Utility calls for 'decisive' state action after more chemicals found in Cape Fear River
Posted August 31
Raleigh, N.C. — Wilmington's water utility called on the state Thursday to revoke or modify a key permit for Chemours, the company that has discharged GenX and other chemicals into the Cape Fear River.
The news came as state regulators announced two more poorly understood compounds have been discovered in the company's river discharge and legislators finalized an initial funding package for the state's GenX response. No health studies exist on these new compounds, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services, leaving it unclear whether they're a threat.
The state people could continue to drink the water, but that it asked the company on Tuesday to stop discharging these compounds, dubbed "Nafion byproducts 1 and 2." The company promised to get back to the state as soon as possible, state Secretary of Environmental Quality Michael Regan said during a conference call with reporters, but made no promise to stop discharges.
Nafion is similar to Teflon. GenX is used to make to make Teflon and is part of a family of chemicals believed to be toxic. Chemours stopped dumping GenX into the river in June at state officials' request.
The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority said it wants the state Department of Environmental Quality to take "decisive action" to stop the discharge of the two newly discovered chemicals, and that it believes the department has the power to simply pull or alter Chemours permit. Regan said only that the state was looking at all legal options.
Regan expressed impatience with Chemours but would not directly answer whether the company has been cooperative as the state has studied decades' worth of discharges from its Fayetteville plant into the Cafe Fear River. He also clarified a previously published statement saying that Chemours had not broken the law with its GenX discharges.
"At that time, we did not have enough information to determine if a violation had indeed occurred," Regan said. "As we continue through this investigation, I think we'll be in a better position to determine if a violation has occurred and what violation has occurred."
Regan's department has been under pressure to issue a notice of violation against Chemours, but he and others in Gov. Roy Cooper's administration have asked for patience as various investigations, including one by the U.S. Attorney's Office, proceed.
"We are receiving information from the company," Regan said. "I think that's part of our investigation, is to best determine whether the company has been forthcoming."
An attempt to reach a Chemours spokesperson for comment Thursday afternoon was not immediately successful.
Other key updates from Thursday's conference call:
- The state Department of Health and Human Services says people can continue to drink water drawn from the river. That's partly because the state has "very little to no scientific information" about the compounds newly discovered in the river and can't say definitively whether they're a health hazard. GenX has not been fully studied, but enough research exists that officials consider it a potential hazard, partly because of how difficult it is to remove from drinking water.
- The state has studied cancer rates in the Wilmington area and did not find "any unusual trends" Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. Mandy Cohen said. "Our team sliced and diced the numbers," she said.
- The state has asked Chemours, twice, for a complete inventory of compounds it discharges into the river. The first time was July 21, Regan said. The second was Tuesday, when officials also asked the company to stop discharging the two most recently discovered compounds, he said.
Meanwhile, state lawmakers on Thursday passed stop-gap funding for the state's response to GenX pollution in the Cape Fear River, tacking the funding into a bill that also repeals the state's coastal plastic bag ban and includes a provision on landfills sought by the solid waste industry.
Democrats complained of the Republican majority's tactics on the bill and largely voted against the measure, which passed 61-44 and heads to Cooper for his signature or veto. Democrats said they would have voted for a clean bill, including only the GenX funding, in lockstep.
The $435,000 would go toward monitoring GenX and studying the best way to remove the small amounts still found in drinking supplies from the river. Cooper's administration had asked for $2.6 million, but Republican majority leaders said he could draw from the state's emergency contingency fund if need be and that their first appropriation was just a start.
Cooper put out a statement bashing the majority's legislation, saying "a sprinkle of local funds hooked to bad environmental legislation doesn't help," but didn't say whether he'd veto the measure. A spokesman didn't immediately respond to that question.