back corner but exited once questions about the local water facility were asked from local media.

State Epidemiologist Zach Moore eventually took the podium to say, while there aren’t many studies, they’ve calculated a health-screening level “below which we don’t expect there to be any adverse health effects.” That level is about a 100 times higher now than levels found in 2014.

“[Chemours] is going to provide us with more toxicology studies,” he continued, “and we’re going to talk to the EPA to see if that level needs to be revised. We also don’t know what the levels of GenX in the water are today.”

What we do know is it’s coming from Fayetteville Works Site, where it’s considered an unregulated byproduct. EPA cleared the use of GenX manufacturing after the new chemical became a replacement for the toxic PFOA, also known as C8, formed by DuPont. Manufacturing of GenX was approved in accordance with the EPA and TSCA program regulations. The consent order on new chemicals calls for 99 percent control of emissions.

“We capture 100 percent of GenX, so the likely question on your minds would be, ‘If you capture 100 percent of GenX, how’s GenX getting in the river?'” said Kathy O’Keefe, Chemours’ product sustainability director, who spoke in the closed meeting today.

The problem comes from where Chemours makes polyvinyl ether, according to O’Keefe. From the manufacturing of the polyvinyl, the plant is not covered per consent order where GenX is considered a byproduct.

“It’s not about the regulatory piece when we’re manufacturing,” she said. “It’s a different production unit on site where it’s an unintended byproduct. We had an unregulated chemical. There’s no requirement to capture emissions of that chemical, but we put abatement technology in place and we did that in November of 2013. . . . The consent order process wouldn’t have had any data around other production units on site—unregulated wastes are not regulated under the TOSCA new chemicals program.”

When Mayor Bill Saffo asked how long the polyvinyl ether process had been taking place at their plant, Chemours’ environmental manager Mike Johnson responded, “Since 1980.” Though alarming, Johnson put it into the paradigm of Flint, Michigan, for comparison, and noted the limit of lead allowed in safe drinking water, as established under the Safe Drinking Water Act, is 15,000 parts per trillion.

“By comparison, what’s in the river, your intakes of this compound is 100 parts per trillion,” he explained. “So compare 15,000 parts per trillion of lead versus 100 of this compound. It is very, very small . . . you’re looking at very, very small concentrations.”

Secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality Michael Regan took the press-conference floor to ensure protection of water quality is DEQ’s top priority. Based on available data from 2013 and 2014 samplings, the Department of Health and Human Services has determined there is only a “low risk”—not “no risk”—associated with exposure GenX.

“We are not resting on that analysis,” he said and demanded current data to base sound decisions upon. Governor Roy Cooper has given DEQ and DHHS the go-ahead to lead a state investigation and report on the chemical’s presence in the Cape Fear River.

Chemours said, according to Commissioner White, there’s a possibility to get GenX numbers down to zero but it would take a month to complete. “If that doesn’t work,” White continued, “it’s going to take a while. It was not a satisfactory answer but it was the best answer they gave us.”

Chemours is working with the Department of Environmental Quality to sample 10 locations across Pender, New Hanover and Brunswick counties in the coming weeks, according to Johnson. DEQ staff pull the samples, and Chemours will foot the bill. “I’m pretty confident we’ve eliminated 80 percent of what was going in the river from 2013 to today,” Johnson said.

The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority can’t filter out GenX but has known about the contaminant since November 2016, based from a NC State University study in May 2016. In the midst of StarNews breaking the story last week, Chairman Woody White found out about it through reading his hometown paper while visiting family in Arkansas. CFPUA announced just yesterday a 2-percent rate increase, despite the toxins in the water. When encore reporter John Wolfe asked White at the press conference how he felt  about the timing of the increase and the message it sent to citizens, White criticized the board on their decision.

White, Mayor Bill Saffo and other elected officials from Pender, Brunswick and New Hanover have called for Chemours to discontinue using GenX until more research is done, it’s not looking like the company will do so. “Chemours intends to continue to discharge GenX and is permitted to do so,” White stated. “We have asked that Chemours bring this discharge to zero percent. . . . They have not committed to do so, as of now.”

Above story was reported on by Shannon Rae Gentry, John Wolfe and Shea Carver, with the help of Adam Wagner’s notes from the StarNews, which was given to all media today after the closed-session meeting. Wagner’s notes are available for full view here. Next week’s cover story in encore will cover GenX, comprehensively researched and written by John Wolfe. It will be available online and in print on Tuesday, June 2o. 

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