Utility calls for 'decisive' state action after more chemicals found in Cape Fear River

Posted August 31

Wilmington waterfront

— 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.

Tracking GenX

State environmental officials began testing locations along the Cape Fear River for concentrations of GenX on June 19, 2017, and have continued to sample the water to track the contaminant. After the chemical company Chemours agreed to stop dumping GenX into the river June 20, concentrations dropped drastically, in most cases below the 140 parts per trillion public health standard set by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Find out more about how the state's ongoing tests of water for GenX in 13 locations along the Cape Fear River have changed over time. "Raw" sites were tested before water treatment, while "finished" sites were tested after treatment. Data updated Aug. 28, 2017

Below standard Above standard
Graphic by Tyler Dukes

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.


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  • Bill Mooney Sep 5, 3:14 p.m.
    user avatar

    The anti-conservation Conservatives in the NCGA can just send their worthless SolarBees from Jordan Lake. They've fought anything that regulates "inputs" into our water and stalled with worthless clean-up technologies.

  • William Sherman Sep 3, 10:46 p.m.
    user avatar

    Dont need to go bashing the GA for something that apparently has been going on for close to 30 years now. Why all of a sudden is the hue and cry being lifted now, and not during the previous Democratic administrations/legislatures?? Or is this just another effort to bad mouth the current GA because it is Republican??

  • Stacie Hagwood Sep 1, 7:57 p.m.
    user avatar

    Between the garbage juice and the pity-f amount of money for water-quality testing, I just don't understand: Why does the GA want to poison North Carolinians? Why?

  • Dean Thompson Sep 1, 8:35 a.m.
    user avatar

    WHY must we ASK for poison chemicals to NOT be dumped into our rivers for us to drink?? If THEY want to drink it, let them take a bottle home with them and drink all they want ...

  • Phillip Mozingo Aug 31, 2:09 p.m.
    user avatar

    I still haven't figured out how you can say the water is safe if you don't know anything about the chemicals that are showing up in it......... DUH! We are paying these people how much to keep our waters clean and protect the public? Were there no inspections of Chemours in the past 10 years? I'm not buying it.