Originally published in encore magazine, June 27, 2017
Wilmington’s water crisis has gone national. While environmental and social-justice advocacy groups have shared the Cape Fear River’s story of contamination by GenX and other chemicals from Chemours’ Fayetteville Works site, “CBS This Morning” also reported on it Monday, June 26. They included last week’s Wilmington City Council meeting on June 20, which overflowed with citizens clad in red, all of whom demanded action from Mayor Bill Saffo and his fellow council members. City council seemed prepared to deliver to a degree by unanimously passing a “Resolution Calling on Chemours and Government Agencies to Protect the Health of Wilmington and New Hanover County Residents.” It occurred mere hours after Chemours released in a statement to “capture, remove and safely dispose of” wastewater containing the byproduct GenX.
“That press release didn’t say they were stopping, by the way,” Wilmington resident Kalli Smith reminded. She was one of three speakers to address GenX during the public-hearing portion. In comparison to other heavily attended meetings, like when residents opposed HB2 or offshore drilling, there were not droves lining up to the podium to speak last week. Three speakers’ voices carried the weight of thousands—and hundreds of cheers echoed throughout Wilmington’s City Hall—down to the packed overflow room.
“While I stand up here alone, I represent more than 50 families who are sitting here this evening,” Pete Herman addressed the council. “We’re all members of the Wilmington Childhood Cancer Support Group and, unfortunately, we’re a large group . . . we are linked by one common bond: We all have a child who’s been diagnosed with cancer.”
Based on the reports thus far, GenX has been present in the Cape Fear River for quite some time—since 1980. Herman’s 4-year-old daughter was diagnosed with a bilateral wilms tumor, a rare form of kidney cancer, in 2014. Within two weeks, Herman said another 4-year-old was diagnosed with the same cancer.
“While we do not fully understand the effects this has on humans yet,” he continued, “it has been reported it had caused cancer in lab animals—which I am sure you are all aware of. I’m sure you can understand why this is so incredibly alarming to ourselves and other families in our support group.”
While he encouraged strengthening and, more importantly, enforcing regulations on discharges in the Cape Fear River, he called for the council to do everything possible to push for the removal of GenX from the water supply. “Every single person in our community deserves clean water,” he added. “Please, protect our water. Please, protect our kids.”
Herman joined his fellow citizens last week in demanding Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA) be held accountable for water quality and future service to the community. It’s still unclear to many what CFPUA knew and when.
“I’ve been drinking this water my entire life, and this has been contaminating our river since before I was born,” Smith later said in her remarks. “Why did CFPUA employees wait so long to notify the public of the presence of GenX in our water? Why was this allowed to go on for so long?”
Smith iterated Herman’s concerns: GenX is a threat to human health. She reminded the council that DuPont’s use of C8 led to a class-action lawsuit in 2001 in West Virginia. DuPont paid an EPA fine of $16.5 million for failing to report C8’s risk to human health. Just in February 2017, DuPont and Chemours paid more than $670 million to settle a class-action lawsuit involving C8 water contamination in the Ohio River Valley as well.
“Not long after, more people came forward to file suits who had developed ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol, pregnancy-induced hypertension, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, and kidney cancer,” Smith noted. “Over 80,000 people had legal representation, after all was said and done. . . . I implore you: Let’s not have another Parkersburg, West Virginia, here in Wilmington, North Carolina.”
“Taking action” was the operative phrase of the evening. Smith also asked everyone in attendance to fight back with their dollars and to not buy products made with GenX: Teflon, fire-resistant materials, vinyl, etc. While Wilmington City Council passed their resolution to keep “pushing” Chemours for action, they called for citizens to keep pushing as well.
Before taking a vote, Mayor Saffo spoke about the June 15 closed meeting he attended with Chemours, County Commissioner Woody White, DEQ, and other local and state officials. It was during the course of questioning where he found out Chemours had been dumping into the river for more than three decades.
“It’s because elected officials were asking the tough questions,” he observed. “What we could not get out of them was the specifics that you folks are asking for, and they are serious questions that we all have. . . If there’s ever a good example of why we need strong regulatory agencies, it’s this particular issue. And that doesn’t only go to the EPA, it’s to the FDA, it goes to air quality … because we do want to manufacture things in this country, we also want to know it’s safe.”
“Chemours needs to hear from us,” Councilman Paul Lawler said in regards to the resolution’s call for Chemours to hold a public meeting in Wilmington. They want it to happen by the end of July, to address the public’s concerns. Lawler broke down the resolution, which also states the Wilmington City Council calls on:
“• Chemours to immediately stop discharging GenX and other dangerous chemicals into the Cape Fear River.
• DEQ and the US Environmental Protection Agency to move rapidly and effectively, including through [sic] review of the pending NPDES water discharge permit, to assure zero chemical discharge into the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of people.
• Chemours to disclose all data related to the discharge of GenX and other chemicals into area waters.
• CFPUA to review its processes for receiving information on new pollutants in the water supply and responding to that information.”
Council members Charlie Rivenbark and Kevin O’Grady both sit on the CFPUA board. O’Grady said they have already started examining the processes within CFPUA.
“If CFPUA was involved in the study that actually discovered this substance in the water, we need to know why it took a while for that to come forward,” he said, “and to make sure the process is clear in the future as to how things like this are handled.”
Nevertheless, O’Grady commended CFPUA’s response to the GenX issue at hand. “CFPUA is carrying the big stick here,” he said. “They brought in the legal help and they’re causing results.”
Rivenbark—who said if he weren’t sitting with council he’d be out in the crowd—urged citizens to continue to cultivate their passion and take it to Raleigh. “Because they control the DEQ, we don’t,” he said. “Because [CFPUA] are not a regulatory agency. Don’t stop at the municipal and county level; take it all the way. Because they need to feel and hear this—what we’ve heard tonight.”
For readers who want to stay informed and take action, local groups have been forming on Facebook: Clean Cape Fear (also at http://www.cleancapefear.com), Wilmington’s Stop Gen-X In Our Water and the Public Education Campaign. Last week’s Live Local columnist Gwenyfar Rohler urged readers to contact Congressman David Rouzer (DC, 202-225-2731; Brunswick County, 910-253-6111; and NHC, 910-395-0202). The Cape Fear River Watch (www.cfrw.us) held a public information forum last week (read full coverage, next page), with area experts in toxicology and water quality.
WWAY, StarNews Media and HQR News 91.3 are co-sponsoring another GenX forum this Wednesday, June 28, 7 p.m. – 9 p.m. at UNCW’s Kenan Auditorium. Free tickets will be distributed at the door, which opens at 6 p.m.
Forum panelists for Wednesday include NHC Commissioners’ Chairman Woody White, CFPUA board chairman Mike Brown and executive director Jim Flechtner. NHC health director Philip Tarte and UNCW’s Dr. Larry Cahoon, and others will address the human impacts of GenX. As of press, HQR News listed that officials with the NC’s departments of Environmental Quality and Health and Human Services would be in attendance but had not confirmed who. Representatives of Chemours were invited but have not committed to attend as of press.